Ever since Bultmann, biblical scholars have struggled to identify the literary genre of the gospels. Were they modeled on ancient biography, historical narratives, novels, mythography, or what? What truth claim did they make for themselves? Since I make no claim to be a biblical scholar, this essay asks a more modest question. What expectations would the word we translate “gospel” (evangelion) create when early readers in the Greek speaking communities of the eastern Mediterranean encountered it in the Greek text of the Gospel according Mark?
The gospel according to Mark starts with a surprise. The modern reader may skip right over it; after all, we know that this is one of the four canonical gospels, all of which share certain familiar features. Let’s get on, then, with Mark’s version of the story. But for those who first encountered the Greek text its opening words — “The beginning of the evangelion (εὑαγγέλιον)” — require some reflection, for this may be the first time that any text has referred to itself as an evangelion. We have to ask “What sort of text is this? What should I expect from an evangelion?”
To be sure, messages of good news have been reported with some frequency both in the Hebrew scriptures and in Greek literature. But, to the best of my knowledge, they are all oral. And while the other gospels speak of proclaiming good news, Mark’s is the only one to refer to itself as an evangelion. It does not call itself a “book,” (βἰβλος) as Matthew does, nor allude to composing a narrative (ἀνατἀξασθαι διήγησιν) as Luke does, or echo the book of Genesis as John does in the famous opening verses of the fourth gospel.
By the time these gospels were being written, whatever their precise dates may be, a clear understanding of what an evangelion was prevailed among Greek speakers in the eastern Mediterranean. Its roots go back perhaps to Homer, certainly to classical Athens. An evangelion is not any bit of good news, but something quite major, for example a victory, or a peace settlement –something deserving a reward, celebration or public festivity.
The pattern can be seen in an early use of the word evangelios /-on. In Aeschylus’ tragedy the Agamemnon, the first play in his Oresteia trilogy, “good news” is a recurring theme, although ultimately ironic. In the opening scene (line 21) the good news comes through a signal from a fire beacon — Troy has fallen to the Greeks. The watchman seeing the signal rejoices –“may there be a fortunate release from toil” — as the victory-message (εὐαγγελίου) fire flashes in the darkness. The watchman knows what to expect — celebration, singing and dancing (χοροι) throughout Argos. Little does he imagine what will follow when King Agamemnon returns and his aggrieved wife, Clytemnestra, turns to murder.
I have used the translation “victory-message” because the context makes clear this is no ordinary bit of news, but also with another early passage in mind, Xenophon Hellenica 1.6.37. There Eteonicus, the crafty Spartan commander of the late fifth century BCE, responds to a (false) message of victory, by sacrificing ta evangelia, the appropriate ritual offerings in thanksgiving for a victory., Grand sacrifices are exactly what Clytemnestra undertakes in the Agamemnon; the chorus, however, not knowing the news, is puzzled why she has begun sacrificing: “What new thing have you heard? In persuasion of what report do you order such sacrifices?” (Agamemnon 85 – 87, trans. R. Lattimore)
Clytemnestra does not at first answer the Chorus’ question, but when they repeat it (εὐαγγέλοισιν ἐλπίσιν θυηπολεῖς, 262) she says “Let this dawn be good news (εὐαγγελος). You shall know joy beyond all you ever hoped to hear,. The men of Argos have taken Priam’s citadel.” (264ff).
Up to this point in the play the victory celebrations depend on the fire signal. But the victory news is confirmed by the arrival of a herald (κηρυξ), whose report is of special interest for our study of the background to Mark’s evangelion.
Once the herald has expressed his joy at being home, safe and sound, in Argos, and has thanked the gods for their protection, he delivers the crucial news: “He comes, lord Agamemnon, bearing light in gloom to you, and to all that are assembled here. (522f). His principal responsibility fulfilled, the herald continues speaking, but not with a summary of the war, or a description of the major exploits, or of the famous stratagem of the wooden horse that resulted in the fall of the city. He talks instead of first-hand experience –what he himself encountered: “the nights exposed, the cramped sea-quarters, the foul beds —what part of day’s disposal did we not cry out loud? Ashore, the horror stayed with us and grew. We lay against the ramparts of our enemies, and from the sky, and from the ground the meadow dews came out to soak our clothes and fill our hair with lice. (555 –562)/
The herald’s misery seems washed away by his victory message, although gloom soon returns when he responds to a question about Agamemnon’s brother, Menelaus, whose return from Troy was a tale of great misery: “The messenger so freighted with a charge of tears should make his song of triumph at the Furies’ door. But, carrying the fair message (εὐάγγελον) of our hopes’ salvation, come home to a glad city’s. (645 – 649)
The victory message is a theme more fully developed in the Agamemnon than in any other extant Greek tragedy, but I am not suggesting that the audience of Mark’s gospel had Aeschylus or Xenophon or any other classical author in mind when they heard its first few words. It seems likely, however, that residents on the Hellenized towns and cities of the eastern Mediterranean would have recognized the underlying pattern – that evangelion or its cognates implied a major piece of good news, delivered as a first-hand account, without waiting for the composition of an elaborate presentation. It would often be followed by sacrifices or festivities.  Aristophanes parodies this pattern in the Knights (642ff.) with a mock speech by the Sausage Seller to the Athenian council: “Oh Council, I’m bringing these good words and want to be the first to announce this good news (εὐαγγελίσασθαι ) to you. Ever since the war broke upon us I have never seen the price of anchovies lower.” Of course, the Sausage Seller , like many bearers of good news, gets his reward, called an evangelia in line 647.
News of a victory might come in symbolic form, as it did after Alexander’s first great victory at Granicus. He sent to Athens 300 captured suits of heavy armor to be dedicated on the Acropolis with the inscription: “Alexander the son of Philip and the Hellenes, except the Lacedaemonians, from the barbarians dwelling in Asia.”
That said it all, succinctly. It is very likely, however, that the suits of armor were conveyed by someone who had been at the battle and could report first-hand on what had happened. They might well say, as the herald says in Aeschylus’ Persians, “And since I was witness, deaf to rumor’s tale, I can indicate what sorrows came.” Their report would be conveyed in their own words, not the polished prose of a well-educated historian. Its authority would come from their being eye-witnesses or participants in the events they describe. Their language would be everyday speech, not artful or contrived.
To call a work an “evangelion,” then, discouraged one set of audience expectations and created another. It suggests that the report need not be comprehensive, complete, or composed in an elegant style. It should, however, get its point across in a concise, informal style, if possible with eyewitness detail. The term, moreover, sets the work apart from other forms of writing, such as biography which in the Greco-Roman world reflected an interest in the family and the upbringing (paideia) of its subject. The term also differentiates the work from encomium, analytic history (as in Herodotus, Thucydides), memoir (Xenophon’s Memorabilia) and certainly from the Greek novel. It also tells the readers not to expect anything like the well-crafted letters that members of the elite exchanged with one another. The word alerts the reader instead to the spoken quality of the work, the illusion of eyewitness reporting, and direct, unembellished speech.
I know of no written text that was called an evangelion before the gospel of Mark. Was that the first of its kind? Did Mark make the breakthrough of creating a free-standing written text from what had hitherto been representations of oral reports of great victories or events of similar significance? We cannot be sure, but by calling his work an evangelion Mark signaled to his readers what to expect — an event of major significance reported in ordinary language. The good news might well be succinct, perhaps highly selective, the things an eye-witness might know.
To convert this long-standing pattern of oral communication into written form may seem a small step, but breakthrough it was. It freed the writer from expectations widespread in the Greco-Roman world — that lofty subjects should be treated in a lofty style and that length should be proportionate to the importance of the subject. In an evangelion the story of Jesus need not be forced into the mold of history, biography, encomium or any other established genre. The language could be drawn from the speech of ordinary people; the story need not be comprehensive. The writer need not feel obligated to cover every part of Jesus’ life; the birth, early childhood, the post-resurrection appearances. Mark omits them all. The adult life, too, could be presented selectively, as if the writer would report only what he had himself experienced or had received from sources he considered reliable. The credibility of the work could derive from its immediacy, its eyewitness quality, not from its comprehensiveness and coherence. It could, moreover, send its message clearly, forcefully, concisely, right up front – “the evangelion of Jesus Christ, the son of God.”
Such an approach may be troubling to a modern reader, since it results in a highly selective or fragmentary narrative. In antiquity it was certainly a radical move, differentiating the work from other genres. Yet, by introducing his work in this way, the author could write forthrightly, concentrating on what he felt confident about, even if that meant leaving out large tracts of material. He could write with authenticity.
This seems to me to characterize the gospel of Mark, whether or not it was the first to call itself an evangelion. The ancient reader, encountering the term at the very outset, might be surprised to find it applied to a written work, but would know what to expect both in style and content. The reader might conclude that whatever its flaws and limitations this little book was written with freshness and authenticity. It still deserves admiration, I believe, for precisely those qualities.
April 22, 2013
 Rudolf Bultmann, Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition (Göttingen, 1921). Back to text
 For example, Luke 4.43, Matthew 11.5. Back to text
 Homer Odyssey 14, 152 uses the word ευαγγέλιον to refer to the reward a messenger receives for bringing good news. The pattern is still evident in the Hellenistic period: Plutarch Demetrius 17. Back to text
 Isocrates 7 (Areopagiticus) 10 alluding to battles undertaken by Athens adds“…to celebrate the good news (evaggelia ) of such accomplishments we have twice now offered grateful sacrifices to the gods” (trans. Norlin). Cf. Diodorus 16. 22 on Chares’ victory of 356/55 BCE. Back to text
 That is probably why we find “evangelios” as an epithet of Zeus, Hermes and other divinities, and as the name of a month. The references are in LSJ. The same cultural pattern led to the establishment of recurrent festivals following major victories in the Greco-Roman world. Back to text
 Note also its occurrence in Agamemnon 475. Back to text
 The wider range of these words comes to includes announcements of an emperor’s accession, Josephus BJ 4.10.6. Cognates are often used as epithets for divinities , presumably for ones thought responsible for good news. See esp. the supplement to LSJ. Back to text
 The pattern can also be recognized in Josephus Ant. Iud. 18.6.10. When it seems likely that the rumor that the emperor Tiberius has died is correct, there is great rejoicing in some quarters, “… some offered sacrifices. “ Only later were official letters confirming the death received. Back to text
 Arrian 1.16.7; , Plutarch Demetrius 17 reports that Demetrius Poliorcetes sent 1200 coats of armor to Athens after his victory over Ptolemy in 306 BCE. Back to text
 Demetrius sent such a messenger, Aristodemus, to report the victory over Ptolemy’s fleet, Plutarch Demetrius 17. The report, delivered to a large crowd, was succinct and factual, “Hail King Antigonus. We have totally beaten Ptolemy at sea. We are masters of Cyprus and have taken 16,800 prisoners.” Antigonus, annoyed at Aristodemus’ pretensions and delay, tells him he will have to wait long for his reward. Back to text
 Aeschylus Persians ca. 260f., trans. Benardete. Cf. the messenger in Seven against Thebes 40 ff., “I myself too / have seen the things I speak of.” Back to text
 Charles H. Talbert argued in What Is A Gospel? The Genre of the Canonical Gospels ( Fortress Press, 1977) that the gospels are best understood as part of the ancient genre of biographical writing. See the review by Philip L. Shuler Journal of Biblical Literature, 98, No. 3 (1979), pp. 439-440. The derivation from biography now seems widely accepted: R. A. Burridge” Gospels.” In J. W. Rogerson & Judith M. Lieu (eds) The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies. (Oxford, 2006) p. 437. I am indebted to Bill Berg for help on this matter. Back to text
 The Greek novel is, as the Oxford Classical Dictionary (second edition) s.v. Greek Novel puts it was “a romantic composition in rhetorical prose of considerable length” (p. 739). “Romantic” is the operative word, since the plots regularly involve love affairs and erotic feelings. On Jewish “novels” see Ancient Jewish Novels: An Anthology, ed. by Lawrence M. Wills. Back to text
 For example Cicero’s letter 18 to Marcus Porcius Cato, describing his victory in Cilicia and soliciting Cato’s support for the honors Cicero desired: “ I would have you feel convinced that, should a motion be brought before the senate of these matters, I shall consider that the highest possible compliment has been paid me, if you give your vote in favour of a mark of honour being bestowed upon me.“ [ trans. from the Harvard Classics, available at http://www.bartleby.com/9/3/18.html] Back to text
 The term “evangelist” may have been used first by individual Christians who proclaimed Jesus as the Christ, such as Philip in Acts 21.8. Back to text
 Not all editors accept the reading υιου θεου, but an evangelion , it seems to me, may make its main point at the very outset. Back to text
The background Bob has so persuasively presented for the use of euangelion in the synoptic tradition (no occurrences in John) certainly illuminates our understanding of many instances of the word there. Surely the idea of “(major) good news,” perhaps with the additional twist of “report of a (major) victory,” underlies at least four of the eight occurrences of euangelion in Mark (see especially 1:14, 10:29, 13:10, 14:9); its use in 16:15 could also be regarded as “victory message,” though should probably be left out of account here in view of the spurious nature of that passage.
This pattern repeats the pattern apparent in Paul, whose (genuine) letters precede the synoptics by a number of years or even decades. In Paul, too, we can read euangelion as “good news” about half the time. As with Mark, it’s “God’s gospel,”  and it’s often easy to feel the traditional sense of “victory report,” so well identified by Bob, in his use of the word. With Paul, however, we get an additional sense of that revelation that’s so characteristic of his writings. Typically of Paul, his gospel is his own special revelation, uniquely dependent on his own “vision”: Galatians 1:12 I’m letting you know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel evangelized by me is not a human thing, nor did I receive it from a human, nor was I taught it, but it was through the revelation of Jesus the Messiah King. 2 Cor 4.3f. And if our gospel is veiled, it is only veiled for those who are being lost: the god of this eon blinded the minds of unbelievers so that the brilliance of the gospel of the anointed King’s glory will never dawn for them – the anointed King who is the image of God.
The rest of the time, however, we detect a distinctly non-traditional, Pauline twist on the word, a new significance for euangelion that has stuck in the Christian tradition for all time. For Paul makes the word signify not just the victorious “message,” but often the work of spreading and exemplifying the message; in other words, the “gospel mission” itself. A few instances: 1 Thess 3.2 We sent Timothy, our brother and God’s co-worker in the gospel of the Anointed One, to give you support and to counsel you. Philippians 4.3 Yes, and I entreat you, my true comrade, to render assistance to those women who in the service of the gospel struggled together with me and with Clement and the rest of my colleagues. Philemon 13 I was hoping to hold on to him, that he might take care of me in your place while I’m in the chains of the gospel. Philippians 2.22 But you’re acquainted with [Timothy’s] tried and true background, the fact that he slaved away for the gospel together with me, like a son with a father. Philippians 4.15 As you Philippians are well aware, at the beginning of my gospel mission [ἐν ἀρχῇ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου] after I had left Macedonia, no other assembly collaborated with me in the matter of income and expenditures, just you alone.
Likewise in Mark, there are instances of the use of euangelion to indicate the work of the believer in giving testimony to the gospel by word and deed: 8:35 Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for the sake of the gospel will save it. 10:29f. I swear to you, there is no one who has left a house or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of me and the gospel who won’t receive in this life a hundredfold houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, in the midst of persecution — and in the coming age, an eon of life.
In the citation from Philippians 4:15, the meaning of ἐν ἀρχῇ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου is abundantly clear from the context: Paul is referring to his first revelation of God’s gospel to the Philippians upon his departure from Macedonia. The same phrase occurs only once again in all of Greek literature (this time with ἀρχή in the nominative case), as the first words of the Markan gospel: Ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου. In the Markan context, however, the phrase is traditionally understood to mean not the first steps of a mission, as in the previous Pauline context, but the first words of the written narrative that follows.
But must it be so? Have generations been misled by the traditional punctuation and versification, both of which are later additions to the original text? Try reading Mark 1.1ff. without punctuation and line breaks: Ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ υἱοῦ θεοῦ καθὼς γέγραπται ἐν τῷ Ἠσαΐᾳ τῷ προφήτῃ Ἰδοὺ ἀποστέλλω τὸν ἄγγελόν μου πρὸ προσώπου σου ὃς κατασκευάσει τὴν ὁδόν σου.
Now try translating while preserving the earlier Philippian sense of ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου: “The beginning of the gospel mission of Jesus the Anointed One, son of God, [was] as is written in the prophet Isaiah: Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.” (In other words, his gospel mission began, as prophesied, with a forerunner).
The second prophetic quotation, this time actually from Isaiah (40:3), takes up Mark 1:3: The voice of one crying in the wilderness, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” The sentence that comprises that quotation has no main verb — unless we again ignore the traditional punctuation and join it to the verb ἐγένετο in 1:4, which can then be taken quite naturally to mean “came to be” or “turned out to be”: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’ turned out to be John, baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (In other words, Baptizer John was the prophesied “voice crying in the wilderness.”)
Following the traditional interpretation of ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου in Mark 1:1 (“the beginning of the good news”) brings us to agree with Bob that “this is the first time that any text has referred to itself as an evangelion.” Yet if we translate ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου with the sense that it had in the only other instance of the phrase, Philippians 4:15 (“the beginning of the gospel mission”), we are faced not with a text, but with an activity: the author of the Markan narrative was speaking not of his own work, but of the work of Jesus the son of God. If we follow the latter interpretation, we have to conclude that the application of the term euangelion to a written text is something to be reserved for a later generation, a generation that sought to classify genres within a scriptural canon.
As Bob reports, “a clear understanding of what an evangelion was prevailed among Greek speakers in the eastern Mediterranean.” And more specifically, thanks to Paul, a special understanding of the term prevailed among first-century Christians, an understanding that the euangelion was not only a major triumphal announcement, but something beyond that, a mission in which members of the Christian community could and should participate, both singly and collectively: 1 Cor 9.23 Everything I do, I do for the sake of the gospel, so as to become a part of it myself; Philippians 1.5 joy over your sharing in the gospel from the very first day right up to now.
It was Paul’s visions that gave shape and definition to most aspects of the fledgling cult, and I suspect it was none but he who first adapted the word euangelion to the Christian message and popularized it to the extent that it could stand in the first line of the Markan narrative. So when somebody came along and proclaimed the euangelion kata Markon , anyone who’d heard the words of Paul as read in the local ekklēsia (and if Paul had had anything to say about it, you can bet those words had been heard, often) would, I suggest, hear the word euangelion as he’d heard it in Paul and interpret it accordingly.
 By “genuine” I mean the seven epistles that have been accepted by scholars ancient and modern as authentic beyond dispute: 1 Thessalonians, Philippians, Philemon, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Romans, and Galatians. It should be noted, perhaps with a grain of salt, that the composer of the Markan gospel is identified in ecclesiastical tradition with the “John Mark” who has an up-and-down relationship with Paul during his early missionary journeys, and finally returns to minister to him during Paul’s final imprisonment in Rome. Back to text
 Mark 1:14; 1 Thess 2:8, 2 Cor 11:7, Rom 15:16. Back to text
 I insert a period at this point because the author has finished his first quotation from the “prophet” (actually Malachi 3:1, not Isaiah). Back to text