In English, the word gospel is laden with religious meaning, but when Jesus and the apostles used the word euangelion (good news/gospel) they were using a nonreligious word from their culture.
There’s a good listing of ancient uses of the word at the Perseus Digital Library, and by combining that list with some other resources I’ve created summary useful for those who don’t know Greek. When I could, I’ve put the Greek word in brackets so you can see the form that is used. This is pretty much just a listing of data without interpretation — I’m merely trying to share some of my research to save time for others who are walking down the same road as me.
This is close to every pre‐Christian use of the noun euangelion (I did not investigate the verbal form euangelizomai — click the verb to launch your own research). You will note that the word (which looks like εὐαγγέλιον) is relatively rare in ancient Greek, but common in the New Testament. Also of note, the New Testament often talks of the gospel in the singular (to euangelion), but in pre‐Christian literature the form used is almost always different (it is usually plural and often does not have the definite article attached). Even though Jesus and the first Christians used a word from their culture, they clearly invested it with new meaning and placed an unprecedented emphasis upon it.
I have arranged the references into two groups: the first group is from the second‐century BC through contemporaries of the New Testament authors, and the second group contains older uses which are less important for demonstrating current usage.
One final disclaimer: this post might make me look like some sort of Greek language guru. I am not. I am about as conversant with the Biblical languages as are most seminary graduates ten years out of their programs… which is to say, not nearly as conversant as I should be.
The Most Important Pre‐Christian Uses of the Word Euangelion
The Septuagint (LXX) – 2nd century BC
The Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Old Testament) uses the word in 2 Sam 4:10
when a man told me, ‘Saul is dead,’ and thought he was bringing good news [εὐαγγέλια], I seized him and put him to death in Ziklag” (view the Greek)
Diodorus Siculus (1st century BC) – Library 15.74
[1b] Now Dionysius had produced a tragedy at the Lenaea at Athens and had won the victory, and one of those who sang in the chorus, supposing that he would be rewarded handsomely if he were the first to give news of the victory, set sail to Corinth. There, finding a ship bound for Sicily, he transferred to it, and obtaining favouring winds, speedily landed at Syracuse and gave the tyrant news of the victory.  Dionysius did reward him, and was himself so overjoyed that he sacrificed to the gods for the good tidings [εὐαγγέλια] and instituted a drinking bout and great feasts. (view the Greek)
Cicero (1st century BC)
Cicero (writing in Latin) uses the Greek word twice in his Letters to Atticus. I don’t know if that was considered pretentious or not, but I know that I love seeing the Greek mixed in with the Latin (which tells you just how much of a geek I am).
Letters to Atticus 2.3.1 (around 60 B.C.)
First, a trifle please for good news [εὐαγγέλια]. Valerius has been acquitted with Hortensius as his advocate. (view the Latin)
Letters to Atticus 13.40.1 (around 45 B.C.)
Is that so? Does Brutus really say that Caesar is going over to the right party? That is good news [εὐαγγέλια]. (view the Latin)
The Priene Inscription (9 B.C.)
The most famous pre‐Christian use of the word is in The Priene Inscription. This is a letter from the Proconsul Paulus Fabius Maximus engraved in stone (picture) in Priene, a city in modern‐day Turkey. Other fragmentary inscriptions of this letter have been found in Apamea, Maeonia, Eumenia, and Dorylaeum. This text is tagged OGIS 458 / SEG IV no 490, which means that you can see more about it in Orientis Graeci Inscriptiones Selectae (a 1905 compilation by Wilhelmus Dittenberger usually abbreviated as OGIS, available online) or in Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum (SEG) volume 4. The letter is pretty long, but only the part below is relevant to the gospel.
It seemed good to the Greeks of Asia, in the opinion of the high priest Apollonius of Menophilus Azanitus: ‘Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior [σωτήρ], both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance…. surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god [τοῦ θεοῦ] Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings [εὐαγγέλιον] for the world that came by reason of him…
It’s so famous because it brings the idea of Caesar as a god and savior to the world together with the notion that this was good news to be celebrated.
Josephus (1st century A.D.)
Now this terrible message [that a rebellion was brewing] was good news [εὐαγγέλιον] to Florus; and because his design was to have a war kindled, he gave the ambassadors no answer at all [to their request for assistance in stopping the sedition before it grew]. (see the Greek)
Jewish Wars 4.618
fame carried [the news about Vespatian] abroad more suddenly than one could have thought, that he was emperor over the east, upon which every city kept festivals, and celebrated sacrifices and oblations for such good news [εὐαγγέλια] (see the Greek)
Jewish Wars 4.656
And now, as Vespasian was come to Alexandria, this good news [εὐαγγέλια] came from Rome, and at the same time came embassies from all his own habitable earth, to congratulate him upon his advancement; and though this Alexandria was the greatest of all cities next to Rome, it proved too narrow to contain the multitude that then came to it. (see the Greek)
Plutarch (1st century AD)
even after the battle at Mantinea, which Thucydides has described, the one who first announced the victory had no other reward for his glad tidings [singular] than a piece of meat sent by the magistrates from the public mess. (see the English context)
Accordingly, when [Aristodemus] had come near, he stretched out his hand and cried with a loud voice: “Hail, King Antigonus, we have conquered Ptolemy in a sea‐fight, and now hold Cyprus, with twelve thousand eight hundred soldiers as prisoners of war.” To this Antigonus replied: “Hail to thee also, by Heaven! but for torturing us in this way, thou shalt undergo punishment; the reward for thy good tidings [plural] thou shalt be some time in getting. (see the English context)
Moralia (Glory of Athens) 347d (and e)
Why, as we are told, the Spartans merely sent meat from the public commons to the man who brought glad tidings [εὐαγγέλιον] of the victory in Mantineia which Thucydides describes! And indeed the compilers of histories are, as it were, reporters of great exploits who are gifted with the faculty of felicitous speech, and achieve success in their writing through the beauty and force of their narration; and to them those who first encountered and recorded the events [εὐαγγέλιον] are indebted for a pleasing retelling of them. (see the Greek, English)
Other (Older) References
Aristophanes (5th century BC)
You can see the plural of the word used by Aristophanes in The Knights (Equites) lines 647 and 656, both references are plural. This translation is from Translator at Work.
“You! You… Councillors! I’ve got good news [εὐαγγέλια — see the Greek] for you!” I said to them. “News that are so good, I want to make sure that I’m the first to announce them to you. It’s the price of sardines, folks! It’s the best it’s ever been since the outbreak of the war!”
Well, you should have seen their faces then! Turned nice and happy right there and then. They wanted to give me a hero’s garland for telling the good news. So I gave them my advice. I said to them that if they wanted to get their fair share for the price of an obol, they should rush down the market and buy themselves all the plates they can. Corner the market. And keep it all a secret.
They applauded me loudly then and gawked at me awestruck.
But then, that bastard, Paphlagon, who knew how to press the Councillors’ buttons, got up and said, “Men, these auspicious news [εὐαγγέλια — see the Greek] should move us to make a sacrifice to our goddess! I suggest we should slaughter one hundred cows!”
And also in his play Wealth (Plutus) line 765 — (this translation is also from Translator at Work)
So, come on, now, folks! Dance! Come on, all together now: dance and sing and march and be happy because the day will never come again when you come home and find your flour sack empty! Dance!
By the goddess Hekate! What wonderful news! [εὐαγγέλιά — see the Greek] Just for that I’m going to hang a long necklace of bread rolls around your neck!
Aeschines (4th century BC) Against Ctesiphon section 160
But when Philip was dead and Alexander had come to the throne, Demosthenes again put on prodigious airs and caused a shrine to he dedicated to Pausanias and involved the senate in the charge of having offered sacrifice of thanksgiving as for good news [εὐαγγελίων] (namely that Philip of Macedon had been assassinated by Pausanias) (see the Greek)
Isocrates, Areopagiticus (4th Century BC) section 10.
As if this were not enough, we have been compelled to save the friends of the Thebans at the cost of losing our own allies; and yet to celebrate the good news [εὐαγγέλια] of such accomplishments we have twice now offered grateful sacrifices to the gods, and we deliberate about our affairs more complaisantly than men whose actions leave nothing to be desired! (see the Greek)
Xenophon (4th century BC)
This they proceeded to do; and when they were sailing in, Eteonicus began to offer sacrifices for the good news [τὰ εὐαγγέλια], and gave orders that the soldiers should take their dinner, that the traders should put their goods into their boats in silence and sail off to Chios (for the wind was favourable), and that the triremes also should sail thither with all speed. (Glen’s note: this good news was, in this case, fake. Eteonicus was pretending that the dead Callicratidas had instead won a great victory over the Athenians). (see the Greek)
Now Agesilaus, on learning these things, at first was overcome with sorrow; but when he had considered that the most of his troops were the sort of men to share gladly in good fortune if good fortune came, but that if they saw anything unpleasant, they were under no compulsion to share in it,—thereupon, changing the report, he said that word had come that Peisander was dead, but victorious in the naval battle.  And at the moment of saying these things he offered sacrifice as if for good news [εὐαγγέλια], and sent around to many people portions of the victims which had been offered; so that when a skirmish with the enemy took place, the troops of Agesilaus won the day in consequence of the report that the Lacedaemonians were victorious in the naval battle. (see the Greek)
Supposedly the word is used by Menander (Peric. 993), (4th century BC), but I can’t find the Greek text online anywhere to verify that.
Homer used the term twice in The Odyssey (8th century BC) in 14.152 and 14.166, but The Odyssey was so ancient by New Testament times that I don’t think of it as much help in determining contemporary usage. I’m stretching it to include 4th and 5th century references. Homer was as ancient to them as Chaucer is to us. Which, in case you’ve forgotten Chaucer, reads like this: “Whilom, as olde stories tellen us, Ther was a duc that highte Theseus; Of Atthenes he was lord and governour, And in his tyme swich a conquerour…” – not much help to a scholar from the year 4,000 in determining how a word is used in 2010. Bringing in stuff from the 4th century BC is about as ancient as I care to get.
If I learn of more references (or if I have any mistakes pointed out to me) I’ll update this post.