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.

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