Why we use the term ‘Gospel’

After John the Baptist was arrested Jesus came into Galilee preaching the Gospel of God (Mk 1, 14-15; Mt 4, 23; 9, 35). Both Matthew and Mark designate Jesus’ preaching with the Greek term ‘evangelion’– but what does that actually mean?

The term is often translated as “good news.” Though it sounds attractive it falls far short of what is actually meant by the word evangelion. This term figures in the vocabulary of the Roman emperors, who understood themselves as lords, saviors, and redeemer of the world. The messages used by the emperor were called in Latin evangelium, regardless of whether or not their content was particularly cheerful and pleasant. The idea was that what comes from the emperor is a saving message, that it is not just a piece of news, but a change of the world for the better.

When the Evangelists adopt this word, and it thereby becomes the generic name for their writings, what they mean to tell us is this: what the emperors, who pretend to be gods, illegitimately claim, really occurs here – a message endowed with plenary authority, a message that is not just talk, but reality.

In the vocabulary of contemporary linguistic theory, we would say that the evangelium, the Gospel, is not just informative speech, but performative speech – the efficacious power that enters into the world to save and transform.

Mark speaks of the “Gospel of God,” the point being that it is not the emperors who can save the world, but God. And it is here that God’s word, which is at once word and deed, appears. It is here that what the emperors merely assert, but cannot actually perform, truly takes place. For here it is the real Lord of the world – the Living God – who goes into action.

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