The New International Encyclopædia/Gospel

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GOSPEL (AS. godspel, godspell, OHG. gotspel, from god, OHG. got, God + spel, tidings; probably corrupted by popular confusion with god, God, from gotspel, good tidings, a translation of Gk. εὐαγγέλιον, evangelion, good tidings, from εὖ, eu, well + ἀγγέλλειν, angellein, to announce). The word used to denote (1) the message of salvation given to the world by Jesus Christ, and (2) the historical record of this message as contained in the first four books of the New Testament; so that each of these books is designated a Gospel, and the collection is known as the Gospels. The term, as used in the earlier books of the New Testament, has an active sense, best expressed by the phrase ‘the preached Gospel.’ This was due to the missionary character of the initial proclamation which was given by the Apostles to the message of salvation. It is frequently so used in Paul's Epistles (e.g. 1. Thess. iii. 2; Rom. i. 1-3, 16; Phil. i. 5, 12; ii. 22; iv. 3). In the later books the term is used sometimes in a technical sense, denoting the historical record of this salvation message (e.g. Mark i. 1), or even the message itself as an article of faith and confession (e.g. Rev. xiv. 6). This technical sense was fully acquired by the end of the second century.

The following article naturally confines itself to the term as denoting the historical records of the Gospel message — the New Testament books commonly known as the Gospels. Of these Gospels, the first three (Matthew, Mark, Luke) cover practically the early portion of Jesus' life — i.e. His ministry in Galilee and the north — together with the close of His life in Jerusalem, recording largely the same events and reproducing largely the same teachings. For this reason they are technically known as the Synoptic Gospels, and the question of their literary relation to one another and to common and specific sources is known as the Synoptic Problem. Their origin dates within generally the same period: say from A.D. 65 to 80. The fourth Gospel (John) covers the later portion of Jesus' life — i.e. His ministry in Judæa and Jerusalem, not only on the occasion of His visits to the city during His Galilean ministry, but especially during the closing ministry in that city and region — recording events and reproducing teachings largely different from those given in the Synoptic Gospels. For this reason the literary relation of the fourth Gospel to the Synoptic Gospels constitutes in itself a specific problem known as the Johannine Problem, or the Problem of the Fourth Gospel. The origin of the fourth Gospel dates from a period much later than those of the Synoptists; say about A.D. 90. The discussion of these two problems has enlisted the interest of most New Testament scholars, and has really gathered around itself the most significant New Testament work which has been done in the last fifty years. More definitely stated, these problems are as follows:

I. Synoptic Problem. Our first three Gospels present such striking identities in their order of narrative, and, in their use of word, phrase, and continued statement, and at the same time such striking differences in these respects, that we are compelled to ask what theory of their origin will account for these phenomena. The following theories have been propounded: (a) The Successive Dependence Theory; viz. that the evangelists made use of one or more of the Gospels already written, so that one of the Gospels is the first and original Gospel. A second writer used the first, and the third used one or both of his predecessors. This is the oldest view, having practically originated with Augustine, and has been worked out into every possible modification. (b) The Documentary Theory; viz. that all three Gospels to some extent made use of a preexisting written source. This theory came from ideas suggested by Le Clerc (1716), and was later taken up by Priestley (1777), and finally definitely formulated by Lessing (1778). This also has received many modifications, according to the view held as to the character of the original document, and also according to the way this theory was combined with the first. (c) The Oral Theory; viz. that all three Gospels made use of the common oral tradition, which had become fixed by use. This was first suggested by Herder (1797) and Eckermann (1806), but fully formulated by Gieseler (1818). It has also been variously modified according as there have been held to enter into the oral sources written sources as well, or as the Gospels have been held to use each other along with the common sources, or as the common tradition has been held to have undergone various recensions which the Gospels have used in varied combinations. The conclusions most generally accepted by critics to-day lie within the general sphere of the Documentary Theory, though they involve elements of each of the others. In substance they are, that behind our present chronological Gospels lay two fundamental written sources — one a collection of the sayings of Jesus, known as the Logia of Matthew, and represented most conspicuously, if not exclusively, in our first and third Gospels; the other a narrative of the events of Jesus' ministry, which is practically, if not absolutely, identical with our second Gospel. Besides these main sources, it is held that the writers of the individual Gospels had access to special sources peculiar to themselves, while the writer of the third Gospel made use directly of the first as well as the second. Quite recently the theory has been advanced in Germany that the two main documents referred to above are not primary in character, but composite results of multiple sources whose origin is often, if not always, impossible to trace.

II. The Problem of the Fourth Gospel. There is such a radical difference between the discourses of Jesus as given in the Synoptic Gospels and in the fourth Gospel that we are forced to ask whether they both can have come alike from Jesus. This difference lies in the following facts: (a) The Synoptists present the discourses as simple talks on the level of every-day speech; the fourth Gospel as involved discourses beyond the range of ordinary speech. (b) The Synoptists give the discourses largely in the form of parable, as The Sower, The Lost Sheep, The Prodigal Son; the fourth Gospel gives them largely in the form of allegory, as The Water of Life, the Light of the World, The Good Shepherd. (c) In the Synoptic Gospels the subject of the discourses is, generally speaking, the varied and practical topics of religious living, as in the Sermon on the Mount; the qualities of the Christian life and character; or as in the great Parable Discourse, the nature and growth of the Kingdom of God. In the fourth Gospel to an almost exclusive extent, Jesus Himself is made the subject of the discourses, and this self-subject is treated almost wholly from the point of Jesus' transcendental relations to the Godhead. To account for these facts, the theory has been widely held that the peculiarities of the fourth Gospel discourses are due to the personal reflections of the author of the Gospel, who was not the Apostle John, but a disciple of his school, who presents in these discourses, not the actual teachings of Jesus, but the late first century, if not the post-Apostolic, theology of the Church. In recent years, however, there has been a growing tendency to account for these peculiarities as possible in the genuine teachings of Jesus, through the fact that they were delivered by Jesus in surroundings and to audiences different from those in and to which the Synoptic discourses were delivered, while they were reproduced by an apostle whose religious personality itself and spiritual intercourse with Jesus were different from those of the apostles from whom the Synoptics may be considered to have come.

In addition to these main problems of the Gospels, there are the following minor ones:

A. The Problem of the Contents. Involved in this problem are the following principal points of present criticism:

(a) The Nativity. — This is given in but two of the four Gospels — Matthew (i. 18-ii.) and Luke (i. 5-ii. 39) — and is presented by them in narratives differing largely from each other. The one in Luke is the fuller, and gives every evidence of having been derived from written Aramaic sources; the one in Matthew gives the impression of having come from oral sources. The chief question of debate is whether these sources rest upon historical fact or are the product of idealizing tradition. Against their acceptance as historical is the difficulty that during the period of the Gospel history there seems to have been no popular, nor even disciple, knowledge of them, the significance of which fact is heightened by the absence of all reference to them in the New Testament epistolary literature. In addition to this are difficulties in the narratives as they stand, particularly the lack of full harmony in their record of events, as seen in the return of the family to Nazareth; the singular agreement which they bear at points to the national Messianic expectations which were never realized, as seen in the angel announcement that the Child was to ascend the throne of David and reign over the House of Jacob forever; and the poetic elaboration of certain parts, as seen in the songs of Mary and Zacharias. Against the interpretation of the narratives as idealizations, there is the difficulty of the necessary assumption of a remarkably early date for the process. Neither Matthew nor Luke was written much, if at all, later than A.D. 75; and yet at the time of their writing this tradition was not only popularly received, but had come into the elaborated documentary form represented in Luke. Such idealization further must have been of a distinctively Gentile origin. With his high conception of the holiness of the married state, the Jew would not consider supernatural birth necessary for an ideal — in fact, did not so interpret the prophecy of the virgin birth (Isa. vii. 14); and yet, on the part of the Gentile, the crude sensuality of supernatural birth in pagan mythologies would make the creation and acceptance of such a tradition regarding Jesus within the Christian Church most difficult of accomplishment. Of the problem thus presented there may be no complete solution, though there is nothing in it which renders impossible the acceptance of the essential fact of a miraculous birth. On the contrary, the difficulty of the Gospel and Epistle silence regarding the event, and the difficulty gathering around the presence in the narratives of unfulfilled Jewish ideals, favor the historical character of the record; since, not only in proportion as the peculiar privacy of the event and the singular suspicion likely to attach to it in the popular mind are appreciated does the lack of publicity given become intelligible, but in proportion as the narratives record a form of announcement which agrees with the stage of Messianic expectations belonging to that beginning time of Gospel history, they show their primitive character, whatever poetic elaborations or harmonistic difficulties they present; while in proportion as the main idea of the supernatural conception which the narratives contain was unnatural to Jewish thought and unlikely of Gentile production, they show an element accounted for only on the assumption of actual fact.

(b) The Lord's Supper. — This is recorded in each of the Synoptists, all of whom agree in placing it at the time of, and in connection with, the regular Passover meal. Mark and Matthew, however, agree as against Luke at two points: {1) As to the sequence of the bread and the cup (Mark and Matthew placing the bread first, Luke placing the cup both first and last), and (2) as to the permanence intended in the observance of the meal (Luke making Jesus purpose it as a subsequent memorial of Himself, Matthew and Mark recording no such intention on Jesus' part). At the same time the Synoptists come into definite relation to the narrative of the Passion Week as given by the fourth Gospel, involving the time of the Supper and its relation to the regular Paschal meal, the fourth Gospel placing the Supper before the feast day and out of all association with the feast. In addition, account must be taken of the fact that Paul has given us, in I. Cor. xi. 23-26, a definite statement of the institution of the Supper, which, in proportion as it is earlier than the Gospel narratives could be, takes precedence of the Synoptic records. This Pauline statement agrees with Luke, and so diverges from Mark and Matthew in its distinct mention of the cup being after the Supper, and of Jesus' purpose that the observance of the meal should be a permanent one with His disciples. In fact, it is quite clear from the character of the account of Luke that, in its statement of the after cup and of Jesus' purpose, it is derived from Paul, who in his statement further diverges from all the Gospels in evidently associating together the Supper and the ordinary religions meal of the Church — the Agape — if he does not actually identify them.

The problem presented is consequently two-fold: (1) Was the Supper observed before the regular Passover feast, and as a meal distinctly different from it, or at the close of the feast and as a meal definitely associated with it? and (2) was its observance intended by Jesus to be a permanent one, or to be exhausted in the event of that night? As to the first point, in case the dating of the fourth Gospel is to be taken as correct, that part of the Synoptic narrative which connects the supper with the Passover feast (Mark xiv. 12-16, and parallels, including Luke xxii. 15) must be regarded as an interpolation into the original tradition, due to the Church's early identification of the two meals, while the Supper itself must be understood as an ordinary Jewish meal, the bread and wine of which Jesus symbolically refers to Himself. In case the dating of the Synoptists is to be accepted, the fourth Gospel's chronology is to be regarded as distorted by its author, either through ignorance or for partisan reasons, and the Supper itself understood as identified in time and meaning with the regular Passover feast. In either case however, it is to be noted that all four Gospels agree in placing Jesus' death on Friday, and that the significance recorded in the Synoptists and Paul as attached by Jesus to the bread and wine of the meal is one which refers them to His death as a sacrifice. As to the second point, the fact that Luke's mention of Jesus' purpose of a permanent observance of the Supper is practically derived from Paul confines the authority for this item in the narrative wholly to the Apostle. In regard to the worth of his testimony, it is evident, on the one hand, that the earliness of his account, in comparison with the Gospel records, gives it a relative value beyond theirs. This is confirmed by the almost necessary assumption that, even if the peculiar way in which he introduces his account (verse 23a) was not intended by him to refer his knowledge of the facts to divine revelation, it was intended to place it on a high plane of authority. On the other hand, the fact that Paul is writing to the disorderly church at Corinth, and has in mind at this particular point in his Epistle their shameful conduct of the Lord's Supper, might lead Paul to read this purpose into the narrative of the event by way of emphasizing to his readers the continual authority of the Supper. It would be manifestly unwarranted, however, to hold that such action on Paul's part disposed of the question, since the portrayal of the Supper by Mark and Matthew as, in the mind of Jesus, a covenant between Himself and His disciples, implies an intended permanence in the observance of the event, which practically involves the command, “This do in remembrance of Me,” whether it was actually uttered or not. It would seem, therefore, that whatever difficulties lie in the way of a complete solution of the problem, the following essential facts are clear: That Christ, in a final supper with His disciples, symbolically referred the bread and wine of the meal to His approaching death as a sacrificial act on His part, in their partaking of which symbols they entered into a covenant realization of its benefits and recognition of its obligations.

(c) The Resurrection. — While none of the Gospels record the act itself, they all record the fact of the Resurrection, though in narratives which differ widely from each other. [The concluding verses of the last chapter of Mark (xvi. 9-20) are recognized as a later substitute for the ending of the Gospel, and John xxi. as a probable supplement to the original Gospel.] The most significant divergence is regarding the scene of the chief appearances of Jesus; Matthew (xxviii. 16-20) and, by implication, Mark (xvi. 7) placing it in Galilee, Luke (xxiv.) and John (xx.) in Jerusalem. The minor divergences relate to individualities in the narration of events, involved in which are some notable peculiarities, such as Matthew's reference to the accompanying natural and angelic events (xxviii. 2-4), and the gathering of the eleven at a mountain in Galilee (verses 16-20); Luke's story of the two disciples on the way to Emmaus (xxiv. 13-15), and his account of Jesus' final blessing of the disciple band and His ascension from them at Bethany (verses 50-53); John's record of the curing of Thomas's doubt (xx. 24-29). Further involved in these individualities of narration are some striking difficulties of detail, such as the statement by Luke (xxiv. 9) that the women told their experience at the sepulchre to the eleven and to all the rest, while Mark says that they said nothing to any man (xvi. 8); John's statement that Jesus forbade Mary to touch Him (xx. 17), while Matthew recounts that the women, including Mary, were allowed to clasp His feet (xxviii. 9). Apart from these divergences, however, there manifest themselves the following whole and partial agreements: (1) As to the visit of the women to the sepulchre: All the Synoptists unite in saying that they made their visit early in the morning, finding the tomb empty and returning to the city with the fact impressed upon their minds (Mark xvi. 2-4, 6); Matt. xxviii. 2, 3, 5, 6; Luke xxiv. 4-6a). John confines his account to the experience of Mary Magdalene, but states also on her part an early-morning visit, implying the finding of an empty tomb and the announcement of the fact to Peter and John, who themselves go to the sepulchre and contirm the story by their personal observation and then return to their homes (xx. 1-10; cf. Luke xxiv. 12). (2) As to the angelic appearances: All the Synoptists unite in relating a vision of angels at the tomb (Mark and Matthew one angel, Luke two), and a message from the angels, through the women, to the disciples, to the effect that Jesus was risen (Mark xvi. 5, 6; Matt. xxviii. 2, 3, 5, 6; Luke xxiv. 4-6a), Mark and Matthew adding an announcement that Jesus would meet with His disciples in Galilee (Mark xvi. 7; Matt. xxviii. 7); Luke, merely a reminder of what Jesus had said to His disciples concerning His death and resurrection while He had been with them in Galilee (xxiv. 6-8). (3) As to the appearances of Jesus Himself: (a) Matthew and John unite in relating an appearance to the women after leaving the tomb (Matthew to the group, John to Mary Magdalene). On this occasion a message is given them by Jesus Himself to His disciples (Matthew, that He would precede them into Galilee; John, that He would ascend into heaven) (Matt. xxviii. 10; John xx. 17). (b) Luke and John unite in relating an appearance to certain of His disciples during the evening of this same day, in which Jesus convinced their unbelief by displaying to them the marks of His Crucifixion; Luke adding the items of the disciples' fear at the appearance and the material proof given by Jesus of His bodily existence, together with His instruction of them in the Scriptures' reference to Himself and His word: John, the items of the appearance being accomplished in spite of closed doors, of Jesus' impartation to them of the Holy Spirit, and His recognition of them as His representatives in the world (Luke xxiv. 36-49; John xx. 19-23). In our study of the Gospel narratives, however, account must he taken of the definite statement made by Paul in his First Epistle to the Corinthians (xv. 4-8), where he gives a list of six appearances of Jesus — first to Peter, then to the twelve, then to a company of more than five hundred disciples, after that to James, then to all the Apostles, adding finally the appearance to himself. This statement, like that regarding the Lord's Supper, has priority over the earliest Gospel account, and is placed by the Apostle on a high plane of reliability of source. In view of these facts, it is significant that its only divergence from the Gospel accounts is by way of supplementation to what they narrate. From all this, then, it would seem quite possible for Jesus to have appeared to certain individuals among His disciples in Jerusalem and its neighborhood within eight days after His Resurrection; later to have appeared to larger numbers of His followers in Galilee; and finally, before His ascension, to have appeared to the Apostolic circle in Jerusalem, leading them out to Bethany, where He was parted from them. The only question would be the time taken for the disciples' journey from Jerusalem to Galilee and return, and this is not a serious one. It would further seem quite possible for the general sequence of events, as given by all the four Gospels and by Paul, to have taken place, the order being, in brief, the visit of the women and Mary Magdalene to the Sepulchre (Mark, Matthew, Luke, John); the vision of angels to the women (Mark, Matthew, Luke); the appearance of Jesus to the women, with their report to the disciples (Matthew and Luke); Mary Magdalene's report of the empty tomb to Peter and John, and their investigation (John; see also Luke for Peter's investigation); the appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene (John); the appearance to Peter (Paul, Luke), to the two disciples on the way to Emmaus (Luke), to the eleven in Jerusalem (Luke, John), to the same a week later (John); the appearances in Galilee — to the eleven at the mountain (Matthew [possibly identical or synchronous with the appearance to the five hundred (Paul), before which may have been the appearance of the seven at the Sea of Galilee, recorded in the supplemental chapter of John]); then to James — most likely in Jerusalem (Paul); finally in the same city to the eleven, whom He led out to Bethany, where He ascended from them (Luke; cf. Acts 1, 2, 3). As a general result, the problem presents itself, not as one of mutually exclusive records, since, admitting all the minor contradictions, the agreement among the narratives as to the essential facts is clear. The problem reduces itself in reality to the question whether the source of these narratives is more likely to have been the actual fact of the resurrection, evidenced to the disciples; or a self-persuasion of it on their part, through a desire to believe it to have occurred, though it had not. The decision between these alternatives will lie determined by the inference which must inevitably be drawn from the facts (1) that the disciples did not reach their belief by any slow process of reasoning, but by an almost immediate conviction of the event, in spite of their deep despondency over Calvary; and (2) that it has been on the proclamation of this event, as the basal ground of its faith in Jesus, that Christianity has reached its stupendous results in the world.

B. The Problem of the Chronology. This concerns itself chiefly with the question as to the length of Jesus' ministry; and this question turns largely upon the character of the feast mentioned in John v. 1. If this is held to be a Passover, the duration of His active work is extended to at least three years; if it is not so held, the limit is reduced to perhaps two years. For full discussion of this and minor points, see New Testament Chronology. See also the articles on the individual Gospels.

Bibliography. In addition to the usual New Testament Introductions and Lives of Christ, which are useful for the general subject, consult the following more important recent books: (1) For the Synoptic Problem (a) as helps in investigation: Rushbrooke, Synopticon (London, 1880-81); Hawkins, Horæ Synopticæ (Oxford, 1899); Veit, Die synoptischen Parallelen (Gütersloh, 1897); Huck, Synopse der drei ersten Evangelien (Freiburg, 1898); Heinicke, Synopse der drei ersten kanonischen Evangelien (Giessen, 1898). (b) For general reference and presentation of specific views: Wright, The Composition of the Four Gospels (London, 1890); Badham, The Formation of the Gospels (London, 1892); Westcott, Introduction to the Study of the Gospels (New York, 1896); Wernle, Die synoptische Frage (Freiburg, 1899); Weizsäcker, Untersuchungen über die evangelische Geschichte (Leipzig, 1901). (2) For the Johannine Problem: Sanday, Authorship and Historical Character of the Fourth Gospel (London, 1872); Luthardt, Der Johanneische Ursprung des vierten Evangeliums (Nuremberg, 1874; Eng. trans., Edinburgh, 1885); Beyschlag, Zur Johanneischen Frage (Gotha, 1876); Lightfoot, Essays on Supernatural Religion (London, 1889); Thoma, Genesis des Johannis-Evangelium (Berlin, 1882); O. Holtzman, Johann-Evangelium (Darmstadt, 1887); Ewald, Das Hauptproblem der Evangelienfrage (Leipzig, 1890); Delff, Das Vierte Evangelium (Husum, 1890); Watkins, Modern Criticism in Relation to the Fourth Gospel (London, 1890); Schürer, “Ueber den gegenwärtigen Stand der Johanneischen Frage,” in Vorträge der theologischen Konferenz zu Giessen (Giessen, 1889); Wendt, Das Johannis-Evangelium (Eng. trans., London, 1902). (3) For the Nativity: Resch, Das Kindheits-Evangelium nach Lucas und Matthäus (Leipzig, 1897); Ramsay, Was Christ Born at Bethlehem? (New York, 1898); Conrady, Die Quelle der kanonischen Kindheitsgeschichte Jesu's (Göttingen, 1900). (4) For the Lord's Supper: Harnack, Brod und Wasser (Leipzig, 1892); Zahn, Brod und Wein (Leipzig, 1892); Jülicher, “Zur Geschichte des Abendmahls,” in Theologische Abhandlungen (Freiburg, 1892); Spitta, Zur Geschichte des Urchristentums, vol. i. (Göttingen, 1893); Gardner, The Origin of the Lord's Supper (London, 1893); Schaefer, Das Herrenmahl (Gütersloh, 1897). (5) For the Resurrection: Milligan, The Resurrection of Our Lord (London, 1884); Loofs, Die Auferstehungsberichte (Leipzig, 1898).