What’s a Gospel?


Ever since Bultmann,[1] 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,[2] 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[3], celebration or public festivity.[4]

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 (εαγγελίου) 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.[5],  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,[6] 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.[7]  It would often be followed by sacrifices or festivities. [8] 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.”[9]

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.[10]  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.”[11] 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.[12]  The term also differentiates the work from encomium, analytic history (as in Herodotus, Thucydides), memoir (Xenophon’s Memorabilia) and certainly from the Greek novel.[13] It also tells the readers not to expect anything like the well-crafted letters that members of the elite exchanged with one another.[14] 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?[15] 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.”[16]

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

[1] Rudolf Bultmann, Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition (Göttingen, 1921). Back to text

[2] For example, Luke 4.43, Matthew 11.5. Back to text

[3] 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

[4] 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

[5] 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

[6] Note also its occurrence in Agamemnon 475. Back to text

[7] 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

[8] 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

[9] 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

[10] 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

[11]  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

[12] 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 (edsThe Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies. (Oxford, 2006)  p. 437.  I am indebted to Bill Berg for help on this matter. Back to text

[13]  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

[14] 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

[15] 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

[16] 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


bill berg photo crop 1WILLIAM BERG

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.[1]  In Paul, too, we can read euangelion as “good news” about half the time.  As with Mark, it’s “God’s gospel,” [2] 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).[3]

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.

4/24/13                                                                              billberg23@hotmail.com

[1] 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

[2] Mark 1:14;  1 Thess 2:8,  2 Cor 11:7,  Rom 15:16. Back to text

[3] 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

5 thoughts on “What’s a Gospel?”

  1. Gary Pence said:

    Bob, your tracing of the oral character of εὐαγγέλιον offers support to Pheme Perkins’ assertion that “by attaching the word ‘gospel’ to the beginning of a narrative, Mark signals a transition from the oral form of ‘preached message’ to the designation of a written account of Jesus as a ‘gospel.'” Interestingly, she suggests, “Yes, the Gospel ends on a note of silence (16:8), which sets the oral world at risk.” (New Interpreter’s Bible, v. 8, 518.) Your account also supports David Rhoads’ argument that Mark is essentially oral literature designed for recitation.

    And, Bill, I really like your treatment of εὐαγγέλιον in Paul, for whom the term, as you suggest, is something proclaimed, not read. It does have a dynamic, missional quality to it from a period when there were not yet written “gospels” to begin solidifying (ossifying?) the tradition. The Scholars Bible translation of the Jesus Seminar rejects the conclusion that Mark 1:1 is to be understood as a title to the work. It links 1:1 to 1:2, “The good news of Jesus the Anointed begins with something Isaiah the prophet wrote. . . .” This translation holds on to the more dynamic, performative meaning of εὐαγγέλιον.

  2. Gary, now that the site is under full steam, we have time to get back to our chief commentator so far (yourself), and to thank you for your valued input. Please read on, keep the comments coming, and encourage others to join the conversation!
    Yes, as you noticed, I was suggesting a Pauline flavor for εὐαγγέλιον in Mark 1:1 — something lived as much as proclaimed — or, as you put it, “performative.” We’ll look forward to more from you! ~ Bill

  3. Edwin D. Floyd said:

    I may have some relevant comments to make on Bob’s essay “What is a gospel?”, along with Bill’s response.

    I start with the latter (Bill’s response). Actually, I would say that the NIV more or less does it Bill’s way, viz., with verse 1 fairly closely connected with the following Old Testament quotations (note the comma at the end of verse 1):

    1The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, 2as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

    “I will send my messenger ahead of you,

    who will prepare your way” —

    3“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,

    ‘Prepare the way for the Lord,

    make straight paths for him.’”

    4And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

    As for what an ancient reader would bring to the beginning of Mark’s account, I have a couple or so points to add to Bob’s observations:

    One, concerning which I don’t really have any axe of my own to grind, is that I would suggest it is not only Greek authors such as Homer, Aeschylus, Xenophon, et al. that should be mentioned in connection with the usage of the word euangelion. Additionally, Cicero, Letters to Atticus, several times uses euangelia (pl.) to refer to good news / reward for good news. Some of the Cicero references are in LSJ (and I think there are some additional ones, too) – and I guess the word is generally considered just Greek, not Latin, since it is not included in the Oxford Latin Dictionary. At any rate, the Cicero usage would seem to open things up beyond the readers from the “eastern Mediterranean” that Bob mentions. (Would this add to the case for an Italian / Roman setting for the composition / intended readership of Mark’s gospel?)

    A second point, with which I am more deeply involved, is that Odyssey, 14.152 and 166 are, I think, the ONLY occurrences of euangelion in the singular before the New Testament. Of course, the combination of eu and forms of angello, etc. is more widespread (e.g. euangelou at Agamemnon, 21). Also, the plural euangelia (which Cicero uses) is found in Greek authors too (e.g., Aristophanes, Knights, 647 and 656 and Plutus, 765.) The specific singular formation euangelion, though, does not seem to reemerge between Homer and the New Testament (Paul, et al.)

    It may therefore be in order to focus on the Homeric usage. This is pretty definitely not just “good news”, but rather “reward for bringing good news”. To be sure, that English phrase in quotes seems a bit clumsy, and one should perhaps try something else – perhaps a judicious use of capital letters would work. Since Good News has pretty much been preempted as a Christian turn of phrase (and, perhaps ironically, somewhat attenuated in the process), one might try something like Big News.

    At any rate, the idea of reward in connection with euangel- seems pretty pervasive – and I am not sure this has always been very explicitly realized. Perhaps all the New Testament uses of euangel-, though, could be considered against the Homeric sense of euangelion as reward for Big News. Just one example of what I have in mind is Matthew 11.5, where Jesus refers to what is currently going on: The blind see, the lame walk about, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor euangelizontai. I would say that the first five of those noun – verb combinations are all pretty definitive reversals of negative situations, and it may be that more in the way of actual tangible reward is implied in the case of the poor also.

    There may be also be interesting patterning between the Odyssey, Book 14 occurrences and Mark 1:1-3. What the Stranger (the disguised Odysseus) says concerning Odysseus’ imminent return, etc. is true – except that most of the future tenses are a bit out of place. Odysseus has indeed returned, and it is therefore not quite accurate to say as the Stranger (Odysseus) does in 14.151-163a that Odysseus will return. There is, however, one future event that is mentioned here that has not yet taken place, viz., Odysseus’ successfully taking vengeance on the Suitors (Od. 14.163b-164). Of course, as with any statement about the future, one cannot really be sure of what will happen (although Odysseus might arguably be reasonably confident about how vengeance against the Suitors will turn out – at least, he does have the goddess Athena on his side). At any rate, the last line and a half of Odysseus’ speech (Od. 14.163b-164), fully qualifies as a statement about what is yet to happen.

    All this would, I submit, parallel the pattern in the first few verses of Mark. The author says that what Isaiah had prophesied has been fulfilled in the career of Jesus – but the first part of the cited “prophecy” is from Malachi, not Isaiah. I.e., one needs to realize that things are a bit loosely expressed here – that one has to let the writer write as he wishes, postponing the quotation that is actually from Isaiah, just as Homer had postponed a specific statement concerning the future from the first part to the last part of Odysseus’ speech.

    That is about it for now. Possibly, as I ponder all this, I may get some more thoughts about euangelion together and send them along. At Mark 1.14 and 15, for example, I think one might say that the euangelion that Jesus is proclaiming is pretty specifically about himself, although it is stated specifically as Big News about God (to euangelion tou theou, followed by information about the kingdom of God and toi euangelioi [dative]). Similarly, in Od., Book 14, Odysseus is of course speaking about himself – but he does not really say this, just as the proclamation in Mark is not so obviously about Jesus himself, but instead, seemingly about what John the Baptist had been preaching – repentance, etc.

  4. James McCaughey said:

    Thank you, Bob, for your interesting materials about Mark

    I read with particular interest your two pieces on “What’s a gospel” and “What’s a name”. They are, as always with you, so fresh and original and bring the world from which these materials come into a new light.

    I had not thought enough about the unique highlighting of the Herodians in Mark, and your comments on the background use of euaggelion are fascinating.

    What I did notice, in your overall account of the sources of Mark’s narrative, was that there was no mention made or account taken of the influence of the early church’s kerugma, and its agency in shaping the narrative of which each of the synoptic gospels offers a particular version or slant.

    I don’t know whether, in mentioning this, I am falling back on old orthodoxies now discredited.

    Anyway, a good fresh read and very stimulating

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