Whose Gospel Is It?

Whose Gospel Is It? January 15, 2022

Most of us know that “Gospel” means “good news,” from the Greek euangelion (εὐαγγέλιον). Specifically, it’s the Good News of Jesus Christ. But how many of us are familiar with Caesar’s gospel?

Old News

Caesar Augustus, the first Roman Emperor, proclaimed a gospel of his own in 9BCE in the Greek city of Priene. For Caesar, the ‘Good News’ was that he was now in charge. Submit to him and you will be saved from destruction. Resist and you’ll find yourself on the wrong end of the legions.

It’s an assertion of power and a moral claim that this power is what makes Caesar good. Indeed, the coming of a strong ruler able to preserve and expand the empire must have been good news for the elite. They relied on a strong state to keep subject populations in line and supply new slaves from conquest.

It would not have been good news for the overwhelming majority of imperial subjects, slave or free, who labored in precarious situations at best. Nor would it be good news for women of any social class, whose security always depended on the protection and goodwill of powerful men. They could only expect more of the same, with the solemn assurance that the gods have ordained things this way.

The gospel of Caesar didn’t die with Rome. In the modern context we see it whenever God’s will or “it’s just the way things are” are invoked to naturalize the hierarchies humans built to stand above other humans.

Jesus as Lord

Contrast this with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In Luke, Mary anticipates the Lord’s birth with a song that celebrates uplifting the lowly and bringing down the powerful from their thrones. When Jesus begins his public ministry in Nazareth, he does so with a reading from Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” – Luke 4:18-19, Isaiah 61:1

How does his audience react to this provocative act? They mock him for being lowborn and then try to kill him! Jesus is upsetting the apple cart, demonstrating an understanding of God worlds apart from power-serving justifications.

I wrote before about how Jesus inverted the expectations of Greco-Roman culture – the “traditional family values” of his day. Jesus is the God who reigns as a servant. When saying goodbye to his disciples at the Last Supper, he challenges them to remember this:

A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. – Luke 22:24-26

Still Good News

Jesus constantly resisted meeting even his own followers’ expectations. Messianic hopes anticipated a savior who would come as a political revolutionary, overthrowing Roman rule and re-establishing an Israelite kingdom. Jesus was indeed a revolutionary, but a different kind. He put the state to one side and emphasized the inner transformation that must occur before – and during – any social transformation. The Kingdom of God is to come, but it’s also among us. (Luke 17:20-21) And even though Jesus wasn’t organizing an insurrection, his teachings were  too dangerous for the religious-political elite to permit.

The promise of a Kingdom that was both ‘to come’ and ‘already here’ really was good news to those left behind by Caesar’s gospel. Early Christian communities did what the Roman state could or would not do. They established orphanages, fed the hungry and cared for the vulnerable. These Christians shared resources in common and practiced more gender equality than the society at large. Women could be valued advisors and elders well after the Apostolic period, though their status declined after Christianity became the official imperial state religion.

Christianity was derisively considered the religion of women and slaves by elite cultural commentators. Celsus, essentially a pundit of his time, mocked Christian churches for being filled with “the silly and the mean and the stupid, with women and children.” 

We should reclaim these labels and wear them proudly. The Gospel is still Good News, but only if we’re bold enough to live into the way of life Jesus taught.

When I'm not here on Patheos, I'm writing fantasy fiction that asks questions about what it means to be a Godly creation in a fallen world. Follow my work at www.mpantoine.com You can read more about the author here.

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