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When was Gospel Used as a Book Title

In the last post, we looked at how the “gospel” (euangelion) in Paul’s letters was the announcement of God’s victory over the powers, that the one who was crucified on behalf of sinners was raised and enthroned as Lord.

In Mark’s Gospel, the term is often used in reference to the “good news” about the in-breaking reign of God (e.g. Mark 1:15). However, the opening verse seems to expand it to encompass the whole ministry of Jesus from the baptism of Jesus to the crucifixion and resurrection. It is arguable that Mark 1:1 should be read as a title “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ [Son of God]” for the work as a whole. Therefore, Mark may have set the precedent for using “gospel” as the title of a book, though the late Graham Stanton’s book Jesus and Gospel argued that Matthew’s references to “this gospel of the kingdom” (Matt 24:14; 26:13) were shorthand summaries of Matthew’s story of Jesus and prepared the way for Gospel to be a title.

As for when the standard titles of the Gospels appear with the names Matthew, Mark, Luke or John attached, the debate lies between the late Martin Hengel’s The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ and the late Helmut Koester’s Ancient Christian Gospels.

Hengel insists that as soon as multiple published copies of Gospels were available to be disseminated in a Christian library or book shop, they practically required titles to distinguish them and the unanimous agreement about the conventional titles despite their unusual form (e.g. “The Gospel according to Matthew”) indicates that the titles must have emerged early to stick. Koester, on the other hand, stresses that the term “gospel” is used for the proclamation about Jesus’ death and resurrection instead of as a title for a book well into the second century and that it was the second century opponent of the Catholic Church Marcion who first understood Paul’s reference to “my gospel” (Romans 2:16) as a reference to a book about Jesus. Koester adds that it is not until Theophilus of Antioch that the title “Gospel” is linked to a named author “John” (To Autolycus 2.22)

My view is that it is unlikely that Marcion is the innovator in using the term “gospel” as a title of the literary work and that Koester may underestimate a few earlier references that were already pointing in that direction. However, the title “Gospel according to Matthew” implies that the same good news could be presented “according to” other vantage points and best makes sense in a mid second century context when the four Gospels were starting to be read together as authoritative yet distinctive presentations of the singular “good news” of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.


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