Maybe you’ve heard of “the gospel of Jesus Christ”, but have you ever heard of “the gospel of Caesar Augustus”?
An ancient inscription which bears that phrase gives us understanding into what exactly the gospel of Jesus Christ is, and sheds light on the structure and content of the biblical “Gospels”, i.e. the books which tell the story of the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
What is a “gospel”?
In English vernacular, we have terms like “gospel-truth”, which means that something is absolutely true. However, in the Bible, the word “gospel” doesn’t mean truth.
“Gospel” is the English translation of the Greek word “euangelion” which means “news that brings great joy.”
When we hear this word today, our minds immediately tend to associate it with spirituality in general, or Christianity in particular, but originally, this word was political in nature.
In the Greco-Roman world, from the time of Alexander the Great and on into the Roman Empire, this word was used to refer to history-making, world-shaping reports of political, military, or societal victories.
Example 1: The Battle of Marathon
I am considering running a marathon this year, and one of the things that I always keep in the back of my mind is that the person who ran the first marathon ran 42.2 kilometers (26.2 miles) to deliver a message, and upon completing this run, he DIED!
I feel like I still have a lot to live for, hence my hesitation… I have run a few half marathons, and after those I felt half-dead, so we’ll see…
The setting of that first marathon was a battle in 490 B.C. when Greece was invaded by Persia. Despite all odds, Greece managed to defeat Persia, and after the battle, Greece sent heralds to take the euangelion (proclamation of good news) out into every town and village in the country, to tell the people what had happened, and declare to them that they were free! Those heralds were “evangelists”.
Example 2: The Emancipation Proclamation
In the United States, when Abraham Lincoln signed the document which set the slaves in the southern states free, that news had to be taken and proclaimed in every city, town and farm in the South. Heralds were sent out who proclaimed to those slaves that something had happened, which would change their lives forever. They declared to them that because of what someone else had done, they were set free!
The Gospel of Caesar Augustus
An inscription found in Priene, in modern-day Turkey, referring to Caesar Augustus says: “the birthday of [Augustus] has been for the whole world the beginning of the gospel (euangelion) concerning him.” (Priene 150.40-41)
This inscription is found on a government building dating from 6 B.C. Here is more of what it says, which gives us insight into how they understood the “gospel” concerning Caesar Augustus:
The most divine Caesar . . . we should consider equal to the Beginning of all things . . . for when everything was falling (into disorder) and tending toward dissolution, he restored it once more and gave the whole world a new aura; Caesar . . . the common good Fortune of all . . . The beginning of life and vitality . . . All the cities unanimously adopt the birthday of the divine Caesar as the new beginning of the year . . . Whereas the Providence which has regulated our whole existence . . . has brought our life to the climax of perfection in giving to us (the emperor) Augustus . . .who being sent to us and our descendents as Savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order; and (whereas,) having become (god) manifest /PHANEIS/, Caesar has fulfilled all the hopes of earlier times.
The “gospel” of Caesar Augustus was what we call today the Pax Romana, the age of peace in the Roman Empire which came about during this time, into which Jesus was born.
Caesar Augustus in this inscription is declared to be: divine, savior, and the beginning of the good news for all people on Earth.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ: a Direct Challenge to the Gospel of Rome
When we understand this term “gospel” (euangelion), and how it was used in the ancient Greco-Roman world, we can begin to better understand the specific way in which the Christian gospels of Jesus Christ were written. They were written in such a way as to present Jesus as the true divine King, who had come to bring true salvation to the whole world, and they were written as a direct challenge to the so-called “gospel” of Rome and its peace which was enforced through brutality, and which did not provide any actual salvation.
“The beginning of the gospel (euangelion) about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1)
“Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel (euangelion) of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the gospel! (euangelion)” (Mark 1:14-15)
And this gospel (euangelion) of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:14)
For I am not ashamed of the gospel (euangelion), for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. (Romans 1:16)
The gospel is a message of a victory which has taken place, from which we benefit. We receive salvation, freedom and peace as a result of it.
The gospel, therefore, is good news, not good advice! It’s not about what you have to do for God, but it’s the news of what God has done for you in Christ to set you free.
Check out this article from Marianne Bonz of Harvard University called: The Gospel of Rome vs. the Gospel of Jesus Christ
Check out this video Mike and I filmed about whether the gospel is political (hint: it is), and what that means for us as Christians today: