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The Canon of the New Testament – Part 11: Is There Only One Gospel?

By Christian

Is there only one gospel? If you look at the Greek word from which the German and English word is derived, there is:

The Gospel is the good news that God has come to man in Jesus Christ. The word „gospel“ (German Evangelium) means “good news” and comes from the Greek word euangelion. The message of Jesus was: God’s kingdom has dawned, he will finish his work and make the world whole.

Evangelische Kirche Deutschlands (EKD)

The German word ‚Evangelium‘ is pretty close to the Greek euangelion. But ‚gospel‘?

Gospel is the Old English translation of the Hellenistic Greek term εὐαγγέλιον, meaning “good news”; this may be seen from analysis of ευαγγέλιον (εὖ “good” + ἄγγελος “messenger” + -ιον diminutive suffix). The Greek term was Latinized as evangelium in the Vulgate, and translated into Latin as bona annuntiatio. In Old English, it was translated as gōdspel (gōd “good” + spel “news”). The Old English term was retained as gospel in Middle English Bible translations and hence remains in use also in Modern English.


I personally find the description of the BibleProject (German) quite good. And also the video (English) about it:

The Gospel as Good News of God’s Kingdom

In the Christian tradition, the word gospel is generally a shorthand term for the core message of the Christian faith. However, the exact meaning of the term gospel varies; depending on tradition or denomination. So, if we are looking for clarity, it is best to go back to the original source of this word in biblical history.

The biblical word for gospel denotes good news. But it is not just any news. The word is most often used when referring to important events involving rulers and their kingdoms. When King Solomon is appointed king of Israel, “good news” is proclaimed throughout the land. In other words, gospel is a royal term that announces good news about the ruler in office.

Jesus announced the coming of God as King of Israel and all nations. But the way he imposed his reign surprised people. The cross is the royal announcement that God saves his world by dying for it and by allowing our sins to overwhelm him to the point of death.


Well, about the last paragraph we could discuss now, in how far this is so direct from the “original source of this word in the biblical history”. For example, if we were only allowed to use the Gospels. And that brings us to the issue. Just now I said “the Gospels”, but before that it was about “the Gospel”.

So if there is one gospel, one good news, why is there more than one gospel in the New Testament, namely 4 gospels? And why exactly 4? Three of them, the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, plus John. They are called synoptic gospels because they see the life of Jesus from a similar perspective and are quite similar. John’s Gospel is much more different from these than the three are from each other. Were there then only these three and later another gospel as writings? Besides the oral tradition, of course.

Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to draw up a narrative concerning those matters which have been fulfilled among us, …

Luke 1:1 American Standard Version

Since there was no Gospel of John at the time of the writing of the Gospel of Luke, only Matthew and Mark would come into question. There the statement that already ‘many’ had undertaken it would be perhaps nevertheless somewhat exaggerated. So we learn already from the gospel of Luke which has been handed down to us: There were many ‘gospels’, but only four have been preserved to us.

And also the conclusion of John’s gospel makes understandable why there may have been more oral and also written reports against:

Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.

John 21:25 NIV

Which ones do we know about yet?

Apocryphal Gospels

By apocryphal gospels we refer in the following to those that have not been included in the canon of the New Testament. The term is derived from the ancient Greek ἀπόκρυφος apokryphos, English ‚hidden, dark’. There are more apocryphal books:

Religious writings of Jewish or Christian origin from the period between about 200 B.C. and about 400 A.D. that were not included in a biblical canon or about which there is disagreement, whether for reasons of content or religious policy, or because they were written after the canon was completed or were not generally known at the time they were written.

Wikipedia Apokryphen (German)

These gospels, which have not been preserved to us, form two groups: those which were to supplement the four gospels and those which were to replace them. (This and the following examples are taken from Bruce M. Metzger The Canon of the New Testament, German, p. 164ff).

Now the early Christians were particularly interested in two points in Jesus’ life and ministry, but these were omitted entirely by the Gospels: Jesus’ childhood, which only Luke reports once (Luke 2:41-51), and the deeds the Savior did in the invisible world during the three days between the cross and the resurrection.

Bruce M. Metzger Der Kanon des Neuen Testaments, S. 164

There are numerous such reports since about the second century, and we at least know of their existence:

  • Proto-Gospel of James
  • Childhood story according to Thomas
  • Arabic Childhood Gospel
  • Armenian Childhood Gospel
  • History of Joseph the Carpenter
  • Gospel of the Nativity of Mary
  • Gospel of Nicodemus (also known as Acts of Pilate)
  • Gospel of Bartholomew
  • … (there are more)

I also listed them because they were already known at that time under a designation that included familiar names. However, that did not play a role in judging whether they should be part of the canon. So also we should get rid of the idea that the Gospel of Matthew belongs in it because the title already says that the apostle Matthew would have written it. Or 2 Peter must also be from Peter. Even if it is mentioned in the text, you have to be careful, because that was done in other texts as well.

We will take a closer look at four of them, because we can learn something from them about how the idea of what belongs in the canon and what doesn’t has developed.

Fragments of an unknown gospel (Papyrus Egerton 2)

Sometimes, even in modern times, previously unknown manuscripts of gospels appear. Perhaps we still remember news that now perhaps the history of Jesus and the whole Christian faith would have to be rewritten. Well, this has failed to happen. And not because all scientists conspired to cover something up. There are enough scientists who, on the contrary, have an interest in scientifically researching and publishing such a sensation. But the texts are published and everybody can judge for himself what he thinks about it.

One example is the fragments of an unknown gospel published by the British Museum in 1935. It was probably written around 110-130 AD. Some narratives are found in the Synoptics and John. But it also contains an apocryphal miracle worked by Jesus on the banks of the Jordan River. A textual example:

And he addressed the leaders of the people, and he [Jesus] spoke thus, “Search the scriptures in which you think you have life-they bear witness of me (see John 5:39). Do not think that I have come to accuse you before my Father; Moses will accuse you, in whom you have put your hope.” (see Jn 5:45) Then, when they said, “We know that God spoke to Moses, but we do not know where you are coming from” (see Jn 4:29), Jesus answered them, “Now your unbelief accuses you…”

Unknown Gospel Papyrus Egerton 2, Fragment I, Zeilen 5-9

The interesting thing about this gospel is: It probably has no written model, but written and oral tradition still overlap here. This was already described by Papias of Hierapolis, who lived around 100 AD.

It must also be pointed out that the production of Gospels and other apocryphal writings did not stop or was notably hindered by the development of the New Testament canon. Popular piety built itself on the steady stream of romantic and imaginative writings whose historical value was at best of marginal interest.

Bruce M. Metzger Der Kanon des Neuen Testaments, S. 166

The Gospel of Hebrews

What then were the views of the church fathers on the apocryphal gospels?

In the writings of the various Church Fathers, we encounter passages and quotations from various early Gospels from the second and third centuries. We can gauge from them the use they made of the apocryphal books and the authority they attributed to them.

Bruce M. Metzger Der Kanon des Neuen Testaments, S. 166

Jerome was very interested in it and proudly reports that he made a translation into Greek and Latin. And he quotes from the Gospel of Hebrews. Origen also does it and Clement of Alexandria uses it. In the Coptic version of a sermon on Mary, the God-bearer, attributed to Cyril of Jerusalem, the author puts a quotation from the Gospel of Hebrews into the mouth of a representative of the “Ebionite heresy.”

This is what is written in the [Hebrews] Gospel: When Jesus Christ was about to come to man on earth, the Good Father in heaven chose a mighty power called Michael and entrusted Christ to his protection. And the power came into the world and was called Mary, and [Christ] was in her womb seven months.

Coptic version of a sermon on Mary

Now perhaps we understand better the difference with the gospels in the New Testament. And why the Church has ultimately excluded such gospels from its canon. Ultimately – because in the beginning it was still quoted from them.

The Egyptian Gospel

The so-called Egyptian Gospel was written in Greek shortly after 150 and was even recognized as canonical in Egypt. In a polemic against the Gnostic Julius Passianus, Clemens quotes parts of it, for example, a passage from a dialogue between Salome and the Lord:

“When Salome inquired how long death would reign, the Lord (who did not think life was bad and creation evil) replied: ‘As long as you women bear children.’” In response to Salome’s inquiry as to whether she had done well not to have children, she receives the reply, “Eat of every plant but the bitter one.” and “When you have trodden the robe of shame underfoot, and the two become one, and the male with the female [is] neither male nor female.”

Bruce M. Metzger Der Kanon des Neuen Testaments, S. 168

These words clearly call for sexual abstinence. Here we can see the thinking of some Gnostics and the Encratites, who, for example, rejected marriage.

The Gospel of Peter

“The text reports the passion, death and burial of Jesus and embellishes the account of his resurrection with details of the miracles that followed. The responsibility for the death of Jesus is laid exclusively on the Jews, Pilate is absolved of all guilt. Now and then traces of the Docetic heresy are found.” (Metzger, p. 169).

If one compares these and even more divergent gospels with those in the New Testament, one can see clear differences in quality, both theologically and historically. At that time, people were convinced that the gospels in the canon corresponded best to the faith and teachings of the apostles and were essentially accurate and reasonable.

Why exactly 4 Gospels?

Based on what we have discussed so far, we would probably have no problem if there were now 3 or even 5 Gospels in the New Testament. That would have been just the best, available at that time. But what already occupied the church fathers at that time was the question, why there was not only exactly one scripture about the life of Jesus, but several with certain deviations. There were different ‘solutions’ for this:

  • There must be a rationale as to why there are exactly four.
  • The four are combined into one.
  • Only one can be the right gospel. That is chosen, and all others are rejected.

In part 8 we had already seen how Irenaeus of Lyon argued:

“It cannot be at all that the number of Gospels is greater or less than it is, for in the world in which we live there are also only four cardinal points and four winds … The four living beasts (Revelation 4:9) symbolize the four Gospels … and there are four main covenants with humanity: Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Christ.”

Irenaeus of Lyon, Adv. Haer. III 9,8

In particular, the reference to the four beasts in Ezekiel and the Revelation of John are interesting, because this was already to gain great influence in later Christian art from about the fourth century (see Wikipedia). Here is an example from a 7th century codex where you can nicely see the connection of evangelists with the animals:

The evangelists with their attributes, Codex Amiatinus (7th c.)

But you do not have to go to a library to find this symbolism. For example, the animals can be found above the western entrance of the cathedral of Speyer (Germany) around a huge round window in the four corners of the comprehensive square the four animals again. Few visitors are likely to know that this refers to the four gospels:

Western portal of the cathedral in Speyer. The symobles are eagle, man, lion and bull as symbols for the gospels

Another example is found in the central portal of the west facade of Chartres Cathedral:

Central portal of the west facade of the cathedral in Chartres

But back to the Gospels. Tatian took a different path. He wrote the Diatessaron, which combines the four Gospels into one, by incorporating the Synoptics into the Gospel of John. When he went back to the East in 172 AD, it translated the Greek Diatessaron into Syriac. This was read for a long time in place of the four Gospels in all the churches of the capital and later of the entire region.

Marcion, who will be discussed in part 13 of this series, took the opposite approach. He recognized only the Gospel of Luke and rejected all others.


In summary, we could say that there is only one gospel but many gospels in the sense of scriptures. Why these are different is a question we cannot elaborate here. But are there exactly four gospels in the New Testament because that was God’s plan from the beginning? Well, that sounds a bit like the reasoning of Irenaeus of Lyons. And it ignores what we noted in Part 10 about inspiration. A more natural explanation is that God, through his Holy Spirit, helped several people compile the accounts into writings. And in other gospels, God’s involvement seems more questionable. Interestingly, the Christians and Church Fathers do not seem to have divided all of these into inspired and non-inspired. But rather more or less beneficial. And as it is said in other writings in the New Testament, God helped the disciples of Jesus through the Holy Spirit to test them for their truthfulness, because in the beginning it was still possible to ask eyewitnesses. In later centuries, he may well have supported people again in such a way that they considered some of these writings worthy of inclusion in the canon. For a while, people still quoted from other gospels, but eventually this stopped. What of this was God’s will and influence or church policy is for each person to decide for themselves. We will go into this in part 13.

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