So what is “the gospel” again? When the New Testament writers used the language of euangelion/euangelizomai, what were they actually talking about? In this series of posts I am exploring the ways in which the New Testament actually talks about “the gospel,” arguing that fundamentally the gospel is the announcement of Jesus’ being Lord of lords, and that the NT writers did not equate the gospel with the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone. In my first post, I briefly examined the ways in which euangelion/euangelizomai language usually functioned in the Greco-Roman world for which the NT writers were writing. In my second post, I looked at the ways in which euangelion/euangelizomai language was used within the Synoptic Gospels.
Today I would like to look at the Gospels from a slightly different angle. Rather than looking for the gospel articulated within the Gospels, today I will look at the Gospels as themselves being articulations of the gospel.
3. If one reads the Gospels themselves as being apostolic narrations of the gospel, what emerges is primarily a narrative of the dawning of God’s Kingdom in and through Jesus the Messiah.
On the one hand, it must be granted that the texts of the canonical Gospels never explicitly identify themselves as being “The Gospel according to so-and-so.” Their traditional titles were later additions by the ancient Church after all and represent later interpretations of what the texts communicated. On the other hand, however, it was not at all conventional to refer to a Greco-Roman biography (a bios or vita, as they were called) as a euangelion, and so we must suppose that the ancient Church had some reason for identifying these four narratives of Jesus’ life, career, death and resurrection as to euangelion kata Matthaion, kata Markan, kata Lukan, kata Ioannon (The Gospel according to Matthew, according to Mark, according to Luke, according to John). The reason that most naturally suggests itself is that the story that these books tell just is what the ancient Church took the gospel to be. For my part, it just seems fairly obvious that we should take the ancient Church’s judgment that the Gospels themselves narrate the good news very, very seriously.
But there is an intra-textual argument to be made for reading the Gospels as narrating the gospel, as well. The opening line of the Gospel of Mark reads:
Arche tou euangeliou Iesou Christou [huiou Theou]
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, [Son of God].
As one might expect, commentators are divided over the interpretation of just about every aspect of this verse. Is it the book’s title, suggesting that the book as a whole narrates “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ”? And if so, what would that mean? Or does it simply introduce the odd mixed quotation of Malachi and Isaiah (and Exodus?) which immediately follows it, thereby setting the stage for John the Baptist’s entrance in the book’s opening scene? Does tou euangeliou Iesou Christou refer to the gospel about Jesus Christ or to the gospel which Jesus himself preached or both? If “Son of God” is to be included in the verse (and it is missing from several important manuscripts), what does that phrase mean? Does it connote divinity or simply royalty or, again, does it somehow do both? None of these questions admit of easy answers.
In any case, here’s my two cents: Mark 1:1 is probably not the book’s title (other ancient texts do not seem to title their books this way) but its opening line. The “gospel” that is “beginning” is the gospel both about and preached by Jesus. While it was once fashionable to just say that Jesus preached the Kingdom and Paul preached about Jesus, that simply will not do here. These two messages are intertwined in Mark’s Gospel in some very important ways: First, we may note that in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus describes the cost of discipleship in terms of self-sacrifice “for [Jesus'] sake and for the gospel (heneken emou kai [heneken] tou euangeliou).” (8:35; 10:29) Both the person of Jesus and the message of the gospel together are what disciples are being called to give their lives to and for. Second, we must return to the woman who anoints Jesus at Bethany. We have already said a few words about the clear royal overtones of this passage. Here I wish only to take note of what Jesus says of the woman who anoints him: “And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel (to euangelion) is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” (Mark 14:9) It is hard to see why this anecdote about this woman’s pouring oil on Jesus would be as widespread as the gospel itself unless it was itself a feature of the gospel story, which would imply that the gospel story and the story about Jesus are one and the same.
But of course, there is no escaping the fact that the gospel which Jesus preached in the Gospel of Mark (and the rest of the Synoptics, for that matter) is the gospel of the Kingdom of God/Heaven. How, then, do Jesus’ gospel of the Kingdom and the gospel of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection fit together here? Here I think we can be helped by the Patristic understanding of Jesus as being autobasileia, as being the Kingdom himself; as being both the very embodiment and the Archimedean point of God’s eschatological reign over earth. God’s final rule over the earth is uniquely exercised through and embodied in the person, teachings, life, death, resurrection and Messianic rule of Jesus. For my part, I think that the Gospel of Mark beckons us to understand Jesus in this way, as autobasileia. And here’s the kicker: If we do understand Jesus in this way, then the Gospel of Mark does indeed narrate the gospel for us.
If, then, Mark does narrate the gospel for us, if this book truly does give us the gospel according to Mark, what sort of gospel does it narrate? We will look at that question in our next post.