What exactly was the good news?
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ… (Mark 1)
We are so used to this verse that we assume we know what it means. We sometimes even forget that Christ was not the surname of Jesus, but that it is the Greek translation of the Hebrew Messiah, the one who was coming to restore Israel.
We forget, if we ever knew, that good news is also a translation. It is a translation of the Greek word euangelion, and this word had its own uses and meaning. Here is the most famous example, which comes from the Priene Inscription, "a letter from the Proconsul Paulus Fabius Maximus engraved in stone in Priene, a city in modern-day Turkey. Other fragmentary inscriptions of this letter have been found in Apamea, Maeonia, Eumenia, and Dorylaeum." (See also here for more on this inscription.)
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…
Here are the implications of this inscription as outlined by the New Testament scholar NT Wright.
The evidence now available, including that from epigraphy and archaeology, shows that the cult of Caesar was not simply one new religion among many in the Roman world. Already by Paul's time it had become the dominant cult in a large part of the Empire, certainly in the parts where Paul was active, and was the means whereby the Romans managed to control and govern such huge areas as came under their sway… in the context into which Paul was speaking, "gospel" would mean the celebration of the accession, or birth, of a king or emperor. Though no doubt petty kingdoms might use the word for themselves, in Paul's world the main "gospel" was the news of, or the celebration of, Caesar.
In today's terms it was saying that everyone should join "Team Rome" and be a good and obedient citizen of the Empire, because that would make life good for everyone. It would bring the world to be the best place it could be. This is because Caesar was " a savior [σωτήρ], both for us and for our descendants, [who would] end war and arrange all things, and … not even leav[e] to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done."
In the ancient world there was nothing like the separation of religion and politics that we assume in Australia. So making Caesar into a God was a really good way to get people to toe the line. As NT Wright says in the article I quoted before, "Who needs armies when they have worship?"
The problem for Jewish people, and therefore for the first Christians, was that God had already given them a euangelion of their own. For example, the prophet Isaiah (Chapter 11) had said centuries before that there would come a descendant of the great King David and
with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth…
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
This would be such a thoroughgoing righteousness that it would affect the whole creation, healing the fundamental enmities of existence:
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
Even more than this, the curse of Genesis 3 would be healed because
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. (cf Genesis 3:14-15)
The author of Mark quotes the prophet Isaiah in his opening lines: (Mark 1:1-3)
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as it is written in the prophet Isaiah:
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you-
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight” ’
You will see that I have altered the punctuation which is common in English translations because Mark is very clear that the words he is quoting (from Isaiah Chapter 40) refer to Jesus, not John the Baptist. (Matthew and Luke both change this. See here for an outline.)
Jesus is the messenger of God— we will find that he is also, in many ways, also the message— and he is bring the news of God's Kingdom, as opposed to the message and euangelion of Caesar's Empire. His fist words in the Gospel are in Mark 1:15:
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news(euangelion) of God, 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news (euangelion).’
Mark does not quote the words from Isaiah 40 by accident. The words are taken from the famous prophecy in which Israel was told God was taking the nation home from exile in Babylon.
This particular part of that prophesy has a resonance or echo which we tend to miss, but which would have been clear and obvious to Jewish readers of the day who knew their Old Testament far better than we know it. The words echo, first of all, Exodus 23:20 where the Israelites have been given the Law on their journey to the Promised Land:
I am going to send an angel in front of you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared.
There is also an echo of Malachi 3:1 (to which Mark alludes again in his description of the cleansing of the temple in Chapter 11.)
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.
So the point of the first few words of Mark is that he is reminding them that God has already given then a euangelion, it is the same euangelion that has always been promised, and he is saying that this euangelion of God has now come in the message of person of Jesus. He is saying Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not Lord.
NT Wright says that for Paul— but it applies here to Mark as well
"the gospel" is the announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth is Israel's Messiah and the world's Lord. It is, in other words, the thoroughly Jewish, and indeed Isaianic, message which challenges the royal and imperial messages in Paul's world.
What was the problem with the euangelion of Rome? One answer might be Rome did not honour God. Psalm 2 says, for example
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and his anointed…
Wright calls the euangelion a parody of the euangelion of God.
A concrete way of saying this is to say that the euangelion of kings and empires is only ever partial. Some people always miss out on the good news. There is always a pecking order. An example exists in the story of Paul in Acts 22 where it was fine to flog him without trial— until they discovered that he was a Roman citizen.
The euangelion of kings and empires without God is not only partial in the sense of being on good news in part, it is often deliberately partial. It is set up to deliberately benefit those in control, which is the other meaning of the word partial.
This is a severe sin in the eyes of the prophetic vision of the Old Testament. Listen to Ezekiel 34.
As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats: 18Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? 19And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?
20 Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, 22I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. (34:17-32)
Or in the case of Amos, "You sell the poor for the price of a pair of sandals." (Amos 8) Sound like a sweat shop?
By contrast, the vision of the kingdom always remembered the orphan the widow and the stranger. "…let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream…. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate." (Amos 5)
How does Mark's proclamation of the euangelion of Jesus Christ affect us?
Firstly, the euangelion is not about us "getting saved" in the sense that so many churches seem to proclaim it. Indeed, Mark recounts the words of Jesus which say, "For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel's will save it."
Let me emphasise this by giving a fuller text of words I have already quoted.
It is important to stress, as Paul would do himself were he not so muzzled by his interpreters, that when he referred to "the gospel" he was not talking about a scheme of soteriology. Nor was he offering people a new way of being what we would call "religious". Despite the way Protestantism has used the phrase (making it denote, as it never does in Paul, the doctrine of justification by faith), for Paul "the gospel" is the announcement that the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth is Israel's Messiah and the world's Lord. It is, in other words, the thoroughly Jewish, and indeed Isaianic, message which challenges the royal and imperial messages in Paul's world. (NT Wright)
Secondly, all times and all nations have a euangelion. They, and we, all have an idea of what it is to lead the "good life," and how to get there. We are familiar with phrases like "the American Dream," for example.
What is the Australian euangelion?
We are about a fair go. We are about family. We are about enjoying the cricket, not letting the politicians get away with it— "keeping the bastards honest" was a powerful political slogan— about lopping the tall poppies who are too big for their boots, about keeping it real, and having a good time…
We know you get this state of affairs when we all have jobs, when we have our own home and a car and a smart phone; when we can afford a good night out with a few beers and lots of Chrissie presents for the kids; when we can buy the latest tablet; when we can do long weekends down at the shack or up in the Flinders, with cricket on the radio, and long summer holidays.
But this is a partial euangelion. It is partial because it is sold to us with an undercurrent which is never quite explicitly put into words, but which is always there. This is what we call "dog whistling," the sort of whistle which you can't hear, but which gets the message across to the people we want to hear it.
Our partiality says that we can't have the good life of Australia unless we keep some people out, and unless we crack down on the bludgers who are damaging our way of life. We define an enemy. It is comparatively easy for us to see that the USA's identity is wrapped up in having an enemy to demonise at all times. (Example here.) But we do the same.
It was enshrined in the White Australia policy. It is being recycled in the appalling treatment of refugees which flouts international law. As imperfect as UN resolutions are, they represent humanity's best collective effort at civility. We increasingly reject these standards because we hold a different euangelion which says our way is better, and that some people, especially refugees and Aborigines and Muslims, don't count as much as the rest of us.
The euangelion goes beyond these. I spent time with a young bloke on New Start this week. He is a likeable young man, not terribly imaginative, certainly not emotional— your average stoical Aussie bloke. Every time we spoke about money this fit young man would look like an old person with Parkinson's disease. He trembled in his distress. Even the conservative Judith Sloan says New Start is too low. This bloke was the proof. We demonise such folk. He volunteers for the Salvos— they feed him, too— and sends in countless job applications.
We are told the economy is being overrun by old people. We need to lift the retirement age— this is a disaster for worn out labourers who already face age discrimination. And it's a questionable claim, if not a rank lie. And we are told that national health spending is in crisis and we need to make the poor pay.
The root of all this is that our euangelion is partial in the same way as that of Rome. It is being shaped by those in power to benefit them, to line their pockets. If we paid more tax, and if we went without some of our pointless luxuries that do nothing to improve our lives but exist mostly to show others our wealth and status, Australia would have more than enough money to fund its health and education, and to show mercy to refugees.
So which good news do we believe and live by? Are we "Team Australia" with Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott, maintaining our good life at the expense of the poor? Or do we worship the Lord? If we adopt the policies of Morrison (which Labor has largely shared) we are, as Wright says, a parody of the good news of Jesus no matter how much we call ourselves Christian. We are using the lives of innocents— children— to further our comfort and wealth.
How will we vote? What will we buy— and how much will we give to help the church and others work towards a euangelion for all people, that thing Luke called "good news of great joy for all the people?" (Luke 2:10) Will we let ourselves be whistled up like dogs to a plate of mush so the master can enjoy his privileged life, or will we pray in the politicians' offices, tell the gospel on social media and from the pulpit, and live it as we live in our own street?
It will cost us to do this, and God help us if some politician or media baron decides to make an example of us to cow the rest of the pack. Yet as Jesus said, "…whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the [euangelion] will save it." (Mark 8:35)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
You will have noted that I have heavily quoted NT Wright in this article. This is deliberate. Wright is known as a careful, sober and relatively conservative scholar. The heavily understanding of euangelion which I have highlighted is not some unsupported or fringe view. It is mainstream.
Here are two more quotations:
Fourth, the argument I have mounted indicates clearly enough that whatever Paul was heralding as he went around the Mediterranean world, our post-enlightenment category of "religion" is far too restricted to handle it. Since that category was designed to exclude politics, among other things, and since Paul's proclamation clearly carried a political message at its heart, not merely as one "implication" among many, we should refuse to allow the study of Paul to be confined within what is normally thought of as the history of religion. This has large-scale implications for the organisation of our disciplines. Perhaps Paul should be taught just as much in the politics departments of our universities as in the religion departments. [My emphasis]
Paul was coming to Rome with the gospel message of Jesus the Jewish Messiah, the Lord of the world, claiming that, through this message, God's justice was unveiled once and for all. Rome prided itself on being, as it were, the capital of Justice, the source from which Justice would flow throughout the world. The Roman goddess Iustitia, like the Caesar-cult itself, was a comparative novelty in Paul's world: the temple to Iustitia was established on January 8, CE 13, and Iustitia was among the virtues celebrated by Augustus' famous clipeus virtutis, the golden shield set up in the Senatehouse and inscribed with the emperor's virtues (27 BCE). So close is the link between the new imperial regime and the virtue Iustitia that this goddess sometimes acquires the title "Augusta". So, without losing any of its deep-rooted Jewish meanings of the covenant faithfulness of the creator God, with all that this means for God's dealing with sins and justification of those who believe, Paul's declaration that the gospel of King Jesus reveals God's dikaiosyne must also be read, I suggest, as a deliberate laying down of a challenge to the imperial pretension. If it's justice you want, you will find it, not in the euangelion that announces Caesar as Lord, but in the euangelion of Jesus. The rest of Romans, were there time even to whisk through it, would show that this meaning is indeed intended at point after point.