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New Testament literature

Introduction to the Gospels


MEANING OF THE TERM GOSPEL
From the late AD 40s and until his martyrdom in the 60s, Paul wrote letters to the churches
that he founded or guided. These are the earliest Christian writings that the church has, and
in them he refers to the gospel (euangelion). In Romans, chapter 1, verse 1, he says:
Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God . . .
and goes on to describe this gospel in what was already by that time traditional language,
such as: promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel
concerning his Son, who was descended . . . our Lord (Rom. 1:14). This gospel is the
power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith . . . for in it the righteousness of God is
revealed through faith for faith . . . (1:17). In I Corinthians Paul had reminded his
congregation in stylized terms of the gospel he had brought to them. It consisted of the
announcement that Jesus had died and risen according to the Scriptures.
Thus, the gospel was an authoritative proclamation (as announced by a herald, kryx), or
thekerygma (that which is proclaimed, krygma). The earthly life of Jesus is hardly noted or
missed, because something more gloriousthe ascended Lord who sent the Spirit upon the
churchis what matters.
In the speeches of Peter in Acts, the transition from kerygma to creed or vice versa is almost
interchangeable. In Acts 2 Jesus is viewed as resurrected and exalted at the right hand of
God and made both Lord and Christ. In Acts 3 Peters speech proclaims Jesus as the Christ
having been received in heaven to be sent at the end of time as judge for the vindication and
salvation of those who believe in him. Here the proclaimed message, the gospel, is more
basic than an overview of Jesus earthly life, which in Acts is referred to only briefly as his
acting with power, going about doing good, and healing and exorcising (10:38ff.). Such an
extended kergyma can be seen as a transition from the original meaning of gospel as the
message to gospel meaning an account of the life of Jesus.
The term gospel has connotations of the traditions of Jesus earthly ministry and Passion that
were remembered and then written in the accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. They
are written from the post-Resurrection perspective and they contain an extensive and
common Passion narrative as they deal with the earthly ministry of Jesus from hindsight. And
so the use of the term gospel for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John has taken the place of the
original creedalkerygmatic use in early Christianity. It is also to be noted that, in the
Evangelists accounts, their theological presuppositions and the situations of their
addressees molded the formation of the four canonical Gospels written after the Pauline
Letters. The primary affirmationsof Jesus as the Christ, his message of the Kingdom, and
his Resurrectionpreceded the Evangelists accounts. Some of these affirmations were
extrapolated backward (much as the Exodus event central in the Old Testament was

extrapolated backward and was the theological presupposition for the patriarchal narratives
in Genesis). These stories were shaped by the purpose for their telling: religious propaganda
or preaching to inspire belief. The kerygmatic, or creedal, beginning was expanded with
material about the life and teaching of Jesus, which a reverence for and a preoccupation with
the holy figure of Jesus demanded out of loving curiosity about his earthly ministry and life.
The English word gospel is derived from the Anglo-Saxon godspell (good story). The
classical Greek word euangelion means a reward for bringing of good news or the good
news itself. In the emperor cult particularly, in which the Roman emperor was venerated as
the spirit and protector of the empire, the term took on a religious meaning: the
announcement of the appearance or accession to the throne of the ruler. In contemporary
Greek it denoted a weighty, authoritative, royal, and official message.
In the New Testament, no stress can be placed on the etymological (root) meaning
of eu(good); in Luke, chapter 3, verse 18 (as in other places), the word means simply
authoritative news concerning impending judgment.
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