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When did “Gospel” First = a Book?

May 22, 2018

My recent postings about the NT Gospels elicited a reminder of an essay by James Kelhoffer:  “‘How Soon a Book’ Revisited: EUAGGELION As a Reference to ‘Gospel’ Materials in the First Half of the Second Century,” Zeitschrift für die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 95 (2004): 1-34.  The essay was republished in his volume of collected essays:  Conceptions of “Gospel” and Legitimacy in Early Christianity, WUNT (Mohr Siebeck, 2014), 39-75.

This meaty and detailed study addresses the questions about when the word “gospel” (Greek:  evangelion) first came to designate a book.  Everyone agrees that its initial early Christian usage was a reference to the message which Jesus was central (e.g., Romans 1:15).  It could also refer to the activity involved in disseminating that message (e.g., Romans 1:9; 15:16).  Everyone also agrees that by the mid-second century the term was being used also to refer to certain writings about Jesus (as, e.g., in Justin Martyr, 1 Apology 66.3; ca. 153 CE).  Indeed, Justin’s wording suggests that the term was at that point already in common usage in Christian circles.

Graciously acknowledging earlier studies and positions, even as he corrects and challenges them, Kelhoffer argues that the term “gospel” was probably being used to designate what I have called “Jesus books” by sometime 100-130 CE.  He builds his case by detailed analysis of texts in several early Christian writings, especially Didache and 2 Clement.

His proposal is that the use of the term in the opening words (and title) of GMark, “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ,” may have inspired some early reader or copyist to extend the term to designate books about Jesus.  This could have happened, so Kelhoffer, as early as the circulation of two or more such writings, i.e., as soon as both GMark and GMatthew were circulating.

Those seriously interested in these matters will surely need to take account of this study.

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23 Comments
  1. Griffin permalink

    I’m willing to concede some literary and oral influences at every stage of the process. Though for me at present, in any case, the most interesting moment is the moment when we bulk up from two or three pages of sayings, to (guesstimating very, very roughly) ten times that much narrative material, per gospel.

    • Griffin: Your guess is wildly inaccurate. Again, stop guessing about something that you obviously know little about, and apparently can’t be bothered to learn. By common estimate, e.g., “Q” comprised some 200+ verses of sayings material. Not “two or three pages”. Drop this line. Go learn.

      • Griffin permalink

        The ” Common Sayings Source,” and also some reconstructions of Q, seem.smaller. My own reconstruction posits a list amounting to almost only direct saying of Jesus. Which currently occupy about 1/10 of the final gospels.

      • Griffin: YOUR reconstruction? Who are you? PUblished it? Based on what expertise? Please, please, I repeat. Cease your amateur meddling in something you obviously don’t understand. Just read and learn.

  2. Claude Pavur permalink

    One of the interchanges here leads me to a new insight for me (–I accept Larry Hurtado’s understanding and I am not opposing it): The idea of a plurality of “gospels” is already in Paul.

    2 Cor 11:4 For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you submit to it readily enough.

    Gal 1:8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!

    So this idea of authentic and inauthentic gospels goes back before the written ones. But you also have the idea that different people can be proclaiming the same gospel, which is what is eventually decided about the canonical gospels. I think this is more evidence that early on people were attentive to the issue of authenticity. They had a certain critical and intelligent awareness.

    • Claude: Bear in mind that the two texts you cite are both clearly rhetorically framed. But, to be sure, in Paul’s view those other Jewish believers in Jesus who opposed his gentile mission and required Gentiles to become proselytes to Torah were teaching “another gospel.”

  3. Meanwhile! —
    The unpublished first-century fragment of Mark: it has now been published.
    See http://www.thetextofthegospels.com/2018/05/first-century-mark-finally-but.html for some preliminary details. As it turns out, it is probably from the 200s, not the first century.
    That’s still pretty early! It has text from Mark 1:7-9 and 1:16-18, and is thus the earliest Greek manuscript-attestation for the passages that it contains.

  4. So, ‘gospel’ was first used as a shorthand title for GMark in reference to its opening lines. And when new ‘Jesus Books’ started circulating the title ‘gospel’ just stuck because of the similar format and subject matter, right?

    • I’m not sure that you accurately characterize Kelhoffer’s idea. I think that he proposes that “gospel” first was used to designate a book after there were more than one such text circulating, to help identify and distinguish them.

  5. john mitrosky permalink

    I was wondering if you think Luke’s so-called “Great Omission” (usually cited as Mark 6:45-8:26) Is best explained by the theory that Mark’s Gospel was already a gospel book (instead of a gospel scroll), but Luke was missing the pages from his copy that contained Mark 6:45-8:26?

    • John: By the time GLuke was written, there would have been multiple copies of GMark circulating. So any damage to one copy would not have been serious. But, also, it’s not clear (perhaps not even likely) that GMark circulated initially as a codex.

      • john mitrosky permalink

        Thank you Larry for this perspective on Mark’s Gospel. The timeline to Luke-Acts was given by the Jesus Seminar as 115 C.E. That would mean approximately 46 years passed since Mark, if we date Mark around 69 C.E.

        https://www.westarinstitute.org/blog/when-was-acts-written-not-in-first-century/

        All this makes me wonder about “Q” as a scroll. Do you think it is possible that Q is later than Mark? Or a commentary/elaboration on Mark?

      • The date of 115 for Luke-Acts is far too late. Various indications are that, already by or soon after that date, a fourfold gospel was formed. Q in the matter is a red-herring.

  6. Claude Pavur permalink

    Most instructive. Thank you. It leads me to raise another question: When did “gospel” first = a narrative (rather than a proclamation of the nearness of the kingdom or a theological statement that Jesus died for our sins or that he is the Son of God)? I am inclined to say in Jesus’s time. He is remembered as referencing his story (e.g., the three passion predictions–these are narratives) and referring to events as part of the gospel (Mark 14:9). Clearly Jesus narratives are some of the oldest material passed on (e.g., the memory of the institution of the Eucharist). Even Paul’s “gospel” is a narrative: he was born, died, rose.

    • Claude: From earliest Christian usage, “gospel” initially referred to the proclamation, teaching about Jesus and faith and its behavioural requirements. This obviously included a narrative element as central, as reflected already in 1 Cor 15:1-7.

    • Griffin permalink

      Likely it might seem, a “God spiel” or “God speech” collection (as I might be allowed to ideosyncratically characterize it?) would naturally be organized chronologically; in a chronological narrative or “story.”

      But would, say, just an early list of sayings, have such a framewok?

      Luke in 1.1-4, pointedly, repeatedly noted “orderly” accounts. Which might leave us wondering if there had been an earlier, disorderly account too; like the long proposed “Sayings” list, even before the longer gospels?

      It may be that the sayings hypothesis is no longer popular; but would say, the oddly pointed emphasis on “orderly” accounts, ironically support that hypothesis.?

      • Griffin: The references in GLuke 1:1-3 are to prior accounts (the term, anataxasthai = a recollection and setting down of things), and to the author’s account as ordered. I see no hint of “disorderly” sources. The whole emphasis is on the sureness of the sources “eyewitnesses and servants of the word”. There may well have been sayings collections, but it’s a bit of a red-herring to try to introduce one into Luke 1:1-3.

      • Griffin permalink

        Do any scholars suggest that the earliest written form of the gospels, might be just lists of random sayings of Jesus?

        If so,.would that mean that it was only after these earlier, now-lost lists, that later, someone attempted to organize, edit them; into the chronological, narrative stories, that are our familiar written “gospels.”

      • Griffin: If you bothered to acquaint yourself with scholarship on the gospels (which can be obtained from ooodles of introductory works on the NT), you would know that it is widely thought that there were *topic-arranged* collections of Jesus’ sayings, used for teaching purposes. So, not “random” sayings, but texts arranged for given purposes. Scholars such as Kloppenborg who have probed the Q-hypothesis judge that from the first “Q” had a narrative sub-structure. Likewise, the early Christian “kerygma” (message) had a narrative character (as, e.g., in 1 Cor 15:1-7).

      • Griffin permalink

        I am not sure from your answer, and my own explorations into the literature, whether all or most major scholars see the very, very clear and full chronological structure and narrative content, in Q, that we see in the gospels proper.

        Just in terms of the difference in the volume of words, it seems likely that a list of just sayings of Jesus, would occupy just two or three pages in a modern text. Compared to say, a twenty-page gospel.

        Obviously, a great deal of – overwhemningly, narrative – material had been added, in any tradition from a sayings list, to a full throated gospel.

      • Griffin: You’re (again) confusing things. The narrative-shaped nature of the earliest observable gospel message is without doubt. The attempt to recreate a critical text of Q likewise shows a basic narrative substructure.
        But, yes of course, if you add an explicit body of narrative material to the sayings material, you get a bigger text. And GMark does seem to represent a notable literary development.

      • Griffin permalink

        So would you accept as a working framework, this statement? That likely the important moments in the emergence of the now-familiar, “literary” gospels, are 1) the transition from an oral or popular tradition, to a written list of Jesus sayings. Then 2) the transition from the sayings list, to much longer gospels, with more narrative, biographical content. To 3) the compilation of these probably already-somewhat-longer units, into codicies, or “books”?

        We might both be very interested in the transition from 2 to 3? But for “literary” quantities, my own interest is, especially, maybe stage 1 to 2.

        Though as for the emergence of a “literary” meaning to “gospel,” or say the belatedly explicit attribution of “an author,” like “Mark,” I suppose the final stage might in fact seem most likely. As many have suggested here. .. and elsewhere?

      • Griffin: I doubt that there was the formal transition you posit in stage 1. From the outset, the Jesus movement operated in a cultural setting that was both “oral” and “textual”. Likewise, in addition to collections of sayings of Jesus, scholars have also posited early “passion narratives” and collections of miracle stories. And Paul’s letters further illustrate the role of “textuality” in earliest Christian circles. Oh, and the codex is a *bookform*, the scroll another. Both are “books”.

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