Euaggelion (Εὐαγγέλιον) - 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Updated: Jan 24, 2020

This week’s Bible word is the Greek noun euaggelion. The word appears in the gospel of the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, year A (Mt 4:12-17), and also in the 2nd reading, from the letter of St Paul to the Corinthians (1 Cor 1:10-13, 17). Euaggelion is translated in both of Sunday’s scripture readings as “good news” or “gospel”. It is therefore a particularly appropriate word to focus on, as we celebrate for the first time, the Sunday of the Word of God, as declared by Pope Francis in his Apostolic Letter Aperuit Illis.

The Greek noun euaggelion has a related verb, euaggelizo, which means “announce or proclaim the good news”. And there is also a noun euaggelistes, which refers to someone who proclaims the good news. All 3 words come from the same root words: eu, which means “well (done)” or “good”, and aggelos, which is “messenger” (from which our word “angel” comes). As with previous episodes of Bible Words, I will mostly consider these euaggelion words as a group, since their meanings are closely related – except where at times, it is necessary to focus on one of the specific forms of the word.

In the secular Greek of the ancient world, words in the euaggelion group mostly fall into 2 meanings:

a) Reward for good tidings This sense appears in Homer’s Odyssey, where Odysseus (in disguise as a beggar) assures the swineherd Eumeaus that Odysseus will return to Ithaca, and asks, as a “reward for good tidings”, to be clothed properly when Odysseus will finally arrive.

b) Good tidings to be celebrated The good tidings could include a messenger bringing news of military victory, or of the succession of a king. But it was also applied to a wide variety of good news, to the extent that the comic playwright Aristophanes could satirically suggest that a change in the price of sardines could be announced as euaggelia.

One notable announcement of such good news (euaggelia), close to the time of Christ (around 9 BC), is found on a stone inscription found in Priene in the Roman province of Asia Minor, in modern-day Turkey. This inscription heralds a god [the emperor Augustus Caesar] who brought peace, and was therefore a saviour, and his birthday was the beginning of good news (euaggelia) for the world.

In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures which was produced between the 3rd and 2nd centuries before Christ, words in the euaggelion group occur 23 times, nearly all of them as the verb euaggelizo. (Indeed, the word euaggelion as a singular noun, does not occur at all in the LXX.) The majority of uses of euaggelizo (or the noun in the form euaggelia) follow the secular Greek meanings:

  • News of military victory, for example in 2 Sam 4:10, where David speaks with irony about the “good news” brought to him about Saul’s death, for which the messenger was expecting reward. Similar “good news” is brought to David about victory over Absalom in 2 Sam 18:20, 22, 25, 27 & 31.

  • News of accession of a king (in this case Solomon) is announced in 1 Kings 1:42, and the birth of a son in Jeremiah 20:15.

  • Note that in all of these cases, the news may not be perceived as good by its hearer.

However, there is a significant development in the meaning of the word in the later chapters of the prophet Isaiah, where the prophet speaks of the return of the Jews from exile in Babylon, with the restoration of Israel – and even the embracing of the Gentiles:

  • Isaiah 52:7 says: “How lovely on the mountains are the feet who bring good news (euaggelizomenon), announcing peace, proclaiming good news of good things… [that] Your God reigns”.

  • Isaiah 61:1 says that “The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor”.

In these passages from Isaiah (and also in Isaiah 40:9 and 60:6), God is the implied or explicit cause of the good news, by His saving action. This is in contrast to the mostly human agency that causes good news in the secular Greek literature.

So, we have seen that before the New Testament, there were 2 threads of meaning of euaggelion words:

  • The Greco-Roman context, in the secular Greek literature, mostly refers to worldly good news;

  • While the LXX shares this expression of secular good tidings, there is an alternative emphasis, especially in the prophet Isaiah, on the reign of God bringing peace and happiness to His people.

In the New Testament, the words euaggelion and euaggelizo refer almost exclusively to the good news concerning Jesus Christ.

Let’s look first at the gospels:

  • The evangelist Luke shows awareness, in the way he uses the verb euaggelizo, of both the Greco-Roman and the LXX context:

- Luke has angels announce the birth of Christ as “good news” to the shepherds (Lk 2:10). The context is fascinatingly reminiscent of the Priene Inscription: the birth of a god, who is a saviour, bringing peace, and as a result good news is proclaimed for the world.

- In Lk 4:16-21, Jesus announces His own mission as good news by reading the passage from Isaiah chapter 61 that I referred to earlier, in the synagogue in Nazareth. (It is of note that Jesus reads only verses 1-2, omitting the more secular expressions of good news in later verses). In linking Himself to the prophecy of Isaiah, Jesus proclaims Himself both as the herald of the good news, and also, as He points out explicitly to His audience (Lk 4:21), He is its fulfilment: He both proclaims, and is the gospel.

  • Interestingly, in his gospel, Luke uses only the verb euaggelizo; none of the 10 occurrences of the Greek word use the noun euaggelion. The noun is not unknown to Luke, as he uses it (albeit only twice) in Acts. Perhaps Luke, who is a deliberate imitator of various literary styles in his gospel, is reflecting the LXX bias towards the verb?

  • In contrast, Matthew and Mark prefer the noun euaggelion; the verb occurs only once in Matthew and not at all in Mark.

- The noun euaggelion is used right at the start of Mark’s gospel (Mk 1:1): “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ”. Note that euaggelion is referring here to the news about Jesus, not a self‑description as the literary genre of “gospel”. The latter use of the word, to refer to a written gospel, is unknown in the New Testament, but more about that later.

- In Matthew, preaching the gospel is a central feature of Jesus’s mission, along with teaching and healing. Matthew uses very similar phrasing about preaching the gospel in 3 places (Mt 4:23, 9:35, 10:1, 7).

  • While the Synoptic gospels use either euaggelion or euaggelizo, it is worthy of note that in John’s gospel, there are no occurrences of either word. John focuses more on witness (recall last week’s Bible word martureo) and on fulfilment.

In the Acts of the Apostles, as in Luke’s gospel, the verb euaggelizo is far more common than the noun euaggelion – 15 occurrences of the verb. This is suitable for a work which is focused on action, on the preaching activity of the apostles.

The overwhelming majority of uses of the words euaggelion and euaggelizo occur in the Pauline letters: 84 of the 134 occurrences. The words are fairly evenly spread across every Pauline letter (apart from Titus), from his first letter (1 Thessalonians) to his final imprisonment (Philippians) – therefore the words are a central feature of the Apostle’s vocabulary. And their use is heavily clustered close to the Apostle’s most passionate and personal statements (for example 1 Corinthians 9, Philippians 1, 1 Thessalonians 2).

Among the many uses of euaggelion and euaggelizo in Paul’s letters, I want to pick out 6 topics, which give a flavour of what the gospel means to Paul:

  1. First, the gospel is his mission. He has been set apart for the gospel (Rom 1:1); like the prophets, he has been “chosen from the womb” in Galatians 1:15-16 to preach the gospel (euaggelizōmai). Paul sometimes speaks of “my gospel”, but this simply reinforces the idea that he has been entrusted with its proclamation (1 Thess 2:4).

  2. Second, he has an urgency to preach the gospel 1 Cor 9:16 says “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” As a result, Paul is prepared to do “all things” (1 Cor 9:23) on its account, to become a fellow partaker in the gospel.

  3. Third, the content of the gospel is all about the person and actions of Jesus. In 1 Cor 15:5 he summarises the gospel as follows: Christ died, was buried, rose from the dead and appeared to many witnesses. In contrast to the secular emphasis on military victory and kingship, Paul’s gospel is centered on the ignominy of the cross (1 Cor 1:17).

  4. Fourth, Paul is not ashamed of the gospel, and exhorts others to have the same attitude (Rom 1:16)

  5. Fifth, the truth of the gospel is vital to Paul (Gal 2:5, 14). There can be no other gospel; it cannot be perverted (Gal 1:7-9).

  6. Sixth, the gospel is active It is the power of God for salvation (Rom 1:16); it is coming (1 Thess 1:5); it is increasing and bearing fruit (Col 1:6); it is the means of salvation (1 Cor 15:1; Eph 1:13); it brings to light life and immortality (2 Tim 1:10).

So euaggelion is a key word for Paul: the number of times that the word is used without any qualifier (especially by Paul, but also in the gospels, accounting for nearly 2/3 of total occurrences) suggests that it was a term that had already become familiar, early in the apostolic period. In contrast, the noun is rare in the secular Greek literature and in the LXX – which suggests that the New Testament noun euaggelion may be an adaptation of an existing word to new uses. This may therefore be an example of how the early Church adapted the language of the time to spread the gospel message.

I mentioned earlier another word in the group of words related to euaggelion: the word euaggelistes appears only 3 times in the New Testament: twice in Paul (Eph 4:11, 2 Tim 4:5) and once in Acts (Acts 21:8, referring to Philip, one of the seven). It is translated into English as “evangelist”, though the English word does not refer here to a writer of a gospel, rather to an “evangeliser”, to someone who spreads the gospel message. This reminds us that in the New Testament euaggelion is oral preaching. It is only after the New Testament, in the post-Apostolic age, during the 2nd century, that the word euaggelion is used to refer to a written gospel (in Justin Martyr, plus hints in the Didache, as well as Ignatius of Antioch and Ireneaus). The designation at the head of modern translations, “The gospel according to Matthew/Mark/Luke/John”, derives from later copyists. None of the gospel writers describe their works explicitly as euaggelion – even though perhaps Mark 1:1, “The beginning of the euaggelion of (or about) Jesus Christ”, gives a basis for such later labelling.

So, what does all of this mean for us?

1. First, the gospel is about Jesus The core of our faith is not about doing good, important though that also is. Nor is it about referring to God in a vague, philosophical way. It is about the person and actions of Jesus Christ, and how God has saved us through Jesus’s life, passion, death and resurrection. So, how often do we mention the name of Jesus when we talk about our faith? If we’re not mentioning Jesus, are we proclaiming the gospel?

2. Second, the gospel is good news But do we treat the gospel as good news for ourselves, and for others? Our lives, and the lives of others can be tough. Do we live, despite those challenges, in the knowledge of Jesus’s love and His triumph over sin and death? Or do our lives seem, as Pope Francis joked, “like Lent without Easter”? (Evangelii Gaudium, 6)

3. Finally, the gospel demands urgency from us all Spreading the gospel is the responsibility of every Christian: not just the clergy, but everyone who is baptised. Once more from Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium (8): “For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?”

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