Swastikas – the image that captures all that is evil and destructive in the 20th century and beyond. Nazi Germany made this symbol infamous when it became the center of their flag and all that Nazism symbolized in the early 20th century. But anyone who does a little research can tell you immediately that as a symbol, it has wide cultural acceptance and import dating back, some say, 12,000 years. Where it is still employed today by Hindus, Buddhists and Jains, it’s meaning is prosperity, wealth and auspiciousness. So why did a symbol employed by numerous civilizations and religions all throughout ancient history and up to our present day, become known as the quintessential symbol of evil in the West? It took less than a decade for Nazi Germany to diametrically alter the world’s understanding of a symbol thousands of years old.
What about the term “Gospel“? In Koine Greek, euangelion means “good news” or “glad tidings” and is translated as “Gospel”. The term today is understood by certain Christian traditions to refer to the death and resurrection event of Jesus Christ’s life and nothing else. Other traditions argue that it is the message of redemption for all things (Col. 1:19-20) and a call to join God in his mission to renew creation holistically, making his mission our mission (Christopher J. Wright). A newly minted argument asserts that the life of Jesus is the completion and fulfillment of the story of Israel. (Scot McKnight). Whatever the term means to the Judeo-Christian tradition, we have to accept that it has evolved over 2,500 years of usage (Isaiah 61:1-2 & Luke 4:18-19), multiple contexts and languages and contextual applications. It has meant different things to different people over a very long period of cultural transition and change, but amazingly kept a core to its meaning. So what is the core? Should the event of Christ’s death and resurrection reify it’s definition once and for all time? Should it be beholden to the story of Israel? Is God’s entire mission our mission? In the first century, Greek speakers across the Roman empire understood it in the context of Caesar’s usage – “Good News, the Roman Empire has expanded. We have extended the Pax Romana to the ends of the earth.” Nearly all first century inhabitants of the Roman Empire knew what a Roman herald was preaching when the Gospel was proclaimed, and it wasn’t Jesus.
So for the writers of the New Testament, the term “Gospel” had enough broad cultural import as well as Jewish covenantal overlap that it could satisfy the cultural and historical memes that Paul & the Gospel writers intended and needed. It was hi-jacked from the broader culture and coined as a neologism by the writers of the New Testament to both capture and re-capture the God’s central message for the world. So what is that central message?
I have always found it very compelling that there is a hijacking dynamic going on in the pages of Scripture. Neologisms that represent colliding or confluent ideologies are deemed fit for use in the Christian community (Gospel) as vessels of meaning that can syncretize even opposing cultural memes for the benefit of the church. Stoic household codes, Imperial accolades (Worthy is the Lamb) and our term “Gospel” are all examples of hi-jacked ideologies. So, while some Old Testament terms are re-purposed in light of the New Testament, others are hi-jacked from the broader culture in which they originally find themselves. Other times, they are utterly lost. Much like the Swastika, the name Lucifer was lost in a similar misfortune. Names like Lucifer seem to become un-redeemable because of the tradition that surrounds them, but should this unfortunate result have the last “word”?
In the Christian tradition, Satan is identified as Lucifer meaning – “morning star” or “bringer of light” (Isa. 14:12) as recorded in the Latin Vulgate. The term originally was thought to have been used by Isaiah as a borrowed (hi-jacked) image from Canaanite mythology for the king of Babylon. Pseudepigraphal literature developed the tradition of treating Lucifer as a by-word for Satan even though it originally was also understood as a name for Jesus (Rev. 22:16). There were also a couple of 4th century church bishops (Lucifer of Cagliari & Lucifer of Siena) given the same name. Is Lucifer un-redeemable (Col. 1:19-20) if Scripture itself claims that Jesus will be identified as “Lucifer” in the Apocalypse? Are we called to redeem terms whose cultural and historical import are completely upstaged by unfortunate associations? Better yet, if this is how language works across centuries, cultures and evolutionary linguistics, can we reify our own definition of a term like “Gospel” given its evolution both in history and in Scripture?
I’m obviously begging the question, but as such, my presentation is meant to implore us to respect the nature of how words and their meanings evolve. They are lost, re-attributed, hi-jacked, transformed and those that are more filled with potential for cultural impact are at the same time, more at risk of being misused and/or misappropriated. Getting the Gospel right does not belong to one tradition, denomination, language or era of church history. Nor should we deem discerning what it is a simple task – Paul didn’t attempt to do so. Nowhere, not even in 1 Corinthians 15, (though he gets close) does Paul succinctly and clearly lay out his full understanding of the Gospel. So if understanding the core of the Gospel is possible, why didn’t Paul worry himself with making that clear.
From our historical analysis of swastikas and the name Lucifer, we learn that understanding a term like the “Gospel” should be approached with patience, fear and trembling, not because we need to fear getting it wrong, but because we too easily believe we are getting it right. Enter the Gospel.