WHAT IS A GOSPEL? October 11, 2013

I have been working on the fate of alternative scriptures in the millennium or so following the early Christian era – say, between 500 and 1600. My argument is that, in that long period, many or most of the old alternative texts that were so popular in the early church continued to thrive and to influence Christian thought, and that includes some works that the church tried hard to suppress. Indeed, new texts and new gospels continued to be written.

But here’s a problem I am facing. I am writing about alternative gospels. So what exactly is a gospel? The question may seem simple enough, until we look at some of the possible candidates for inclusion. I am trying hard to avoid the cliché about “You know it when you see it.”

Gospel of course is a translation of the Greek word evangelion, εὐαγγέλιον, “good news,” a word that St Paul used frequently, and which originally implied an oral message. The term was then applied to written accounts of Christ, which proliferated in the early centuries. The title was applied, for instance, to Gospels credited to individuals, such as Peter, Thomas, Philip, Mary, and Judas, and to groups, like the Egyptians, Ebionites or Hebrews. By the second century, the mainstream church came to rely overwhelmingly on the Big Four, and others faded from general use. This process is famously described in a work like Elaine Pagels’s The Gnostic Gospels (1979).

So again, what is a gospel?

We might begin by saying what it is not, namely a life of Christ that is approved by the church. Early church leaders happily denounced rival gospels, but did not necessarily challenge their claim to bear the name.

If you look at the so-called Gelasian decree, from the sixth century, it uses interesting terminology for “gospel.” It proclaims as canonical the four chief gospels, described for instance as secundum Marcum, According to Mark. The decree then catalogues apocryphal and unapproved books, such as Evangelium nomine Barnabae (Gospel in the name of Barnabas), Evangelium nomine Petri apostoli (Gospel in the name of the Apostle Peter), or the Evangelia quae falsavit Hesychius (Gospels that Hesychius forged). Strikingly, though, the text does not describe these unapproved items with a term like pseudo-gospels, as it easily could have done. Nor does the later Stichometry of Nicephorus, which similarly consigns to the Apocrypha the evangelion according to Thomas, and the euaggelion kata Hebraiou, the Gospel of the Hebrews.

In both lists, the implication is that such works are indeed gospels, but they are unacceptable because of their source, or their bogus attribution. They really are gospels, just bad or inadequate ones.

Nor need the work follow the exact format of the canonical gospels. In the library of alternative texts found at Nag Hammadi, we find four so-called gospels, none of which vaguely resembles the familiar biographical format of, say, Luke. The famous Gospel of Thomas is explicitly introduced as a collection of Jesus’s sayings, some of which have short narratives attached. If, though, you did not know the canonical gospels, you could reconstruct only a tiny portion of the story from Thomas. The Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Truth are both extended theological meditations, which in format best resembles a canonical text like the Epistle to the Hebrews. Were it not for its opening words (“The gospel of truth is joy to those…”) it would never have occurred to a modern scholar to label that work a gospel. The Gospel of the Egyptians is a Sethian Gnostic cosmogony.

Assume for instance that I am dealing with a work from, say, the fifth century. Let me offer some general guidelines for assessing whether I can legitimately call it a gospel:

*It must at least in part use a narrative or biographical format

That would exclude purely theological reflections about Christ’s life or role. The work might certainly include theological insights, as do all four of the canonical texts. However, these works all use a biographical structure.

This does not necessarily mean a complete biographical study in any modern sense. Neither Mark nor John, for instance, describes Christ’s life before the start of his ministry.

Still at issue, though, is the question of what portion of the life should be covered. A gospel might describe only a part of the life, such as the birth or crucifixion. It could also cover events or discourses from after the Resurrection, a very common format.

What makes me nervous about this criterion is that it probably excludes an early and important work like the Gospel of Thomas, which takes earlier works for granted and builds upon them, as an “expansion” of known gospels. That leads me to a second option, namely:

*The work should define itself as lying within the established gospel tradition

If it does not consciously offer a biographical or narrative format, then it nevertheless assumes that framework as a structure or matrix for the material it presents. The work should define itself as a gospel.

*It should at least claim to report events at first hand

Commonly, that would mean reporting Christ’s deeds or words from the standpoint of an observer or participant, usually named, and commonly identified with someone in the Biblical narrative.

This criterion would exclude later biographical treatments of Jesus.

*It must be written from a Christian perspective

The work should be intended to create or sustain faith in Christ and the Christian message, the “good news.” That would exclude works modeled on the canonical texts, but aimed at contradicting or subverting that faith. That would exclude the Jewish Toledot Yeshu, or the Muslim Gospel of Barnabas.

The “Christian” nature of the intent depends on the author’s self-definition. (ie, I may not myself see the author as Christian, leave alone orthodox, but if he or she does, that suffices for present purposes).

*The date of composition is irrelevant, as is its claim to historical authority

Provided it meets the other criteria, there is no reason why “gospels” should not continue to be written and read. The term can legitimately be used for, say, Levi Dowling’s The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ (1908) or Miriam T. Winter’s The Gospel According to Mary: A New Testament for Women (1993). That comment, of course, says nothing about treating these works as authoritative in any sense.

*The work should focus chiefly or wholly on Christ’s actions or words

I am genuinely uncertain about this criterion, which is why I leave it till last.

The point should be obvious. Gospels tell of Christ’s life, whereas biographical studies of later Christian saints or martyrs fall into the realm of hagiography. But there is one prominent exception to this neat division, namely the Virgin Mary. At least from the second century, Christians were writing works about her life that followed precisely the model of Christ’s life in the canonical gospels. The best known of these works is usually today called the Protevangelium, “First Gospel,” although that term dates only to the Renaissance. Later studies of her death or passing from this world closely follow accounts of Christ’s death, Resurrection and Ascension.

The “gospel” quality of these works bothered medieval writers, who decided that if they actually were pseudo-gospels, they should be suppressed, and they should only be tolerated if they were clearly classified as hagiography.

Perhaps I should moderate this criterion to say that:

*The work might describe Christ’s life or deeds, but placing them in a deep biographical or historical context.

That would allow us to include the “gospels” of the Virgin, in which Christ’s life is an assumed fact, and the action leads up to that event, and follows from it. (A glorified Christ appears prominently in the works describing the Virgin’s passing, like the Six Books Apocryphon or the De Transitu Virginis).

It might also include works with a notional Old Testament setting like the Syriac Cave of Treasures, in which the narrative of the patriarchs from Adam onwards is placed in a wholly Christian context, with many passages pointing towards a culmination in Christ’s life and career.


I know the classification is not neat, but I think it works.

Others would disagree. Any thoughts?



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