1. The Problem
One of the more confusing issues that writers in New Testament studies face is when to write Gospel and when to use gospel instead. SBLHS explains the matter simply: “SBL Press capitalizes Gospel when it is part of the title of a work and lowercases the term when it refers generically to the genre or to good news, message, or authoritative tradition” (§220.127.116.11). Later (§4.3.6) SBLHS offers fourteen examples of the proper formatting of the term in specific situations:
First Gospel (= Matthew)
Fourth Gospel (= John)
gospel (the good news, the kerygma; the genre)
Gospel (as part of or substitute for a title of a work: Mark’s Gospel)
Gospels, the (division of the canon)
John’s Gospel (= Gospel of John)
Luke’s Gospel (= Gospel of Luke)
Mark’s Gospel (= Gospel of Mark)
Matthew’s Gospel (= Gospel of Matthew)
Second Gospel (= Mark)
Synoptic Gospels, the
Third Gospel (= Luke)
Thomas’s Gospel (= Gospel of Thomas)
In addition to the basic principle stated in §18.104.22.168, SBLHS capitalizes the term Gospel when it is a substitute for a title of a work that is capitalized. So, for example, because “Gospel of Mark” is capitalized, the title substitute “Mark’s Gospel” is likewise capitalized. Further, SBLHS capitalizes the word Gospels in two instances: in the title “Synoptic Gospels” (here we diverge from CMS §8.105); and when it refers to the “division of the canon” (this is revised below at §3.4). The word gospels is lowercased, however, when it is a generic reference that includes noncanonical gospels (e.g., infancy gospels).
All this seems relatively straightforward until one begins actually writing; then questions inevitably arise: What qualifies as a substitute for a title? If I write “Mark’s Gospel” in one place, should I use “this gospel” or “this Gospel” later on? Further, in what sense can the four New Testament g/Gospels form a canonical division, when one of them is part of a two-book work? (More generally, is it helpful to think of the classifications of New Testament books as canonical divisions?)
2. Operative Principles
In thinking about these and other similar questions, it is helpful to keep in mind several guiding principles:
2.1. In keeping with standard English-language practices, we capitalize proper nouns (e.g., Synoptic Gospels).
2.2. In general, we prefer a down style, that is, the use of fewer initial capital letters (§22.214.171.124). We do not capitalize terms out of reverence or because of tradition.
2.3. To the extent possible, a preference for consistency leads us to format similar types of terms in analogous ways.
2.4. In some cases, a desire for clarity may incline a writer to choose one formatting style (e.g., initial capitalization) over another.
2.5. If a writer or copyeditor cannot decide on the proper formatting, it may be best simply to revise the problematic phrasing.
3. Illustrative Examples
The following examples, which include stock phrases and selections from manuscripts, attempt to illustrate how these principles can be applied individually and in tandem.
3.1. SBL Press regards certain terms as proper nouns or titles in all instances.
Synoptic Gospels or Synoptics
Gospel of Matthew/Mark/Luke/John/Thomas …
Matthew’s/Mark’s/Luke’s/John’s/Thomas’s … Gospel
The Fourth Gospel has enjoyed a special place in the discussion of the gospels because it is significantly different from the Synoptics.
The recording and the opening of books is not mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel. One sees, however, the motif of accountability in the gospel [see 3.2 below].
3.2. Certain stock or common phrases are generally lowercased.
a text in the gospels
the gospel (see §3.3 below)
genres such as gospels
presentation of Jesus in the gospels
a gospel as a whole
the rest of the gospel
the canonical gospels
the evangelist wrote the gospel account
Because the infancy narrative sets the stage for the rest of the gospel, I provide examples.…
The scene of the temptation in both gospels serves as a test case of Jesus.
While it may be debated how those listening to Jesus understood this statement, readers of this gospel are surely to perceive …
When Jesus is presented in the gospels as enjoying more or less exclusive relationships with wisdom …
These traditions are sufficiently different and highlight aspects of the gospels’ theologies that help account for the variances.
3.3. The phrase “the gospel” (and parallel phrases) usually is not a substitute for the full title of the work but rather a generic reference to it; as such, it is lowercased.
The Adamic tradition of veneration of humanity might also be perceived in other parts of Matthew, including the magi story narrated earlier in the gospel.
3.4. In our view, references to the four New Testament gospels do not bear any canonical import (the classifications or groupings of New Testament books are significantly different from the canonical divisions of the Hebrew Bible), so gospels in this context should be lowercased. If there is any danger of misunderstanding, clarify the term with an appropriate adjective (e.g., New Testament, canonical).
canonical gospels and noncanonical gospels
New Testament gospels
The canonical gospels present a plethora of demonic activity that is highlighted in numerous pericopes about the ministry of Jesus and his disciples.
The expression “son of man” is used in the gospels and Acts as a title, with the implication that it refers to the messianic figure of Jesus.
Paul’s letters and the gospels differ not only in terms of basic genre but also with respect to the Christology that they espouse.
From this perspective, the Pauline letters correspond to the charismatic stage of authority, whereas the gospels reflect a traditional type of authority.
3.5. If seeing gospel lowercased feels somehow wrong, one can always revise the bothersome sentence.
Gospel of Mark … the gospel narrative > Gospel of Mark … the Markan narrative
The same sorts of questions and considerations arise with the formatting of Law/law, Epistle(s)/epistle(s), and Torah/torah, all of which will be discussed in future posts. For now, feel free to use the comments to ask how we would treat other specific examples.