Definition: Gospels
The first four books of the New Testament, which describe the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The Christian Bible is unique among the world's sacred texts in that it provides multiple accounts of the life of the religion's founder. These accounts are referred to as Gospels, from the Old English word godspel, meaning "good news." In Greek the books were called the evangelion, and their authors are correspondingly referred to as the "four evangelists."

There are four Gospels, commonly referred to as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. (Their full names in English are "The Gospel According to Matthew" and so on.) They were originally published anonymously but are now named for their traditional author. They are the first four books of the New Testament.

Gospels are not biographies of Jesus Christ in the modern sense of an academic account of a person's life. In fact, this genre of literature was unknown to the ancient world. Narratives were written to inspire, teach a lesson, warn, or persuade, not to simply inform. The purpose of the Gospels seems to be twofold: to recount the events in the extraordinary life of Jesus, and do so in such a way that its hearers will respond in faith. The author of Gospel of John affirms the latter motivation explicitly:

"These are written that you may believe and that by believing you may have life in his name." {1}

Although there are only four gospels in the canonical New Testament, a number of gospels were circulated in the early church - perhaps as many as 50. {2} We do not know for certain how or when Matthew, Mark, Luke and John came to be the only "orthodox" gospels, but early Christians writings provide us with some insight into the process and scholars have suggested a number of possibilities. This issue is discussed further below.

The Synoptic Gospels

The first three gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, are known as the Synoptic Gospels, because they "see together" the events of Jesus' life and death. The three narratives use similar language, material, and ordering of events, and sometimes even repeat one another verbatim (see for example Mt 9:2-8; Mk 2:3-12; and Lk 5:18-26). Mark's Gospel, the shortest of the three, appears almost in its entirety in the Gospel of Matthew, and 53 percent of Mark is found in Luke.

The striking similarities and obvious sharing of material between the Synoptic Gospels has led biblical scholars to venture several possible solutions to this so-called "Synoptic Problem." The most common theory is that Matthew and Luke used the Gospel of Mark and an additional document (now lost) called Quelle (German for "source"), or Q for short. But others have suggested that Matthew was the common source, or that each Gospel borrowed from the others and from well-established oral tradition, or some combination of these. {3}

Why These Four Gospels?

The choice of early Christians to label these four gospels "canonical" and "orthodox," and others "heretical" has been of increasing concern to scholars and the public alike in recent years. Much of the hubbub was sparked by Dan Brown's popular novel The Da Vinci Code, which questions the traditional distinction between "orthodoxy" and "heresy." In the novel, learned scholar Leigh Teabing explains to cryptologist Sophie Neveu:

"Because Constantine upgraded Jesus' status almost four centuries after Jesus' death, thousands of documents already existed chronicling His life as a mortal man. To rewrite the history books, Constantine knew he would need a bold stroke. Constantine commissioned and financed a new Bible, which omitted those gospels that spoke of Christ's human traits and embellished those gospels that made Him godlike. The earlier gospels were outlawed, gathered up, and burned."

This and many other claims made in the book have been discredited by scholars, but the above passage illustrates the growing skepticism that the four canonical gospels are in any way superior to noncanonical gospels. Much more reputable sources, including works by Elaine Pagels of Princeton, Karen King of Harvard, and Bart Ehrman of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, challenge the traditional notion that noncanonical gospels such as the Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of Mary Magdalene are little more than nonsense and heresy.

Scholars have postulated a variety of reasons why only Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were ultimately accepted as canonical. Some suggest that this decision was largely due to the need for church structure and organization and the corresponding attempts by early bishops to solidify their authority against those who would practice Christianity in their own way.

Another major reason early church leaders seemed to have had for rejecting all but the four gospels is apostolic authority. Matthew and John were presumed to be written by Jesus' disciples of the same name. Although Mark and Luke were not apostles, they were believed to have had direct contact with the apostles Peter and Paul, respectively. The notion of apostolic succession and authority was very important to early church leaders, for it was seen as a way of ensuring the integrity of the gospel message was preserved after the deaths of eyewitnesses. In fact, the Gospel of John was questioned for a time before being accepted because its authorship by the Apostle John was in some doubt.

This emphasis on apostolic authority and authorship meant that only early writings were accepted. According to one scholar, "not a single document written after about 120 was ever considered for inclusion in the canon, not least because such documents were not written by people in direct touch with the apostolic tradition, much less with the apostles themselves." {4}

The following excerpts from early "orthodox" writings illustrate the importance assigned to authorship of canonical texts:

There is current also an epistle to the Laodiceans, and another to the Alexandrians, both forged in Paul's name to further the heresy of Marcion, and several others which cannot be received into the catholic Church. {5} Another possible reason for the rejection of Gnostic and other gospels is they rarely referred to the Old Testament or its teachings. As New Testament scholar Pheme Perkins explains:

"Gnostic exegetes were only interested in elaborating their mythic and theological speculations concerning the origins of the universe, not in appropriating a received canonical tradition. . [By contrast] the Christian Bible originates in a hermeneutical framing of Jewish scriptures, so that they retain their canonical authority. {6}


  • John 20:31, NIV.
  • Francis E. Gigot, "Gospel and Gospels." Catholic Encyclopedia, 1910.
  • "The Synoptic Gospels," NIV Study Bible (Zondervan, 1995), p. 1437.
  • Ben Witherington III, "Why the 'Lost Gospels' Lost Out." Christianity Today, June 2004.
  • Muratorian Canon (late 2nd cent. AD).
  • As quoted in Witherington, op. cit.

More Online Resources on the Gospels

  • Ben Witherington III, "Why the 'Lost Gospels' Lost Out." Christianity Today, June 2004.
  • Francis E. Gigot, "Gospel and Gospels." Catholic Encyclopedia, 1910.
  • Stephen C. Carlson, "The Synoptic Problem Home Page."
  • Robert M. Grant, "The Gospels." A Historical Introduction to the New Testament. Harper & Row, 1963. Online at Religion-Online.org.