Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 May 2006
Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news [gospel] of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. (Matt. 9:35)The world came about through a mistake. (Gospel of Philip 75,3)
Every gospel implies an ethic, and every positive ethic (unlike nihilism) implies some sort of good news (if only that life can be made bearable). But whose gospel and which ethic should engage us? 'The gospels' once referred more or less uncontroversially to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John of the canonical New Testament, with 'Christian ethics' being the more ambiguous or problematic phrase. Significant differences between the synoptics and John, and among the synoptics themselves, were admitted, as were tensions between their literal and allegorical readings.Yet the traditional gospels were assumed to be four perspectives on one and the same Christ, such that the gospels could be singularised and capitalised to 'the Gospel'. The central questions for ethics concerned how to interpret and apply scripture to concrete issues (war, sexuality, medicine, political authority, economic justice etc.), and the answers differed across denominational lines. As revealed truth, nonetheless, the canon was the essentially fixed variable. Alternative scriptures were known about, but these existed largely as fragmentary manuscripts or partial quotations from their critics (e.g. Irenaeus and Tertullian).
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