No doubt, we often hear the word ‘gospel,’ but, personally, I must admit that, for decades, I didn’t really understand what it meant. As I’ll also show in this article, even before the writing of the Gospels, Paul’s authentic letters used the same word but with a different meaning, thus creating even more confusion to the Bible reader. This article aims at clarifying its intended meanings.
In his article “What Does ‘Gospel’ Really Mean?” Christian apologist James Warner Wallace explains,
“The word ‘gospel’ is derived from an Anglo-Saxon word, ‘godspel’, or ‘good story’ and was substituted for the original Greek word ‘euaggelion’ [pronounced ‘euangelion’] which first signified ‘a present given to one who brought good tidings’, or ‘a sacrifice offered in thanksgiving for such good tidings having come’. In later Greek uses, it was employed for the good tidings themselves.” (Wallace, accessed November 1, 2021)
Probably needless to add, from the Greek word euangelion, we get the English word ‘evanvelist’ for a ‘gospel author.’
Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation Carl Gregg elaborates,
“According to scholars of ancient Rome, gospels in the Roman Empire were typically ‘Roman propaganda.’ Recall that the Greek word we transliterate as ‘gospel’ literally means ‘good news.’ Thus, Roman gospels would herald the good news of a Roman ‘military victory … or of the ascension to power of a new emperor.’ Imperial subjects in the Roman empire, would be all too familiar with Roman gospels because it was in Rome’s interest to spread Roman military and political propaganda in order to keep the famous peace of Rome, the so-called Pax Romana.” (Gregg, accessed November 1, 2021, emphasis in original)
In the four canonical (i.e., church-recognized/official) Gospels, the concept of ‘gospel,’ or ‘good news,’ was originally coined by the evangelist Mark: his gospel was the first to be written, around 70 CE. Mark’s gospel has the opening statement “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1, KJV) What did the evangelist Mark mean? What was this supposed good news? What exactly was he referring to? Mark himself explains, later in his first chapter, what this good news was all about. He writes,
“Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, ‘the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.’” (Mark 1:14–15, KJV, emphasis mine)
The Jesus portrayed in the Gospels (like John the Baptist before him and Paul of Tarsus after him) believed that this kingdom of God was imminent; in fact, Mark portrays Jesus saying, “The time is fulfilled”: that is, “the time allowed us by God is over.”
The kingdom of God is not a political kingdom; it is supposedly a kingdom of justice, sharing, peace, non-violence, love, kindness, mercy, truth, and happiness: in which God ‘rules’ the world in our ‘hearts, so to speak, through love of neighbor. In his book Did Jesus Exist? New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman affirms that John, Jesus, and Paul all thought that God was going to accomplish this feat single-handedly—very soon. (Ehrman, pp. 298, 302, 304) Truly, it was tidings of great news!
The evangelist Matthew agrees with Mark’s definition of ‘gospel’; following are some verses from Matthew’s gospel.
“Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness and all manner of disease among the people.” (Matthew 4:23, KJV, emphasis mine)
“Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people.” (Matthew 9:35, KJV, emphasis mine)
“This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come.” (Matthew 24:14, KJV, emphasis mine)
In this last quote, notice the reference to the “end” of the world as we know it—the present violent word.
Surprisingly enough, the evangelist Luke never explains exactly what he means by the word ‘gospel,’ and, even more surprisingly, the evangelist John never even mentions the word ‘gospel.’
Minister Gregg proceeds to explain the controversial, if not subversive, nature of the use of this Greek word euangelion, translated in English as ‘gospel.’
“When trying to understand the Gospel of Mark’s first-century perspective from our twenty-first century context, we cannot remind ourselves too often of the historical event surrounding Mark’s writing. In the middle of the Roman-Jewish War, Mark uses the genre of gospel—a genre typically associated with glad tidings from the battlefield regarding Roman military victories or with the good news of a new Roman emperor—to tell the subversive good news of Jesus, a Jewish peasant whom the Roman had crucified decades earlier. As I said earlier: breathtaking.” (Gregg, accessed November 2, 2021, emphasis in original)
According to Wikipedia, the first Jewish-Roman war took place between 66 and 73 CE; in 70–71 CE the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its temple. (Wikipedia, “First Jewish-Roman War,” accessed November 2, 2021)
Son of God
Observe also that, in the first verse of Mark’s gospel, Jesus is given the title ‘Son of God.’ Now, this was a usurpation of the Roman emperor’s title. Several emperors in the first century CE were given the title Divi Filius, Latin for ‘Son of God.’ According to Wikipedia,
“Divi filius … was a title much used by the Emperor Augustus …. The title … was also applied to some of Augustus’s successors, notably Tiberius, Nero, and Domitian.” (Wikipedia, “Divi Filius,” accessed November 2, 2021)
In 42 BCE, almost two years after he was killed, Julius Caesar was officially recognized as a god by the Roman Senate. He was thus given the title Divus Julius, Latin for ‘God Julius.’ So, his grand-nephew, Octavian, whom Julius had adopted as his own son, thereafter called himself Divi Filius, or ‘Son of God.’ When he became Rome’s first emperor, in 27 BCE, the Roman Senate conferred on Octavian the title of Augustus Caesar, Latin for ‘Venerable Caesar.’ Several other emperors, after Augustus, were also deified, but only after their death: namely, Tiberius, Nero, and Domitian. (Wikipedia, “Divi Filius,” accessed November 2, 2021)
Admittedly, according to the New American Bible, in various major manuscripts the phrase “the Son of God” does not appear in the first verse of Mark’s gospel. (Mark 1:1n, NAB) However, if this phrase was introduced early enough in Christian manuscripts, it would surely have been a challenge to Roman sensitivity: the followers of a condemned criminal of the state (Jesus) were trying to take over the emperor’s title. Christians usurped the titles ‘Son of God’ and ‘Savior of the World’ (English for Salvator Mundi) from the emperor, and they also usurped his official propaganda phrase for any type of good news: the official name of his ‘newspaper,’ so to speak. This boiled down to subversion, to say the least, if not treason: Christians were taunting the Roman authorities. In his book God and Empire, biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan states,
“Christians were not simply using ordinary titles applied to all sorts of people. … They were taking the identity of the Roman emperor and giving it to a Jewish peasant.” (Crossan, p. 28)
No wonder Christians were considered enemies of the Roman Empire; especially when one considers that Emperor Augustus was, in general, considered a good emperor across the empire.
Kingdom of God
As a matter of fact, according to Minister Gregg, in the first-century (BCE/CE) Roman Empire, it was even dangerous to declare God as the king of the whole world: the phrase ‘whole world’ was synonymous to the Roman Empire. He writes,
“One aspect of historical Jesus studies that almost all scholars actually agree about is that a central aspect of Jesus’ ministry concerned speaking about the kingdom of God. And to speak about God being king, when Caesar had declared himself divine, was audacious to say the least.” (Gregg, accessed November 2, 2021, emphasis in original)
The reader may now start to realize why Jesus ended up condemned and crucified as a revolutionary by the state, and why Christians were ‘persecuted’ in the Roman Empire.
This is why Pilate asked Jesus, “Art thou the King of the Jews?” (John 18: 33, KJV) Jesus tried to explain to him that it was not a political kingdom and it involved no military force.
“Jesus answered, ‘my kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence [the same kind].’” (John 18:36, KJV)
After ascertaining Jesus was no military threat, Pilate tried to release him.
“From thenceforth Pilate sought to release him: but the Jews cried out, saying, ‘If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar’s friend: whosoever maketh himself a king speaketh against Caesar.’” (John 19:12, KJV)
Hearing this, Pilate was not going to risk his political position for a Jewish peasant; so, he decided to condemn him anyway.
“Pilate wrote a title, and put it on the cross. And the writing was ‘Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews.’” (John 19:19, KJV)
The trouble was that Jesus used the word ‘kingdom.’
Jesus, and later his apostles, did jump-start the ‘kingdom of God,’ but, unfortunately, it eventually stalled. According to the Acts of the Apostles, about three thousand persons converted to Christianity after the speech made by the apostles’ leader, Peter, at Pentecost—right after the descent of the Holy Spirit on the first Christian community. (Acts 1:13–14; 2:1–41) These converts decided to live a communal life together:
“All that believed were together, and had all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted [shared] them to all men [everybody], as every man [person] had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread [Eucharist] from house to house, did eat their meat [food] with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.” (Acts 2:44–47, KJV, emphasis mine)
Paul of Tarsus
There are thirteen New Testament letters that are attributed to (Saint) Paul in their internal text, but biblical scholars are of the opinion that only seven of them were written by Paul (mainly in the fifties CE); the other six were probably written by his disciples/followers in his name. I shall confine this section to the seven undisputed Pauline letters (i.e., Romans, First Corinthians, Second Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, First Thessalonians, and Philemon).
The Greek word euangelion or ‘gospel’ appears more than sixty times in the seven authentic Pauline letters, but it has a different meaning from that in the Gospels: in these letters Paul did not associate the ‘good news’ with ‘God’s kingdom.’ The New American Bible defines ‘gospel’ as follows:
“In Greek, this word signifies good news, and specifically the good news of the kingdom of God (Hebrews 4:2; Matthew 4:23). Saint Paul uses the word to indicate his preaching; later the same word will be applied to the accounts of Christ’s life (First Corinthians 9:16; Romans 1:3).” (NAB, “Bible Dictionary” p. 418)
So, the New American Bible shows clearly that the use of the word ‘gospel’ in the Gospels differs significantly from that in Paul’s letters; however, I tend to disagree somewhat with its definition in Paul’s case. Please notice my emphases in the following Pauline quotes and see whether you come to the same conclusion I arrive at.
In the first chapter of his Romans, Paul writes,
“Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, separated unto the gospel of God, (which he had promised afore by his prophets in the holy scriptures,) concerning his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh; and declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.” (Romans 1:1–4, KJV, emphasis mine)
And later in the same chapter he writes,
“I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” (Romans 1:16, KJV, emphasis mine)
In the next chapter of the same letter, he writes,
“In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel.” (Romans 2:16, KJV, emphasis mine)
In the first chapter of his First Corinthians he writes,
“Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect. For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.” (First Corinthians 1:17–18, KJV, emphasis mine)
And in the last chapter but one of the same letter, he writes,
“Moreover, brethren, I declare unto you the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received, and wherein ye stand; by which also ye are saved, if ye keep in memory what I preached unto you, unless ye have believed in vain.” (First Corinthians 15:1–2, KJV, emphasis mine)
Finally in his Second Corinthians, he writes,
“But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost.” (Second Corinthians 4:3, KJV, emphasis mine)
In my opinion, therefore, Paul’s ‘good news’ consisted of the bodily resurrection (like Jesus) and subsequent eternal life of all those who believed in Jesus Christ—while all the others who did not believe in Jesus were going to perish. This is the age-old solution to humanity’s problem: how to defeat death and achieve immortality. Truly it was great news!
This is probably why the early Church Fathers came up with the dictum, “Outside the Church there is no salvation.” Paul and the Church Fathers were wrong, of course: God is impartial and loves everyone; just as Paul was wrong about the imminent Second Coming of Jesus. (Incidentally, also Jesus was wrong about the imminent coming of the kingdom of God.)
Now, I don’t want the reader to think that I am the only one who defines Paul’s use of the word ‘gospel’ given above; so, to confirm my conclusion here, I quote theology graduate Happy Riches’s answer to the question “What Exactly Did Paul Mean When He Used the Word ‘Gospel’ Throughout His Epistles?” in Quora,
“The good news (Gospel) is that Jesus rose from the dead and there is a resurrection—the redemption of our bodies to which we can look forward to being included. … Many think the gospel is merely the forgiveness of sins. But the good news is that not only have our sins been forgiven, but we have a hope of eternal life wherein we will receive redeemed bodies that will have no imperfections or be subject to death.” (Riches, accessed November 2, 2021, emphasis mine)
Crossan, John Dominic. God and Empire: Jesus against Rome, Then and Now. New York, NY: HarperOne, 2008. (ISBN: 9780060858315)
Ehrman, Bart D. Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York, NY: Harper One, 2012. (ISBN: 9780062204608)
Gregg, Carl. “What Is the Gospel According to You? Three Meanings of ‘Good News’ in Mark 1 (A Progressive Christian Lectionary for January 22)” in Patheos, posted January 9, 2018: https://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2012/01/what-is-the-gospel-according-to-you/.
New American Bible: Revised Edition (NAB). Totowa, NJ: Catholic Book Publishing Corp., 2010. (ISBN 9780899429519)
Riches, Happy. “What Exactly Did Paul Mean When He Used the Word ‘Gospel’ Throughout His Epistles?” in Quora, posted November 23, 2016: https://www.quora.com/What-exactly-did-Paul-mean-when-he-used-the-word-gospel-throughout-his-Epistles.
The Holy Bible: King James Version (KJV). Oxford, UK, 1769.
Wallace, James Warner. “What Does ‘Gospel’ Really Mean?” in Cold Case Christianity, published January 15, 2018: http://coldcasechristianity.com/2014/what-does-gospel-really-mean/.
Wikipedia, s.v. “Divi Filius” (Latin for ‘Son of God’) last edited July 18, 2020: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divi_filius.
Wikipedia, s.v. “First Jewish-Roman War,” last edited October 12, 2021: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Jewish%E2%80%93Roman_War.