Paul’s Political Gospel

I was reading Romans 1 yesterday and it struck me afresh how political the gospel was for the early church. In the opening of his letter, Paul summarizes the gospel in this way:

“From Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for God’s good news. God promised this good news about his Son ahead of time through his prophets in the holy scriptures. His Son was descended from David. He was publicly identified as God’s Son with power through his resurrection from the dead, which was based on the Spirit of holiness. This Son is Jesus Christ our Lord. Through him we have received God’s grace and our appointment to be apostles. This was to bring all Gentiles to faithful obedience for his name’s sake. You who are called by Jesus Christ are also included among these Gentiles.”
The Good News was that Jesus descended from David, he was declared “God’s Son” (or “Son of God”) through his resurrection, and he is declared “Jesus Christ our Lord.” Much of that language is familiar to us – perhaps so familiar we miss the way it wold have been read in its original context.
  1. “Good News” (or “gospel”) was not any good news, but was largely Caesar’s word in Paul’s world. It spoke of the “good news of political or military victory” and perhaps especially brought to mind the ascension of a new emperor to his throne.
  2. In a very concise summary of the gospel, Paul makes a point of establishing Jesus’ connection with David, who of course, was a king. (On this point, let’s not forget that Jesus was singularly interested in proclaiming the coming of God’s kingdom – not some ethereal “spiritual” reality, but God’s will done on earth as it was in heaven.) Paul wants to establish Jesus’ royal cred.
  3. Paul reminds us Jesus was declared the “Son of God” with power by his resurrection. In Paul’s context, “Son of God” was royal language – a way of referring to the king.
  4. Jesus is declared “Christ” and “Lord.” “Christ” is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew “Messiah” – the Anointed One or King. “Lord” was also Caesar’s term – in a world that was organized by households, and households were headed by “lords,” Caesar was said to be “Lord of lords.”

So, in Paul’s short summary of the Good News (of Jesus’ victory), he declares Jesus to be the King and Lord in direct opposition to Caesar’s claims to be king and lord. (Remember, he was writing all of this to Rome.) The gospel is not some bargain cast in consumerist terms about getting out of Hell or going to Heaven. It isn’t even primarily a message about us, though it is to us. It is the declaration that “The old king – the usurper – has fallen and the rightful king has won the victory. Everything is changing!” (It’s helpful to read this through the eyes of Daniel’s dream in Daniel 7, where God judges and condemns the monstrous powers of the world and installs his rightful king – the “Son of Man.”)

And the only appropriate response to this declaration? Paul says he is declaring this news to provoke “faithful obedience” among the Gentiles. In other words, he declares that the pretenders to the throne have been exposed for the sham they are, the rightful king has taken his place as ruler of the world, and we need to align ourselves to the new reality, to the new way of things.

Paul’s Political Gospel

Euangelion

This quarter I am teaching a class at 8&H about what Scripture means when it uses the word “gospel,” and this post will largely relate to that class. Specifically, I want to share the research I have conducted around the word euangelion. So, here goes nothing:

In the New Testament, the word we translate “gospel” is euangelion. It means good news, but in the world Jesus lived in, it didn’t mean just any kind of good news. Euangelion was the good news of victory, and was largely a political and military term. While relatively rare outside of Christian writings in the available literature, the word was most recently used in the context of the Roman Emperors coming into power. Living in the Roman occupied world, it would have been difficult to hear or speak the word euangelion without these overtones coming into play.

Here I want to take a moment to outline the usage of euangelion in the general timeframe of Jesus’ life, and also, in the Greek translation of the Old Testament – which came a few centuries before Jesus was born. In a church culture where “gospel” has often been truncated to just “good news,” this will help us pick up some of the radical power the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus would’ve had for it’s original hearers. It was nothing short of earth-shattering.

Euangelion in the LXX

Work on the Greek translation of the Old Testament – the Septuagint (aka LXX) – began about the middle of the third century before Jesus was born and was finished more than a century before his birth.

Euangelion only appears once in the LXX, in (what we call) 2 Samuel 4:10*. Here, David recounts when he found out about Saul’s death in battle. The messenger, David says assumed the news of Saul’s defeat would be euangelion to David – the good news that his foe had been defeated and he was now the king. Even centuries before Augustus took up the term, the political/military flavor is present in this instance.

If we expand our search to include the usage of the verb form – euangelizo (“to proclaim euangelion“) – we find 22 further uses in the LXX. In most of those 22 instances, euangelizo is used to translate the Hebrew bsr. The remaining instances, it is used to translate the Hebrew sarid.

In the listing below, you will find some diversity in the way euangelizo is used, but you will also notice the strong political/military connotations remain throughout.

  • 1 Samuel 31:9: The Philistines find Saul’s corpse. They spread the news of their victory throughout the land.
  • 2 Samuel 1:20: David laments over the death of Saul and declares that the news of his defeat (the news of David’s political victory) should not be published among the Philistines.
  • 2 Samuel 4:10: As discussed above, David recounts when a soldier brought him the news of Saul’s death.
  • 2 Samuel 18:19-20 (3x): Absalom has died in his bid to usurp his father. Joab refuses to allow a messenger to take the news of this victory to the king.
  • 2 Samuel 18:26: News of Absalom’s death is brought to David.
  • 2 Samuel 18:31: A Cushite messenger tells David the “good news” of his son’s defeat.
  • 1 Kings 1:42: Near David’s death, Adonijah declares himself Israel’s king, even though David intended to make Solomon king. As this plays out, Jonathan comes to Adonijah to tell him of David’s decision. Adonijah welcomes Jonathan in, assuming he has “good news” of Adonijah’s political victory.
  • 1 Chronicles 10:9: parallel to 1 Samuel 31:9 above.
  • Psalm 40:9: David proclaims the good news of God’s deliverance – God gaining victory and the impact that has had for David.
  • Psalm 68:11: God describes a great host of women announcing “good news” – “The kings of the armies! They flee! They flee!”
  • Isaiah 40:9 (2x): The heralds go up to the high places to announce God is coming as king himself over against the failures of earthly kings. (Check out the stories of Isaiah 36-39 to get some context for this text.)
  • Isaiah 52:7 (2x): Similar to the Nahum passage below. Against the oppression of the empires, messengers will announce the good news that “God reigns” and his people will experience salvation from their oppressors.
  • Isaiah 61:1: The Spirit of the LORD has anointed the speaker to declare God’s good news. Broadly, this good news is declared in the context of God coming as king and setting things right – “the favorable year of the LORD, and the day of vengeance of our God” (vs. 2).
  • Jeremiah 20:15: Jeremiah curses the man who brought his father the news he had been born.
  • Joel 3:5: In one of the most obscure uses of euangelizo in the Old Testament, Joel speaks of the survivors who have been called by the LORD.
  • Nahum 1:15: The feet of those who proclaim good news are beautiful. If you back up to verse 12, the context is the news that God is giving his people victory over those who oppress them.

As you can see from our exploration of euangelion and euangelizo in the LXX, the terms were distinctly used in the context of political/military victory at this early date before Jesus’ world. When Augustus Caesar took the throne, his usage of the word in Jesus’ world deepened that emphasis.

Euangelion and Augustus

When Augustus defeated all his detractors and ended the civil war that began at Julius’ assassination, he declared himself emperor. Famously, when his victory and reign were proclaimed throughout the empire, it was euangelion.

Following is the Priene Calendar Inscription, which talks about Augustus after he became emperor. It regards his victory, ascendency to the throne, and reign as such good news that the author is willing to date the coming of the gospel of Augustus retroactively to his birth:

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 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 [euangelion] for the world that came by reason of him which Asia resolved in Smyrna.

Throughout our class, we will use the story of Augustus to notice a variety of parallels with the way the gospel writers tell the story of Jesus. Some of these will be evident already from the inscription above. The point we take away, for now, is this:

When Jesus came into the world, there was already a widely known gospel, and it belonged to Caesar. While Caesar’s particular story would give the gospel writers some interesting details to work with, the word euangelion most broadly was used to describe “the good news of victory” that came about because of a decisive battle ending, a new king taking the throne, or some other similar regime change. It was political or military in nature.

(A good summary of other non-Christian uses of the term euangelion can be found here and will also help flesh out the picture we’ve been forming.)

As we will see throughout the quarter, this context seems evident to the New Testament writers as they talk about Jesus, and it will also play an important role in how we understand his kingdom, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension.

 

 

Euangelion