Christians use the term “evangelist,” which, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, comes from a Greek word literally meaning “bringer of good news,” to describe those who preach the Christian faith. Differing Christian traditions recognize a variety of New Testament evangelists, with an initially broad application of the term subsequently narrowed in early Christian writings, and broadened again in modern times to include a wider array of individuals.

Biblical Usage of the Term "Evangelist"

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As described in “The Catholic Encyclopedia,” the Greek term “evangelist” appears only three times in the New Testament text, in Acts 21:8, Ephesians 4:11 and 2 Timothy 4:5. In context, the term is applied generally to individuals without connoting an official title. For example, in the New International Version’s translation of 2 Timothy, the Apostle Paul encourages the younger Timothy to “do the work of an evangelist,” or to embrace a particular function. In this sense, many New Testament figures may be considered evangelists, including the Apostles and several other traveling preachers who carried the Gospel to various parts of the Roman Empire. Some Christians may describe Jesus Christ himself, who traveled throughout Galilee teaching about the kingdom of heaven, as the first evangelist of his own gospel.

Usage of the Term "Evangelist" by Early Christians

Celtic manuscript depicting St. Matthew

Early Christians introduced a new sense of the Greek term when they increasingly recognized and referred to the Four Evangelists, the authors of the four Synoptic Gospels. Eusebius, writing in the early 300s A.D., described the Gospel accounts of “John [and] the other three evangelists.” Matthew, Mark, Luke and John each wrote their “gospel,” or “good news,” of Jesus Christ, and early Church Fathers like Jerome considered their writings as fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy from the book of Ezekiel.

Modern-Day Roman Catholic Understanding of New Testament Evangelists

Celtic manuscript depicting St. John the Evangelist

Following the tradition of the Church Fathers, the Roman Catholic Church still primarily uses the term “evangelist” in reference to Saint Matthew, Saint Mark, Saint Luke and Saint John. Many stained glass images and other artwork feature the Four Evangelists.

Modern-Day Evangelical Understanding of New Testament Evangelists

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In contrast, Evangelical Christians frequently refer to modern-day traveling preachers as evangelists. Billy Graham, one of best-known 20th-century figures of American Christianity, is described on his website as “Evangelist and Chairman of the Board." Given their more liberal, and perhaps literal, application of the label, many Christians today would likely consider a large number of New Testament missionaries and preachers as evangelists.