The Greek word εὐαγγέλιον is significant for the NT. This word is usually viewed as a technical term and translated gospel in the NT, though sometimes with the more generic good news/tidings meaning. At some point in the misty ages past a clever Greek-speaker added the adverb εὖ, meaning “good,” to the root ἀγγελ-,[i] used for message or tidings, and created the word “good news.” εὐαγγέλιον is one of the central concerns of the NT when it comes to the content or theology or worldview which the NT promulgates. It also, sometime shortly after the NT documents were written, came to be a technical term used in the title of the four stories of Jesus’ life. We still call them Gospels today.
There is a lot to unpack concerning the historical and theological significance of calling these works εὐαγγέλιον κατὰ Μαθθαῖον, Μᾶρκον, Λουκᾶν, καὶ Ἰωάννην. I find it intriguing that these books came to be associated with the name of the central message of the followers of Jesus even though a lot of the early theologizing deals with many concerns that are not robustly present in the Gospels themselves. But all that is for another time.
In the Catena in Mattheaum[ii]—a Byzantine commentary on Matthew made up of an amalgamation of quotations from various Church Fathers—there is a brief and interesting pair of comments about the term εὐαγγέλιον.
Theological and Historical reflex of Gospel interpretation
The two fathers who are cited here, John Chrysostom and Cyril of Alexandria, give two reflections on the word εὐαγγέλιον[iii] which nicely characterize the one-two impulse of interpreting the Gospels: theological/canonical and historical/textual.
First, look at the brief explanation from John Chrysostom:
Τοῦ ἐν ἁγίοις πατρὸς ἡμῶν Ἰωάννου τοῦ Χρυσοστόμου ἑρμηνεία. Εὐαγγέλιον ἡ παροῦσα βίβλος λέγεται ὅτι κολάσεως ἀναίρεσιν καὶ ἁμαρτημάτων λύσιν καὶ δικαιοσύνην καὶ ἁγιασμὸν καὶ ἀπολύτρωσιν, καὶ υἱοθεσίαν καὶ κληρονομίαν τῶν οὐρανῶν πᾶσιν εὐαγγελίζεται.
The interpretation of our father among the saints John Chrysostom: “This present book is called “evangel (gospel)” because it evanglizes removal of chastisement and remission of sins, righteousness and holiness and redemption, adoption and a heavenly inheritance to all.”
Chysostom’s interpretation (this Catena contains a lot drawn from the work of Chrysostom) takes a decidedly theolgoical bent. The theological truths which he points to are sweeping and summative of the complete work of Jesus—even aspects of it which are largely implicit in the Gospels and come much more to the fore in the rest of the NT. He says something like as follows: this book is called a Gospel because it tells the gospel. What he says about the book implies understanding Matthew (and probaly the other Gospels) in deeply theological-canonical ways.
The next reflection on the word εὐαγγέλιον comes from Cyril of Alexandria. The quotation from Cyril is fragmentary:
Κυρίλλου. Εὐαγγέλιον ἐστὶ λόγος περιέχων ἀγαθῶν ἀγγελίαν πραγμάτων κατὰ τὸ εὔλογον καὶ διὰ τὸ ὠφελεῖν εὐφρα…ων τὸ …… πάντα ἐὰν παραδέξηται τὸ ἀπαγγελλόμενον. ἢ λόγος περιέχων ἀγαθῶν παρούσιαν ἢ ………τέλλων ἀγαθῶν, τὸ προσδοκώμενον.
Cyril. Gospel is a word encompassing proclamation of good things in accordance with rationality and on account of profiting (?)…if that which is announced is received. Or it is a word encompassing the arrival of good or…, that which is expected.”
This fragmentary quotation does not appear extant in Cyril’s other works (at least, a Thesaurus Linguae Graecae search for it turned up nothing), which would be helpful for better understanding what he is saying. A similar definition of εὐαγγέλιον pops up in a different amalgamation of the works from the Church Fathers (available for reading via Diogenes):
Εὐαγγέλιόν ἐστι λόγος περιέχων ἀγαθοῦ παρουσίαν, ἢ λόγος ἀπαγγέλλων παρεῖναι τὸ προσδοκώμενον ἀγαθόν.
Gospel is a word encompassing the arrival of good, or a word announcing that the expected good thing is at hand.[iv]
What I find interesting is that it appears Cyril takes a more “historical” stab here talking about the meaning of εὐαγγέλιον in Greek. Perhaps the compiler of this catena intentionally includes both a more historical assessment of the word as well as a more theological one? εὐαγγέλιον means “good news” and was used in a wide variety of senses, from annoucning the birth of an emperor, to announcing the winning of a battle, to more mundane announcements like the recovery of people from thieves.
Gospel and Interpretation
I appreciate these two brief sayings in that they appear to reflect both the historical and theological reflex at work in Gospel reading: holding together what the Greek says and the broad and rich theological context which animates the texts.
[i] This whole word group relates back to the loan-word ἄγγελος “messenger,” so Beekes, Robert, and Lucien van Beek. Etymological Dictionary of Greek. Leiden Indo-European Etymological Dictionary Series 10/1. Leiden: Brill, 2010.
[ii] Catenae (Novum Testamentum), Catena in Matthaeum (catena integra) (e cod. Paris. Coislin. gr. 23) (4102: 001)
“Catenae Graecorum patrum in Novum Testamentum, vol. 1”, Ed. Cramer, J.A. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1840, Repr. 1967. The passage is at 5.2-11.
[iii] As a brief aside, it is interesting that the discussion on εὐαγγέλιον is here because Matthew does not begin with the word εὐαγγέλιον, yet there is a comment here on the word. While Mark, which begins Ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, does not get any comment on the word εὐαγγέλιον. This indicates that the comment in Catena in Mattheaum is about the title of the work, rather than the text. Assuming that the compiling of the Catenae was at least semi-organized, it is possible that the comment on εὐαγγέλιον comes here because this is the first of the Gospels, and it is meant as a comment which applies to all of them. Pure speculation on my part.
[iv] This is from a work called Doctrina partum de incaratione verbi, a collection of excerpts from church fathers, as well as brief glosses of significant theological vocabulary dating from the 7th or 8th century by an unknown compiler (see https://referenceworks.brillonline.com/entries/brill-s-new-pauly/doctrina-patrum-de-incarnatione-verbi-e321900, accessed 6/23/21).