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 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, I’ve tried to digest 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 (especially with tests 2 and 4). 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. If “gospel” is part of a title, capitalize it.
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:
- First Gospel
- Matthew’s Gospel
- Gospel of Matthew
- Thomas’s Gospel
- Gospel of Thomas
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, keep working through the other tests below to see whether you need to capitalize or lowercase it.
2. If “gospel” is a “generic reference,” lowercase it.
SBL Press prefers “down style, that is, the use of fewer initial capital letters.”5
One of the ways SBL style expresses this preference is that “gospel” is lowercased when used as a “generic reference.”6
But what qualifies as a “generic reference”?
SBL Press doesn’t seem to explicitly define this category. But it appears to describe a way of referencing a work in a way that also identifies the genre of that work.
(Thus, “generic” includes the notion of “genre” rather than generality alone.)
If you’re unsure whether “gospel” is a generic reference, there are two tests you can use to 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 another 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.”
If neither of these tests works, move to the next test.
3. If “gospel” refers to a proclamation, lowercase it.
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 “gospel” doesn’t refer to a proclamation, keep working through the next test.
4. If “gospel” is a stand-in for a title, capitalize it.
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 is 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.—This assumes you’ve already determined above in step 2 that your use of “gospel” doesn’t qualify as a generic reference.
A great many uses of “gospel” by itself to reference a literary work actually fall into how SBL Press defines the generic reference category. 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.
5. Always lowercase “gospels” except in the phrase “Synoptic Gospels.”
The SBL Handbook of Style recommends capitalizing “gospels” when it refers to a canonical division.7 But SBL Press now prefers lowercase in this instance.8
This change means that the only time you should capitalize the plural “gospels” is in the phrase “Synoptic Gospels.” (Similarly, the shorter “Synoptics” also gets capitalized.)9
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.10
Deciding whether to capitalize “gospel” language can be tricky. But you can cut through confusion with the following five principles:
- If “gospel” is part of a title, capitalize it.
- If “gospel” is a “generic reference,” lowercase it.
- If “gospel” refers to a proclamation, lowercase it.
- If “gospel” is a stand-in for a title, capitalize it.
- Always lowercase “gospels” except in the phrase “Synoptic Gospels.”
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.