The Beginning of the Gospel

By Ricardo Lopez, P. HD

With the word gospel, we usually identify a booklet of about thirty pages that tells the story of Jesus of Nazareth, with a beginning, a middle and an end that we all know. But the Greek word itself only means “good news,” whatever it was. Among the Greeks, the announcement that the national army had won a victory over the enemy was good news, because it meant having escaped the power of the enemy, which would otherwise have meant looting, humiliation, forced labor, loss of autonomy, rape of women and men, slavery or execution of leaders and principals.

Receiving a gospel was an occasion to strengthen unity and celebrate. Gospel was also told the reward or payment that was given to the one who gave the good message, and then, by extension, to the sacrifice that was offered to celebrate in the square, commonly, with the ritual slaughter of some animals and the subsequent festive banquet of citizens. Seeing only these uses of the word among the many of the ancients, we learn that gospel implies a palpable benefit for those who receive it.
Gospel is not a neutral term.

When, for example, we read it in the writings of St. Paul, which are the oldest of our faith, he always refers to the announcement of the Christian message. Paul speaks of the “gospel of God” (see 1 Thessalonians 2:2,8), of which he is an official apostle or messenger (Rom 1:1). It also speaks of the “gospel of Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 9:12), and even of “my/our gospel” (Rom 3:16, 1 Thes 1:5), but not because there are several equally valid, but to defend the implications of the one gospel, whose substantial content is read in 1 Cor 15:1-5, as an expression of faith.

The core of the Christian announcement is the death on the cross and resurrection of Jesus. But this does not mean that with Him the gospel is exhausted because that punctual event only makes perfect sense and understanding within the framework of God’s action in Jesus of Nazareth in favor of His own. So, if in our writings the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus come at the end of its history, we must keep in mind that this event is what gives meaning to each and every episode of the whole plot. We say that we read the gospels with Easter, and to benefit us, and not for another reason. From that core of faith in Christ originated the way to tell the whole story of Jesus (see Mk 1:1 and Matt 1:1), including what has to do with His birth.

Two of the four canonical gospels add stories that have to do with the birth of Jesus. This initial block of stories in the gospels of Saint Matthew and Saint Luke are perhaps those of later writings among those received by Christians of the second and third generations. Beyond the specific discrepancies between them and that are obvious, I want now to narrow down a couple of aspects that concern those stories from the first two chapters.

The first thing that emerges from the initial stories is the anomalous conception of Jesus, in which the evangelists mentioned coincide. It is not normal, although we are familiar with the scene, that an angel appears to a bride to announce that she will be the mother of the Messiah (Luke), and neither is pregnancy without a male contest (Matthew). This anomaly has to do with the irregular origin of Jesus, which has recesses in other places of our sacred writings. Consider the text of John 8:41 where Jesus’ adversaries denigrate him saying: “We have not been born of prostitution (porneia). We have a father, God.” Throughout that section (Jn 8:31-59), he argued about who is Abraham’s legitimate offspring. In what follows, Jesus argues that God is not the father of the Jews because their murderous intentions betray their true sonship. Jesus, however, does not counteract the charge of its illegitimate origin (or that of Christians), although it seems to unfold immediately in a new formulation: Jesus is a Samaritan and is demonized (8:48). Although the elusive and suggestive language of Saint John is well known, this fierce controversy suggests that with Judaism, the murky origin of Jesus is an impassable point (see also Origen, Contra Celso, 1:2).

In the Gospel of Mark, on the other hand, when Jesus returns to his people, Nazareth, and teaches in the synagogue, his countrymen admire Himself for the wisdom and wonders He performs, but express his disbelief by saying: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of Joseph, Judas and Simon? And that his sisters are not here among us?” (Mk 6:3). Scholars note that Jesus is related to his mother and not to his father, as it would be expected in a strongly patriarchal society.

Being Jesus a manual worker, craftsman or day laborer, he had to move to where it was required to be able to eat; this was not something well seen in those media, in which the man had to take care of the honor of women and their home. Not to mention that the father would be a way of insulting the prophetic figure of Jesus, referring to His irregular origin, and, therefore, does not have the minimum prestige or dignity that a person is required to get credit.

The stories of the virginal conception of Jesus was the catechetical response from the Easter faith that Christians gave to the question derived from the unique divine filiation of Jesus. If we take, for example, the beginning of Matthew’s account (Mt 1:1-18), the insertion of the five women (Tamar, Rajab, Ruth, the wife of Uriah and Mary) in the genealogy of Jesus marks serious and growing irregularities in the Davidic and Abrahamic descent. These anomalies are intended to open the reader’s mind that the irregular does not prevent God from continuing his work, but it is a theological resource for unexpected salvation or redemption. In the case of Jesus, Joseph is the one who rescues him.

If Jesus would be born outside of Joseph’s marriage, He would have been considered a mamzer; that is, someone with a very poor social status among the people, who shares with foreign converts, freedmen, Guibeonites (netim), silenced (unknown fatherhood) and deposits (see Mishna Quid. 4:1-2).

Did this mark the relational world of Jesus of Nazareth? It was Joseph, upon receiving Mary pregnant, who has conferred Jesus a social status. In the Gospel of St. John, for example, Jesus is called “son of Joseph” (Jn 1:45, 6:42), which implies a patriarchal resonance, undoubtedly, because in a prophetic context an extraordinary vision is promised (Jn 1:43-51), and in the other one, it is spoken of bread lowered from heaven (6:41-51); both features fall under the patriarch Joseph of Genesis.

The beginning of the Gospel is the extraordinary intervention of God in raising Jesus from the dead. The other postulates or topics of the Christian faith hang on that. Is there anything stronger than death? The resurrection of Jesus, because it is a definitive or eschatological event, which demands from all believers that whatever the impediment is for the full life of God comes to all disadvantaged in our social and economic means, must be demolished, because after all, we are all children of the Son. Let us start here.

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