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.

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