The word gospel has a rather straightforward etymology. It’s an alteration of the Old English godspell, a compound of god (good) + spell (news, account). In Old English usage the meaning was not restricted to the four books of the Christian Bible that detail the life of Christ—although it was used in that restricted sense too—but the word could also be used to refer to the body of texts that professed Christian doctrine. And even though the word is made up entirely of Germanic roots, the word was influenced by Latin and Greek.
God is simply the Old English spelling of good, and spell simply meant ‘story, account.’ This sense of spell continued on into the modern era, falling out of use in the seventeenth century. The sense of a magical spell or charm arose in the sixteenth century, a set of words that one could speak and have a magical effect, and that’s the definition that prevails today.
The d was dropped from godspell, at the end of the thirteenth century. The change was unusually sudden. While some later texts, notably the C text of Langland’s poem Piers Plowman, continued to use the older spelling, most texts written after 1300 drop the d.
While the word is formed from two Germanic roots, it is actually a calque of a Latin term, which in turn is a calque of a Greek one. (A calque is a loan translation, a term borrowed from another language but translated in the process.) One of the appearances of godspell is in the Lindisfarne Gospels, a copy of the Latin gospels with an interlinear Old English gloss. The Latin text is from c. 700, and the Old English gloss was added in the tenth century. The gloss of Mark 1.14 reads:
æfter ðon ł ðonne ða gesald wæs iohannes cuom se hælend in galilea bodade godspell rices godes.
(After that when John was betrayed, the savior came into Galilee preaching the gospel of God’s kingdom.)
The Latin word that godspell is glossing is evangelium, which in turn is from the Greek εὐαγγέλιον, meaning ‘good news, bearer of good news.’ Other glosses use the Latin bona adnuntiatio or bonus nuntius, both meaning ‘good message’ to translate the Greek word. So while the English word is based on Germanic roots, it is a translation of Latin and Greek terms.
Dictionary of Old English, University of Toronto, 2007, s. v. “god-spell.”
Middle English Dictionary, University of Michigan, 2001, s. v. “gospel (n.).”
Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989, s. v. “gospel, n.,” “spell, n1.”
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton