Gospel, gospel music, and the gospels.

by K.W. Leslie, 25 September

Sometimes we use a word so much, its meaning gets a little fuzzy.

GOSPEL 'ɡɑs.pəl noun. Good news. Specifically the good news of God’s kingdom; or the revelation, teaching, and saving work of Christ Jesus.
2. A record of a great person’s life, teachings, and works. (Specifically a record of Jesus, namely the four included in the New Testament.)
3. adjective. Something meant to share good news, such as a book, tract, or song.
GOSPEL MUSIC 'ɡɑs.pəl 'mju.zɪk noun. Black contemporary Christian music.

The gospel, the good news of Christ Jesus, you know already. Or at least I hope you do. If not, I wrote all about it. Give it a read.

Gospel music used to refer to Christian music performed by church choirs. Nowadays in the United States, it just refers to Christian music performed by African Americans. Might be R&B, hip-hop, rap, or rock; but if it’s Christian and the artists are black, it’s gonna be lumped under the category “gospel,” and you’re as likely to find it on K-LOVE as you’d find a black artist on MTV before Michael Jackson broke through. Because culturally, the Christian music business is still 40 years behind the times, so it’s still segregated—which is still sin. But that’s a whole other discussion.

As for the gospels, these’d be the records of Jesus and his teachings. In the New Testament we find four of ’em. They were written anonymously—but we Christians weren’t having that, and gave credit to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Matthew and John were members of the Twelve, and Mark and Luke were members of Paul’s ministry team.

Gospels have a lot in common with biographies, but they’re not really the same thing. They aren’t about the life of Jesus—’cause if you read ’em, you’ll notice the authors dropped a lot of biographical details. Like Jesus’s childhood, family and personal life, a precise chronology of events including exact dates… We have nothing about Jesus from birth to age 30—except Luke’s brief story about Jesus, the child prodigy, teaching in temple. The missing details are all the things historians care about, and they go a little bonkers that we don’t have it. But the gospels’ authors had a wholly different priority: They were trying to prove to their readers Jesus is Messiah, the King of Israel. Jn 20.31

The gospel genre.

There’s a debate among bible scholars as to whether a gospel is a unique type of Greco-Roman literature.

Y’see, the ancients liked to write books about the great heroes of their culture. These weren’t really proper biographies: They were stories about their heroes’ great achievements. Or their strong moral character. Sometimes their heroic deaths. Unless stories from these heroes’ childhoods demonstrated their greatness (like the story of George Washington and the cherry tree, which Mason Weems invented for his Life of Washington), the books skipped their childhood altogether. They’re like the short “biographies” we find among children’s books, which only eulogize these folks, and deliberately omit the messy, embarrassing facts of real life. Fr’instance I grew up as a big fan of Benjamin Franklin… but it wasn’t till adulthood I discovered he never married his “wife,” and that historians have no idea whom his eldest son’s mother is. Really. Because such books won’t include a hero’s failings—unless it’s to teach a lesson, and they’d really rather teach hero-worship.

Often these books were written for publicity. An invading Roman general would have a book written about him, and spread it among the people he intended to conquer. His hope was they’d read the propaganda and be less likely to fight a “great man.” Maybe they’d even welcome him as their conqueror, since he was so worthy to rule.

Obviously these heroic books are very, very biased. A proper biography tells us both the good and bad of a person, but these books were only about the good. If Augustus Caesar sinned, you’d never know it from these books: The author would leave it out, or offer a good excuse for it. A proper biography weighs the person they cover; heroic books never criticize their subjects. If anything they criticized the hero’s critics… exactly like the gospels harshly condemn Jesus’s opponents. So much so, Christians have historically got the wrong idea, and assume all Pharisees were hypocrites, or all Jews were anti-Jesus.

Anyway, certain scholars figure these Greco-Roman hero stories should be considered “gospels.” The gospels aren’t a new type of literature Christians invented: They’re an old type of literature, which Christians repurposed to spread the word about Jesus.

Contrarily, other scholars figure the hero stories are just biased biographies, just like a politician’s autobiography or a pundit’s spin on their favorite political heroes. Whereas the gospels are significantly different.

How? Well for one, the gospels actually don’t talk about Jesus’s virtues and character. I know; that’s important, so you’d think that’d definitely be in there! But if you wanna read about Jesus’s character, you gotta read the other books of the New Testament. It’s in them we find out Jesus never sinned, was humble and submissive and self-sacrificing, demonstrated the Spirit’s fruit, and made such a stellar example for us to follow. Our gospels don’t tell us why Jesus is good—though he totally is. Just why Jesus is Messiah.

And the gospels spend a lot of time on Jesus’s teachings. They give us Jesus’s instructions for his followers. The Greco-Roman books didn’t really give any teachings or philosophy. Just acts.

My view is the Greco-Roman books are actually gospels. But the Christian gospels are different ’cause they’re about a really unique individual. Christians repurposed that genre to talk about the greatness of Jesus.

Yeah, there are other gospels.

Every so often, someone publishes an article about the discovery of another gospel. Like the gospel of Thomas, or the gospel of Judas, or the gospel of Jesus’s wife. (If he had one. Our gospels don’t say.)

The New Testament gospels aren’t the only ones in existence, y’know. Various other people in ancient times tried their hand at writing one. We call them apocryphal gospels because, for good reason, Christians didn’t include them in the New Testament. But they’re still around. Wanna read them? There are a few in the Ante-Nicene Fathers, volume 8.

By reading them, you can tell right away why they’re not in the bible. Some are just silly. Others are just too weird to be of practical use. They have bizarre miracle stories, like Jesus’s mom curing people by having them drink his bathwater (eww), or little-kid Jesus making birds of clay and bringing them to life for fun, or smiting schoolteachers. Sometimes there are actual teachings from Jesus… but mixed together with a bunch of other things gnostic teachers were trying to put in Jesus’s mouth.

But very few of them were written in the first century; most were written way later. They aren’t consistent with Jesus’s character, nor anything the ancient Christians taught. Many read like their authors were on mushrooms. (You do know the Romans used to use lead in their plumbing, right? Just sayin’.) So yeah, we’re clearly dealing with Christian fanfiction. You don’t put that in the bible.

The books we did keep would be John and the three synoptic gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Christians have long considered them to be reliable depictions of Jesus. There have been those who worried John gets too hard to understand and mysterious, and might’ve been way too influenced by gnostics… but really the problem was they didn’t understand first-century Pharisee thinking, and they confused their own confusion with the way gnostics tried to deliberately confuse people. It’s what happens whenever people presume they’re normal: They don’t realize they’re the problem. John isn’t at all impossible to understand. And the picture it presents of Jesus does a great deal to inform us how truly divine Jesus is.

Their audience.

The gospels were written for Christians.

The reason they were written is ’cause the first generation of Christians were getting middle-aged, realized Jesus was taking a lot longer to come back than they had presumed, realized passing down their Jesus-stories verbally wasn’t as reliable as you might think, and decided to write them down for their churches.

Popular Christian culture likes to claim Matthew was written for Jews, Luke for gentiles, and the other gospels for other audiences. It’s more accurate to say Matthew was written by a Jew, who included all the things Jews like him would consider important; Luke written by a gentile, who wrote it in a Greco-Roman style he considered appropriate, which happened to appeal to fellow gentiles like Theófilus. The authors’ thinking and priorities were reflected by the way they wrote their gospels. Mark reflects Mark’s way with telling a story quickly and succinctly; John reflects John‘s fascination with Jesus as God’s self-revelation. What the authors found important, Christians grew to agree was important.

And yeah, that audience includes us. True, we’re not from the same culture as the gospels’ authors. We’re centuries apart, and in the case of Americans like me, on the other side of the planet. That’s why we gotta study history and first-century philosophy so we can bridge that gap as best we can. But our culture has been greatly influenced by the bible, so it’s not as huge a gap as one might think. Plus the Holy Spirit helps. So there’s no reason to be intimidated; start reading!