Explore the history of the word, "gospel," how modern Western Christians often use the word different than the biblical authors. What is the gospel? The answer is far more exciting and complex than we've been led to believe.
Welcome to a special episode that kicks off our series of How to Read the Gospels. In this episode, Tim sits down with Dr. N.T. Wright to discuss the historical meaning of the word “gospel.”
In part 1 (0-21:20), Dr. Wright notes that word studies are great, but it’s important to understand how words derive their meaning and live in a narrative context. Alternaitve “gospels,” including the Gospel of Thomas, typically are a collection of good advice or wise sayings from Jesus about how to live a good life, whereas the whole “gospel” or good news is the story of Jesus being crowned king and Israel being used by God to bless all the nations.
Tim shares an interesting historical ancedote: a birthday announcement from a historical source called the Calendar of Priene. It’s an old royal announcement from the Roman emporer Augustus Caesar, and it uses the Greek word for “gospel,” εὐαγγέλιον, evangelion, meaning "good news."
"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, 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 tidings for the world that came by reason of him.” (The Calendar of Priene, Caesar Birthday announcement)
Dr. Wright says this historical announcement reveals a very interesting historical narrative. The Roman emporers continually decreed that they had brought peace and justice to the world through violent and political power. These emporers used the same language and vocubulary as the gospel authors when they proclaim Jesus of Nazareth as the one who brings true peace and justice to the world.
In part 2 (21:20-27:10), Tim and Dr. Wright discuss that “news” is an ineffective modern word to describe the gospel. A better alternative in our day would be “announcement” or “proclamation.” Today, the word “news” is used most often to describe everyday occurences, whereas the historical word εὐαγγέλιον, evangelion, was far less common and treated with importance.
In part 3 (27:10-42:45), Tim and Dr. Wright dive into the Gospel of Mark and Matthew.
Dr. Wright focuses on the Beatitudes in Matthew. Instead of it being just an ethical to-do list, the Beatitudes are meant to model what God’s kingdom actually looks like. They represent the corporate moral ethic of God’s kingdom, showing what a world looks like when God becomes king and showing how God's kingdom spreads throughout the world.
Tim and Dr. Wright both cite Isaiah 53, one of the key bridges between the Old and New Testament in the Suffering Servant. They move on to discuss a book by Dr. Richard Hayes called, “Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels” and discuss the royal enactment portrayls in the gospels. Tim and Dr. Wright note that these are very obvious themes. Jesus is given a purple robe and crowned with a crown of thorns. These themes are meant to be picked up by the reader as evidence of the upside down nature of the kingdom that Jesus was enacting. He became king through suffering.
In part 4 (42:45-56:00), Tim and Dr. Wright talk about Paul and his perspective of εὐαγγέλιον, evangelion. Tim reads from Romans 1:1-6:
"Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ."
Tim also shares 1 Corinthians 15:1-11:
“Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
"For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.”
Tim thinks this 1 Corinthians passage may be over-dominant in Western Christianity’s understanding in defining the gospel. Dr. Wright notes a historical view stemming from German and Lutheran interpretation that wants to see “the gospel” only as a salvation by faith that Christ died for our sins on the cross.
This view, Dr. Wright asserts, shortchanges the story of the Hebrew Scriptures. While this is part of the meaning of the word “gospel,” the whole story of the Hebrew Scriptures involves the signficance of Jesus being the new and exalted human, the new Adam, through whom humanity can now realize their orginal destiny that was laid out for them in the Garden of Eden.
In part 5 (56:00-end), Tim and Dr. Wright wrap up their time together by discussing how word studies are important but need to be tied into an informed understanding of the whole narrative of the Hebrew Bible.
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