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1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

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(0. Eng. godspel, i.e. good news, a translation of Lat. bona annuntiatio, or evangelium, Gr. Eua-n4Xtov; cf. Goth. iu spillon, " to announce good news," Ulfilas' translation of the Greek, from iu, that which is good, and spellon to announce), primarily the " glad tidings " announced to the world by Jesus Christ. The word thus came to be applied to the whole body of doctrine taught by Christ and his disciples, and so to the Christian revelation generally (see Christianity); by analogy the term " gospel " is also used in other connexions as equivalent to " authoritative teaching." In a narrower sense each of the records of the life and teaching of Christ preserved in the writings of the four " evangelists " is described as a Gospel.

The many more or less imaginative lives of Christ which are not accepted by the Christian Church as canonical are known as " apocryphal gospels " (See Apocryphal Literature). The present article is concerned solely with general considerations affecting the four canonical Gospels; see for details of each, the articles under Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

The Four Gospels

The disciples of Jesus proclaimed the Gospel that He was the Christ. Those to whom this message was first delivered in Jerusalem and Palestine had seen and heard Jesus, or had heard much about Him. They did not require to be told who He was. But more and more as the work of preaching and teaching extended to such as had not this knowledge, it became necessary to include in the Gospel delivered some account of the ministry of Jesus.

Moreover, alike those who had followed Him during His life on earth, and all who joined themselves to them, must have felt the need of dwelling on His precepts, so that these must have been often repeated, and also in all probability from an early time grouped together according to their subjects, and so taught. For some time, probably for upwards of thirty years, both the facts of the life of Jesus and His words were only related orally. This would be in accordance with the habits of mind of the early preachers of the Gospel.

Moreover, they were so absorbed in the expectation of the speedy return of Christ that they did not feel called to make provision for the instruction of subsequent generations. The Epistles of the New Testament contain no indications of the existence of any written record of the life and teaching of Christ. Tradition indicates A.D. 60-70 as the period when written accounts of the life and teaching of Jesus began to be made (see Mark, Gospel Of, and Matthew, Gospel Of). This may be accepted as highly probable.

We cannot but suppose that at a time when the number of the original band of disciples of Jesus who survived must have been becoming noticeably smaller, and all these were advanced in life, the importance of writing down that which had been orally delivered concerning the Gospel-history must have been realized. We also xi" 9 a gather from Luke's preface (i. 1-4) that the work of writing was undertaken in these circumstances and under the influence of this feeling, and that various records had already in consequence been made.

But do our Gospels, or any of them, in the form in which we actually have them, belong to the number of those earliest records ? Or, if not, what are the relations in which they severally stand to them ? These are questions which in modern criticism have been greatly debated.

With a view to obtaining answers to them, it is necessary to consider the reception of the Gospels in the early Church, and also to examine and compare the Gospels themselves. Some account of the evidence supplied in these two ways must be given in the present article, so far as it is common to all four Gospels, or to three or two of them, and in the articles on the several Gospels so far as it is especial to each.

1. The Reception of the Gospels in the Early Church. - The question of the use of the Gospels and of the manner in which they were regarded during the period extending from the latter years of the 1st century to the beginning of the last quarter of the 2nd is a difficult one. There is a lack of explicit references to the Gospels; 1, and many of the quotations which may be taken from them are not exact. At the same time these facts can be more or less satisfactorily accounted for by various circumstances. In the first place, it would be natural that the habits of thought of the period when the Gospel was delivered orally should have continued to exert influence even after the tradition had been committed to writing. Although documents might be known and used, they would not be regarded as the authorities for that which was independently remembered, and would not, therefore, necessarily be mentioned.

Consequently, it is not strange that citations of sayings of Christ - and these are the only express citations in writings of the Subapostolic Age - should be made without the source whence they were derived being named, and (with a single exception) without any clear indication that the source was a document. The exception is in the little treatise commonly called the Epistle of Barnabas, probably composed about A.D. 130, where (c. iv. 14) the words " many are called but few chosen " are introduced by the formula " as it is written."

For the identification, therefore, of the source or sources used we have to rely upon the amount of correspondence with our Gospels in the quotations made, and in respect to other parallelisms of statement and of expression, in these early Christian writers. The correspondence is in the main full and true as regards spirit and substance, but it is rarely complete in form. The existence of some differences of language may, however, be too readily taken to disprove derivation. Various forms of the same saying occurring in different documents, or remembered from oral tradition and through catechetical instruction, would sometimes be purposely combined.

Or, again, the memory might be confused by this variety, and the verification of quotations, especially of brief ones, was difficult, not only from the comparative scarcity of the copies of books, but also because ancient books were not provided with ready means of reference to particular passages. On the whole there is clearly a presumption that where we have striking expressions which are known to us besides only in one of our Gospel-records, that particular record has been the source of it.

And where there are several such coincidences the ground for the supposition that the writing in question has been used may become very strong. There is evidence of this kind, more or less clear in the several cases, that all the four Gospels were known in the first two or three decades of the 2nd century. It is fullest as to our first Gospel and, next to this one, as to our third.

After this time it becomes manifest that, as we should expect, documents were the recognized authorities for the Gospel history; but there is still some uncertainty as to the documents upon which reliance was placed, and the precise estimation in which l For the only two that can be held to be such in the first half of the 2nd century, and the doubts whether they refer to our present Gospels, see Mark, Gospel Of, and Matthew, Gospel Of.

they were severally held. This is in part at least due to the circumstance that nearly all the writings which have remained of the Christian literature belonging to the period circa A.D. 130-180 are addressed to non-Christians, and that for the most part they give only summaries of the teaching of Christ and of the facts of the Gospel, while terms that would not be understood by, and names that would not carry weight with, others than Christians are to a large extent avoided. The most important of the writings now in question are two by Justin Martyr (circa A. D. 145-160), viz. his Apology and his Dialogue with Trypho. In the former of these works he shows plainly his intention of adapting his language and reasoning to Gentile, and iri the latter to Jewish, readers. In both his name for the Gospel-records is " Memoirs of the Apostles."

After a great deal of controversy there has come to be very wide agreement that he reckoned the first three Gospels among these Memoirs. In the case of the second and third there are indications, though slight ones, that he held the view of their composition and authorship which was common from the last quarter of the century onwards (see Mark, Gospel Of, and Luke, Gospel oF), but he has made the largest use of our first Gospel. It is also generally allowed that he was acquainted with the fourth Gospel, though some think that he used it with a certain reserve.

Evidence may, however, be adduced which goes far to show that he regarded it, also, as of apostolic authority. There is a good deal of difference of opinion still as to whether Justin reckoned other sources for the Gospel-history besides our Gospels among the Apostolic Memoirs. In this connexion, however, as well as on other grounds, it is a significant fact that within twenty years or so after the death of Justin, which probably occurred circa A.D. 160, Tatian, who had been a hearer of Justin, produced a continuous narrative of the Gospel-history which received the name Diatessaron (" through four "), in the main a compilation from our four Gospels.'

Before the close of the 2nd century the four Gospels had attained a position of unique authority throughout the greater part of the Church, not different from that which they have held since, as is evident from the treatise of Irenaeus Against Heresies (c. A.D. 180; see esp. iii. i. i f. and x., xi.) and from other evidence only a few years later. The struggle against Gnosticism, which had been going on during the middle part of the century, had compelled the Church both to define her creed and to draw a sharper line of demarcation than heretofore between those writings whose authority she regarded as absolute and all others.

The effect of this was no doubt to enhance the sense generally entertained of the value of the four Gospels. At the same time in the formal. statements now made it is plainly implied that the belief expressed is no new one. And it is, indeed, difficult to suppose that agreement on this subject between different portions of the Church could have manifested itself at this time in the spontaneous manner that it does, except as the consequence of traditional feelings and convictions, which went back to the early part of the century, and which could hardly have arisen without good foundation, with respect to the special value of these works as embodiments of apostolic testimony, although all that came to be supposed in regard to their actual authorship cannot be considered proved.

2. The Internal Criticism of the Gospels. - In the middle of the 1 9th century an able school of critics, known as the Tubingen school, sought to show from indications in the several Gospels that they were composed well on in the 2nd century in the interests of various strongly marked parties into which the Church was supposed to have been divided by differences in regard to the Judaic and Pauline forms of Christianity. These theories are now discredited. It may on the contrary be confidently asserted with regard to the first three Gospels that the local colouring in them is predominantly Palestinian, and that they 1 The character of Tatian's Diatessaron has been much disputed in the past, but there can no longer be any reasonable doubt on the subject after recent discoveries and investigations.

(An account of these may be seen most conveniently in The Diatessaron of Tatian, by S. Hemphill; see under Tatian.) show no signs of acquaintance with the questions and the circumstances of the 2nd century; and that the character even of the Fourth Gospel is not such as to justify its being placed, at furthest, much after the beginning of that century.

We turn to the literary criticism of the Gospels, where solid results have been obtained. The first three Gospels have in consequence of the large amount of similarity between them in contents, arrangement, and even in words and the forms of sentences and paragraphs, been called Synoptic Gospels. It has long been seen that, to account for this similarity, relations of interdependence between them, or of common derivation, must be supposed. And the question as to the true theory of these relations is known as the Synoptic Problem.

Reference has already been made to the fact that during the greater part of the Apostolic age the Gospel history was taught orally. Now some have held that the form of this oral teaching was to a great extent a fixed one, and that it was the common source of our first three Gospels. This oral theory was for a long time the favourite one in England; it was never widely held in Germany, and in recent years the majority of English students of the Synoptic Problem have come to feel that it does not satisfactorily explain the phenomena. Not only are the resemblances too close, and their character in part not of a kind, to be thus accounted for, but even many of the differences between parallel contexts are rather such as would arise through the revision of a document than through the freedom of oral delivery.

It is now and has for many years been widely held that a document which is most nearly represented by the Gospel of Mark, or which (as some would say) was virtually identical with it, has been used in the composition of our first and third Gospels. This source has supplied the Synoptic Outline, and in the main also the narratives common to all three. Questions connected with the history of this document are treated in the article On Mark, Gospel Of.

There is also a considerable amount of matter common to Matthew and Luke, but not found in Mark. It is introduced into the Synoptic Outline very differently in those two Gospels, which clearly suggests that it existed in a separate form, and was independently combined by the first and third evangelists with their other document. This common matter has also a character of its own; it consists mainly of pieces of discourse. The form in which it is given in the two Gospels is in several passages so nearly identical that we must suppose these pieces at least to have been derived immediately or ultimately from the same Greek document.

In other cases there is more divergence, but in some of them this is accounted for by the consideration that in Matthew passages from the source now in question have been interwoven with parallels in the other chief common source before mentioned. There are, however, instances in which no such explanation will serve, and it is possible that our first and third evangelists may have used two documents which were not in all respects identical, but which corresponded very closely on the whole. The ultimate source of the subject matter in question, or of the most distinctive and larger part of it, was in all probability an Aramaic one, and in some parts different translations may have been used.

This second source used in the composition of Matthew and Luke has frequently been called " The Logia " in order to signify that it was a collection of the sayings and discourses of Jesus. This name has been suggested by Schleiermacher's interpretation of Papias' fragment on Matthew (see Matthew, Gospel Of). But some have maintained that the source in question also contained a good many narratives, and in order to avoid any premature assumption as to its contents and character several recent critics have named it " Q."

It may, however, fairly be called " the Logian document," as a convenient way of indicating the character of the greater part of the matter which our first and third evangelists have taken from it, and this designation is used in the articles on the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. The reconstruction of this document has been attempted by several critics. The arrangement of its contents can, it seems, best be learned from Luke.

3. One or two remarks may here be added as to the bearing of the results of literary criticism upon the use of the Gospels. Their effect is to lead us, especially when engaged in historical inquiries, to look beyond our Gospels to their sources, instead of treating the testimony of the Gospels severally as independent and ultimate. Nevertheless it will still appear that each Gospel has its distinct value, both historically and in regard to the moral and spiritual instruction afforded. And the fruits of much of that older study of the Gospels, which was largely employed in pointing out the special characteristics of each, will still prove serviceable.

Authorities. - I. German Books: Introductions to the New Testament - H. J. Holtzmann (3rd ed., 1892), B. Weiss (Eng. trans., 1887), Th. Zahn (2nd ed., 1900), G. A. Jiilicher (6th ed., 1906; Eng. trans., 1904); H. v. Soden, Urchristliche Literaturgeschichte, vol. i. (1905; Eng. trans., 1906). Books on the Synoptic Gospels, especially the Synoptic Problem: H. J. Holtzmann, Die synoptischen Evangelien (1863); Weizsacker, Untersuchungen fiber die evangelische Geschichte (1864); B. Weiss, Das Marcus-Evangelium and seine synoptischen Parallelen (1872) Das Matthdus-Evangelium and seine Lucas-Parallelen (1876); H. H. Wendt, Die Lehre Jesu (1886); A. Resch, Agrapha (1889), &c.; P. Wernle, Die synoptische Frage (1899); W. Soltau, Unsere Evangelien, ihre Quellen and ihr Quellenwert (1901); H. J. Holtzmann, Hand-Commentar zum N.T., vol. i. (1889); J. Wellhausen, Das Evangelium Marci, Das Evangelium Matthiii, Das Evangelium Lucas (1904), Einleitung in die drei ersten Evangelien (1905); A. Harnack, Spriiche and Reden Jesu, die zweite Quelle des Matthdus and Lukas (1907).

2. French Books: A. Loisy, Les Evangiles synoptiques (1907-1908).

3. English Books: G. Salmon, Introduction to the New Testament (1st ed., 1885; 9th ed., 1904); W. Sanday, Inspiration (Lect. vi., 3rd ed., 1903) ,B. F. Westcott, An Introduction to the Study of the Gospels (1st ed., 1851; 8th ed., 1895); A. Wright, The Composition of the Four Gospels (1890); J. E. Carpenter, The First Three Gospels, their Origin and Relations (1890); A. J. Jolley, The Synoptic Problem (1893); J. C. Hawkins, Horae synopticae (1899); W. Alexander, Leading Ideas of the Gospels (new ed., 1892); E. A. Abbott, Clue (1900); J. A. Robinson, The Study of the Gospels (1902); F. C. Burkitt, The Gospel History and its Transmission (1906); G. Salmon, The Human Element in the Gospels (1907); V. H. Stanton, The Gospels as Historical Documents: Pt. I., The Early Use of the Gospels (1903); Pt. II., The Synoptic Gospels (1908).

4. Synopses

W. G. Rushbrooke, Synopticon, An Exposition of the Common Matter of the Synoptic Gospels (1880); A. Wright, The Synopsis of the Gospels in Greek (2nd ed., 1903).

See also the articles on each Gospel, and the article BIBLE, section New Testament. (V. H. S.)

Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Gospel'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​bri/​g/gospel.html. 1910.
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