In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Gospels

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Books
  • Gospel Genre and Audience
  • The Synoptic Problem
  • Noncanonical Gospels
  • The Gospels and the Historical Jesus
  • The Fourfold Gospel as Christian Scripture

Biblical Studies Gospels
Andrew Gregory
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 June 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0156


In Christian usage, the word “gospel” first referred to the proclamation of good news about Jesus. By sometime in the 2nd century CE it had come to be used also of books that claimed to present the teaching and/or deeds of Jesus. Questions about the audience for whom the gospels were written have often been linked to questions about what type of books they are. Most scholars continue to think that the gospel writers drew on traditions that had circulated orally before they were included in written gospels. But there is great debate about the extent to which the written gospels reflect the later concerns of those who handed down these traditions rather than the testimony of eyewitnesses to Jesus. Many scholars now think that the canonical gospels are best understood as form of ancient biography, but many noncanonical texts that were also known as gospels do not fit easily in a biographical genre, and they have been marginalized in much recent discussion of the genre of the gospels. One way of addressing this issue is to acknowledge that the canonical gospels are one form of gospel but to recognize that other texts may be read as gospels of other kinds. Another is to maintain a clear distinction between “gospel” as part of the title of a book that claims to present at least some of the teaching or life of Jesus and “gospel” as a clearly delineated genre. Questions about the relative dating of different gospels and the literary relationships (or otherwise) between them continue to be debated. The very particular question of the nature of the relationship between Matthew, Mark, and Luke is known as the synoptic problem. The way in which this issue is resolved has an important bearing on how we use these texts as sources for the study of the historical Jesus, for they differ at significant points. The same issue arises when the synoptic gospels are compared with John and when canonical and noncanonical gospels are considered together as potential historical witnesses to Jesus. Readers who approach the canonical gospels primarily as Christian Scripture will address theological questions to these texts that they may not wish to address to noncanonical gospels. Readers whose interests are primarily historical or literary may wish to ask similar questions of all these texts. If so, the fact that early Christians gave a privileged position to four gospels (as have most Christians ever since) will not in itself be determinative in the way that they approach these texts. Thus, at the end of this article, entries on individual gospels are listed in alphabetical order, not according to their canonical status.

General Overviews

General printed overviews are in some way similar to New Testament introductions (see Introductory Works), but overviews of the gospels focus on a smaller range of texts and therefore are often able to treat them in more detail. Barton 2006, Bockmuehl and Hagner 2006, and Stanton 2002 all include an essay on each of the canonical gospels as well as essays on related themes. Perkins 2007 does not include a chapter on John but includes an essay on each synoptic gospel and on related themes. Koester 1990 treats a wide range of noncanonical gospels alongside canonical gospels. The New Testament Gateway, maintained by Mark Goodacre, is a web directory that provides a similar function with links to a wide range of material.

  • Barton, Stephen C., ed. The Cambridge Companion to the Gospels. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL0521807662

    Multiauthored introduction to the study of the canonical gospels with an emphasis on theological issues and interpretation. All contributors deal with the usual historical and literary questions but seek also to engage with the gospels in ways that engage with their theological and Christological subject matter and their role as Christian Scripture. Includes essays on how the gospels contribute to Christian doctrine, spirituality, and ethics as well as an interpretation of each gospel as a witness to Christ.

  • Bockmuehl, Markus, and Donald A. Hagner, eds. The Written Gospel. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

    Multiauthored introduction to the study of the canonical gospels with an emphasis on the production of gospels as written texts. Moves from the oral gospel about Jesus to the development of the four-gospel canon and production of gospel commentaries. An essay on each canonical gospel considers how its author writes.

  • Koester, Helmut. Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development. Philadelphia: Trinity, 1990.

    Advanced introduction to the gospels. Historical in focus. Begins with a survey of the use of the term “gospel” and presents a distinctive account of how oral traditions were set down in written gospels from the source known as Q and Thomas through the canonical gospels and beyond. Koester eschews any distinction between gospels on the basis of whether they came to be considered canonical.

  • New Testament Gateway.

    Web directory created by Mark Goodacre. Allows readers to browse or search annotated links on topics connected with the New Testament and early Christianity. Includes a section on each canonical gospel, the synoptic problem, and the Gospel of Thomas.

  • Perkins, Pheme. Introduction to the Synoptic Gospels. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007.

    This volume discusses the genre of the gospels, their physical form as books, the origin of the four-gospel canon, the interrelationships of the synoptic gospels (the synoptic problem), and sources that might lie behind them. Also includes one chapter discussing each synoptic gospel, and one on noncanonical gospels. Only passing references to John.

  • Stanton, Graham. The Gospels and Jesus. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    Substantial textbook treatment. Includes essays on the gospel genre, scholarly approaches to the gospels, each of the four canonical gospels, and the relationship between the canonical and noncanonical gospels. First edition published in 1989.

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