AP: Today we are going to turn our attention to how the word "gospel" is used in the pagan sphere of Greek language around the time of Jesus. Scholars have repeatedly pointed out that the word "gospel" appears with a very similar meaning in some texts that refer to the cult of a ruler, usually the emperor, as "savior." It is not strange when one considers that, especially in the East, the emperor was considered divine mainly by his role as benefactor.
There is an inscription of King Antiochus I of Comagene (north of Syria), first century B.C. which refers to the monarch as the "great king, god, just, divinity manifested to the men" (W. Dittemberger, Orientis Graeci Inscriptiones Selectae = OGIS [Leipzig 1901–1903], 383). We could also quote the character of Joseph, the Jewish patriarch in Egypt according to the book of Genesis, where he is called the "son of God,", similar to the use in Matt. 27:54: "Truly this one (Jesus who died on the cross) was a son of God," i.e., he was a "divine man."
A famous inscription of the city of Priene, in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) from 9 B.C. reads as follows:
"Since Providence, which ordains all things and is very interested in our lives, has accomplished everything (now) in the most perfect thing by sending us Augustus, who has been filled with divine power for the welfare of the people; having sent him as a savior both to us and to our descendants, who should stop war and bring order to all things. With his appearing Caesar has fulfilled the hope of the prophecies, since he has not only outdone the benefactors who had come before him, but also has not left to future ones the hope of doing better; the birthday of this god has become through him a beginning of the good tidings."Likewise another inscription, a decree of the city of Halicarnaso, a little after the former one, reads as follows:
"Since the eternal and immortal nature of the universe has blessed us greatly with excellent benefits, contributing to the happiness of our times to Caesar Augustus, father of this country . . . like Zeus, a patriot and savior of the whole human race."Along with εὐαγγέλιον and in very similar texts we find similar terminology, since the inscriptions referring to the magnanimity of the emperor––always in a context mentioning his benefits, which is what distinguishes the divinity––mention his grace, kindness, and philanthropy, that is, his love for men, their parousia and their epiphany.
Be sure you check out Arthur Darby Nock's book Early Gentile Christianity and its Hellenistic Background (New York: 1964). He really offers some classic commentary on the subject. One of the reasons I point you in that direction is because of the following issue: Compare these inscriptions with Luke 2:10–11: "Do not be afraid, for bring news (εὐαγγελίζομαι) to you of great joy, which will be for all the people: A Savior (σωτήρ) is born to you today in the city of David, who is the Christ Lord." It is difficult, however, to deal with the difficult question––a hotbed of discussion––suggested by the words of Nock, namely: Either the same terminology in both cases (Caesar and Jesus as divine beings who are shown as saviors) is due to a loan word borrowed by the Christians, or they have consciously contrasted the image of Jesus with that of Caesar by using the same words.
I believe that the latter is more probable for the following reasons: Christians accept a previous usage, consolidated, advanced in the Greek East, where they began their missionary work. According to Christianity, when persecuted, they express this opposition: to suffer as a Christian meant to refuse to accept the express worship of the Emperor as a divine person, while affirming that divinity about Jesus. The message is this: The true Savior is Jesus, and the true "good news" (εὐαγγέλιον) is the news of the coming of God's reign––not of human caesars––brought by Jesus.