One of the problems Christians have in reading the New Testament is that their scope of semantic understanding is limited by translation. What I mean by this is that translators have to make choices about the meanings of words. Take for example the word euangellion. It simply means good news, as opposed to bad news, and is not yet a technical term for a particular kind of literature, namely a gospel. Probably it should be translated ‘good news’ (not in caps) most everywhere you find it in the NT. Furthermore, while much fuss has been made over how the use of this term as a deliberate critique of the emperor cult because we do have inscriptions (the famous Priene one comes to mind) where the term is used as part of the propaganda about the birth and good deeds of the Emperor, in fact it is perhaps as likely or more likely that the background to Mark’s use of this term in Mark 1.1 is found in Isaiah, which Mark, much more clearly, does want to show is being fulfilled in the lives of John and Jesus. The text I have in mind is Isaiah 52.7— “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!” or consider a text Jesus is said to have quoted in a synagogue Isaiah 61.1— “The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners”. Now in neither of those texts, even in the LXX where we do find euangellion is the word used as a technical term for gospel, nor is there any evidence the usage in Isaiah is a polemic against a foreign ruler. If there is such a thing going on in Mark, its very subtle, subliminal, and entirely secondary to the real thrust of the text– namely that Jesus and John are the fulfillment of the promises in Isaiah. This brings me to another simple Greek word— angellos.
The word is of course the one from which we derive the English word angel, and therein lies the rub. The question in Mark is when does it mean ‘angel’ (see the rather fancy one above painted by Fra Angelico himself) and when does it simply means human ‘messenger’. The connection of course is that in both cases the beings referred to are messengers and indeed servants of God in one way or another. Let’s take a couple of examples from Mark, the first two from Mark 1.
Mark 1.2 refers to God sending his ‘messenger’ ‘before the face of you’ who will prepare the way for the Coming One. Here the context allows only one conclusion as to what Mark means, however one might read this polyglot quote from the OT in the original contexts. Mark means John the Baptizer, who, despite the Greek Orthodox icons which paint him with angels wings, was indeed a mere mortal.
When however we press on to Mark 1.13 something else is going on. Who are these angelloi who ministered to Jesus after his temptations? Here it is hard to doubt we have an allusion to the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 19.5 where an angel ministers to the prophet providing some sustenance before he journeys to Horeb. We might wish to compare what is said about ministering angels in Heb. 1.13-14. In short, only the context can help us determine the specific meaning of the term in a particular verse in Mark. We must take care how we translate polyvalent words like euangellion and angellos. In the next post on this subject, we will discuss some surprising revelations that come from this observation.