We have been looking at critical research into the Canonical and Non-Canonical Gospels, but what does the term “gospel” even mean and why was it applied to books about the life, discourses, or death and resurrection of Jesus?
Steve Mason has a helpful article entitled “Methods and Categories: Judaism and Gospel” over at the website Bible and Interpretation. He demonstrates how rare the term actually is in pre-Christian Jewish and Graeco-Roman literature. For instance, the singular neuter noun euangelion (“gospel”) is not found in this exact form at all in the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint, while the plural neuter form is found once in 2 Samuel 4:10 for a message about Saul’s death that, ironically, was not received by David as “good news.” I like how Mason tries to de-familiarize the term by translating it as the “Announcement” and how strange and intriguing that might have sounded to new audiences. I am less convinced that it was a term coined by Paul as a distinctive label for his message; it seems to me that Paul is summarizing the “gospel” by drawing on common creedal material in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 and Romans 1:3-4 and likely inherited the term “gospel” from earlier Greek-speaking Christians as well.
Although it is in rare form, I still think those who used the term “gospel” were drawing on both a Jewish and Graeco-Roman background. In the Septuagint translation of Isaiah 52:7 and 61:1, the verb for bring good news is used to herald the liberation of the people from exile in Babylon and announce a future eschatological salvation. As for the Roman background, Craig A Evans has provided a translation of the Priene Calendar Inscription in 9 BCE about the good news that the emperor Octavian or “Augustus” was going to bring peace to the Roman Empire (see “Mark’s Incipit and the Priene Calendar Inscription: From Jewish Gospel to Greco-Roman Gospel” Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 1 : 67-81):
“It seemed good to the Greeks of Asia, in the opinion of the high priest Apollonius of Menophilus Azanitus: “Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with excellence that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance (excelled even our anticipations), surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good news [euangeliōn] for the world that came by reason of him,” which Asia resolved in Smyrna…”
I do not think the meaning of the term “gospel” can be de-contextualized as just a timeless message of how to be saved from God’s wrath against sin; it was used in the context of giving hope to a colonized people who had been or were currently subjugated to the imperial rule of Babylon, Persia or Rome. The meaning that comes through in Romans 1 or Mark 1 is that the God of Israel was faithful to the promises to deliver the covenant people by raising and enthroning Jesus, the descendant of a great royal Davidic dynasty and the true emperor of the world. In the next post, we will look at how a term that announced that the crucified one had been installed as the Lord of the cosmos came to denote written texts about Jesus in the second century CE.