Introduction to the Gospels
THE OPENING OF MARK'S GOSPEL, “The beginning of the good news [or “gospel”] of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1.1) , uses the word “gospel” for the message about salvation through Jesus. The word “gospel” (Gk euangelion; NRSV: “good news”) always refers either to the act of preaching (1 Thess 1.5 , NRSV: “our message of the gospel”) or its content (Acts 15.7 , NRSV: “message of the good news”; 20.24 , NRSV: “good news”). Outside the New Testament and other early Christian writings, the term was used for various happy announcements, such as a military victory, the birth of a son, or a wedding. An inscription from 9 BCE uses the noun (in the plural) to refer to the past event of the birth of the Roman emperor Augustus: “the birthday of the god was for the world the beginning of ‘joyful messages’ which have gone forth because of him.” The idea that an emperor's birth, coming of age, and ascent to the throne was “good news” for the world would have come to mind when Christian missionaries came preaching “good news.” The noun is not used for a literary genre until the mid‐second century CE (Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 10.2 ; Irenaeus, Against the Heresies 50.26.6).
The use of the word “gospel” in Mark's introduction presumably led to its being adopted as the designation for written accounts of the ministry, teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Short formulas in Paul's letters show that the “good news” of early preaching focused on the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus (1 Thess 1.9–10; Rom 1.2–4; 1 Cor 15.3–5 ). Mark expanded this to include Jesus’ own preaching of the kingdom of God (Mk 1.14–15 ). So far as we know, Mark was the first to create a distinctive literary form by combining early Christian preaching about Jesus with a narrative account of Jesus’ life and ministry. Writings that have been surmised to predate Mark are collections of sayings with little or no narrative framework.
By presenting a narrative about Jesus as the basis of Christian preaching (see Lk 1.1–4 ), the Gospel writers (the “evangelists”) assume that the life of Jesus provides evidence for Christian beliefs about him. By providing an account of Jesus from his emergence on the public stage through his trial and death, Mark presents a “life” (Gk bios) of his subject. The ancient bios should not be confused with a modern biography, which explicates the subject's origins, family, cultural influences, and character development, and tends to emphasize uniqueness and individuality. Ancient writers often characterized persons as types, and the narratives of their lives reflected a view that individuals had fixed characters from birth rather than personalities that developed through life.
Even granting such differences, scholars disagree over the extent to which the Gospels follow conventions of ancient biography. Because the story of Jesus concerns a figure with a crucial place in the history of God's relationship with Israel, it is closer to Jewish accounts of Moses or a prophet like Elijah than to typical Greek and Roman biographies of rulers or philosophers (e.g., Xenophon, Agesilaus; Isocrates, Evagoras; Tacitus, Agricola; Lucian, Demonax), which had a wider scope, including an account of the preliminary education of the subject of the biography. Greco‐Roman biographies were addressed to a social and literary elite, which may explain why the Gospels, addressed to a much broader audience, do not match them very closely. Philo's Life of Moses adopts a Hellenistic‐style laudatory biography for a Jewish subject. Echoes of the life of Moses as related in Exodus and other Jewish sources appear in Matthew's version of the birth and infancy of Jesus (Mt 1–2 ).
Since the genre “biography” emerged from Greek historical writing, the question of whether or not the Gospels belong to this genre often involves a prior judgment concerning their historical plausibility. Scholars who reject biography as a description of the Gospels often overemphasize the ideological or legendary elements found in the narratives. They prefer to read the Gospels as etiological legends that explain the emergence of a new religion or as ideological representations of the christology of particular early Christian communities. Such writings do not intend to provide historical information about their subject. Rather, they operate like myths and symbols to support Christian beliefs and practices.
Second‐century CE authors, on the other hand, both adherents of Christianity like Justin Martyr and opponents like Celsus, presumed that the evangelists intended to provide information. Justin Martyr's designation of the Gospels as “memoirs” (Gk hypomnemata; 1 Apology 1.67.3) suggests something less than the full literary biography, and something more like a gathering of notes about the subject and his teaching. This perception may have been enhanced by the fact that early Christians disseminated their writings using a codex (similar to a bound book) rather than a scroll. Though some modern readers think of the codex as a technological advance over the scroll, the ancients did not. Serious literary works were copied onto scrolls. Notes, preliminary drafts, and all sorts of records were kept in codices. Thus their physical appearance would suggest to an ancient reader that the Gospels were something like educational handbooks, not examples of high literary art. Papias's comment that Mark is “not in order” (Eusebius, History of the Church 3.39.5) shows that even some Christian readers considered it an unfinished composition. Papias also noted that Matthew was a more polished work (Eusebius, History of the Church 3.39.16). Luke's prologue states that he intends to correct the deficiencies in earlier accounts ( 1.1–4 ). Such concerns indicate that Mark's earliest readers treated the Gospel as a rough life of Jesus. Such a biography invited the expansions in content and revisions of style that Matthew and Luke subsequently undertook.