The Gospel: Good Tidings (Part 1)

 

Roman Imperial Ideology and the Early Pronouncement of the Gospel of King Jesus

What is the gospel? How would the gospel have been understood in the Greco-Roman world? Why did the Apostolic writers choose to express their message in terminology like gospel, Lord, Christ, etc.? These questions are asked by many people that I know. They ask because they all desire resources or insights that will adequately inform their understanding of the Scriptures, the Gospel, Jesus, God, and the faith in which they participate. These inquiries are not confined to small circles, rather they are quite prevalent in many congregations and settings. Because of this, I hope to bring scholarly information to everyday people that will help inform and inspire them to study, engage, and wrestle with the Scriptures and their faith. In what follows, I will investigate the “gospel” and hopefully bring this magnificent message into a new light for those who do not necessarily have the time or energy to dig into these matters in a scholarly way.

To begin, the Gospel (εὐαγγέλιον, euaggelion; “good news” or “good tidings”) has become normalized in Western Christianity so much so that the contextualized understanding of the word has seemed to be all but lost. The word “gospel” has a context that gives it meaning. Prior to the Apostolic tradition using the term gospel as connoting the message of Jesus Christ, the gospel was first found on the lips of Roman delegates (ἀπόστολο, apostolos; “sent ones”).[1] These apostles, or “sent ones,” were commissioned by the Roman Caesar (Καῖσαρ, Kaisar; “Caesar”) to go to a conquered city and herald the gospel, good news, to the new subjects of Rome. The apostles would proclaim the good news that Caesar is lord (κύριος, kyrios; “Lord” or “King”) over the land and now that you are his people, you will be provided safety and protection from Rome’s enemies, live under the Pax Romana (“Roman Peace”) provided by the Emperor’s rule and reign, and your city will now be “Romanized.”[2]

This announcement of the good news did not give the people a choice, per se. The royal pronouncement was simply that, an announcement of the way things were i.e. reality for the Roman people or newly conquered people. This announcement was a “good thing” in the eyes of the Romans heralding the message to the newly conquered people; however, the message of good news could have been taken as an oppressive message to those being conquered. One simply could not denounce this reality without committing treason. The gospel was a pronouncement of good tidings from the perspective of the Romans to a newly conquered people, with the expectation of the people living lives of fidelity (πίστις, pistis; “fidelity”) to their new lord. [3] The gospel was simply the announcement of what was true about reality for the Roman people. If you were to ask someone in the Roman world what the good news was, they would point to Caesar’s lordship and rule and the benefits that were derived from living under his rule and reign.

While the details of this Roman gospel are compact, the context provided is enough for the keen reader to notice many parallels between the Roman gospel and the gospel expressed in the Apostolic literature. The context for the apostolic writers was the Roman proclamation of Caesar’s rule and reign and the benefits derived from that rule. The early followers of Jesus hearing the gospel from the apostles or hearing it read in one of the four gospel accounts would have recognized the subversive, treacherous, and defiant language in their own gospel compared to the gospel of Caesar.[4] These comparative elements are what I will be diving into in the next couple blog posts to provide an understanding about the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the context of the Roman Empire.

To begin this assessment, I will provide a list of parallel words used by the Apostolic tradition and end by providing the Apostolic Tradition’s Gospel of Jesus Christ. In the post to follow, I will first discuss the ways in which the gospel message is different from the Roman gospel. Secondly, I will provide a brief history that led to the Roman terminology being used as it was during the first century CE. Thirdly, I will engage the political nature of the gospel proclaimed by Jesus’ apostles and the nature of “religion” in the ancient Roman Empire. Lastly, I will provide a contextualized understanding of the gospel as it was presented to various groups i.e. Jews, Greeks, Philosophers, etc.

A Few Parallels Between: 

The Roman’s Gospel and the Gospel of the Apostolic Tradition

Gospel (Greek εὐαγγέλιον [singular]; “good news” or “good tidings”)

Apostle (ἀπόστολο, apostolos)

Son of god/God (divi filius)

God (θεός, Theos)

Lord/Christ (Messiah) (κύριος, kyrios; Χριστός, Christos)

Epiphany (ἐπιφάνεια, epiphaneia)

Savior (σωτήρ, sótér)

The Royal Announcement of the Good Tidings of King Jesus

For my presentation of the Gospel, I will simply cite Apostle Paul’s formulation in his letter to the Corinthians. This is citation is an early Apostolic Tradition of the Gospel that was passed on to Paul. The following is structured and formatted using Scot McKnight’s separation of the text into three parts found in his book The King Jesus Gospel:

A)

Brothers and sisters, I want to call your attention to the good news that I preached to you, which you also received and in which you stand. You are being saved through it if you hold on to the message I preached to you, unless somehow you believed it for nothing.

B)

I passed on to you as most important what I also received: Christ died for our sins in line with the scriptures, he was buried, and he rose on the third day in line with the scriptures. He appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve,

C)

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead. He’s the first crop of the harvest of those who have died. Since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead came through one too. In the same way that everyone dies in Adam, so also everyone will be given life in Christ. Each event will happen in the right order: Christ, the first crop of the harvest, then those who belong to Christ at his coming, and then the end, when Christ hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when he brings every form of rule, every authority and power to an end. It is necessary for him to rule until he puts all enemies under his feet. Death is the last enemy to be brought to an end, since he has brought everything under control under his feet. When it says that everything has been brought under his control, this clearly means everything except for the one who placed everything under his control. But when all things have been brought under his control, then the Son himself will also be under the control of the one who gave him control over everything so that God may be all in all.

1 Corinthians 15:1-2, 3-5, 20-28 (Common English Bible; bold parts are my edits)[5]

With the Roman’s gospel and the Apostolic Tradition’s Gospel of Jesus, we are prepared to dive into the context and meaning of the Gospel in the next few posts.

 

Notes

[1] I use “Apostolic tradition” instead of “New Testament” out of respect for the Hebrew Scriptures and the Jewish people. Also, “new” can connote that what is previous is old or out of date and in the case of the biblical literature, the Hebrew Scriptures are as far from old or out of date in comparison to the Apostolic literature as it can get. It is important to note that the Apostles and Jesus used the Hebrews Scriptures and those scriptures were their scriptures. See the following works if you wish to dig deeper into the Roman context of the gospel: for a less scholarly and readable treatment see McKnight, Scot. The King Jesus Gospel; Wright, N.T. Simply Jesus; Wright, N.T. Simply Good News; and for more scholarly takes on this see Campbell, Douglas. The Deliverance of God, 696-714; Wright, N.T. Jesus and the Victory of God (vol. 2 in Christian Origins and the Question of God); Wright, N.T. The Resurrection of the Son of God (vol. 3 in Christian Origins and the Question of God),

[2] What I mean by Romanized is that the city would undergo major transformation so much so that when the Caesar would come and visit he would feel like he was coming home to Rome.

[3] I choose to translate the word pistis, normally translated as “faith,” “faithfulness,” or “trust,” as fidelity because fidelity connotes the rightful response that a ruling lord expects of his subjects. This word will become important in later posts when we dig into the manner of faith

[4] The gospel accounts are not gospel(s). This is an important point because the gospel is the same message and the four gospel accounts express this message in different ways. The pronouncement of Jesus’ Lordship doesn’t change, but the way it is expressed to various audiences does change. Alongside this, I want to note my addition of hearing the gospel accounts as important to the context of understanding the gospel writings. In the first century, the papyrus was expensive, not all people were literate, and thus the people would have heard the gospel read out loud to them. Silent personal reading would have been a strange phenomenon for first century people. This is important to understand that the gospel was proclaimed and even the writing would have been proclaimed in gathered assemblies.

[5] McKnight, Scot. The King Jesus Gospel, 47-48.

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