As SBL Press has explicitly recognized,
One of the more confusing issues that writers in New Testament studies face is when to write Gospel and when to use gospel instead.1
The key principles are
relatively straightforward until one begins actually writing; then questions inevitably arise.2
The SBL Handbook of Style directly addresses the capitalization of “gospel(s)” in two sections.3 And SBL Press has subsequently provided a supplementary blog post of nearly 1000 words.4
But even with all of this explanation, the issue might still be cloudy. So below, are the essential tests for when you need to capitalize “gospel(s).”
I’ve also ordered the tests in a sequence to help you avoid nonstandard capitalization. So as you work through the list from top to bottom, you can stop when you find the right category, lowercase or capitalize accordingly, and move on.
1. Always lowercase “gospels,” except in the phrase “Synoptic Gospels.”
The SBL Handbook of Style recommends capitalizing “gospels” when it refers to a canonical division.5 But SBL Press prefers “down style, that is, the use of fewer initial capital letters.”6 So, SBL Press now prefers you to lowercase “gospels.”7
This change means that the only time you should capitalize the plural “gospels” is in the phrase “Synoptic Gospels.” And here, note that “Synoptic” also gets capitalized, as does the shorter “Synoptics.”8
But if you have the singular “gospel” and not the plural, move to the next test.
2. Lowercase “gospel” if it refers to a proclamation.
Often, “gospel” doesn’t refer to literature at all. Instead, it means the good news about Jesus, the kerygma.
An example would be a sentence like “At the beginning of 1 Cor 15, Paul summarizes the gospel he preached.”
Because “gospel” here refers to a proclamation, a message, or a body of good news, it needs to appear in lowercase.
If your use of “gospel” doesn’t refer to a proclamation, however, keep working through the next test.
3. Lowercase “gospel” if it’s a “generic reference.”
One of the ways SBL style expresses its “down style” preference is that “gospel” also gets lowercased when used as a “generic reference.”9 But what qualifies as a “generic reference”?
SBL Press doesn’t seem to define this category explicitly. But it appears to describe a way of referencing a work that also identifies the genre of that work. (Thus, “generic” here includes the notion of “genre” rather than generality alone.)
If you’re unsure whether “gospel” is a generic reference, two tests can help you decide:
- Try replacing “gospel” with “work” to see if the sentence makes sense (e.g., “In his gospel, Matthew …”).
- Check whether “gospel” is functioning as an adjective to modify noun (e.g., “gospel narrative,” “gospel writers”).
If your use of “gospel” passes one of these two tests, you probably have a generic reference. So, you should lowercase “gospel.” But if neither of these tests works, move to the next test.
4. Capitalize “gospel” if it’s part of a title.
If you’re using “gospel” as part of the name for a title of a work, you need to capitalize it. SBL Press considers forms like the following to be titles:10
- First Gospel
- Matthew’s Gospel
- Gospel of Matthew
The same convention would apply to other forms of titles for literary works (e.g., “Gospel according to Matthew”).
If you’re not using “gospel” in the context of a title, however, move to the next test.
5. Capitalize “gospel” if it’s a stand-in for a title.
If you’re using “gospel” alone as a stand-in for a title, you need to capitalize it.
It can be trickier to know when an instance of “gospel” counts as a stand-in for a title. But there’s still a test that can help.
If you’re unsure whether “gospel” is a stand-in for a title, replace that word or the phrase that includes it “gospel” with the full title of the gospel. If the replacement works, “gospel” is a stand-in for a title, and you need to capitalize it.
A great many uses of “gospel” by itself to reference a literary work actually fall into how SBL Press defines the “generic reference” category discussed above. By contrast, capitalizing “gospel” by itself as a stand-in for a title is pretty rare.
So you especially ensure your use of “gospel” isn’t a generic reference before you classify it as a stand-in for a title and capitalize it as such.
If your use of “gospel” doesn’t seem to fit this, or any of the other categories above, there aren’t any more tests to try to sort it out. But there is one clear action you can take to ensure your text correctly capitalizes (or lowercases) the term and communicates clearly.
6. Where needed, revise.
In some cases, you might not be satisfied with a sentence after you apply the capitalization that results from these tests. In that event, consider revising the sentence until you’re satisfied with the capitalization it involves.11
Deciding whether to capitalize “gospel” language can be tricky. But you can cut through confusion with the following five principles:
- Always lowercase “gospels,” except in the phrase “Synoptic Gospels.”
- Lowercase “gospel” if it refers to a proclamation.
- Lowercase “gospel” if it’s a “generic reference.”
- Capitalize “gospel” if it’s part of a title.
- Capitalize “gospel” if it’s a stand-in for a title.
And of course, if you aren’t satisfied with a sentence based on these principles, you can always revise it until you get it into the shape you want it.
“Gospel versus Gospel,” weblog, SBL Handbook of Style, 15 November 2016, §1; italics original. Header image provided by Josh Applegate. ↩
“Gospel versus Gospel,” §1; italics added. ↩
Society of Biblical Literature, The SBL Handbook of Style, 2nd ed. (Atlanta: SBL, 2014), §§188.8.131.52, 4.3.6. ↩
“Gospel versus Gospel.” ↩
SBL Handbook of Style, §4.3.6. ↩
“Gospel versus Gospel,” §2.2. ↩
“Gospel versus Gospel,” §§1, 3.4. ↩
“Gospel versus Gospel,” §§1, 3.1. ↩
“Gospel versus Gospel,” §3.3. ↩
“Gospel versus Gospel.” ↩
“Gospel versus Gospel,” §§2.4–2.5, 3.5. ↩
Thanks for this. Very helpful. Do you also have recommendations for when to capitalize: Good News, Messiah, and Messianic?
That’s a good question, Jeanne. (And sorry I’m just now seeing your comment.) In the SBL Handbook of Style, 2nd ed., §4.3.6 is especially helpful for things like this. There, it’s “good news,” “messiah” (when used generally) or “Messiah” (when used in Christian contexts of Jesus), and “messianic.”