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Technical Terms We Only Think We Understand: Gospel in Mark 1:1

Mark gospel page sxc hu smallThere are many bingo phrases that Christian’s throw around at church that I am convinced they barely understand. If you ask them what their favorite terms mean, you will, more than likely, get a rather short answer which misses the mark if, for nothing else, its very brevity. We might consider terms like SAVED, REDEEMED, REGENERATION, HOLY, and even that grand wonderful term I want to talk about today—GOSPEL.

Ask your average church attendee what GOSPEL means (not what THE GOSPEL contains but what the word GOSPEL actually means) and you are almost guaranteed to get the answer… wait for it… make the anticipation laaaaaaasst cuz the answer is really really short… here it cooooommmmeeeessss…. “Good News.”

Well, saying gospel means “good news” isn’t exactly wrong, but it lacks all the emotional content woven into it through its many associations in ANE[1] culture and Scripture as it developed through centuries from humble beginnings into its crowning splendor in the New Testament. Take its appearance in Mark 1:1 for instance. It reads, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

Words like gospel are what some like to call TECHNICAL TERMS. Technical terms are words whose meaning are bound up in complex cultural systems or circumstances. If you try to define a technical term for a person who is uninitiated in the culture and history surrounding the technical term, you end up telling a story or painting a verbal picture more than throwing something silly out like… “Oh, Gospel? That means good news.”  We must remember when dealing with biblical languages: It’s not just a different WORD; it’s a different WORLD. Technical terms demand our attention in a special way to the world in which they are employed.

Gospel is εὐαγγέλιον eu-angel-ee-on in Greek (Yes, it relates to both the words Angel and Evangelical) and represents the Hebrew root בשׂר basar often used as a participle for one who “gospels” and the noun בְּשֹׂרָה besorah proclaimation. These involve preaching, heralding, delivering news… but not just any news… powerful news.

For the Jewish community of Jesus’ day, gospel is rooted in the practices of ancient warfare. Armies would go to war, perhaps under threat of attack, and those left behind, the aged and infirm, the women, the young, would await their return, entangled in the terror that was the unknown outcome. Their husbands, fathers, siblings, or children might be dead by nightfall; they themselves might die on the point of an enemy spear, their children might be impaled on a foreign sword. They might all be taken away and enslaved and suffer slavery’s every indignity including rape and physical abuse.

News was an important part of this scenario. Figures that I call “war runners” were sent from the battle to deliver a report to those concerned with its outcome. The message was not always favorable, as in 1 Samuel 4:17 which announces the defeat of the armies, the death of Eli’s sons and the capture of the ark, or in 2 Samuel 18:20 where it is a message of victory tinged with the death of the king’s son.

It was good news, however, that made such runners heroes of joyous announcement in society, coming to those in anguish and worry to proclaim deliverance, victory and safety. Those hearing such news felt the power of their words, the message’s transforming power over the soul.

The legendary power of such announcements and the glory of those delivering them is picked up by the prophets to speak of the future battle of all battles, the divine victory over the enemies of Israel when YHWH comes at the end of the age to exalt his people and to punish the wicked. (Isaiah 40:1-11; Isaiah 41:27ff; Isaiah 52:1-12; Isaiah 61:1) This preaching becomes the great announcement of the coming of God into the world, the inauguration of the Kingdom of God come to men.

The Greek term has a context too. It is one of the power terms regarding the announcements of the Roman Emperor. We have a letter written concerning this figure which I will provide for your amazement later, in which the emperor is not only a dispenser of gospels but also becomes a gospel. From the devastation of the death of the old ruler, that black abyss of uncertainty and instability in the face of an empty throne comes the grand announcement of the rise of Caesar to rule, to transform that darkness into hope, to recreate the face of the world with the proclamation. He IS a gospel. Every word concerning him is a gospel. Every word he utters is a gospel bringing light to the world.

The question we will have to answer in time, is whether Mark uses Gospel in Mark 1:1 in terms of its Hebrew origins in reference to emergence of the Kingdom of God or in its Grecian context in reference to the emergence of a great savior in redeeming power.

[1] Remember ANE means Ancient Near East.

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