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The Name: 'Gospel / Gospels'

The Name: 'Gospel / Gospels'

Introduction
Gospel
Jesus Christ
Christ
Oral and written tradition
Tradition
The Gospel of Matthew
Matthew
The Gospel of Mark
Mark
The Gospel of Luke
Luke
The Gospel of John
John
The meaning for today
Interpretation

From ‘Notes on the Formation of the Gospels’, by John Wijngaards;
published in Background to the Gospels (Bangalore & Ann Arbor 1981)
and Together in My Name (London 1991).

The word "Gospel" ( "good-spell", "good tidings" ) is derived from the Greek term eu (i.e. good) and angelion (i.e. message). In Latin it became ‘evangelium’. Many English words have been derived from this: evangelist, evangelical, etc.

In Old Testament usage, we find the term employed at first with a purely profane meaning. When Joab, the general of David’s army, had defeated the rebel Absalom, he wanted someone to bring the message of victory to David. Ahimaaz offers to do this:“Then said Ahimaaz, the sons of Zadok: ‘Let me run and carry the good tidings (gospel) to the king, to inform him that the Lord has delivered him from the power of his enemies”. (2 Sam 18:19)

But in the language of the prophets, the term ‘good tidings’ began to mean much more than just some ‘happy news’. The prophets point to the messianic future. Then, when God will begin to redeem his people, they will hear the “good tidings” of messianic salvation.

“O herald of good tidings, go up on a high mountain and lift up your voice and proclaim it to Jerusalem!...: Behold, the Lord God comes with might! With his arm he will rule everything” (Is 40:9)

The Jews were waiting anxiously for these “good tidings” of messianic salvation. They were looking forward to them. That is why, when Jesus begins his preaching, he announces his own message as these “good tidings” of salvation: (The people tried to keep him from leaving) “But He said to them: ‘I must preach the GOOD NEWS of the Kingdom God in other towns also, for that is what God sent Me to do’.” (Lk 4:43)

After John (the Baptist) had been put in prison, Jesus went to Galilee and preached the GOOD NEWS from God. ‘The right time has come’, Jesus said, ‘and the Kingdom of God is near! Turn away from your sins and believe the GOOD NEWS’. (Mk 1:14)

Jesus’ doctrine soon became known as “the Good News”, the Gospel. “The GOOD NEWS” (i.e. the Gospel) means here: the happy announcement that God has finally begun his work of redemption, as promised to the prophets. See also: Mt 11:5; Lk 4:18; 7:22. Preaching about Jesus and relating all he did and said was called ‘Preaching the Gospel’. So we read: (Jesus said to the Apostles): “You will stand before rulers and kings to tell them the GOOD NEWS. For this Gospel (i.e. the Good News) must first be preached to all peoples.” (Mk 13:9-10) “And every day in the Temple and in people's homes the apostles continued to teach and preach the GOOD NEWS about Jesus the Messiah”. (Acts 5:42)

In the New Testament the word ‘Gospel’ ‘the GOOD NEWS’ always refers to the happy announcement of all Jesus said and did. See also Acts 8:35, 11:20; Rom 1:16. In this sense there is only one Gospel.

Since there is only one Gospel St Paul can write in this way:

“I am surprised at you! In no time at all you are deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ, and are going to another gospel. Actually, there is no ‘other gospel’. I say this because there are some people who are upsetting you and trying to change the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel that is different from the one we preached to you, mav he be condemned to hell!” (Gal 1:6-8).

It is in the same way we should also understand the first line of Mark's Gospel:

“This is the GOOD NEWS (i.e. the gospel) about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mk 1:1 )

The evangelist wants to indicate hereby that the contents of his work give a faithful rendering of the ‘Good News’.

In actual fact, this Good News about Jesus Christ, this one Gospel, which was preached by the Apostles has come down to us in four diferent editions. The editors were: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

In the early centuries Christian writers stressed the unity of the Gospel underlying these four versions. They did not like to speak of ‘gospels’ in the plural, since this might be misunderstood as if they were to contain different messages. They would, therefore, rather speak of: “the four books of the one Gospel” (Muratorian Canon); “the four-form Gospel” (Irenaeus); etc.

And to make clear that all four editions present what is basically one and the same Gospel, they indicated them in this way:

  • “the gospel according to Matthew”
  • “the gospel according to Mark”
  • “the gospel according to Luke”
  • “the gospel according to John”

This means: Tbe GOOD NEWS about Jesus Christ as it is presented to us by the editor Matthew, etc.

It is only in later times that Christians started calling each of these editions a “gospel”. This usage has now become so universal that we speak of “the four gospels” and that we entitle the gospels in this way: “the gospel of Matthew”; “the gospel of Mark”; etc. Such a use of speech is legitimate, but we should always remember that strictly speaking the ‘four gospels’are four ‘editions’ of the one undivided GOOD NEWS, the one Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The word “evangelist” has undergone a similar change of meaning as the word gospel”. An “evangelist” is someone who brings good tidings. All the preachers of the Gospel were, therefore, called ‘evangelists’. We find St. Paul employing the term in this fashion. (See Eph. 4.11; 2 Tim. 4:5; Acts 21:8) In later times only the four editors of the Gospel were called ‘evangelists’. The word was applied only to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

After the Reformation the word was used once again for preachers in some Protestant Churches. In today’s writings the term ‘evangelist’ is therefore sometimes given the meaning of: a (Protestant) minister or a catechist.

John Wijngaards

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