Pieter Bruegel, “The Suicide of Saul”. The Philistines are approaching, and Saul and his armorbearer decide to take their fate into their own hands. The armies are contemporized by Bruegel and represented with 16th-century armor.

Introduction to ‘Gospel’ | The Historical Books

Defining the Gospel, Pt 1

What is the gospel?

That is one of the most important questions we can ask (and answer) as Christians. The gospel is the central message of the Bible!

But where to start?

It’s tempting to set up a framework we have come up with that serves the definition we have always presumed. It’s also tempting to systematize biblical concepts to tighten things up. But then we would only be importing our theological ‘agendas’ and our presuppositions into the text, albeit implicitly.

If we want to get the meaning from the text, we need to start with just that — the text. Not just one text [1]: we need all of them in order to reach a hypothesis that includes all the data. In this article series, I will examine all the occurrences of ‘gospel’ in the Bible, both in the Old and New Testament. The Greek word for ‘gospel’ which occurs in the Bible is euaggelion (from which we have the words ‘evangelism’, ‘evangelical’, etc.). It literally means ‘good news’, and it can also refer to a reward for bringing good news. Related words are euaggelizoo (‘to proclaim good news’), euaggelistes and euaggelos (‘one who proclaims good news’). All of these words will be included in this study.

Through examining the texts, we want to form a multifaceted definition. The definition must be simple in that it does not create more complexity but rather brings clarity amidst present complexity. Also, the definition must shed light on other topics; it must light up other areas of biblical studies. [2]

A Gospel or the Gospel?

At the beginning of this undertaking, it is important to realize that not every ‘gospel’ in the Bible concerns the gospel of Jesus Christ. By the time of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, the gospel of Jesus had become so prominent in his thinking that he could refer to it as the (only true) gospel and even say: “not that there is another one, of course…” (see Gal. 1:7). But it’s not as if there was only one gospel existent in the world of Paul. The gospel of Jesus the Messiah was a subtype of the broader genre of gospels that existed in the Greco-Roman world of Paul (not to be confused with the literary genre of ‘gospel’ as developed by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — we’ll come to that later). So, to understand the meaning of the specific gospel of Jesus, we first need to understand what the broader category of ‘gospel’ meant. To do that, we need to start in the Septuagint.

The Septuagint

The Septuagint (LXX) is a general term for the Greek translation(s) of the Hebrew Old Testament and the Apocrypha, produced by Hellenistic Jews before the New Testament arrived at the scene. It’s important to understand that, when they used the word group of euaggelion to translate certain Hebrew terms, they didn’t do so ‘objectively’ as if it were mathematics. Many words do not have direct equivalents in other languages since meaning is not so simple as etymology. Meaning is acquired in the web of associations, symbols, values, stories, practices, and the like, which together constitute ‘worldview’. [3] So, when the translators used the word euaggelion, they did so consciously of its meaning in their own world, often centuries after the writing of the texts they’re translating. We’ll come back later to their world and the Greco-Roman context of euaggelion.

‘Gospel’ in the Historical Books

In this first article, I will cover all the texts which use the word group euaggelion in the Septuagint of the Historical Books. [4] In the next articles, I will cover the rest of the references in the Old Testament, namely in the Psalms and the Prophets. Throughout this analysis, I want to focus on two questions:

  • What is the content of this particular euaggelion?
  • For whom is it ‘good’ news?

Saul and the Philistines

1 Samuel 31:9; 2 Samuel 1:20; 1 Chronicles 10:9

There was a battle at Mount Gilboa between the Israelites and the Philistines. The Philistines overran the Israelites and managed to kill Jonathan, Abinadab, and Malchi-shua, the sons of Saul. Seeing his imminent defeat, Saul asked his servant to kill him. The servant didn’t dare, so Saul took matters into his own hand and killed himself (see the painting above). The next day, the Philistines found his body and sent messengers “to proclaim the good news in the temple of their idols and among their people” (1 Sam. 31:9; cf. 1 Chron. 10:9).

The ‘gospel’ in this case was the message that the enemy king of Israel and his sons had been killed, which is reason for national joy for the Philistines. However, this same message is reason for national mourning for the Israelites! David laments, “Your glory, O Israel, is slain on your high places! (…) Tell it not in Gath, preach the good news not in the streets of Ashkelon, lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised exult. (…) You daughters of Israel, weep over Saul” (2 Sam. 1:19–20, 24).

So, the ‘goodness’ of the gospel depends on the relationship of the receivers to the king. In a sense, the fate of a country is summed up in its king; Saul is “Israel’s glory”. Whatever happens to the king has nationwide implications. That gives an euaggelion its weight; that’s why it must be heralded throughout the land (or not).

Saul and David

2 Samuel 4:10

In 2 Samuel 1, we read how the news of Saul’s death reached David. An Amalekite comes to David in Ziglag, saying that Saul and his sons are dead. David asks, “Well, how do you know?” The guy says that he was on Mount Gilboa by chance when Saul asked the Amalekite to kill him. The man, as he claims, killed Saul, took Saul’s crown and the bracelet on his arm (the royal insignia), and brought them to David. He thought he was bringing good news to David: Saul was dead, so David could become king! In this way, he could win the favor of the upcoming king. However, upon hearing the message, the people went into mourning, and David killed the messenger for daring to harm “YHWH’s anointed” (2 Sam. 1:14, 16). That was the reward David gave the man for his news!

Later on, in 2 Samuel 4, David recounts this scene. It’s important to understand that at this time David is already anointed king (2 Sam. 2:4). We read that Rekcha and Baana have just killed Saul’s son Mephibosheth, beheaded him, and presented his head to David, saying: “Behold, the head of Mephibosthe son of Saoul your enemy, who used to seek your life, and the Lord gave the lord king [David] vengeance on his enemies, as this day, on Saoul your enemy and on his offspring” (2 Sam. 4:8 LXX, emphasis mine). David replies: “The Lord lives, who redeemed my life out of every adversity, for the one who told me that Saoul had died — and he was as one bringing good news before me — and I seized and killed him at Sekelak [Ziklag], to whom I ought [footnote: i.e. was expected] to have given a reward for good tidings [Gk.: euaggelia]. And now wicked men have killed a righteous man on his bed in his own house!” (2 Sam. 4:9–11 LXX). Then David commands to have Rekcha and Baana killed and the head of Mephibosheth buried.

This is quite a complicated usage of the word group euaggelion. First we had the Amalekite who thought he was bringing good news to David and expected to receive a reward for his ‘gospel’. However, he obviously knew that the death of Saul couldn’t be good news for Israel as a whole. He probably thought: “David is the de facto king now, and Saul is the enemy of David, so this is good royal news!” Rekcha and Baana thought along the same lines with Mephibosheth.

However, David does not regard this as a gospel, because Saul is the de iure king of Israel and therefore his death is not good news for the nation. Also, the bringer of this good news is the one who (as he claims) brought about this tragic event! The only ‘reward’ David can give for this non-gospel is a non-reward, namely execution.

Note that the personal feelings of David do not affect whether it is an euaggelion or not. The fundamental question for determining whether something is an euaggelion, is: Is this a victory or a defeat for the king and the kingdom? For the throne and the nation.

David and Absalom

2 Samuel 18:19 etc, 31–33

Giovanni Battista Viola, “Landscape with Absalom Wounded by Joab’s Spear”

Absalom, the son of David, conspired against his father to become king in his place. When Absalom was killed, famously, with his head stuck in a tree, Ahimaaz said: “Do let me run, and I will carry good tidings to the king, that the Lord has vindicated him from the hand of his enemies” (v. 18 LXX). So, again we see the pattern of a gospel being a message of the defeat of the enemies of the king and the vindication of the king. Ahimaaz was not allowed by Joab to run, because this was bad news personally for David. Therefore, he allows the Cushite to run. Ahimaaz persists, however. Even though the Cushite would arrive earlier and get the gospel-reward (euaggelia, v. 22), Ahimaaz still wants to run, so he takes off and even outruns the Cushite.

Now David was sitting in the gate. The watchmen of the gate saw Ahimaaz coming from afar and David said, “If he is alone, there are good tidings in his mouth” (v. 25 LXX). If it was a group, it could be his army on the run, but if it is someone alone, they have likely achieved the victory. Then the watchmen saw the Cushite also, and David said, “And indeed he is bringing good tidings” (v. 26 LXX). The watchmen first recognized Ahimaaz, and David said: “He is a good man, and indeed he will come for the purpose of beneficial good tidings (Gk.: euaggelian agathen) ” (v. 27 LXX). This last phrase is not pleonastic. There are good tidings that may not be ‘good’ for David personally!

Ahimaaz tells the news, namely that God “has delivered up the men who raised their hand against the lord my king” (v. 28). Immediately David asks how Absalom is, which points to the fact that the state of Absalom is clearly on David’s mind. This could explain his previous concern for “beneficial” good news. Ahimaaz, however, does not know what happened with Absalom. Then the Cushite arrives, who tells the same story as Ahimaaz: king David has been rescued from the rebels. David asks again for Absalom, and the Cushite answers: “May the enemies of my lord the king and all who rise up against you for evil be like that young man” (v. 32). This is obviously devastating news for David and he goes into mourning.

However, the fact that this ‘gospel’ was terrible news personally for the king does not mean that the death of Absalom was not a gospel! It was a gospel by virtue of being good news for the kingdom and for the king as king (not as father).

Solomon and Adonijah

1 Kings 1:42

Adonijah, another son of David, also rebelled against his father, saying “I will be king” (v. 5). However, it was David’s plan that Solomon would be his successor, and therefore he ordered that Solomon would be anointed king. Adonijah and his fellow rebels heard the noise of the party of Solomon and questioned what all that was about. Then Jonathan, the son of Abiathar, came to them, and Adonijah said: “Come in, for you are a man of power. And bring good news (Gk.: agatha euaggelisai)” (v. 42 LXX). Again we see that euaggelion can be combined with agatha ‘good things’ because an euaggelion is not inherently good for everybody personally. And indeed, Jonathan answers, “Actually, our lord King Dauid make Salomon king” (v. 43 LXX, emphasis mine) and recounts the events surrounding Solomon’s ascension to the throne.

So, the euaggelion in this case has not so much to do with the defeat of enemies, but nevertheless with good royal news: the heir to the throne has finally become king! This means a new era of peace and prosperity. Jonathan is not denying that this is a gospel; however, he realizes that this is not a good euaggelion for Adonijah personally.

The Lepers and the Syrians

2 Kings 7:9

We move to the time of Elisha, when Samaria was being besieged by the Syrians. Four lepers were lying at the entrance of the gate. They gave up all hope of survival, knowing that inside the city was famine and outside were the enemies. They took their chances and went to the Syrian camp, hoping that they would be spared. However, when they came to the camp, they saw no one: all the Syrians were gone. God had miraculously caused the Syrians to hear all kinds of noises like that of a great army, and they feared that the Israelites had teamed up with the Hittites and the Egyptians, so they all “fled for their lives” (v. 7). The lepers were pleasantly surprised at the sight of an empty camp and ate and drank and carried off all kinds of gold and silver items for their own gain. Still, they realized that “this day is a day of good news” (v. 9), and that they would be punished if they waited for the next day until telling the city. So they went off and told the king of the good news, namely that the threat of the Syrians was gone. The gospel here is unequivocal: the king and the city have been rescued by God from their enemies.

Conclusion

To sum up, a gospel in the Historical Books is not a generic message with ‘good’ content but a message about the king with positive implications for his people. Such a royal message often involved deliverance from enemies or the ascension to the throne. Because of its national implications, a gospel must be heralded to the people.

Figure 1: The three operative levels of ‘gospel’

So, a gospel was primarily aimed at a national level (see figure 1). It is good news first and foremost for the (loyal) people of the king. By implication, it is bad news for the enemies of the king. Secondarily (but still importantly) is a gospel relevant at the individual level: “Well, this is good news for the king’s people, but am I loyal to the king? Or am I his enemy?” We saw this play out with Adonijah. Also, one’s personal relationship with the persons involved in the gospel impacts the way a gospel is received. We saw this with Saul and Absalom, who were beloved to David. Thirdly, one might even say that in some instances, a gospel is also good news for the world. The ‘gospels’ I surveyed often involved Davidic kings, and the royal seed of David was meant to be God’s means to bring the Abrahamic blessing to the nations. But I might be getting ahead of myself.

Next up are the Psalms and the Prophets.

Endnotes

[1] Such as Rom. 1:16–17, often nicely taken out of context to the neglect of verses 2–4, which are actually more to the point. Or 1 Cor. 15:1–4, often separated from the rest of the chapter which is all about the resurrection of the Messiah and his people.

[2] For these criteria for hypotheses, see N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God.

[3] Ibidem.

[4] I used the New English Translation of the Septuagint (Oxford University Press 2009), available for free online.

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Thoughts on biblical theology and the story of the Bible, finding its climax in Jesus the risen Messiah.

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Abjan van Meerten

Abjan van Meerten

Thoughts on biblical theology and the story of the Bible, finding its climax in Jesus the risen Messiah.

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