How did the gospel evolve from Jesus to us?
The gospel is the “good news” (Old English, gōdspel) proclaimed by Jesus. But what was that exactly?
After his death and illuminated by the resurrection, his followers preached the gospel. Then later, second-wave follower Paul was commissioned by God to disseminate “the gospel of God” (Romans 1:1). Eventually, third- and fourth-wave Messianist Israelites interpreted and recorded the gospel as they understood it. Ultimately, this is the origin of our four canonical Gospels eventually named “Mark,” “Matthew,” “Luke,” and “John.”
But what was the good news or gospel of Jesus, originally? Look how “Matthew” (5:13-14) understood those Messianists who neglect, forget, or abandon the “gospel.” To him, they were basically worthless ashen dung good only for people to step on. How does that apply to us? Does it? What is the gospel?
This video presentation and the following essay dive into that question—
For both John the Baptist and Jesus, God was about to inaugurate theocracy ( = kingdom of God) for Israel. Therefore, the gospels of both John and Jesus concerned Israelite theocracy. Since this was “coming up next,” neither John nor Jesus was “eschatological” (meaning “last things,” a German category coined by 19th-century theologians).
Ancient agrarian peasants scratched out subsistence survival and viewed time very differently than we post-industrial Western people do. They didn’t speculate on the possible or imagine long-scale, distant future times. Hence, Jesus wasn’t anything like Washington Irving, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Gene Roddenberry, Isaac Asimov, or Frank Herbert. Jesus didn’t know “eschatology.” Call his understanding “nextology”—something is about to happen immediately. It is the same thing with John the Seer (Revelation 1:1-3).
Gospel Proclaimed Evolves Into Gospels
Read carefully Mark 1:1-15. English translators render the Greek title euangelion into “gospel.” Maybe, following Context Group scholars Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, it would be better to translate it as “proclamation.” Jesus’ audience would have been familiar with such proclamations. Indeed, they were good news for the people—such as a new king granting amnesty, or a ruler victorious in conquest, or a prince just born, etc.
“Mark,” the first Gospel, opens, proclaiming Jesus as messiah. Before the question of authority to make such a proclamation about a lowly Galilean peasant can arise, “Mark” identifies Jesus as “Son of God,” meaning Israelite (shamanic) holy man. Compelled to do so by his honor-shame society, “Mark” gives Jesus a status ostensibly lacking from his humble Nazarine origins. “Matthew” and “Luke” take this honor-boosting further with their contradictory Infancy Narratives.
And suppose you follow “Mark” and the other Gospels. In that case, you see that the stories of Jesus get recontextualized into stories about the storyteller himself. They get edited into being allegories about Jesus rather than the actual parables Jesus told. And this reflects how each author, literate elites writing decades after Jesus and far removed from peasant Galilee, interpreted Jesus’ gospel. As the name of this blog, inspiration is messy, folks!
Primitive Proclamation & Theocracy
But what was Jesus’ gospel proclamation before that evolution? All critics agree that if Jesus did anything, he proclaimed Israelite theocracy. And what should we categorize this expression as? Theocracy is politics, really political religion or religion embedded in politics. In his own “nextology,” Jesus proclaimed that Israelites must prepare, get their lives in order (metanoia) to live in the new political order (Mark 1:15; Matthew 4:17; Luke 4:42).
Given all the evolution and the fact that the Gospels aren’t fact-precise biographies, how do we know this goes back to Stage One historical Jesus? Thankfully, scholars developed criteria to determine these things. Like the criterion of embarrassment—after Jesus, his proclamation proved vacuous, as no such theocracy emerged. And the criterion of incongruity, seen in how later Gospels like “Matthew” and “Luke” urge behavior oriented toward Jesus groups and not a theocracy. And the criterion of multiple attestation, where all Synoptics testify to Jesus proclaiming theocracy. Finally, the criterion of coherence, like how Jesus got crucified for inciting political unrest.
The Gospels showcase that Jesus recruited a coalition to assist him in his gospel proclamation (Mark 1:16-20; Matthew 4:18-22; Luke 5:1-11). Had Jesus not proclaimed theocracy, why would later authors write about something that never materialized? And Jesus’ recruits don’t act like Church-founders but as members of a political-religious faction.
The historical Jesus proclaimed a gospel that was exclusive to Israel. This is explicit in Matthew 10:5. It should also be understood from Mark 6:7 and Luke 9:2 read contextually. All Synoptic Gospels report Jesus’ theocratic outreach as limited exclusively to Israel. They know that throughout Jesus’ career as a holy man, he was utterly oriented to Israel and to obeying the God of Israel.
And Down To Us!
So, a question: how did we get from that to:
“Jesus died to pay for our sins so that we can be forgiven and go to Heaven if we believe in him.”
If you asked many Christians, that sentence (courtesy Marcus Borg) is a perfect expression of the gospel. Except, clearly, it wasn’t Jesus’ Gospel. We’ve come a long, messy way, haven’t we?