The four canonical texts are the Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, probably written between 65 and 100 AD. More generally, the term refers to works of a genre of Early Christian literature. It originally meant the "good news" (evangelium) of redemption.
The first canonical gospel written is Mark (c 65-70), which in turn was used as a source for the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Matthew and Luke may have also used a common source, the hypothetical Q document. These first three gospels are called the synoptic gospels because they share a similar view. The last gospel, the gospel of John, presents a very different picture of Jesus and his ministry from the synoptics. The canonical gospels were originally written in Greek.
The synoptic gospels are the source of many popular stories, parables, and sermons, such as Jesus' humble birth in Bethlehem, the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, the Last Supper, and the Great Commission. John provides a theological description of Jesus as the eternal Word, the unique savior of humanity. All four attest to his Sonship, miraculous power, crucifixion, and resurrection.
Other gospels circulated in early Christianity. Some, such as the Gospel of Thomas, lack the narrative framework typical of a gospel. These gospels are later than the canonical gospels, though in the case of Thomas, scholarship is divided on the exact date.
Before the first gospel was written (Mark, c 65-70), Paul the Apostle used the term εὐαγγέλιον "gospel" when he reminded the people of the church at Corinth "of the gospel I preached to you" (1 Corinthians 15.1). Paul averred that they were being saved by the gospel, and he characterized it in the simplest terms, emphasizing Christ's appearances after the Resurrection (15.3 – 8):
The earliest extant use of εὐαγγέλιον "gospel" to denote a particular genre of writing dates to the 2nd century. Justin Martyr (c. 155) in 1 Apology 66 wrote: "...the apostles, in the memoirs composed by them, which are called Gospels".
In the New Testament, evangelion meant the proclamation of God's saving activity in Jesus of Nazareth, or the agape message proclaimed by Jesus of Nazareth. This is the original New Testament usage (for example or ; see also Strong's G2098). The peculiar situation in the English language of an obsolete translation persisting into current usage harks back to John Wycliffe who already had gospel, and whose usage was adopted into the King James Version. The short o in the modern word gospel is due to mistaken association with the word god. Old English gōd-spell had a long vowel and would have become good-spell in Modern English.
By the turn of the 5th century, the Catholic Church in the west, under Pope Innocent I, recognized a biblical canon including the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, which was previously established at a number of regional Synods, namely the Council of Rome (382), the Synod of Hippo (393), and two Synods of Carthage (397 and 419). This canon, which corresponds to the modern Catholic canon, was used in the Vulgate, an early 5th century translation of the Bible made by Jerome under the commission of Pope Damasus I in 382.
Medieval copies of the four canonical gospels are known as Gospel Books or also simply as Gospels (in Greek as Tetraevangelia). Notable examples include the Lindisfarne Gospels (ca. 700), the Barberini Gospels, Lichfield Gospels and the Vienna Coronation Gospels (8th century), the Book of Kells and the Ada Gospels (ca. 800) or the Ebbo Gospels (9th century).
The dominant view today is that Mark is the first Gospel, with Matthew and Luke borrowing passages both from that Gospel and from at least one other common source, lost to history, termed by scholars 'Q' (from German: Quelle, meaning "source"). This view is known as the "Two-Source Hypothesis". John was written last and shares little with the synoptic gospels.
Estimates for the dates when the canonical Gospel accounts were written vary significantly; and the evidence for any of the dates is scanty. Because the earliest surviving complete copies of the Gospels date to the 4th century and because only fragments and quotations exist before that, scholars use higher criticism to propose likely ranges of dates for the original gospel autographs. Scholars variously assess the consensus or majority view as follows:
Traditional Christian scholarship has generally preferred to assign earlier dates. Some historians interpret the end of the book of Acts as indicative, or at least suggestive, of its date; as Acts does not mention the death of Paul, generally accepted as the author of many of the Epistles, who was later put to death by the Romans c. 65. Acts is attributed to the author of the Gospel of Luke, and therefore would shift the chronology of authorship back, putting Mark as early as the mid 50s. Here are the dates given in the modern NIV Study Bible (for a fuller discussion see Augustinian hypothesis):
All four gospels portray Jesus as leading a group of disciples, performing miracles, preaching in Jerusalem, being crucified, and rising from the dead.
The synoptic gospels represent Jesus as an exorcist and healer who preached in parables about the coming Kingdom of God. He preached first in Galilee and later in Jerusalem, where he cleansed the temple. He states that he offers no sign as proof (Mark) or only the sign of Jonah (Matthew and Luke). In Mark, apparently written with a Roman audience in mind, Jesus is a heroic man of action, given to powerful emotions, including agony. In Matthew, apparently written for a Jewish audience, Jesus is repeatedly called out as the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy. In Luke, apparently written for gentiles, Jesus is especially concerned with the poor. Luke emphasizes the importance of prayer and the action of the Holy Spirit in Jesus' life and in the Christian community. He appears as a stoic supernatural being, unmoved even by his own crucifixion. Luke insists that salvation offered by Christ is for all, and not the Jews only.
The Gospel of John represents Jesus as an incarnation of the eternal Word (Logos), who spoke no parables, talked extensively about himself, and did not explicitly refer to a Second Coming. Jesus preaches in Jerusalem, launching his ministry with the cleansing of the temple. He performs several miracles as signs, most of them not found in the synoptics.
Two non-canonical gospels that are considered to be among the earliest in composition are the sayings Gospel of Thomas and the narrative Gospel of Peter. The dating of the Gospel of Thomas is particularly controversial, as a minority of scholars date it to before the writing of the canonical gospels. Like the canonical gospels, scholars have to rely on Higher criticism, not extant manuscripts, in order to roughly date Thomas.
A genre of "Infancy gospels" (Greek: protoevangelion) arose in the 2nd century, such as the Gospel of James, which introduces the concept of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, and the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (not to be confused with the absolutely different sayings Gospel of Thomas), both of which related many miraculous incidents from the life of Mary and the childhood of Jesus that are not included in the canonical gospels, but which have passed into Christian lore.
Another genre that has been suppressed is that of Gospel harmonies, in which the apparent discrepancies in the canonical four gospels were selectively recast to present a harmoniously consistent narrative text. Very few fragments of harmonies survived. The Diatessaron was such a harmonization, compiled by Tatian around 175. It was popular for at least two centuries in Syria, but eventually it fell into disuse.
Marcion of Sinope, c. 150, had a version of the Gospel of Luke which differed substantially from that which has now become the standard text. Marcion's version was far less Jewish than the now canonical text, and his critics alleged that he had edited out the portions he didn't like from the canonical version, though Marcion argued that his text was the more genuinely original one. Marcion also rejected all the other gospels, including Matthew, Mark and especially John, which he alleged had been forged by Irenaeus.
The Gospel of Judas is another controversial and ancient text that purports to tell the story of the gospel from the perspective of Judas, the apostle who betrayed Jesus. It paints an unusual picture of the relationship between Jesus and Judas. The text was recovered from a cave in Egypt by a thief and thereafter sold on the black market until it was finally discovered by a collector who, with the help of academics from Yale and Princeton, were able to verify its authenticity. The document itself does not claim to have been authored by Judas (it is, rather, a Gospel about Judas), and dates no earlier than the second century.