By Garrett Best
Bird, Michael. The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2014).
In the last post, I recommended Michael Bird’s book The Gospel of the Lord to the few folks who may stumble across my humble blog. In this series of blog posts, I’d like to use Bird’s book as a starting point for talking about the origins of the Jesus tradition and the Fourfold Gospel. In this post, I’d like to ask the question: Why did Jesus and his followers choose the word “gospel” (Greek εὐαγγὲλιον) as the title to designate the message of and about Jesus?
When Mark became the first of the Four Evangelists to pen the words “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk 1:1), he had not invented a new term. The word εὐαγγὲλιον and its related verb form εὐαγγελίζομαι (“to evangelize”) did not just appear out of thin air. The word “gospel” had a background in its Greco-Roman and Jewish context. By choosing the term “gospel”, Jesus and his followers intended to convey a particular message to their world. If we want to understand the gospel today, we have to understand what it meant back then.
In the Greco-Roman world, the word εὐαγγὲλιον was used to announce military victories or the good news of the death of an enemy king. It also was used in imperial propaganda to proclaim the “gospel” of a new age of prosperity brought about by the accession of a new emperor. For example, the Jewish historian Josephus, writing around 75 A.D., describes Vespasian’s accession to the throne as εὐαγγὲλιον (Jewish Wars 10.6; 11.3, 5). In the 19th century, the Priene Calendar Inscription was discovered which dates to 9 B.C., just a few years before the birth of Jesus. The proconsul of Asia Minor sent out a decree that the birthday of the Emperor Augustus should be celebrated as a benefaction to the people. The inscription is interesting because it refers to Augustus as the “savior” and says that εὐαγγὲλιον came into the world as a result of Augustus’ birth.
It is in this Greco-Roman Imperial context that Paul and the Evangelists spoke of the “gospel of Jesus Christ.” It was a world where the word “gospel” was used to announce military victories, proclaim the accession of a new emperor to the throne, and used in imperial propaganda. The message of the “gospel of Jesus Christ” was politically subversive in its Greco-Roman context (cf. John 19:12-16). While the decision to use “gospel” may have been intended as a critique against Roman imperial propaganda, I, like Bird, think the primary conceptual background for the term “gospel” is Jewish.
In the Hebrew Bible, the word בָשַר is translated as “to bring good news” (cf. 1 Sam. 4:17; 31:9; 2 Sam. 4:10; Ps. 40:10). In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint, the translators used εὐαγγὲλιον and its related forms to translate the Hebrew בָשַר. Although this word occurs multiple times throughout the Septuagint, the most relevant texts come from the prophet Isaiah. In Isaiah 40-66, Isaiah announces deliverance to the Israelites in Babylonian captivity. Isaiah 61:1-2 is important because it is the text selected by Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth to summarize His messianic ministry (Luke 4:16-30). Jesus is the Spirit anointed one who will “bring good news to the poor”, proclaim liberty to the captives, and open the prisons of those who were bound. Isaiah’s “gospel” (40:9; 41:27; 52:7; 60:6; 61:1) is that God is Lord of the nations. God has defeated Judah’s enemies and will deliver His people from captivity in a powerful display of salvation. He will create a renewed Jerusalem, a “new heavens and a new earth” (65:17-25), and He will be faithful to His covenant people.
Seen against the backdrop of the Isaianic “gospel”, the good news is all encompassing. The “gospel” is the announcement that God is faithful to His covenant people, Israel, and that He is victorious over all the nations of the world. As Bird puts it, “The good news, Isaiah’s glad tidings, is composed of assertions about God’s kingship, mercy, and the socio-political deliverance it will entail for Israel.” (Bird, 12)
To summarize, Bird says, “Rather, it is the prophetic vision of Isaiah, with the “glad tidings” of Yahweh’s reign, the end of the exile, and Israel’s restoration, drawn from the Aramaic vocabulary of Herodian Judea, that forms the immediate background of “gospel” on the lips of Jesus, in the preaching of the early church, and on the pages of the Gospels. So much so that Isaiah is appropriately called the “fifth Gospel” of the church.” (Bird, 13)
I believe there are two significant observations to make, specifically for the Western church. First, it means that the gospel is not just about my personal salvation. The gospel is about God’s reign as king in the world. It is about His covenant faithfulness to the people. The gospel is about Abraham, David, and Israel. The gospel is not just about my soul going to heaven. The gospel has far greater ecological, sociological, and even cosmological implications of which I am but a part. It is a message of freedom to captives and the proclamation of new heavens and new earth. I believe that until Christians are taught the gospel of Isaiah, we will miss important aspects of the gospel of Christ. Second, I think it is an inescapable fact that the gospel is politically subversive. The gospel of Isaiah was that Yahweh is Lord of Israel, Assyria, Babylon, and all the other nations of the world. Centuries later, in its first century context, the εὐαγγὲλιον was a critique against the Roman imperial cult which proclaimed the Caesar as supreme ruler of the world announcing that Jesus was the king of a kingdom which is not of this world. Rather than supporting one political party or agenda, the gospel surpasses them all. The gospel of Jesus Christ reminds us that God is faithful to His people and is ruling over all the nations of the world and their political factions. As we get ready to head into another election cycle in the United States, what a needed reminder!