Had some fun with my Historical Jesus course last night, asking my students (who had just finished reading Mark) to answer the following question: What exactly did Jesus preach?
Eventually, one enterprising student rightly called attention to Mark 1:14–15,
After John had been handed over, Jesus went into Galilee, preaching the gospel [“good news”] of God, saying, “The time has been fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand—repent and believe in the good news!”
Naturally, I asked the next question: “So what is this gospel, this “good news,” that he is preaching?”
“So I’m guessing that most of you think of the gospel message as something like this: ‘You’re dirty rotten sinners. But fortunately for you, Jesus died on the cross for your sins and then rose from the dead, so you can be forgiven. Just believe in Jesus and ask him into your heart, and you can have eternal life (in heaven).’ (Nodding.) But that doesn’t make much sense here, does it? It’s kind of hard to envision Jesus walking around at this point preaching, ‘I died on the cross and rose again for your sins,’ isn’t it? So the gospel that Jesus is preaching must be something else, right? And what’s that ‘The time has been fulfilled’ doing there? What time? Why does it need to be fulfilled? And this ‘Kingdom of God’ thing—what’s that? Aren’t these things important, if we’re going to understand what Jesus was all about?”
This is a (perhaps the) fundamental question to ask when reading the gospels, but so many of us just easily gloss over words we think we know. So when many of us read, “Jesus preached the gospel of God,” we unconsciously read the word “gospel,” as though it meant “Jesus died so that our sins could be forgiven,” since that is what we assume “gospel” means. Of course, once we think about it, we’ll realize that reading it that way makes no sense at all in that context. This is part of a critical tearing-down process necessary for anyone wanting to learn to read the Bible well—so much has to be unlearned before anything can be learned at all! The first target are these nice terms that we assume we know.
I suggested to my class that they start looking through the Hebrew Bible, especially the prophets, for terms like “good news,” and try to figure out these other terms in a similar way—after all, Mark seems to assume that the reader will understand these terms, which were already in use long before the gospel writer picked up his pen (or Jesus himself began to preach). It’s a worthwhile assignment for anyone who wants to get a better picture of Jesus.
(On a fairly related note, it’s also worth asking some of the questions J.R. Daniel Kirk has been asking over at Storied Theology, as they’re quite related in my view.)