(Originally published in Gospel in Paul: Studies on Corinthians, Galatians and Romans for Richard N. Longenecker, eds. L. Ann Jervis and Peter Richardson, 1994, pp. 222–239. Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Supplement Series 108. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press. Reproduced by permission of the author.)
The word ‘gospel’ has had a chequered career in the course of Christian history. During the first century, as we shall see, it could refer both to a message proclaimed by word of mouth and to a book about Jesus of Nazareth. In more recent times it has been used to denote a particular sort of religious meeting (a ‘gospel rally’) and as a metaphor for utterly reliable information (‘gospel truth’). Many Christians today, when reading the New Testament, never question what the word means, but assume that, since they know from their own context what ‘the gospel’ is. Paul and the others must have meant exactly the same thing.
The trouble is, of course, that though there are obviously difficult concepts in the New Testament, which send any intelligent reader off to the commentaries and dictionaries, there are others which are in fact equally difficult but which are not recognized as such. ‘We turn to the helps only when the hard passages are manifestly hard. But there are treacherous passages which will not send us to the notes. They look easy and aren’t.’ 1 Part of the purpose of scholarship, within both the academy and the church, is to expose the frailty of regular assumptions, to ask the unasked questions and to sketch out alternative possibilities. Whether or not he agrees with the proposals I shall advance, I know that Richard Longenecker shares this vision of the purpose of scholarship. Indeed, it is partly because he and others have carved out ways of pursuing this vision that I, in company with a good many today, now have the courage to do so as well. I am therefore confident that he will be as happy to entertain, and perhaps to controvert, my arguments as he has been to engage in debate on many previous occasions, which, whether formal or informal, have always been warm and cheerful.
In order to arrive at the meaning of ‘gospel’ within the confines of the letter to the Galatians, we must go back to the old question: where did the idea come from and what echoes did the word in consequence carry both for Paul and for his readers? I shall suggest that the two normal answers to these questions have been wrongly played off against one another, and that when we examine them both more closely we will discover convergences which have not hitherto been explored. This will enable us to survey the occurrences of ‘gospel’ within Galatians, with our ears retuned to the nuances which may after all have been present for both Paul and his hearers. We shall thus discover an emphasis within the letter which is not normally given the weight which, in my judgment, it deserves…