Thursday, February 9, 2012

What Is the Gospel? Part 2


What is the gospel?  As I discussed in my previous post, most “evangelical” Christians have a ready answer to this question: the “gospel” (derived from the Old English gōdspel, “good story, glad tidings” [i.e., gōd + spel{l}], a formal equivalent of the ecclesiastical Latin evangelium, itself derived from the Greek eaggelion)[i]  is the “good news” of what God has accomplished in Christ for the “salvation” of individual sinners, and the means whereby such sinners participate in the benefits of what Christ accomplished.  My own experience, as one raised in a fundamentalist/evangelical environment with a theology professor father, led me to understand the gospel in terms of the combined message of the doctrines of penal, substitutionary atonement and justification by faith alone.

Interestingly, this “soterian” approach cuts across the various party lines that continue to fester like an open wound on the fissiparous phenomenon we call “Protestantism.”  It doesn’t matter whether one is Lutheran or Reformed, Arminian or Calvinist—evangelical Protestants almost uniformly understand the “gospel” to be a message related to individualistic soteriology, most often in terms of the classic Protestant doctrine of justification. 

Now the doctrines of penal substitution and justification by faith alone are, I believe, taught clearly in the New Testament, not least by the Apostle Paul.  And—I must make this clear—these teachings are very good news indeed for sinners like me who couldn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of avoiding such a fate based on any “righteousness” I could muster on my own. Nevertheless, to assume these doctrines constitute what the Bible means by the term “gospel” begs the historical and exegetical question.  Moreover, to do so short-circuits possible implications of the “good news” for how believers in the gospel ought to act in the world.  It is precisely this assumed understanding of the gospel that Scot McKnight targets in his recent book, The King Jesus Gospel.[ii]   In its place, Professor McKnight argues for a story gospel in which the biblical “story” of Jesus completes, or brings to a climax, the larger biblical narrative of Israel.

The place to start our investigation, as is so often the case, is with the terminology itself, specifically the Greek terms eagglion  (“gospel”) and eaggelzw/ eaggelzomai  (“I announce good news”).[iii]  Two plausible backgrounds have been suggested.

The first proposed background is that of the Greco-Roman world.  The earliest recorded use of the term refers to the reward given to one who brought good tidings of victory on the battlefield.[iv] The term then became used more specifically of the “victory message” itself, and in time was applied in the context of the imperial cult to such events as the birth and accession of the emperor.[v]

Note, in particular, the famous example relating to the accession of Octavius (Augustus) found on the Priene Inscription (Asia Minor), dated to 9 B.C.:
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 virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior [σωτήρ], both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance…. 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 [τοῦ θεοῦ] Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings [εὐαγγέλιον] for the world that came by reason of him…

Consider also the following quotation from Plutarch’s (1st century A.D.) Moralia (347 d-e):
Why, as we are told, the Spartans merely sent meat from the public commons to the man who brought glad tidings [εὐαγγέλιον] of the victory in Mantineia which Thucydides describes! And indeed the compilers of histories are, as it were, reporters of great exploits who are gifted with the faculty of felicitous speech, and achieve success in their writing through the beauty and force of their narration; and to them those who first encountered and recorded the events [εὐαγγέλιον] are indebted for a pleasing retelling of them.

Finally, note the following from the pen of the first-century Jewish historian, Josephus, writing of the accession of Vespasian (Jewish War 4.618):
Fame carried [the news about Vespasian] abroad more suddenly than one could have thought, that he was emperor over the east, upon which every city kept festivals, and celebrated sacrifices and oblations for such good news [εὐαγγέλια].

The second proposed background, as one might imagine, is the Jewish scriptures. One complicating factor is that the singular noun eagglion is nowhere found in the Greek translation of the OT (the LXX). The Hebrew noun beśōrȃ is rendered by the neuter plural t eaggela (2 Kgdms 4:10—“messenger’s reward;” 4 Kgdms 7:9—“good news”) and the feminine singular eaggela (2 Kgdms 18:20, 22, 25, 27; 4 Kgdms 7:9—“good news”).

It is here that the contribution of the cognate verb  eaggelzomai is potentially very significant. Most relevant is the following series of prophecies in Isaiah 40-66, where the verb is used to render the Hebrew verb biśśar:
            Get you up to a high mountain,
            O Zion, herald of good news;
            Lift up your voice with strength,
            O Jerusalem, herald of good news;
            Lift it up, fear not;
            Say to the cities of Judah,
            “Behold, your God!” (Isa 40:9, ESV).

            I was the first to say to Zion, “Behold, here they are!”
            And I give to Jerusalem a herald of good news. (41:27, ESV)

            How delightful it is to see approaching over the mountains
the feet of a messenger who announces peace,
a messenger who brings good news, who announces deliverance,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns!” (52:7, NET)

A multitude of camels shall cover you,
The young camels of Midian and Ephah;
All those from Sheba shall come.
They shall bring gold and frankincense;
and shall bring good news, the praises of the LORD. (60:6, ESV)

The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
he has sent me to bind the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn.” (61:1-2, ESV)[vi]

These texts are all of a piece. The “good news” that is heralded has a specific content geared to the exiled Jewish people in captivity in Babylon: the prophet proclaims glad tidings of two interrelated, hoped-for events, namely, Yahweh’s enthronement in Zion and Israel’s return from exile in a new Exodus.  If indeed these texts provide the background of the New Testament gospel, the implicit point would be that God had, in the “Christ event,” fulfilled the scriptural hopes of Israel, and that this “good news” for Israel was simultaneously ”good news” for the whole world.

Scholars, as might be expected, take various positions on the proposed background. Most vocal in support of the derivation from the Hellenistic ruler-cult is Georg Strecker, based both on his somewhat tendentious distinction between “secular” and “religious” uses of the terms, and his (somewhat) irrelevant observation that Isaiah doesn’t use the noun form of the root.

In recent decades, due largely to the painstaking work of Stuhlmacher,[vii] scholars have increasingly inclined to the view that the New Testament “gospel” must be understood in light of the Isaianic prophecies cited above.[viii]  I tend to agree, as will become obvious in later posts. But one wonders whether a choice is necessary, and that exegetes have been asked to place themselves on the horns of a false dilemma. Certainly (as we shall see), both Paul and Mark present the gospel as the fulfillment of Israel’s scriptural hopes. Nevertheless, both of these authors also wrote to people living in the Roman Empire who were steeped in the language of imperial “good news,” and who necessarily would have captured clear the implications to be found in the confession that the crucified Messiah had been raised to be universal Lord.

The term “gospel” occurs 76 times in the New Testament, 60 of which are found in the Pauline corpus.[ix]  Paul is also the earliest writer to use the term.[x]  It is also Paul who provides us with the earliest confessional summary of the gospel as he had been taught it after his conversion no more than three years after the death and resurrection of Jesus (1 Cor 15:3-5).  Nevertheless, one can only conjecture whether or not Paul received this message as “the gospel,” even if, as Rikki Watts persuasively argues, the content of this gospel derives from the earliest proclamation of the Palestinian church.[xi]

Indeed, the consistent use of the singular eagglion rather than the pervasive plural forms found in both the LXX and pagan texts is suggestive. Could the singular form be a neologism of sorts, designed by Paul himself to designate the story of Jesus as the “good news” par excellence which trumps all other glad tidings proclaimed in the Roman world?[xii]

In our next post, we will begin our discussion of Paul’s gospel by turning to 1 Corinthians 15, where the earliest gospel confession is found.


[i] Cf. e.g., http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/gospel.
[ii] Scot McKnight, The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).
[iii] Standard discussions include those of Gerhard Friedrich, “eagglion, ktl,” TDNT 2:707-37; Georg Strecker, “eagglion,EDNT 2:70-74; U. Becker, “Gospel,” NIDNTT 2:110-15; and especially Peter Stuhlmacher, Das paulinischen Evangelium. I. Vorgeschichte (FRLANT 95; Gӧttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 1968).
[iv] Homer, Od. xiv.156.
[v] Cf. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/wordfreq?lang=greek&lookup=eu%29agge%2Flion. For English translations. Cf. the list compiled by Glen Davis at http://glenandpaula.com/wordpress/archives/2010/02/25/pre-christian-uses-of-gospel.
[vi] This Isaianic hope was alive and well in first-century Judaism, as is clear from both the (Pharisaic) Psalms of Solomon 11 (text to be found in James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha.II. Expansions of the ‘Old Testament’ and Legends, Wisdom and Philosophical Literature, Prayers, Psalms and Odes, Fragments of Lost Judaeo-Hellenistic Works [Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985] 661-62) and the sectarian Dead Sea Scrolls (1QH 18.14-15; 11QMelch 2.4-13 [texts in Florentino García Martínez, The Dead Sea Scrolls Translated: The Qumran Texts in English {2d ed.; transl. Wilfred G. E. Watson; Leiden: Brill, 1994} 359 {cited as column XXIII}; 139-40]).
[vii] Stuhlmacher, Das paulinischen Evangelium, 109-79.
[viii] See especially Rikki E. Watts, Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark (WUNT 2; Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck] 1997); James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998) 164-69; C. C. Broyles, “Gospel (Good News),” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (ed. Joel B. Green and Scot McKnight; Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 1992) 282-86.
[ix] Other than in Paul, the term is found in Mark (8x), Matthew (4x), Acts (2x), 1 Peter (1x), and Revelation (1x).
[x] He uses the term 7 times in Galatians, which I take to have been written ca. A.D. 49.
[xi] Watts, New Exodus in Mark, 96-99.
[xii] As suggested by Dunn, Theology, 167.

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