Thursday, December 30, 2021

What is ‘the Gospel’?

Inadvertently, I stumbled across an interesting question while researching the words "gospel" (or "good news"; in Greek, euaggelion) and "preach the gospel" (or "proclaim good news"; in Greek, euaggelizō). The words do not appear that many times in the New Testament and virtually all the time they are used without any description of the content of the word. There is only one passage I know where the content of the word "gospel" is explained:

Now I would remind you, brethren, of the good news that I proclaimed to you, which you received, in which you stand, by which you are saved, if you hold it fast—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (1 Corinthians 15:1-5)

This is the content of the gospel Paul preached and is the only explanation of gospel, of which I am aware, in the earliest texts of the early Christian movement. Nevertheless, it should not be read as the meaning of the word gospel in all early texts. It is specifically Paul's gospel (Rom 16:25; Gal 1:11). It was not the only gospel being preached in the earliest period, as Paul makes quite clear (Gal 1:6-9; 2 Cor 11:4-6, 13-14). What should we think about the content of the gospel being preached in the communities represented by the Deutero-Pauline Epistles (Ephesians, Colossians), the Pastoral Letters (1, 2 Timothy, and Titus), and the rest of the New Testament?

Paul's gospel is mythical in content, meaning at the very least it deals with stories about Gods and supernatural persons.* In Paul's description above the only historical event that can be verified is that Jesus died. Another item (that he was buried) could have been verified had one been present at the time. The rest of the statement evokes a kind of "salvation history" (Heilsgeschichte), which some theologians postulate as "an account of God's saving acts in human history"; these acts of God, however, can only be seen through the eyes of faith; they are not verifiable as historical events.

In the rest of the New Testament and certain later texts one finds hints that others are quite likely preaching a gospel different from what Paul preached. For example, Mark 1:14 has Jesus preaching the gospel of God and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel" (1:15; 1 Clem 14:23). If this latter statement is the content of what Jesus preached, the founder of what later became the Christian movement preached a gospel different from what Paul preached. Luke describes Paul preaching a gospel about the grace of God, something that Paul did not mentioned as part of his gospel (1 Cor 15:1-5). The writer in Colossians preaches a gospel about hope (1:5-6; 1:23), something else that Paul does not mention in 1 Cor 15:1-5. The gospel preached by the author of the Didache contained specific instructions about ethical behavior, prayers, and almsgiving, which Paul does not include in his explanation of the content of the gospel in 1 Cor 5:1-5. One cannot assume that Paul's statement of the content of what was being preached is what all writers of the New Testament would affirm.

What do you consider "good news"? Personally, I like to think of the gospel as the life-changing grace of a benevolent God, who gives freely to all (Matt 5:45). Such a gospel is what brings hope in the face of the absolute certainty of death.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

*Myth as defined in the Oxford English Dictionary is "a purely fictitious narrative usually involving supernatural persons, actions, or events, and embodying some popular ideas concerning natural or historical phenomena. It is properly distinguished from allegory and legend, which imply a nucleus of fact."

Thursday, December 16, 2021

God according to Mark

Mark's paper character, Jesus, has very little to say about the nature of God. He does, however, have a great deal to say about God's reign,1 not all of it consistent or clear. In the early first century in the lifetime of Jesus, God's reign is imminent (1:14). When it emerges, it will come with power (9:1). God's reign is a mystery, a secret, which Jesus claims has been given to his disciples (4:11), but is accessible to all others only in his oblique or obscure stories (παραβολē, 4:11, 26, 30), which he tells to keep people from understanding the mystery of God's reign (4:12). God's reign can be entered into only by deliberate and aggressive action (9:47), but the wealthy will find it difficult to enter (10:23-25). God's reign is characterized by children and all who want to enter, must accept it like a child (10:14-15). Three things will bring one close to God's reign (12:34): accepting that God is one, loving God with your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and loving your neighbor like you love yourself (12:28-33). Near the end of his life, Jesus swears off wine till he can drink it anew within God's reign (14:25). Hence God's reign had not been realized at the end of the gospel narrative.

            Jesus mentions a few attributes of God. God has power and hence can do all things (12:24; 10:27). Although God is the creator of all (13:19; 10:6-8), yet God has a house (2:26), an odd contrast in perspective. According to Jesus, in two strange sayings God numbers the patriarchs of the Israelite people, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, among his devotees (12:26). In the second odd saying Jesus claims that the living rather than the dead are the devotees of God (12:27). I think of these as "accidental" qualities, rather than "inherent" qualities. They do not describe the nature of God.

            There are certain things in life that fall specifically under God's purview (12:17), although they are unnamed in the saying. At a minimum, God expects that his commandments will be obeyed (7:8-9, 13; 3:35; 10:9). God expects faith (11:22) and loyalty (8:33).

            There are only two Jesus sayings in Mark that describe God's inherent nature. Jesus, quoting the Hebrew Bible in the words of the Shema (Deut 6:4) says: "The Lord our God, the Lord is one" (12:30). Jesus does not clarify the statement further. The second saying describing God's nature is "God alone is Good" (10:18). This inherent quality of God is mentioned several times in Hebrew Bible (Pss 25:8, 100:5, 135:3, 136:1, Nah 1:7; Jer 33:11).

            These scattered observations about God by Mark's paper character, Jesus, are neither comprehensive nor philosophically cogent. There are other comments about God in Mark, expressed by demons (1:24), unclean spirits (3:11), a demonized man (5:7), the scribes (2:7), the Pharisees (12:14), a Roman centurion (15:39), Joseph of Arimathea (15:43), and by the author of the gospel (1:14; 2:12), who momentarily lays aside the author's cloak of invisibility to comment in his own voice, but these statements do not help clarify God's character further.

            To sum up: Mark doesn't clarify God's inherent nature to any great extent for his readers. One might also say the same is true for the Bible as a whole. For example, in Hebrew Bible God is described as both Righteous (Neh 9:8; Pss 7:9, 11:7, 116:5, 119:137, 129:4) and Good (for the passages see above). These two words are not necessarily compatible with one another, however, as Romans 5:7 makes clear:

Why, one will hardly die for a righteous man—though perhaps for a good man one will even dare to die. (RSV)

Paul's statement clearly favors the inherent qualities of the good man, although one might even make a case that for all the attributions of righteousness and goodness ascribed to him, God nevertheless has a mean streak.2 From my perspective, however, God could do with a little less Righteousness and more Goodness.

To judge from the history of religions, apparently the inherent nature of God is like beauty; it lies in the mind of the beholder and it is something we are taught rather than experience. In short, people invent the character of their Gods. If that be so, why shouldn't I think that God should be characterized more by Goodness than Righteousness?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1The word translated as "reign" (baseila) does not describe a political space or a geographical region; it describes an area of influence in human life.

2Hedrick, "A Conundrum: Two Incompatible Propositions." Wry Thoughts about Religion, Monday, April 27, 2021:

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Public Image and a Triune Deity

Why did Orthodox churches in the fourth century invent a dogma specifying the character of a triune Deity (one god existing in three coequal, coeternal, consubstantial persons)? The decision was occasioned by several historical currents in the first four centuries of the common era. Long before Jesus was born, the ancient Greeks had bestowed divine honors on kings and great men whose careers were thought to have been unusually outstanding. They thought that these human beings had a divine origin; that is, they were born as a result of a union between a God and a human being, which explained their unusual abilities. As a result, such people were honored or worshipped at various centers in the ancient Greek world. They were not Gods in the sense of the twelve traditional Gods of the Greco-Roman world; they were simply a special class of men given divine honors. Most likely the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke were read this way outside Christian circles in the ancient world of their time. When the “good news” about Jesus moved out of the Israelite culture of Judea into the broader Greco-Roman world, it encountered the competition of healing gods, hero cults, and divine emperors. Jesus needed to acquire similar credentials in order to be successful in such a world.1

            The idea of a Trinity emerges in the context of the historical process that gradually bestows divine honors on Jesus by his Gentile followers in the Greco-Roman world. It is the divinizing of Jesus that eventually forces the dogma of the Trinity as a solution to the problem of three divine figures: God the Father, Jesus Christ (Son of God), and the Holy Spirit. At least eight types are hinted at in this process. Details of the process have long since been washed out by time and lack of sources, but its broad outlines remain.

  1. Jesus was a human being (Mark 10:17-18; a saying that has Jesus deny that he is God).2
  2. Jesus was not divine but a human being whom God adopted or appointed to his role (Rom 1:3-4; Acts 13:32-33; Ps 2:7).
  3. Jesus was by nature a human being who was inhabited by a divine spirit, “the Christ,” or “the Living Jesus” (Mark 1:10; Apocalypse of Peter 81:15-21).
  4. Jesus was partly divine and partly human, like other sons of God in the Greco-Roman world (Mark 15:39).
  5. Jesus was not a human being at all. He was completely divine and only seemed to be human (what remains of this docetic position is its denial by 1 John 1:1, 4:2).
  6. Jesus was both human and divine, but he did not have two natures; he was at once human-divine (expressed in the early creeds of Orthoxoxy3).
  7. The humanity of Jesus was incidental to his nature (reflected in the creeds of Orthodoxy in that the creeds skip over the public career of Jesus: “Born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary <…> crucified under Pilate and was buried”).
  8. Jesus was, in some way, to be equated with God (John 1:2; 20:28, Ignatius, Ephesians, Salutation, 18:2.; Romans, Salutation, 3:3; Smyrnaeans 1:1).4

Thus, early Orthodoxy found itself in the awkward position of ascribing divinity to three different figures (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), and hence was subject to the charge of polytheism; it was a situation similar to that of the multiple Gods in Greco-Roman religions.5 The invention of the dogma of the Trinity provides a defense against this criticism, for Father, Son, Holy Spirit were not viewed as three different figures but, as a trinity, one figure manifesting itself in three different ways.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1I have taken these comments from my article “Is belief in the divinity of Jesus essential to being Christian,” The Fourth R 24.5 (September-October 2011), 15-20, 26. For examples of the divinizing of kings and men of unusual ability, see pages 15-16.

2A suggestion made to me by Dennis Maher.

3Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, Documents of the Christian Church (3rd ed.; Oxford, University Press, 1999), 25-29; Hedrick, “A Revelation Discourse of Jesus,” Journal of Coptic Studies 7 (2005), 13-15.

4My thanks to Dennis Carpenter for pushing the trajectory into the second century. In many ways the Gospel of John fits the profile of the church in the second century better than the first century.

5Lucian of Samosata, a second century satirist and rhetorician satirizes the excessive number of Gods in the ancient world in The Parliament of the Gods: