Q. How would you explain in a scholarly fashion what is meant when we speak of "the good news"?
A. “The good news” (or “gospel” = “good spiel”) is a literal translation of the Greek word euangelion. New Testament authors use this term to mean the news of salvation, or liberation from sin, brokenness, and estrangement from God. God reveals this good news through Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection (Mark 1:1; Rom 1:1-4), as in Matt 11:4-5: “Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.’”
New Testament use of euangelion was likely derived from at least two cultural traditions. The term had acquired religious significance in the Roman Empire, chiefly in the cult of the emperor Augustus, whose appearance, accession to the throne, and decrees were propagandized as “glad tidings” or “gospels”: “[T]hrough his appearance Caesar has exceeded the hopes of all former good messages [euangelia]….for the world the birthday of the god [Caesar] was the beginning of his good messages [euangelion]” (excerpt from an inscription at the ancient Greek city of Priene, 9 B.C.E.).
Although none of the New Testament writers placed Jesus in direct opposition to Caesar, they remembered Jesus as preserving Jewish monotheism by differentiating Caesar from God (see Matt 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26). By adopting the imperial term euangelion, early Christians may have tacitly challenged Augustus’ claim to be a “savior” (Greek soter) whose divine providence had brought wars to an end. Instead they identified Jesus, even at his birth, as “a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:11; see also Luke 1:68-69, Luke 2:29-32).
Also underlying “the good news” in the New Testament is the tradition of the Septuagint, an early translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. There the term’s basic meaning is “glad tidings” (2Sam 18:27). “The good news” acquires a religious connotation for the sixth-century B.C.E. prophet Deutero-Isaiah, who proclaims “glad tidings” of Israel’s freedom from Babylonian captivity:
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger
who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
(Isa 52:7, also Isa 40:9)
Luke 4:16-19 quotes an abbreviated version of Isaiah 61:1-2a:
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
The text then presents its realization in Jesus: “Then [Jesus] began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’” (Luke 4:21; see also Acts 13:32).
Paul refers to the “good news” or “gospel” as something orally transmitted, typically “preached” (for example, Rom 1:15, Rom 10:15, Rom 15:20; 1Cor 1:17, 1Cor 9:16, 1Cor 15:1-2). At its simplest “the good news” is identified with “Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David” (2Tim 2:8; see also Rom 15:16; 1Cor 1:17; Eph 3:6-7). Sometimes Paul refers to “the good news” as a dynamic event, the exercise of God’s power for human and cosmic restoration: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith” (Rom 1:16; see also 1Thess 1:5; 2Tim 1:10). Early Christians believed that this “good news” is a norm for proper conduct (Gal 2:14; Phil 1:27), eliciting courage amid suffering (Mark 8:35; 1Thess 2:2) and requiring obedience (Heb 4:6; 1Pet 4:17). Its proclamation transcends time and space (Eph 1:13; Col 1:5; 1Pet 1:12; Rev 14:6).
The New Testament narratives about Jesus are traditionally called “Gospels.” By the mid-second century C.E., Justin Martyr clearly uses the term euangelion to designate a literary genre: the form in which the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is narrated (1 Apology 55).