From the Ashes of War: The Gospel According to Mark – Part 1

Introduction and Background

For most of us who are relatively unaware of the history of the ancient world, to say that the Gospel of Mark was written sometime between 68 and 71 A.D. is to say very little.  But for those that know their history, this statement is actually quite stunning.  For if this Gospel was, indeed, composed during this era, than we know that it’s author was writing during one of the most tumultuous times in the history of the Jewish people – a time when everything the Jews knew and believed to be true came to a devastating end.

In 65 A.D., the land of Israel, which had been living under the burden of Roman occupation for nearly 130 years, was entering a season of extreme duress.  While living in an empire had never been easy, the local governance of the Judean province had recently passed into the hands of a man by the name of Gessius Florus – a man who, at that point in time, was seemingly unmatched in his contempt for the Jews.  Having already made a mockery of the Jewish cultic practices and of the legal system, he had gone on to raid the Temple treasuries of more than 1200 pounds of gold, publicly claiming that the money was owed to the Emperor Nero, himself.[1]

Bust of Nero at the Musei Capitolini, Rome

Needless to say, many within the Jewish population were outraged by Florus’ actions, which in turn lead to all sorts of civil disturbances breaking out in Caesarea and in the capital city of Jerusalem, itself.  Unwilling to let these disturbances burn themselves out, the Jewish historian, Josephus, tells us that Florus immediately attempted to put down the uprising by sending soldiers into Jerusalem, who promptly arrested and then crucified more 3600 leaders in the rebellion.

To make matters even worse, the uprisings had caught the attention of the Roman Emperor Nero, who was already reeling from the various intrigues and rebellions that were threatening his control over the Empire.  Fearful that the political unrest in the Judean province might give his enemies just the opening that they were looking for, Nero did the very thing that most despots tend to do when frightened: he upped the ante and doubled down on the pressure that was already being exerted upon the Israelites.  This was like pouring gasoline onto an already raging fire.

Not surprisingly, many Jewish fighters – including the Zealots – rose up and attacked the Roman forces in the city of Jerusalem.  After burning Herod’s Palace to the ground, they seized control of the Temple and immediately ceased the offering of sacrifices to Yahweh on behalf of the Emperor Nero.  This was an open declaration of war.

In the days that followed, Gessius Florus was removed from power by the Roman authorities, even as the Emperor Nero quickly moved to dispatch the 12th Roman Legion to quell the rising tide.  From the Empire’s perspective, things went from bad to worse, when the 12th Legion was ambushed by the Jewish Zealots near the narrow mountain pass of Beth Horon.  The rout was on, as Rome lost some 5300 infantrymen along with another 380 mounted troops. The 12th Legion had been completely annihilated – a defeat that was, at that time, unparalleled in Empire’s history.

But Rome was not quick to admit defeat, nor was it slow to counter.  The greatly admired General Vespasian (and his son Titus) were sent into the region with two full Roman legions as well as six detachments of cavalry and numerous other troops sent by various regional kings.  By 68 A.D., General Vespasian had devastated the Galilean countryside in the north, and was poised to lay siege to Jerusalem itself.  But as providence would have it, the Emperor Nero committed suicide, and Vespasian was forced to return to Rome, where he would eventually became the new Emperor.

In Vespasian’s absence, his son, Titus, was left with over 60,000 trained soldiers and untold numbers of war machines to finish the work of his father.  Having surrounded Jerusalem on all sides, and having cut off every major roadway leading into the country, Titus began the five month siege of the capital city.  In the words of the famed Jewish historian, Josephus:

“Throughout the city, people were dying of hunger in large numbers, and enduring unspeakable sufferings. In every house, the merest hint of food sparked violence; and close relatives fell to blows, snatching from one another the pitiful supports of life. No respect was paid even to the dying; the ruffians [anti-Roman Zealots] searched them, in case they were concealing food somewhere in their clothes, or just pretending to be near death. Gaping with hunger, like mad dogs, lawless gangs went staggering and reeling through the streets, battering upon the doors like drunkards, and so bewildered that they broke into the same house two or three times in an hour. Need drove the starving to gnaw at anything. Refuse, which even animals would reject, was collected and turned into food. And in the end they were eating belts and shoes, and the leather stripped off their shields.”

So great was the suffering of Jerusalem at this time – so extreme was the privation – that Josephus goes on to record another, more ghastly incident that is best told in his own words:

“Famine gnawed at [the mother’] vitals, and the fire of rage was ever fiercer than famine. So, driven by fury and want, she committed a crime against nature. Seizing her child, an infant at the breast, she cried, ‘My poor baby, why should I keep you alive in this world of war and famine? Even if we live till the Romans come, they will make slaves of us; and anyway, hunger will get us before slavery does; and the rebels are crueler than both. Come, be food for me, and an avenging fury to the rebels, and a tale of cold horror to the world to complete the monstrous agony of the Jews.’ And with these words she killed her son, roasted the body, swallowed half of it, and stored the rest in a safe place.”[2]

When the walls of Jerusalem finally collapsed, more than 600,000 Jewish people were put to the sword.  Those that managed to survive were brutally taken into captivity where they were forced to work in the mines or worse yet, to perform in the gladiatorial games.  These were the days in which the Second Temple of Jerusalem was razed to the ground just as Jesus the Christ had prophesied; and these were the days in which the Zealots made their last stand in the dessert fortress of Masada.

The desert fortress of Masada, where the Jewish Zealots made their last stand in 74 A.D.

If you want to understand the Gospel of Mark, than you need to understand that this is a Gospel forged in the context of war.  It is a Gospel driven by a sense of urgency as the cradle of Christianity was dashed to the ground and the church was forced to crawl out from beneath the rubble.  This was Mark’s world.  And this was the world into which he dared to suggest that this was just “the beginning of the Good News about Jesus the Christ.”[3]


[1] Josephus records the amount at 17 talents.  In the Roman system of measurements, a talent 32.3 kg or 71 lbs.  Thus, 17 talents equates to approximately 1207 pounds in the English system of measurements.

[2] This account, which is taken from the collected works of the Jewish historian, Josephus, can be found online at: http://www.rjgeib.com/thoughts/desolation/josephus.html

[3] Mark 1:1

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3 Responses to From the Ashes of War: The Gospel According to Mark – Part 1

  1. Doug Hutchcraft says:

    Great and informative blog post. This context will surely enhance my next reading of Mark. Looking forward to more posts like this one Scott!

    • Hey Doug. Thanks for taking the time to read this. Mark has become a favorite Gospel for me; and I’m very much looking forward to sharing some of the things I have learned through this incredible work.

  2. I can’t wait to continue on with our Mark study for BT!

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