The word “gospel” comes from the Greek ευαγγελιον (you-angelion). It literally means “good news”. During the intertestamental period it was widely used across the Greco-Roman world in several different cultural and religious contexts. It later became associated with the message of Christ, and has come to represent a well-defined genre of New Testament writing.
Pre-Christian Use of the Word
Between 60 BC and 30BC Diodorus of Sicily produced his Bibliotheca Historica, in which he gives an account of a man who sails from Athens to Syracuse to give Dionisus news of a military victory at the Lenaea. Diodorus calls this ευαγγελια.
Great military heroes were often referred to as ‘saviours’. This of course is a related concept to the gospel. Their military exploits, which often won territories and established lasting peace, were seen as fulfillments of oracular messianic pronouncements. A Proconsul Paulus Fabius Maximus lauds Caesar Augustus, for example, in this regard, as the beginning of “good tidings” or ευαγγελιον for wresting Rome from the Brutus and the conspirators. Josephus uses the term in reference to Vespasian’s exploits in the East.
Ancient Repression and Saviour Cults
Political repression also fueled various legends and narratives about saviours. Their military and spiritual intervention were prophecied to bring liberation and prosperity, and this was often termed as good news. The Cabirus cult in ancient Thessalonica is one such cult.
It appears that older writers such as Menander, Aeschenes and Homer also treated the good news as a unitary idea. Aeschenes in the 4th Century describes the assasination of Phillip of Macedon, as ευαγγελιων.
The first infusions of the terms into Biblical text come from the Septuagint, which used the greek word in describing Old Testament passages such as 2 Samuel 4:10, where a man brings ‘ευαγγελια’ about Saul’s death to David.
Later the apostles used the term in reference to the salvific message of Jesus. Jesus himself may have used a cognate expression in the Aramaic, because passages such as Matthew 11:15 indicate that He was aware of the concept of the proclamation of ‘good news’.
A Case for Cultural Linguistic Influence
It is well known that culture affects language, and more so other languages affect one’s own expression. The term ‘good news’ may well be the cultural linguistic bequethal of the Greco-Roman influences of the New Testament era.
Rather than its isolated and random application within the body of New Testament Texts, whole volumes came to be known or seen as single statements of ‘good news’. Irenaeus of Lugdunum and other 2nd Century scholars may well have popularized this singular reference. Irenneus is said to have identified the tetra-morph gospel and suggested apostolic attribution, but many believe the associations predate this era.
Either way, by the end of the 2nd Century, these four books came to be known and accepted as ‘Gospels’. The came to define a genre whose main features were, among others:
- Historical prose on the life of Christ
- Narrative monologues on His teaching
- Theological deductions and applications on His life and Teaching
- Philosophical discussions on the ideas of His person
This, in brief, is an account of how the New Testament came to be dominated by a genre we can isolate, and describe according to its central theme: the good news that Christ came, died and rose again to save sinful men.