Asking a Catholic “What are the gospels?”

Question: What are the gospels in your terms?

Answer: The first four historical books of the New Testament are supplied with titles (Euaggelion kata Matthaion, Euaggelion kata Markon, etc.), which, however ancient, do not go back to the respective authors of those sacred writings. The Canon of Muratori, Clement of Alexandria, and St. Irenæus bear distinct witness to the existence of those headings in the latter part of the second century of our era. Indeed, the manner in which Clement (Stromata I.21), and St. Irenæus (Against Heresies III.11.7) employ them implies that, at that early date, our present titles to the Gospels had been in current use for some considerable time. Hence, it may be inferred that they were prefixed to the evangelical narratives as early as the first part of that same century. That, however, they do not go back to the first century of the Christian era, or at least that they are not original, is a position generally held at the present day. It is felt that since they are similar for the fourGospels, although the same Gospels were composed at some interval from each other, those titles were not framed, and consequently not prefixed to each individual narrative, before the collection of the four Gospels was actually made. Besides, as well pointed out by Prof. Bacon, “the historical books of the New Testament differ from its apocalyptic and epistolary literature, as those of the Old Testament differ from its prophecy, in being invariably anonymous, and for the same reason. Prophecies whether in the earlier or in the later sense, and letters, to have authority, must be referable to some individual; the greater his name, the better. But history was regarded as a common possession. Its facts spoke for themselves. Only as the springs of common recollection began to dwindle, and marked differences to appear between the well-informed and accurate Gospels and the untrustworthy . . . did it become worth while for the Christian teacher or apologist to specify whether the given representation of the current tradition was ‘according to’ this or that special compiler, and to state his qualifications”. It thus appears that the present titles of theGospels are not traceable to the Evangelists themselves.

The first word common to the headings of our four Gospels is Euaggelion, some meanings of which remain still to be set forth. The word, in the New Testament, has the specific meaning of “the good news of the kingdom” (cf. Matthew 4:23; Mark 1:15). In that sense, which may be considered as primary from the Christian standpoint, Euaggelion denotes the good tidings of salvation announced to the world in connexion with Jesus Christ, and, in a more general way, the whole revelation of Redemption by Christ (cf. Matthew 9:35; 24:14; etc.; Mark 1:14; 13:10; 16:15; Acts 20:24; Romans 1:1, 9, 16; 10:16; etc.). This was, of course, the sole meaning connected with the word, so long as no authentic record of the glad tidings of salvation by Christ had been drawn up. In point of fact, it remained the only one in use even after such written records had been for some time received in the Christian Church: as there could be but one Gospel, that is, but one revelation of salvation by Jesus Christ, so the several records of it were not regarded as several Gospels, but only as distinct accounts of one and the same Gospel. Gradually, however, a derived meaning was coupled with the word Euaggelion. Thus, in his first Apology (c. lxvi), St. Justin speaks of the “Memoirs of the Apostles which are called Euaggelia”, clearing referring, in this way, not to the substance of the Evangelical history, but to the books themselves in which it is recorded. It is true that in this passage of St. Justin we have the first undoubted use of the term in that derived sense. But as the holy Doctor gives us to understand that in his day the word Euaggelion had currently that meaning, it is only natural to think that it had been thus employed for some time before. It seems, therefore, that Zahn is right in claiming that the use of the term Euaggelion, as denoting a written record of Christ’s words and deeds, goes as far back as the beginning of the second century of the Christian era.

The second word common to the titles of the canonical Gospels is the preposition kata, “according to”, the exact import of which has long been a matter of discussion among Biblical scholars. Apart from various secondary meanings connected with that Greek particle, two principal significations have been ascribed to it. Many authors have taken it to mean not “written by”, but “drawn up according to the conception of”,Matthew, Mark, etc. In their eyes, the titles of our Gospels were not intended to indicate authorship, but to state the authority guaranteeing what is related, in about the same way as “theGospel according to the Hebrews”, or “the Gospel according to the Egyptians”, does not mean the Gospel written by the Hebrews or the Egyptians, but that peculiar form of Gospel which either the Hebrews or the Egyptians had accepted. Most scholars, however, have preferred to regard the preposition kata as denoting authorship, pretty much in the same way as, in Diodorus Siculus, the History of Herodotus is called He kath Herodoton historia. At the present day it is generally admitted that, had the titles to the canonical Gospels been intended to set forth the ultimate authority or guarantor, and not to indicate the writer, the Second Gospel would, in accordance with the belief of primitive times, have been called “the Gospel according to Peter”, and the third, “the Gospel according to Paul”. At the same time it is rightly felt that these titles denote authorship, with a peculiar shade of meaning which is not conveyed by the titles prefixed to the Epistles of St. Paul, the Apocalypse of St. John, etc; The use of the genitive case in the latter titles Paulou Epistolai, Apokalypsis Ioannou, etc.) has no other object than that of ascribing the contents of such works to the writer whose name they actually bear. The use of the preposition kata (according to), on the contrary, while referring the composition of the contents of the First Gospel to St. Matthew, of those of the second to St. Mark, etc., implies that practically the same contents, the same glad tidings or Gospel, have been set forth by more than one narrator. Thus, “the Gospel according to Matthew” is equivalent to the Gospel history in the form in which St. Matthew put it in writing; “the Gospel according to Mark” designates the same Gospel history in another form, viz, in that in which St. Mark presented it in writing, etc. (cf. Maldonatus, “In quatuor Evangelistas”, cap .i).

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