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.