The term “gospel” (Grk. euaggelion) is used in Christian tradition to designate the canonical Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, presumably written between 65 and 100 CE. Some source‐critical theories suggest the existence of a precanonical gospel, that is, a hypothetical primitive gospel or protogospel underlying one or more of the four canonical Gospels. Other gospels were produced in the second century (and perhaps the first), but they are not recognized as canonical. (See also Apocrypha, article on Christian Apocrypha; Canon, article on New Testament.)
The four Gospels are grouped together in the New Testament canon, apart from the letters and Revelation and also distinct from the other narrative book, Acts of Apostles. The Gospels include stories about Jesus, sayings of Jesus, and a passion narrative; they describe the career of Jesus in a connected narrative from the preaching of John the Baptist to Jesus' death and resurrection. This is commonly accepted as the characteristic gospel form. Justin Martyr, about 150 CE, refers to the “gospels” (the first attestation of the term in the plural) as “the memoirs of the apostles,” and this historical or biographical definition remained popular through the centuries: the gospel is the story of Jesus, the account of the life and teaching of Jesus Christ.
According to the modern critical consensus, the Gospels constitute their own literary genre: they are sui generis, sharing a distinctive form and content. Three factors seem to have been of influence. First, the study of the literary relationship among the synoptic Gospels has led to the widely accepted view that both Matthew and Luke depend on Mark, and thus the problem of the gospel genre has become to a large extent a problem of the origin of Mark. Second, form critics emphasize, on the one hand, the role of the kerygma (preaching) in the early church, and on the other, the oral origin and the unliterary character of the pre‐Markan gospel material (short anecdotes, small units, and probably a primitive passion narrative). The author of Mark, by combining this traditional material into a framework, created the gospel genre. Third, the Christian gospel form is apparently not influenced by the genres of the Hellenistic literature. The kerygmatic hypothesis has taken two opposing forms. The majority opinion ascribes the gospel framework to Markan redaction. For C. H. Dodd, on the other hand, Mark serves as a commentary on the kerygma. The basic outline of the gospel corresponds to the historical section in the traditional kerygmatic scheme of the sermons in Acts. The story of the passion is prefaced in Mark 1–8, as it is in Acts 10, by an account of the ministry of Jesus in Galilee. The debate is not closed, but Lucan redaction in Acts 10.36–43 can hardly be denied.
There is, however, a growing dissatisfaction with this form‐critical approach. The definition of the gospel of Mark as a passion narrative with an extended introduction is no longer acceptable. There is a renewed interest in the search for parallels to Mark's genre, especially for possible associations with Hellenistic biographical literature, in its variegated forms, including the popular biography; a biography subtype written to dispel a false image of the teacher and to provide a true model to follow; an encomium biography; and the epideictic type of biography. For other scholars, connections with Hellenistic biography remain unproved. Yet it can be recognized that the Gospels are biographical in a broader sense. Some analogies can be found in the biblical tradition: the life of Moses, or the biography of the suffering righteous one. Biography in its various types, however, is only one of the models suggested for the gospel. The apocalyptic genre, the Passover haggadah, the calendrical cycles, and, in Greco‐Roman literature, the Socratic dialogues, the Greek tragedy, the tragicomedy, and rhetorical conventions are other suggestions. The aretalogy deserves special consideration. Mark and John are supposed to have corrected the divine‐man christology of their sources, the pre‐Markan collection of miracles and the pre‐Johannine signs‐source. The gospel thus becomes an antiaretalogy, an adaptation of the existing aretalogical genre. On the other hand, however, the source‐critical and other presuppositions of these Markan and Johannine trajectories are far from certain. John's dependence on the Synoptics, at least with regard to the gospel form, is a more likely hypothesis.
The gospel of Mark is used in Matthew and Luke in combination with a second source, the hypothetical Q document. The narrative framework, typical of the gospel form, is lacking in this sayings collection, and designations such as “wisdom gospel” or “aphoristic gospel” are inappropriate. The Q material is blocked together with special material in three interpolations in Luke and mainly in five (or six) discourses in Matthew. The Markan gospel's general outline is preserved in both, with an expansion of the biographical element in the birth stories and the genealogies at the beginning and the appearances of the risen Lord at the end. Luke and Acts explicitly form a two‐volume work by one author, and some influence of the literary conventions of Greek historiography is undeniable.
Each of the four Gospels has its own individuality. Redaction criticism and narrative analysis uncover differences of language, style, and composition, differing theological concepts, and differing authorial intentions. Their anonymity is a common characteristic. The present superscriptions (Gospel according to Matthew, etc.) were affixed at an early stage of the tradition, probably under the influence of Mark 1.1, extending the use of the term gospel proclamation to the literary form of the gospel book.
The gospel genre implies a similarity of form and content. For some of the so‐called noncanonical gospels—namely for those that embody stories without kerygmatic outlook or those that present sayings and dialogues without a narrative—the term gospel is used improperly.