Why Are the Gospels Called “Gospels”?

Why do we call the New Testament biographies of Jesus "Gospels"? There's a surprising reason you may never have heard . . .
Why do we call the New Testament biographies of Jesus "Gospels"? There's a surprising reason you may never have heard . . . (photo: Register Files)

God may have created man in his image, but there is a well-known tendency among biblical scholars to re-create Jesus in their own image.

The tendency is particularly notable among skeptical scholars, who feel more free than their conservative counterparts to dismiss or discount Gospel passages that don’t fit their theories.

In writing books on the life of Jesus, they can select, filter, and interpret evidence in a way that allows them to find the kind of Jesus they want—often one that is an idealized form of their own self-image.

Thus a Marxist scholar might read the Gospels and discover a Jesus who is a proto-Marxist revolutionary martyr that led a peasant uprising and fell afoul of the powerful and monied upper classes.

Big surprise.


“By their Lives of Jesus ye shall know them”

The tendency is so common that it led the British biblical scholar T. W. Manson to quip, “By their Lives of Jesus ye shall know them” (C. W. Dugmore, ed., The Interpretation of the Bible, 92).

This is a cutting insight about the foibles of biblical scholars, but it’s also something else: an unwitting reflection of what the Gospels might have been called if history had taken a different path.

Manson’s remark turns on the fact that modern scholars tend to write books with titles like The Life of Jesus or The Life of Christ. Search Amazon, and you’ll find multiple books with both titles, as well as variants on them.

And there’s a good reason for that. They are, after all, books about the life of Jesus.

They are, in fact, a specialized kind of biography—not the typical sort of biography that you’ll find in the biography section of a bookstore today. We don’t have the right kind and number of sources about the life of Jesus for that kind of biography to be written. But scholarly Lives of Jesus are nonetheless a form of “life writing” (Greek bios + graphē = “biography”).

The principal sources for modern Lives of Jesus are, of course, the Gospels. And that raises a question: Why aren’t the Gospels called Lives of Jesus?

They are, just like modern Lives of Jesus, about the life of Jesus. They are biographies. Specifically, they fall within the ancient Greek literary genre known as the bios (see Richard A. Burridge, What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Greco-Roman Biography).


The Names of Ancient Biographies

Given that, we would expect them to have titles like Bios Iēsou (Greek, “Life of Jesus”) or Bios Christou (“Life of Christ”) or some similar variant.

Some ancient biographies were simply referred to by the name of the person who was their subject. Thus in Suetonius’s De Vitis Caesarum (Latin, “On the Lives of the Caesars”) the individual volumes are called “Tiberius,” “Caligula,” “Nero,” etc.

On that model, the Gospels might have been called simply Iēsous, Christos, Iēsous Christos, or a similar variant.

Whichever model would have been used, ancient biographies tended to have the word “life” (Greek, bios; Latin, vita), the name of the subject, or both in their titles.

So why don’t the Gospels?


Who Gave Books Their Titles?

Today, authors typically propose titles for their books, but publishers make the final decision. They may overrule the author’s proposal if they think that they have a title which will sell more copies.

In the ancient world, things were different. For one thing, there were no publishing houses. All books were self-published by their authors, which meant that the author could publish a book under any title he wished.

Yet many authors refrained from doing so. Surprising as it may seem, they sometimes released books without titles.

However, if the book proved popular, there needed to be some way to refer to it, and so it ended up getting a title, anyway.

This title was bestowed by those who used the book, such as by the booksellers who had copies made, the librarians who archived it, or the members of the public who read and promoted it.

Even if an author gave his book a title, this could be trumped by the users of the book.

Consequently, a book sometimes was given more than one title.

Yet the Gospels weren’t.


What We Don’t Find

It is often claimed that the Gospels circulated for a long time without any titles or authors—that the titles and authors were added at a much later date, perhaps in the second century.

If that is what happened then—as the German scholar Martin Hengel pointed out—we would expect to find copies of the Gospels or other early writings referring to them by multiple titles and authors, and we don’t (see Martin Hengel, Studies in the Gospel of Mark, ch. 3).

Instead, we find them called things like Kata Maththaion, Kata Markon, Kata Loukan, and Kata Iōannēn (“According to Matthew,” “According to Mark,” “According to Luke,” and “According to John,” respectively).

Or we find them called things like Euangelion kata Maththaion (“Gospel According to Matthew”) and the expected variants.

On this model, neither the word “life” (bios) nor the name of the subject (Jesus) appears in the title.

Why not?


The Hebrew Scriptures

The books of the Hebrew Scriptures commonly go by different names than we use in English. For example, Genesis is known as Bereshit and Exodus is known as Shemot.

These names are taken from the opening verses of the books.

Bereshit means “in the beginning,” which is famous from the opening verse of Genesis:

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:1). 

Shemot means “names,” which is also taken from the opening verse of Exodus:

These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household (Ex. 1:1).

This may provide the key to which biographies of Jesus are called “Gospels” rather than “Lives” (Greek, bioi) of Jesus.


Initial Mentions

If the name “Gospel” was based on the first verse of the work in question, as in the books of the Hebrew Bible, what could be responsible?

Here are the first verses of each Gospel:

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Mark 1:1).

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham (Matt. 1:1).

Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us (Luke 1:1).

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (John 1:1).

From this it would seem that only Mark could have served as the origin of the term “Gospel” in the titles, for only he uses it in the first verse of his work.

Even if we expand our scope beyond the first verse, other Gospels would not have been the source. In Matthew, “gospel/evangelize” does not appear until the fourth chapter (Matt. 4:23), in Luke it does not appear until the nineteenth verse (Luke 1:19), and in John it does not appear at all.

The strong suggestion, then, is that the Gospels are called “Gospels” because Mark included this word in his very first verse.


The Key to the Name “Gospel”

Does Mark’s first verse hold the key to why we call the original biographies of Jesus “Gospels” rather than “Lives”?

The British scholar B. H. Streeter thought so. He wrote:

The world-wide circulation of Mark affords an easy and natural explanation of what, from the purely linguistic point of view, is the rather curious usage by which the word “Gospel” became the technical name for a biography of Christ. The Greek word euangelion means simply “good news,” and in the New Testament it is always used in its original sense of the good news of the Christian message. Commentators have tried elaborately to trace a gradual evolution in the meaning of the word until it acquired this new usage. No such gradual evolution is necessary, or even probable. Among the Jews it was a regular practice to refer to books, or sections of books, by a striking word which occurred in the opening sentence. That is how Genesis and Exodus derived the titles by which they are known in the Hebrew Bible, i.e. “In the Beginning” and “(these are the) Names.” As soon as portions of Mark were read in the services of the Church—and that would be at once—it would be necessary to have a name to distinguish this reading from that of an Old Testament book. Mark opens with the words archē tou euangeliou, “The beginning of the Gospel.” Archē [Greek, “beginning”] would be too like the Hebrew name for Genesis, so euangelion (nom.) would be an obvious title. When, fifteen or twenty years later, other Lives of Christ came into existence, this use of “Gospel” as a title would be an old-established custom and would be applied to them also. Then it would become necessary to distinguish these “Gospels” from one another-hence the usage to euangelion kata Markon, kata Loukan, the Gospel according to Mark, to Luke, etc. (The Four Gospels, 497-498).


The Titles of the Gospels

However “gospel” found its way into the first verse of Mark, this is very probably the basis on which the other first century biographies of Jesus came to be called “gospels.”

This has implications for the order in which they were written.

As Streeter suggests, if Mark was the first Gospel written and read in the churches, it would have been necessary to give it some form of title to distinguish it from the various Old Testament readings that were already established.

Thus there would need to be an ancient equivalent of the modern liturgical statement:

A reading from the Gospel according to Mark . . .  

Even if “according to Mark” had not yet been added due to the lack of other Gospels, a statement like “A reading from the Gospel . . . ” would need to have been used.

When Matthew, Luke, and John were written, the modifiers “according to Matthew/Mark/Luke/John” (kata Maththaion/Markon/Loukan/Iōannēn) then would have been introduced.

However, if one of the others had come first, the use of the term “Gospel” would be difficult to explain.

None of the others include the term “gospel” (euangelion) in their first verse or near it, and it would have been much more likely that the natural term bios (“life”) or the name of the subject, Iēsous, Christos, or Iēsous Christos (“Jesus,” “Christ,” or “Jesus Christ”) would have been used instead.

The best explanation of the data we have is thus that Mark was the first Gospel written and his initial verse, with its term “gospel,” supplied the name of the reading of this work in the liturgy. When Matthew, Luke, and John later wrote their similar works, they came to be called by this title and the author attribution (kata/“according to” so-and-so) was introduced.

(Note: For a more fully-argued version of this piece, with additional information, click here.)


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