The Greek word “gospel” (εὐαγγέλιον) enjoyed popular usage in both pagan and Jewish spheres long before early Christians appropriated it as a summary of their preaching. Though Christians have since emptied the word of its political content—leaving only the gospel of personal, otherworldly salvation—the first Christians chose to deliver their message as “gospel” because of—not in spite of—the term’s established resonance. It is likely, therefore, that these Christians viewed their gospel of the arrival of God’s kingdom over the earth little differently than they viewed the pagan gospel of Caesar’s reign over the earth.1 Soon God would rule the nations, not a pagan king (cf. Psalm 82:8). Soon God’s servants would judge for the empire what was good, evil, honorable, and dishonorable—not Caesar.
A look at the use of the εὐαγγέλιον word-family in the Greek scriptures, particularly in the Saul-David cycle, only reinforces this picture.
- In 1 Samuel 31:9 the Philistines bring home “good news” to their people and to their idols that Israel’s king has died in battle. King Saul’s looted armor and severed head serve to symbolize this gospel according to Israel’s enemies. As they adorn their temples and walls with Saul’s body and armor (1 Samuel 31:10), the Philistines rejoice in the power of their gods to subdue Israel.
- David refuses to receive the news of Saul’s death as gospel, despite his prior conflicts with the king (2 Samuel 4:9-12). David recognizes that this “gospel” is good news only to the uncircumcised and therefore curses its messengers (2 Samuel 1:19-20).
- King David reluctantly receives news that his son and rival has died as “gospel” (2 Samuel 18:20). Absalom the usurper has perished and, to David’s chagrin, the rule of God’s anointed king is once again secure. David’s servant exclaims: “Good tidings (εὐαγγέλιον) for my lord the king! For the Lord has vindicated you this day, delivering you from the power of all who rose up against you” (2 Samuel 18:31).
- The enemies of David’s rightful heir await “good news” that Adonijah has wrested Israel’s throne from Solomon (1 Kings 1:42). Their gospel of rebellion against God and king, like the gospel reported by the Philistines, is thwarted.
- Hannah’s psalm which opens and directs the book of Samuel lays out Israel’s gospel-hope in this way: “[The Lord] will judge the ends of the earth, he will give power to our kings and he will raise up the horn2 of his anointed ruler” (1 Samuel 2:10).
In each of these cases εὐαγγέλιον regards the concrete fate of Israel and the concrete status of her king. Such political and historical matters are the content of this gospel. Will the Philistines annex Israel as the death of Saul forewarns? Will an unrighteous Absalom topple David’s God-given rule? Will Adonijah ascend the throne without his father’s (or God’s) confirmation?
Or better yet, will God sooner or later, despite ups and downs, exalt David’s noble house over Israel and the nations as he promised (2 Samuel 7:4-17, cf. Amos 9:11-15)? Will this, Israel’s true gospel, prevail upon the earth? Or will the gospel of David’s enemies forever resound among the nations?
As early Christians permeated the idolatrous world, announcing the imminent return of David’s righteous son in power as their εὐαγγέλιον, they declared that these long-held questions, Israel’s questions, had finally and definitively been answered. The political order constructed by and for pagans was now coming to an end. God’s Davidic servant would soon subjugate the nations for the sake of his people.
1—See the Calendar Inscription of Priene.
2—With his “horn” raised by God, Israel’s king can wage war and garner respect.