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The Deadly Violent Evangelists and their Gospel

January 12, 2015

Nick Norelli has a post up today entitled “The Gospel” that starts in this way with a contemporary English language problem for Christians:

The term “the gospel,” it seems, functions as a buzzword nowadays. It’s a shorthanded way of talking about one’s hobbyhorse of choice. For example, a preacher who is big on holiness will tell us that the cheap grace teaching of so many is not “the gospel,” but rather holiness is “the gospel.” Or a teacher big on grace will tell us that the legalistic teaching of the holiness preacher is not “the gospel,” but rather grace is “the gospel.” Or six day creationists might tell us that “the gospel” is God creating all that exists in six 24 hour days. Liberation theologians tell us that “the gospel” is social justice. You get the point.

It’s worth going back a bit to the ambiguities in the good spellings of English to recall how the word evolved rather problematically; here’s from the Oxford English Dictionary:

Etymology: Old English godspel, doubtless originally gód spel (see good adj. and spell n.1), good tidings (compare láð spel evil tidings), a rendering of the Latin bona adnuntiatio (Corpus Gloss. Int. 117) or bonus nuntius (‘Euuangelium, id est, bonum nuntium, godspel’, Voc. c1050 in Wright-Wülcker 314/8), which was current as an explanation of the etymological sense of Latin evangelium, Greek εὐαγγέλιον (see evangely n.). Compare Gothic þiuþspillôn ‘to preach the gospel’ (εὐαγγελίζεσθαι), < þiuþ-s good + spillôn to announce (cognate with spell n.1). When the phrase gód spel was adopted as the regular translation of evangelium, the ambiguity of its written form led to its being interpreted as a compound, gŏd-spel, < god n. and int. + spel in the sense ‘discourse’ or ‘story’. The mistake was very natural, as the resulting sense was much more obviously appropriate than that of ‘good tidings’ for a word which was chiefly known as the name of a sacred book or of a portion of the liturgy. From Old English the word passed, in adapted forms, into the languages of the Germanic peoples evangelized from England: Old Saxon godspell, Old High German gotspell, Old Norse guð-, goðspiall; in each case the form of the first element shows unequivocally that it was identified with God, not with good. The Old Norse form has survived into modern Icelandic; the continental Germanic languages early discarded the word for adoptions of Latin evangelium.

And since the OED editors want us to look back to the Greek (from which the phrases like Godspell and Gospel and such are derived semantically), well then. Let’s return to the Hebraic Hellene of the Septuagint, where the good news was not always so good. Where it was, rather, actually violent, and even deadly:

καὶ ἐξέδυσαν αὐτὸν καὶ ἔλαβον τὴν κεφαλὴν αὐτοῦ καὶ τὰ σκεύη αὐτοῦ καὶ ἀπέστειλαν εἰς γῆν ἀλλοφύλων κύκλῳ τοῦ εὐαγγελίσασθαι τοῖς εἰδώλοις αὐτῶν καὶ τῷ λαῷ

καὶ ἀποστρέφουσιν αὐτὸν καὶ ἐξέδυσαν τὰ σκεύη αὐτοῦ καὶ ἀποστέλλουσιν αὐτὰ εἰς γῆν ἀλλοφύλων κύκλῳ εὐαγγελίζοντες τοῖς εἰδώλοις αὐτῶν καὶ τῷ λαῷ αὐτῶν

ὅτι ὁ ἀπαγγείλας μοι ὅτι τέθνηκεν Σαουλ καὶ αὐτὸς ἦν ὡς εὐαγγελιζόμενος ἐνώπιόν μου καὶ κατέσχον αὐτὸν καὶ ἀπέκτεινα ἐν Σεκελακ ᾧ ἔδει με δοῦναι εὐαγγέλια

These three verses are respectively the Greek Jewish translations of the Hebrew scriptures for 1 Chronicles 10:9 and 1 Samuel 31:9 and 2 Samuel 4:10. And here is Sir Lancelot Brenton’s English rendering of that Hellene:

And they stripped him [Saul] and took his head and his armour and sent them into the land of the Philistines round about to proclaim the glad tidings to their idols.

And they turned him and stripped off his armour and sent it into the land of the Philistines sending round glad tidings to their idols and to the people.

he that reported to me [David] that Saul was dead even he was as one bringing glad tidings before me: but I seized him and slew him in Sekelac to whom I ought [as he thought] to have given a reward for his tidings.

This translation of a violent and deadly bit of history of “Philistine evangelists and their ‘good tidings'” is probably good news for anybody who is tired of dogma around religious words.

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