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Holman Bible Dictionary
Development in the Old Testament Bisar is the Hebrew verb which means “to proclaim good news.” Unlike the English language, Hebrew is able to convey the subject of the proclamation in the verb's root; no direct object was needed with the verb bisar to make clear that the subject of an announcement was “good news.” Originally, the word was used to describe the report of victory in battle ( 2 Samuel 4:10 ). Because the Israelites believed God was actively involved in their lives (including battles and wars) bisar came to have a religious connotation. To proclaim the good news of Israel's success in battle was to proclaim God's triumph over God's enemies. Believing credit for the victory belonged to God, the Israelites' proclamation of the good news of victory was, in fact, proclamation about God.
The transition from the use of bisar in a military setting to its use in a personal context is not difficult to envision. If Israel proclaimed good news when God delivered the nation from its enemies, individuals ought also to proclaim good news when God delivered them from personal distress ( Psalm 40:10 ). The nation's victores in war and a person's individual salvation both called for the announcement of what God had done. The Book of Isaiah marks the full religious development of the term within the Old Testament. By this time the word is most often used to describe the anticipated deliverance and salvation which would come from the hand of God when the long-awaited Messiah appeared to deliver Israel (Isaiah 52:7 ). The military-political and personal connotations of the word were fully united in the hope of a Deliverer who would both triumph over the earthly enemies of God's people and usher in a new age of salvation. The arrival of this Messiah would be good news.
In the Old Testament, the verbal form of bisar dominates in usage. A noun derived from the verb does appear on occasion, but the vast majority of references are to the verb itself. The good news of God's saving work and the proclamation of that news cannot be separated.
Development in the New Testament From approximately 300 B.C. until after the time of Christ, Greek was the dominant language of the biblical world. The Greek language crossed geographic and cultural barriers to provide a common tongue for government and commerce. During this same time period thousands of Jews emigrated from Palestine throughout Asia Minor. Consequently, many devout Greek-speaking Jews lived in the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea. In fact, many Jews who lived outside Palestine spoke Greek better than they spoke Hebrew. These people eventually translated their Scriptures and the important expressions of their faith into Greek.
As translators performed their work on the Hebrew Bible, the Greek word most commonly used for bisar was euangelizesthai. In its most ancient usage, this Greek verb had many similarities with bisar. Like the Hebrew verb, euangelizesthai was a word used to announce victory in battle. Another similarity could be found in that the Greek verb originally needed no direct object to convey the subject of the proclamation. However, by the time the New Testament was written the usage of euangelizesthai had changed slightly. In later usage the word simply meant “to proclaim,” and some object had to be used with the verb to explain the subject of the proclamation.
This small shift in meaning explains why during the Christian era a noun derived from the Greek verb became much more common. Christians increasingly used euanggelion (the noun derived from euangelizesthai) as a specific term to describe the good news of Jesus. Euanggelion was indeed the content of their preaching. However, because the Greek language now allowed the content of their proclamation to be separated from the idea of proclamation itself, writers of the New Testament could also say the good news was confessed, taught, spoken, told, announced, and witnessed. Development in English Translations bEarliest English editions of the Bible used the Anglo-Saxon word “godspell” to translate the noun euaggelion. Godspell meant “the story about a god” and was used because the story about Jesus was good news. As English developed, the word was shortened to “gospel,” and the Anglo-Saxon meaning was lost. Because euaggelion was used specifically to refer to good news of Jesus, some translators have used other words to translate bisar in the Old Testament, even though the meaning of the two words are roughly the same. This distinction has been drawn in order to differentiate between the good news promised by the prophets and the good news which Jesus actually brings. Translators who make such a distinction often use “glad tidings” or an equivalent for the Hebrew.
Usage in the New Testament In the New Testament “gospel” has two shades of meaning: it is both the actual message on the lips of Jesus about the reign of God (Mark 1:14 ), and it is the story told about Jesus after His death and resurrection (Galatians 1:11-12 ). In each case “gospel” refers to the work which God alone initiates and completes. Inasmuch as God has chosen to bring about the world's reconciliation in this one particular way, there is only one gospel (Hebrews 1:1-2 ). Furthermore, since God is the One working through the saving activity of Jesus, God is also the Author of the gospel (1 Thessalonians 2:13 ). The gospel is God's message to humankind (Romans 15:16 ). Only God calls and commissions the messengers of this good news, and, in addition, only God gives the messengers the story they are to make known (Romans 10:14-15; 1 John 1:5 ).
Therefore, the proclamation of the good news is the continuation of the work which God began in Jesus Christ. God's messengers are not merely telling about the history of salvation when they proclaim the good news; rather, they are an integral part of the work which continues through their efforts. The living Lord, Jesus Christ Himself, confronts listeners through the words of the messengers. To alter the message by adding extra requirements or by omitting crucial details is to pervert the gospel into a false message which ceases to have saving power (2 Corinthians 11:3-4; Galatians 1:6-7 ).
The Message of the Gospel The most basic summary of Jesus' preaching appears in Mark 1:15 . “The time is fulfilled,” He said. “The kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel.” Mark offers no explanation what the good news is or what information it contains. Those readers who live several centuries after the writing of the New Testament must glean the message from careful study of all its books.
The need for good news assumes a bad situation. The bad situation in which humans find themselves and the reason they need good news is that sin has entered each of their lives (John 8:7; Romans 3:23 ). Sin is a power that controls them and shapes their destinies (Romans 3:9; Romans 6:22 ). Sin's power must not be underestimated. In fact, humans are helpless by themselves to overcome its grip on their lives (Romans 7:21-24 ).
Because humans cannot overcome the power of sin by themselves, God has intervened on their behalf through Jesus. Jesus has come to seek out all persons so they may respond to God's grace (Luke 15:1-10; Luke 19:10 ). God's grace, which Jesus bears within Himself (John 1:14 ), overcomes sin's power and offers forgiveness for individual sins (Mark 2:5; Romans 6:14 ). See Matthew 19:20-22; John 1:12 ). Because Jesus bears God's grace in Himself, grace is accepted only by receiving him (John 14:9-12 ). The marks of having accepted Jesus are repentance (Luke 13:3 ) and a changed life (Matthew 3:8; 1 John 1:5-7 ).
The fact that forgiveness, freedom from sin, and a new life are possible is good news. Because all this is possible only through Jesus Christ, His message and His story are called the “gospel.”
Development of Written Gospels Within the New Testament, the word euanggelion always refers to oral communication, never to a document or piece of literature. Not until the beginning of the second century and the writings of the “church fathers” do we find references to “gospels” in the plural, indicating written documents. How did this transition from a spoken message to written books take place?
Literacy was uncommon in the ancient world. Books and writing equipment were expensive and the education needed to use them was usually reserved for the rich alone. Consequently, many societies preserved and transmitted their national stories, traditions, and faith by word of mouth. These societies stressed the importance of telling and remembering their traditions from one generation to another. Such a system may seem fragile and unreliable by modern standards, but ancient societies trusted the methods and forms they developed to sustain the process.
In times of crisis (such as an invasion by a foreign nation), however, certain learned individuals would try to guarantee the preservation of their society's oral traditions by writing them down. They often wrote out of the fear of what would happen if their nation was defeated or destroyed and no one was left to transmit orally the living traditions to the next generation. The gospels of the New Testament developed along a pattern similar to other ancient writings. For many years the stories and teachings of Jesus were communicated primarily by word of mouth. In addition to the fact of limited literacy, members of the early church believed Jesus would return soon, so they felt no urgency to write down His teachings for the future. Then, about thirty years after Jesus' ascension, three interrelated crises began to impinge upon the church. As a result of these crises, individuals responded to the leadership of God's Spirit to write down the teachings, stories, and message of Jesus into what we call the Gospels.
The first of these crises was persecution. The Emperor Nero initiated the first official persecution so he could use Christians as scapegoats for his own insane actions. After setting fire to the city of Rome in A.D. 64 as a way to clear a portion of the city for a construction project, Nero arrested Christians and accused them of committing the crime. Using torture, Roman officials extracted a “confession” from one Christian. On the basis of this supposed admission of guilt, Nero began a systematic persecution of Christians which included arrest, imprisonment, torture, and execution. The persecution begun by Nero continued in varying degrees of intensity during the reign of other emperors throughout the New Testament period. From a historical perspective, persecution may have strengthened the spirit of the early church, but that first generation of Christians felt their very existence was threatened. The second crisis involved the passing away of the generation of people who had actually seen Jesus in the flesh, heard His teachings, and witnessed His miracles. Some died in the persecutions and others simply aged enough to pass away from natural causes. The early church placed a high value on the experience of actually having seen and heard Jesus (Luke 1:2; 1 John 1:1 ). Therefore, the death of members of the original generation of Christians was viewed as a potential break in their linkage to the historical roots of their faith.
The third crises was the perceived delay in Christ's return to earth. Preaching recorded in the New Testament has a distinct sense of urgency about it. The apostles believed that Jesus would be returning any day and that it was imperative for them to give as many people as possible the opportunity to respond to Him. Their constant emphasis was to communicate the gospel today, not to preserve it for the future. As a longer and longer period of time passed after Jesus' ascension, the church became more and more concerned about preserving the message.
The Purposes of the Evangelists From approximately A.D. 60 until A.D. 90, four individuals responded to the inspiration of God by writing down the message of, and about, Jesus. As they did, these individuals surely held several goals in common. Responding to the crises around them, they wanted to preserve the gospel message in an accurate form for believers who would follow in future generations. In this sense the authors were each trying to produce a book for the Christian community. They wrote down the good news of Jesus to strengthen, to educate, and to encourage those who already accepted its message.
It is also clear that they intended to use a written form of the gospel as an additional tool for evangelism (John 20:30-31 ). The evangelists envisioned the written gospel as a vehicle to spread faith in Jesus Christ. In this sense, each evangelist was trying to produce a missionary book. Understanding the missionary character of the four Gospels is an important factor in their study. The Gospel writers' primary interest was not to produce great works of literature, nor was their intention to write a biography in the modern sense of the word. Their principal objective was to convert individuals to faith in Christ. Thus, they wrote primarily to convince, not to record facts. The primary intention of the evangelists determined the shape and content of the written Gospels. One may wish the Gospel writers had included additional information about Jesus' home life, His adolescence, or some other area of interest; but the Gospel writers were not led to believe that kind of data was crucial for faith. The evangelists structured their works to give the message maximum impact on the readers. They included material they felt was essential for the reader to know to be able to make a decision about Jesus' identity. All other concerns regarding form and content of the Gospels was secondary to the missionary objective.
While the teaching of the New Testament affirms that there is only one, true gospel, the books contained therein stand as testimony to the fact that the gospel is influenced by each personality which proclaims it. The church does not possess one account of the message of and work of Jesus which stands alone as the official record of His activity. Rather, the early church recognized the inspiration of four different accounts of the gospel. Each one was written from a slightly different perspective; each one had a different audience in mind; each one was designed to highlight the elements of the gospel which the author felt most important. The four Gospels witness both the divine inspiration of God and the individual, human personalities of their authors.
The Gospel of Mark Most scholars see Mark as the first written Gospel, though many scholars are providing reasons to claim Matthew was first. The simple structure, terse language, and sometimes poor grammar give the impression that this book was composed in a hurry. From references by church leaders in the second century, we learnfjcr pbthat the shortest Gospel was written near the year A.D. 65 by a man named Mark (possibly John Mark) who was a follower of the Apostle Peter. Mark recorded the life and message of Jesus as he heard it from the mouth of Peter during the apostle's teaching and preaching.
The best evidence indicates Mark wrote the Gospel for Christians in Rome faced with the first great persecution and the loss of leaders such as Peter. Mark shows a definite interest in the power of Jesus' words and actions—a power so great it destroys the forces of sin and evil. The exorcisms and other miracles were evidence to Roman Christians being victimized by evil that Jesus could deliver them just as He delivered the demoniac or healed the blind man at Bethsaida (Mark 5:1-20; Mark 8:22-26 ).
The Gospel of Matthew Matthew is the most Jewish of the Gospels. It constantly presents Jesus as the fullfillment of Hebrew prophecy and in images which show Him similar to, but greater than, Old Testament personalities. For instance, the purpose of the nativity story in Matthew is to present Jesus as the royal Messiah from the lineage of David. The Sermon on the Mount portrays Jesus as a new Moses who teaches God's law from the mountain.
Written ten to twenty years after Mark, Matthew takes the general framework of the first written Gospel and adds to it extensive examples of Jesus' parables and other teachings. While Mark emphasized the power and activity of Jesus, Matthew underscored His teaching.
The Gospel of Luke Produced about the same time as Matthew, Luke is generally accepted as the only Gospel written by a Gentile and by a person who was not directly related to Jesus or to one of His original disciples. As one born outside the boundaries of Judaism, Luke had a profound interest in interpreting Jesus as the Savior of all humanity. Matthew traced Jesus' lineage to Abraham to prove His pure Jewish heritage. Luke, on the other hand, traced His lineage all the way back to Adam to accentuate His common bond with all the human race. Luke mentions shepherds as the witnesses of the Messiah's birth, because the filth associated with their occupation made them prime examples of society's outcasts. The fact they were invited to the manger of Bethlehem indicates Jesus' openness to everyone.
The Gospel of John John was the last Gospel written. It is undoubtedly the most reflective and the most theological of the four. Although scholars cannot agree whether John's primary audience was Jewish or Gentile, they do agree that a major emphasis of this Gospel was to combat the heresy of gnosticism. See Gnosticism .
The most striking characteristic of John is its difference from the other three Gospels. The sequence of Jesus' ministry, the vocabulary and tone of Jesus' words, even the day on which Jesus is crucified are different in John than in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The constant reference to miracles as “signs,” the “I am” speeches, and the total exclusion of story-like parables also set John apart from the other three.
Rejected Gospels The early church perceived God's inspiration in the four Gospels of the Bible, yet several other books which presented themselves as gospels also circulated during the church's early history. These “gospels” were either inadequate Jewish interpretations of Jesus, or works heavily influenced by Gnostic heretics. All of the known rejected gospels were written much later than the four included in the New Testament, most commonly between A.D. 120,150. Among these works are The Gospel of the Ebionites , The Gospel According to the Hebrews , The Gospel According to the Egyptians , The Gospel of the Naassenes , The Gospel of Peter , and The Gospel of Thomas .
God did lead the church to preserve four gospels so that it could continue to preserve and proclaim the richness of the gospel message of salvation to the diverse peoples of the world in their diverse needs.
P. Joel Snider
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Gospel'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hbd/g/gospel.html. 1991.
the Week of Proper 22 / Ordinary 27