February 9: Word study on “Gospel” (conclusion)

Today’s note concludes the series of word studies on the eu)aggel- (“gospel”) word group in the New Testament. I will begin with a summary of the results, followed by a short survey of how the word group was used in other early Christian writings in the late-first and second centuries. The results of our study may be presented as follows:

1. The original context of the eu)aggel- word group had to do with the delivery of (good) news, lit. a “good message”, especially that which involved the outcome of military action or other important events related to the public welfare. Since the public good was often connected with the action of the ruler, thought (according to the ancient mindset) to be appointed and/or gifted by divine power, the idea of the “good message” was extended to the ruler himself—esp. his birth and accession, his own health and welfare, etc. This was specially so in the case of the Roman emperors of the first centuries A.D., who, as “Caesar” and successors to Augustus, were understood to be divine (“son of god”). The peace, protection (i.e. “salvation”), and prosperity brought about by the emperor’s rule, was “good news” for the population, and, as such, the eu)aggel- word group became associated prominently with the imperial cult. This certainly would have affected the early Christian use and understanding of eu)aggel-, though there is relatively little direct evidence for this in the New Testament itself. The contrast, between Jesus and the Emperor, in terms of the “good message”, is most apparent in the Gospel of Luke (esp. the Infancy narrative), and, less directly, in Luke-Acts as a whole. Neither the common noun eu)aggeli/a (“good message”) nor eu)a/ggelo$ (“good messenger, messenger of good [news]”) occurs in the New Testament. The neuter noun eu)agge/lion is used, but only in the singular, never the plural (eu)agge/lia). Originally, the neuter noun referred to the response to good news—i.e., the reward given to the messenger, or an offering of celebration and thanks, etc. It is this aspect that was notable in connection with the Roman imperial cult—offerings and celebration for the good news of the emperor’s accession, etc.

2. The verb eu)aggeli/zw (Koine middle eu)aggeli/zomai), “bring/declare a good message”, also occurs a number of times in the New Testament, largely under the influence of the Greek translation (LXX) of the Old Testament Scriptures. The verb translates the Hebrew rc^B* (“bring [good] news”), just as eu)aggeli/a/eu)agge/lion translates the derived noun hr*c)B=. The theological significance of the verb is more or less limited to its use in the Prophets, especially several key passages in (Deutero-)Isaiah, all of which came to be interpreted in a Messianic and eschatological sense—40:9; 52:7; 60:6, and (most notably) 61:1. It is Isa 61:1 which exerted the greatest influence on the New Testament, rooted in the Gospel tradition. According to Lk 4:18ff and 7:22 par, Jesus identified himself with the Anointed (Messianic) herald of the passage, especially in the context of the teaching and healing miracles performed during his ministry in Galilee. Indeed, this may well define Jesus’ own use of eu)aggel- (Aramaic rcb), recorded in several important sayings within the Synoptic tradition. It clearly influenced the frequent use of the verb in the Gospel of Luke (and the book of Acts). Luke virtually never uses the noun (only the verb); the opposite is the case in the core Synoptic tradition (of Mark-Matthew, cf. below).

3. With the Gospel and earliest Christian tradition, the verb eu)aggeli/zomai, i.e. the announcing of good news to God’s people, came to be understood in two primary (and related) senses: (a) that one may obtain forgiveness of sin, and (b) will thus be saved from the coming (end-time) Judgment by God upon humankind. The Gospel message was thus originally (and primarily) eschatological in orientation. Both forgiveness and salvation were experienced only by believers who repented and trusted in Jesus. This was the essence of the “good news” proclaimed by Jesus and his first followers, and represents the core of the apostolic preaching. However, in both the Pauline letters and the early sermon-speeches preserved in the book of Acts, this was expanded to form a core message proclaimed by missionaries and preachers during the first century. The announcement of the opportunity for salvation (in Jesus’ name) came to include a brief narrative outline of Jesus’ life—from John the Baptist, through to Jesus’ own ministry, and his death and resurrection. To this was added a pair of fundamental theological/Christological statements: (i) that Jesus was the Anointed One (Messiah) prophesied in the Scriptures, and (ii) that God exalted him (as Son of God) to a divine position/status in heaven, from whence he will appear (as a heavenly savior-figure) at the end time to rescue believers and usher in the Judgment. This is the “good message” proclaimed by Peter, Paul, and other early missionaries.

4. In Paul’s letters (c. 49-60 A.D.), this use of both the verb eu)aggeli/zomai, and, in particular, the noun eu)agge/lion, took on still deeper theological significance. Already in the earliest surviving letters (1-2 Thessalonians), Paul was using the noun in three distinct expressions, each with an important point of emphasis:

    • “my/our good message”—Paul and his fellow ministers have been specially appointed by God to proclaim the message
    • “the good message of God”—God is the source of the message, having brought it about for believers in Jesus
    • “the good message of the Anointed {Christ}”—the message is about the person of Jesus, who he is and what God has done through him

It is in Galatians and Romans that Paul expounds and explains what he means by the word eu)agge/lion. In Galatians, it is central to the conflict (with certain Jewish Christians) over the religious identity of believers. Paul argues forcefully for the central doctrine that it is through trust in Jesus alone that human beings are justified (“made right” in God’s eyes) and saved from Judgment; adherence to the Old Covenant and its Torah plays only a negative role in this process. In Romans, Paul adds to this an exposition of the nature of salvation (see esp. chapters 5-8). The twin ideas of forgiveness of sin and deliverance from the coming Judgment are deepened in Paul’s thought, being expressed now in terms of the belief that, through trust in the Gospel, human beings are delivered from the power of sin that is dominant in the current world-order. In the mode of thought and expression by Paul, eschatology truly has become soteriology. Moreover, we find the important point that trust in Jesus (i.e. the good message) activates and makes effective the saving power of his sacrificial death and resurrection. This is central to Pauline theology and is expressed more clearly in his letters than perhaps anywhere else in the New Testament. We can thus begin to glimpse in Paul’s letters a wider and more expansive meaning of the word eu)agge/lion, so that it very nearly becomes synonymous with the Christian faith itself.

5. First Peter was probably written c. 60 A.D., roughly contemporary with the latest of Paul’s letters. In this work too we find a theological expansion (and exposition) of the meaning of eu)agge/lion. It is identified with the living and eternal word of God, with its creative and life-generating power, as also with the living Spirit of God (and Christ) that comes to dwell in the believer (1:23-25). The eschatological aspect is also sharpened, so that acceptance of the “good message” becomes the entire basis for deliverance from the coming Judgment and inheritance of eternal life through the Spirit (4:6, 17, and the surrounding context). The eu)aggel- word group does not appear in the Gospel or Letters of John at all, but does occur several times in the (Johannine) book of Revelation, where the early/traditional eschatological aspect is emphasized, much as we see elsewhere in the New Testament. Other NT occurrences are rare, and generally follow the usage and semantic range detailed above.

6. The Gospel of Mark, probably written some time in the 60’s A.D., represent the earliest usage of eu)agge/lion to refer to a written work. The author (trad. John Mark) identifies his literary work specifically as eu)agge/lion, virtually serving as its title (1:1). At one other point—the declaration by Jesus in 14:9 (par Matt 26:13)—the noun appears to be used in the same context, whereas elsewhere it seems to refer to the message and teaching of Jesus in a comprehensive sense (8:35; 10:29; 13:10). The noun is less frequent in Matthew, which generally follows the Synoptic (Markan) usage.

By about 150 A.D., roughly a hundred years later, the earlier meaning of eu)agge/lion had largely disappeared from use. The relatively rare occurrences of the word group in writings of the mid/late 2nd century demonstrate a rather clear shift in meaning—from an oral proclamation about Jesus to an authoritative written record. We can see this, for example, in the writings of Justin Martyr. In the rare instances where the word eu)agge/lion occurs, it clearly refers to written works, most likely corresponding to some (if not all) of the canonical Gospels. In his First Apology 66:3, the “memoirs of the Apostles” (ta\ a)pomnhmoneu/mata tw=n a)posto/wn) are specifically called eu)agge/lia, the plural of eu)agge/lion. The word a)pomnhmoneu/mata literally means “(thing)s given/coming from memory”; that written works (i.e. written/recorded from memory) are meant is relatively clear from the context, and is confirmed by the use of the singular eu)agge/lion in the Dialogue with Trypho (twice, 10:2; 100:2). The Letter to Diognetus (author unknown), probably written around the same time, uses the plural eu)agge/lia to refer to written Gospels (11:6). Two or three decades on, Irenaeus, in his famous work Against Heresies (c. 180), has gone a step further: not only does eu)agge/lia refer to authoritative written works, it is used specifically for the four canonical Gospels—these four and no other (III.10-11, etc).

Concluding note on the Apostolic Fathers

An examination of the so-called “Apostolic Fathers”, a collection of Christian writings surviving from the period c. 90-150 A.D., allows us to fill in the gaps a bit, to see how the use of the eu)aggel- word group in the New Testament developed to the point that the “good message” became defined in terms of authoritative written documents (“Gospels”).

It is a bit surprising that, in the lengthy letter-treatise of Clement (1 Clement) to the congregations in Corinth, written c. 95 A.D., the eu)aggel- word group is so rare. The author clearly is familiar with Paul’s letters, and is writing to congregations founded by Paul, yet this important Pauline terminology is absent. In 42:1, 3, the verb eu)aggeli/zomai is used in the older, traditional sense of the “good news” proclaimed by Jesus in his ministry, and which was subsequently declared by the Apostles (cf. also the Letter of Polycarp, 6:3; Barnabas 5:9; 8:3; 14:9). At 47:2, where the noun eu)agge/lion occurs, the author is citing Paul (cf. Phil 4:15).

The noun also is used several times by Ignatius of Antioch in his letters (c. 110)—to the Christians of Philadelphia and Smyrna. In Philadelphians 5:1-2 he appears to use eu)agge/lion as synonymous with the Christian faith and one’s religious identity (as a believer in Christ). He describes the eu)agge/lion of Christ as being manifest or embodied in the Eucharist. Elsewhere in the letter, however, the term seems to refer to an authoritative record (oral and/or written) of Jesus’ teaching and saving work (8:2; 9:2; also Smyrneans 5:1; 7:2). This is in accord with the later strands of the Synoptic tradition (c. 60-70 A.D., cf. above). Passages such as Smyrn. 5:1 seem to imply a written record.

The work known as the Didache (“Teaching”), and attributed to the Twelve Apostles, is properly called a Church Manual, composed sometime before 150 A.D., but containing traditional material that may go back to the late 1st century A.D. The noun eu)agge/lion occurs four times (8:2; 11:3; 15:3f), signifying an authoritative body of teaching by Jesus (and the Apostles), and perhaps intended to correspond to one or more of the canonical Gospels. In tone and approach it is closest to the Gospel of Matthew, yet even where the Lord’s Prayer (close to the Matthean version, 6:9-13) is cited (at 8:2ff), eu)agge/lion probably is not meant as a reference to Matthew per se, since the expression is “in his [i.e. Jesus’] eu)agge/lion“, i.e. the teaching of Jesus which is recorded in Matthew. In the Martyrdom of Polycarp (written c. 155-165), the noun is used repeatedly, where it similarly refers to an authoritative record of Jesus’ teaching and life-example (including his suffering and death), without necessarily intending any particular written Gospel (or Gospels).

In the work known as 2 Clement, on the other hand, eu)agge/lion does refer to a specific written work; however, interestingly, the saying of Jesus cited (8:5) does not correspond precisely to anything in our canonical Gospels (cp. Lk 16:10-12). It may be a reference to the so-called “Gospel of the Egyptians”, or a similar extra-canonical work. Another extra-canonical saying of Jesus is cited by the author in 12:2.

The custom of referring to the canonical Gospels by the title [to\] eu)agge/lion kata\ … (“the Good Message according to…”), which may have been established by the middle of the 2nd century, was probably inspired by the Markan title (Mk 1:1). Given Luke’s reluctance to use the noun, it is highly unlikely that he would ever have referred to his own work that way (he uses the noun dih/ghsi$ in 1:1). Matthew is more likely to have followed the Markan usage. The title appears to have the sanction of Jesus himself, at least in the Synoptic formulation of the tradition in Mk 14:9 par, which implies the existence of an account more or less corresponding with 14:3-9 as part of a larger narrative. Such a narrative is represented by the Gospel of Mark, and followed, with certain additions and modifications, in the Gospel of Matthew. The author of the latter may well have understood Jesus’ statement in 24:14 as encompassing the publication and distribution of his own work narrating “the Gospel of the Kingdom”. In the centuries since, the New Testament title “Gospel according to…” has become so familiar that there is little thought given as to how this custom was established in the first place. I hope that this series of notes has helped you to appreciate better the rich heritage surrounding the eu)aggel- word group as it was used and developed by believers in the first two centuries.

January 26: Mark 1:1

Having looked at important aspects of the background and usage of the eu)aggel- word group in the previous notes, we will now examine a number of key verses and passages which indicate how early Christians made use of the word group. I will not treat every occurrence, but only those which are especially representative of usage within the earliest Christian and Gospel traditions. I begin with the opening words from the Gospel of Mark.

Mark 1:1

“(The) beginning of the good message of Yeshua (the) Anointed[, Son of God]”
a)rxh\ tou= eu)aggeli/ou  )Ihsou= Xristou= [ui(ou= qeou=]

The words in square brackets are absent from a number of manuscripts (a* Q 28c al) and may represent a scribal expansion. In any case, this opening statement functions essentially as the title of the work, which may be called the “good message” (to\ eu)agge/lion). Clearly, we have gone a step beyond the basic meaning of the word; though not yet at the point where eu)agge/lion refers to a Christian literary genre (“Gospel”), by referring to the entire book as to\ eu)agge/lion, it is pointing in that direction.

You may recall that the original meaning of the neuter noun eu)agge/lion had to do with the response to “good news”, such as the reward given to the messenger, or acts/offerings of celebration and thanks. The eu)aggel- word group was often used in the context of military action, the “(good) news” relating to the outcome of battle, deliverance from enemy forces, etc. As we shall see, for early Christians, [to\] eu)agge/lion came to have the technical meaning of the message of Jesus Christ—who he is and what he has done (or what God has done through him)—proclaimed by missionaries during the 1st century A.D. This is the meaning which attends the use of the noun here in Mk 1:1: eu)agge/lion refers to the Christian message regarding Jesus, in a thorough (and developed) written form—as a biographical and paraenetic narrative.

Thus, even though eu)agge/lion occurs here at the start of the Gospel (and the Synoptic narrative), it actually reflects the end of a process of development; it is this development which we will be examining in these daily notes, beginning with the saying of Jesus in Mk 1:15 par.

Some scholars have suggested that the use of the noun eu)agge/lion as a key word within the Gospel narrative itself, may be a specifically Markan innovation. As evidence in support of this, we may point out the following:

    • The position in Mk 1:1 as a title of the Markan Gospel (cf. above)
    • The occurrence at important points elsewhere in Mark (6/7 times): 1:14-15; 8:35; 10:29; 13:10; 14:9; [16:15]
    • The fact that the noun is rarer in Matthew, and only in passages that are part of the core Synoptic tradition (i.e. shared with Mark): 4:23/9:35; 24:14; 26:13
    • The noun does not occur at all in either the Gospel of Luke or John

This is not to say that the author of Mark (trad. John Mark) invented the use and significance of the word, only that he may have been the one who introduced it (as such) into the Gospel tradition, giving it a place of prominence.

The Lukan omission of the noun was already mentioned in the prior note; it occurs in Acts 15:7; 20:24, but is entirely absent from the Gospel. Given the fact that Matthew retains the noun in several passages that are part of the core Synoptic tradition (passages otherwise share by Luke), the Lukan omission must be intentional. However, if so, the reason for this has never been satisfactorily explained. It is conceivable that the author (trad. Luke) wished to avoid the noun eu)agge/lion because of its implicit association with the Roman emperor and the Imperial cult (cf. the previous note); however, this is unlikely, since he uses the related verb eu)aggeli/zomai (“bring/proclaim a good message”), which had similar associations with the Imperial cult. In fact, it is clear that Luke consciously prefers use of the verb over the noun. The noun never occurs in the Gospel (and only twice in Acts), while the verb is used 25 times in Luke-Acts (including 10 times in the Gospel), and the verb is never used in Mark (and only once in Matthew, nor is does it occur in John). Thus, it is fair to say that the use of the verb eu)aggeli/zomai is as distinctly Lukan as the use of the noun eu)agge/lion is Markan. Is Luke reacting against the Markan usage? Some commentators see this as a possibility, in the light of the semi-negative comparison with other Gospel accounts in the Lukan introduction (1:1ff). In other words, Luke has intentionally avoiding using eu)agge/lion as it occurs in Mark, preferring instead the verb eu)aggeli/zomai. The actual reason for preferring the verb, however, in this case seems clear: it is due to the usage in important Scriptural (Isaian) passages such as LXX Isa 40:9; 52:7; 60:6, and, especially, 61:1. This will be discussed further in upcoming notes.

If Matthew knew and utilized the Markan Gospel, as many suppose, he has eliminated the title line of Mk 1:1. This would be due to the practical consideration that he has included an Infancy narrative (1:18-2:23), prefaced by a genealogy of Jesus (1:2-17), ahead of the core Synoptic narrative. A title, similar in form to Mk 1:1, was adapted(?) and set at the beginning of the genealogy; compare:

“The (sc)roll of the coming-to-be of Yeshua the Anointed, son of Abraham, son of David” (Matt 1:1)
“The beginning of the good message of Yeshua the Anointed[, son of God]” (Mk 1:1)

As for Luke, he also includes an Infancy narrative, prefaced by a short introduction (1:1-4) to the work as a whole, written in good Greek literary style. There he calls his work, not eu)agge/lion, but a dih/ghsi$. This noun, which occurs only here at Lk 1:1 in the New Testament, is derived from the verb dihge/omai, which has the literal meaning “lead through”, here in the technical sense of bringing out an account (i.e. narrating something) through from beginning to end. The author compares his work with that of others (including the Markan Gospel?) who have attempted to set down the traditions regarding Jesus into a clear narrative form. He makes a point of his having sought to record everything accurately, and in order—implying, perhaps, that others have not done this so well. In any event, his use of dih/ghsi$ to characterize his work gives it an altogether different emphasis than the Markan title of eu)agge/lion.

On the (generally accepted) theory that Mark is the earliest of the four canonical Gospels, it is likely that that the conventional title attached to each of the four (“the eu)agge/lion according to [kata] …”) was inspired by the Markan title in Mk 1:1. By the mid-2nd century, at the very latest, the noun eu)agge/lion was being used as a (semi-)technical term for established written accounts such as the four canonical Gospels, with their rather unique blend of biographical, paraenetic and exhortative elements.

In the next daily note, we will examine the first words of Jesus, as recorded in the core Synoptic narrative—the saying in Mark 1:15.

January 25: Word study on “Gospel”

This note will focus on the second area involving the eu)aggel- word group which is important for an understanding of the early Christian usage. In the prior note, I looked at the use of the word group in the Old Testament (LXX); today, I will be discussing it as it relates to the Roman emperor (and the Imperial cult) in the 1st century A.D.

I mentioned previously how the nouns eu)aggeli/a and eu)agge/lion, along with the verb eu)aggeli/zw, tend to be used without any special religious significance per se. This is true in the LXX, certainly with regard to the two nouns, and follows the usage generally in Classical and Koine Greek. Most commonly the “good message”, brought by a messenger (a&ggelo$, i.e. “messenger of good [new]s”, eu)a/ggelo$), related to important public events such as the outcome of battle, birth of a child, death of significant persons, and so forth. Especially noteworthy is the “good news” which results from a military victory, often implying deliverance or “salvation” of the people from an enemy. Occasionally, the eu)a/ggelo$ may function as a prophet, or as one delivering the message of an oracle, in which case the “good message” has definite religious significance. Of course, in the ancient world, victory in battle, childbirth, and the like, were viewed as having been brought about by divine power(s)—i.e. by God or the gods. In a few instances, the idea of victory and deliverance is transferred to that of release from divine/demonic forces (TDNT 2:710-2).

While the feminine noun eu)aggeli/a refers to the “good message” proper, the neuter noun eu)agge/lion appears originally to have signified the response to good news—the reward given to the messenger, or celebration of the news itself (which might entail religious sacrifice or offerings of thanks). As mentioned above, it is typically used in the context of military victory, i.e. news of victory, and normally in the plural ([ta] eu)agge/lia). Offerings can also be made in response to religious oracles, but, again, usually in relation to military victory or similar important actions taken by rulers.

It is in regard to this last point that the eu)aggel- word group came to be used prominently in relation to the Roman emperor. The king, ruler, or other gifted leader, was seen as having a special connection to deity. In the ancient Near East, and, to a great extent, in the ancient world generally, the ruler represented symbolically (if not metaphysically) the divine presence and power on earth. This was all the more true in the Greco-Roman world in the case of the Emperor, who wielded such immense power over territory that spanned virtually the entire known world. Augustus (Gaius Octavius, Octavianus), as legal heir of the deified Caesar (recognized as ‘god’, Jan 1, 42 B.C.), effectively became “son of god” (divi filius). This status only increased in strength as he was proclaimed emperor (Imperator, ratified 29 B.C.) and given the title Augustus (27 B.C.). Royal (imperial) theology maintained that each successive emperor (Caesar) was likewise divine, being “son of god”.

I discussed the importance of this imperial theology in an earlier article on Augustus in relation to the birth of Jesus. It is worth summarizing that study and expanding on it here. First, let us consider again two important texts related to the birth of Augustus as “savior” (swth/r)—”savior of the whole world” (swth=ra tou= su/npanto$ ko/smou), Myra inscription (V. Ehrenberg and A. H. M. Jones, Documents Illustrating the Reigns of Augustus and Tiberius [Oxford:1949], no. 72):

  1. A letter from proconsul Paulus Fabius Maximus (c. 9-5 B.C.) to the territories of Asia under his charge, regarding the new calendar (the Julian), established by the Roman government, which set the birthday of Augustus (Sept 23) as the start of the new year. It included a decree which reads, in part:
    “…Providence that orders all our lives has in her display of concern and generosity in our behalf adorned our lives with the highest good: Augustus, whom she has filled with arete for the benefit of humanity, and has in her beneficence granted us and those who will come after us [a Saviour] who has made war to cease and who shall put everything [in peaceful] order; and whereas Caesar, [when he was manifest], transcended the expectations of [all who had anticipated the good news], not only by surpassing the benefits conferred by his predecessors but by leaving no expectation of surpassing him to those who would come after him, with the result that the birthday of our God signalled the beginning of good news for the world because of him …..”
  2. The famous Calendar Inscription (best known from Priene), in which it is likewise stated of Augustus that his brith was “the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by reason of him [h@rcen de\ tw=i ko/smwi tw=n di’ au)to\n eu)aggeli/wn h( gene/qlio$ tou= qeou=]”.

Both the birth, and, perhaps more importantly, the accession of each new emperor (as “son of god”) was similarly referred to as “good news”, often using the plural of eu)agge/lion ([ta] eu)agge/lia). Important in this regard is the idea of the acts of celebration/sacrifice which accompanied the “good message” of the emperor’s accession. We see this, for example, in the case of the emperors Gaius (A.D. 37, Philo Embassy to Gaius §§231-2, 356, cf. also §§18, 22, 99) and Vespasian (A.D. 60, Josephus War 6.618, 656; Stanton, pp. 28-9). This language (utilizing eu)aggelia/eu)agge/lion) was still being used in the third century (cf. G. H. R. Horsley, New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, Vol. III, p. 12; Stanton, p. 32).

At least as significant was the idea of the emperor as public benefactor. Especially important to the image of Augustus as “savior” was the time of peace and prosperity which he is thought to have brought about during his reign (cf. his own Res gestae divi Augusti II.12-13 [34-45] and the famous altar ara pacis augustae proclaiming the ‘peace of Augustus’ [Pax Augusta]). This extended to all of the benefits which the imperial government provided to people throughout the world. It is important to keep in mind several aspects of the word swthri/a (usually translated “salvation”), in this regard, which are significant both for the imperial cult and for early Christian understanding of the term:

    1. Being saved or rescued from an enemy (or other disaster)
    2. Providing protection from future/potential harm
    3. Attending to the general health, safety and welfare of the population

This comprehensive notion of the emperor as benefactor is expressed by Philo (of Gaius) in Embassy §18ff, where the emperor’s recovery from illness is described as “good news”, his health essentially being identified as the swthri/a of each person in the empire. The emperor was considered to be “savior and worker of good [i.e. benefactor]” (o( swth\r kai\ eu)erge/th$) who was expected to shower down benefits “upon all Asia and Europe” (§22).

Given this documented use of the eu)aggel- word group in the context of the Imperial cult, which came to be increasingly prevalent and widespread during the 1st century A.D., it would have been virtually impossible for early Christians not to be aware of it. We can be fairly certain that their own usage of the terminology was, in part, a response to the Imperial cult. However, it is only in the Gospel of Luke that there is a clear and unmistakable contrast made between Jesus and the Emperor. The references to Augustus (and Tiberius) in Lk 2:1ff; 3:1 are more than simple historical notices. The Augustan setting for the announcement of Jesus’ birth (2:10-14) is especially striking, as I have discussed. The apparent reluctance by Luke to use the term eu)agge/lion (it occurs only in Acts 15:7; 20:24) has never been entirely explained, but it could conceivably be an implicit reaction against the imperial/cultic usage. Other possible instances of early Christian response will be discussed in the coming notes.

References above marked “Stanton” are to Graham N. Stanton, Jesus and Gospel, Cambridge: 2004.

January 24: Word study on “Gospel”

This note begins a short series of daily notes on the word eu)agge/lion (“good message”, often rendered as “gospel” from the [Old] English). I discussed the basic meaning of this word (and the English “gospel”) in a previous article. Here I wish to begin with a brief examination of two areas of usage which influenced the New Testament and early Christian thought:

    1. The occurrence of the related verb eu)aggeli/zw (eu)aggeli/zomai) in the Septuagint, especially key passages in the book of Isaiah.
    2. The use of both verb and noun in connection with the Roman Empire and the Imperial Cult.

As mentioned previously, the (neuter) noun eu)agge/lion occurs just once in the Greek LXX version of the Old Testament (2 Sam 4:10); the related (feminine) noun eu)aggeli/a occurs 5 times (2 Sam 18:20, 22, 25, 27; 2 Kings 7:9). Both nouns translate the (six) occurrences of the Hebrew hr*c)B= (from rc^B*, “bring [good] news”). The noun eu)aggeli/a is used in the context of (good) news regarding the outcome of battle or deliverance from the enemy. The noun eu)agge/lion (in the plural, [ta] eu)agge/lia) is properly used for the reward given to the messenger for the delivery of good news; indeed, this seems to be the primary original meaning of eu)agge/lion in Greek. This is common (secular) usage; there is no specifically religious connotation for these nouns in the LXX.

The situation is a bit different for the related verb eu)aggeli/zw (“bring/proclaim a good message”), which occurs more often (23 times) in the LXX, and is used to render the similar Hebrew verb rc^B* (“bring [good] news”, see above). In the historical books, the context is generally the same as for the nouns eu)aggeli/a/eu)agge/lion—it refers to a messenger who gives news regarding the outcome of battle, or other significant public event (1 Sam 31:9; 2 Sam 1:20; 4:10; 18:19-20, 31; 1 Ki 1:42; 1 Chr 10:9). From the ancient Israelite standpoint, God (YHWH) is responsible for deliverance from the enemy, etc (cf. Psalm 40:9; 68:11 [LXX 39:10; 67:12])—the reason for the good news—but there is not really a religious meaning for the verb per se.

In the Prophetic oracles, and subsequent writings, the verb rc^B*/eu)aggeli/zw comes to take on a deeper theological significance. In Jeremiah 51:10 [LXX A 28:10] and Joel 2:32 [LXX 3:5], eu)aggeli/zw is used in the more general sense of God’s deliverance of his people, and where there may be seen something of the eschatological context of the end-time Judgment or Day of YHWH; in neither instance is the underlying Hebrew rc^B* present. More important are several key passages in (Deutero-)Isaiah, where rc^B*/eu)aggeli/zw are used; as each was influential on early Christian thought and expression it is worth looking at each of these in a bit of detail.

Isaiah 40:9

“Go (take) you(rself) up upon the mountain-height, ‚iyyôn {Zion}, (the one) bringing (good) news [tr#C#b^m=];
your voice bringing (good) news [tr#C#b^m=], Yerûšalaim {Jerusalem}, lift (it) high!
You shall not be afraid! say to (the) cities of Yehûdah {Judah}, ‘See—your God!'”

The LXX renders the Hebrew quite closely:

“Step up upon a high mountain, ‚iyyôn {Zion}, the one bringing (the) good message [o( eu)aggelizo/meno$];
lift your voice high with strength, Yerûšalaim {Jerusalem}, the one bringing (the) good message [o( eu)aggelizo/meno$] !
Lift (it) high, do not fear! Say to the cities of cities of Yehûdah {Judah}, ‘See—your God!'”

The oracle in Isa 40:1-5 had a profound effect on early Christianity, almost certainly recognized already by John the Baptist and Jesus himself as a Messianic prophecy; it was central to the early Gospel tradition (Mk 1:2-3 par; John 1:23, etc). The pairing of Isa 40:3 with Mal 3:1ff (as Messianic passages) likely goes back to Jewish tradition in the 1st centuries B.C./A.D., and was present in the earliest/formative Christian thought. It would be no surprise if the verses which follow (vv. 6-11ff), including the use of rc^B*/eu)aggeli/zw in verse 9, had a similar effect and influenced the idea of the “good message” (eu)agge/lion) of Christ. Note the emphasis here on the messenger, with the (substantive) participle—”the one bringing good news” (o( eu)agelizo/meno$/rC@b^m=).

Isaiah 52:7

“How they are fine upon the mountains,
the feet of (one) bringing (good) news [rC@b^m=],
causing (them to) hear (news of their) welfare,
(indeed) bringing good news [bwf rC@b^m=],
causing (them to) hear (the news of) salvation,
saying to ‚iyyôn {Zion}, ‘Your God (rul)es as King!'”

The general similarity with 40:9 (above) should be readily apparent, even in translation. Again, the LXX follows the Hebrew rather closely:

“How fitting (the moment) as (they are) upon the mountains,
the feet of (one) bringing (the) good message [eu)aggelizome/nou],
causing (them) to hear (of) peace,
bringing (the) message of good (thing)s [eu)aggelizo/meno$ a)gaqa/],
causing (them) to hear that ‘I will make your salvation’,
saying to ‚iyyôn {Zion}, ‘Your God (rul)es as King!'”

Again, the use of the participle emphasizes the messenger (his feet, etc). Paul cites it, appropriately, in Romans 10:15 referring to missionaries such as himself, as preachers of the Gospel. At the time of the New Testament, Isa 52:7-10 was one of a number of (Deutero-)Isaian oracles which were understood in a Messianic (eschatological) light. For early Christians, the Gospel message was, fundamentally, both Messianic and eschatological—the person and work of Jesus marking the end of the current Age and the beginning of the New. This is seen clearly enough in the early tradition that opens the Synoptic narrative, regarding the proclamation by John the Baptist, picked up by Jesus following his Baptism. In Luke’s version (3:4-6), Isa 52:10 is combined with 40:3-5—the very two passages under discussion here which utilize the verb eu)aggeli/zw.

Isaiah 60:6

“…and shoutings (of joy) they will bring (as good) news [WrC@b^y+]”

Isa 60:1-6ff is an oracle announcing the future/end-time deliverance of God’s people, which will entail both the restoration of Israel and the conversion/submission of the Nations—two Messianic and eschatological themes which had an enormous influence on early Christian thought, especially once the mission to the Gentiles began in earnest. Verses 5-7 speak of the “wealth of the nations” which will come to God’s people (in Jerusalem), illustrated by the concrete image of the surrounding peoples (from Midian and Sinai/Arabia) bringing gifts in caravan trains (of camels), including gold and incense. Most probably, verse 6 (together with Psalm 72:10) influenced the Matthean Infancy narrative (2:1-11), as a Messianic prophecy which could be applied to Jesus even at the time of his birth.

Interestingly, the Septuagint reads rather differently, and may reflect a variant or corrupt text; however, the result is a reading which even more fits the idea of the proclamation of the Gospel of Christ:

“…and they will bring (the) good message [eu)aggeliou=ntai] (of) the salvation of the Lord.” (LXX)

Also worth mentioning is Isa 41:27, which has the verb rc^B*:

“First to Zion, ‘See! see them (here)!’—and to Jerusalem I will give (one) bringing (good) news [rC@b^m=]”

The first portion of the verse is textually uncertain and obscure; in any event, the LXX renders both portions rather differently:

“I will give a chief/ruler [or authority/rule, a)rxh] to Zion, and I will call Jerusalem alongside [parakale/sw, i.e. give help] into/onto the way.”

The famous passage in Isaiah 61:1ff will be considered in the upcoming note on Jesus’ declaration in Mark 1:15 par.

The second area of study—the use of eu)aggel- word group in reference to the Roman Emperor and the Imperial cult—will be discussed in the next note.

Gospel: Meaning and Background of the word

I am beginning a series of daily notes dealing with the word eu)agge/lion (euangélion) and the eu)aggel- word group in the New Testament and early Christianity. This series will lead into various notes and articles dealing with the ministry of Jesus and the related Gospel Tradition, to be posted in the time prior to the Lenten/Easter season. The very word “gospel” is central to any study of this Tradition—it features prominently in Jesus’ first recorded words in the core Synoptic tradition, and, indeed, introduces the Markan Gospel itself:

“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ” (Mk 1:1)
“The time has been fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near—repent and trust in the gospel” (Mk 1:13)

Let us begin with this English word “gospel”. It is a Germanic word, existing in Old English as gœdspel, meaning good (gœd) speech (spel), i.e. a good talk or telling (tale). As such, it corresponds reasonably well with the Greek word eu)agge/lion. The close correspondence between gœd and the word which came to express the idea of deity (god) was fortuitous, as it allowed for a bit of wordplay so that “godspel/gospel” could be understood as “talk/speech of/about God”.

English godspel/gospel would have been used to translate the Greek eu)agge/lion, already in the Old English/Saxon versions. Let us now consider this Greek term. Actually, there are three closely related words (or forms): the feminine noun eu)aggeli/a (euangelía), the neuter noun eu)agge/lion (euangélion), and the plural form of the latter, eu)agge/lia (euangélia). There is also the related verb eu)aggeli/zw (euangelízœ). These form the primary eu)aggel- word group.

The noun eu)aggeli/a is made up of two components: the noun a)ggeli/a (angelía) and the prefixed eu@ (eu), an adverb meaning “good, well”. The noun a)ggeli/a and the related verb a)gge/llw are part of an a)ggel- word group with the fundamental meaning “tell, declare, proclaim” (TDNT 1:56-57ff). The word a)ggeli/a refers to what is told or proclaimed, i.e. the message. Thus, eu)aggeli/a essentially means a good message, often rendered in English as “good news”. The neuter eu)agge/lion refers primarily to the response to a good message, i.e. a reward or offering of thanks, etc; it is thus fundamentally tied to both the messenger and the content/effect of the message. The plural form of eu)agge/lion ([ta] eu)agge/lia) is rather more common in Greek (though not in the New Testament!). The messenger (a&ggelo$, ángelos) is primary, and the one who brings the good message or tidings is called eu)a/ggelo$ (“good messenger, messenger [of] good [news]”). Interestingly, this noun does not occur in the New Testament; instead, we find eu)aggelisth/$, from the verb eu)aggeli/zw, i.e. “one who brings/proclaims the good message”.

When the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek, the noun eu)aggeli/a was used to render hr*c)B= (b®´œrâ), which occurs 6 times in the Old Testament (2 Sam 4:10; 18:20, 22, 25, 27; 2 Kings 7:9); eu)aggeli/a renders it in all but one instance (2 Sam 4:10), where the neuter eu)agge/lion (plural) is used instead. The Hebrew noun is derived from the root rc^B*, a relatively common Semitic verb meaning “bring (good) news”. The verb is more frequent in the Old Testament (24 times), often used in a military context (reporting on the outcome of a battle, etc), or for other important events (such as the birth of a son). It is nearly always translated in Greek by eu)aggeli/zw (“give/bring a [good] message”), which occurs 23 times in the LXX (the middle form eu)aggeli/zomai being more common by the time of the New Testament). This Old Testament usage, and its influence on the New Testament and early Christian expression, will be discussed in the notes.

Largely due to the Christian usage, the Greek eu)agge/lion was borrowed in Latin as evangelium, and it is this Latinized form which made its way into English and our evangel word group, which has been used almost exclusively in a Christian context. The word “evangelism” is related to “evangelist” (properly from the Greek eu)aggelisth/$, euangelist¢¡s), and refers to preaching/proclaiming the Gospel. The word “evangelical” means “belonging, or related to, the Gospel”; unfortunately, this meaning has become somewhat distorted today, and often refers more to socio-political identity than to the Gospel message. The modern-day usage of “evangelical” ultimately stems from the Protestant Reformation, where it was essentially synonymous with “Protestant” and “Reformed”, and quickly took on partisan religious (and political) connotations. In the late-19th and 20th centuries, especially in America, it came to refer to a particular idea of mainstream (traditional-conservative) Protestant Christianity (and Christian identity). Currently, however, as noted above, it often connotes socio-political conservatism as much as anything to do with historical Christianity.