Earlier this week, we started a new series on the Gospel According to Mark; and in the first article, it was argued that this Gospel is best understood in what we call the sitz im leben – or the “life setting” – in which it was written. As you may recall, the “life setting” for Mark is a rather tumultuous time in ancient Judaism – a time in which the devastating might of imperial Rome had been brought to bear upon the tiny, isolated state of Israel. Following the rather ill-advised revolt that was instigated by the Zealot leadership within Israel, more than 60,000 Roman troops had been dispatched into the region, the Temple had been destroyed, the people had been slaughtered or sold into slavery, and as for the capital city of Jerusalem itself, “there was nothing left to make those that came there believe that it had ever been inhabited.”
This is the world into which Mark is writing. War had left Israel in a state of ruin, and the recently crowned, Roman Emperor Vespasian, was sitting securely on his newly established throne.
Now consider the very first words that Mark chooses to pen as he sets quill to papyrus:
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus…”
For most of us in the 21st century, these words mean almost nothing. But for those living in the days of Vespasian, these are electrifying words, charged with the power of defiance and conviction.
At the risk of offending the reader, perhaps the best way to understand this opening narrative is to consider the American empire at the dawn of the 21st century. As you may well recall, in those days, there was little doubt as to the role that America played in the world at large. As the last and greatest of the “Superpowers” to have emerged from the Cold War, America comprised only 5% of the world’s population, and yet it controlled over 20% of the world’s cumulative wealth. Whereas half of the world struggled to live on less than $2 per day, the average American teenager was spending almost $150 per week. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was scaling new and unprecedented heights, the housing market was booming, technology was promising an ever-brighter future, and the promise of American freedom was being well-defended by military bases that had been installed in more then 70% of the nations around the world.
But then, on the crystal clear morning of September 11, 2001, one man dared to proclaim a counter-imperial message. Shaking his fist in defiance of the West, he orchestrated and privately funded an assault led by four planes that were to be flown into the heart of the empire. And in just two short hours, the central symbol of America’s economic might had collapsed into “the pile,” while the symbol of our military prowess was left with a gaping, smoldering wound in its outer walls.
Bin Laden was anti-imperialist with a message for the world: the United States may have thought that it was in control, but there were forces that were capable of standing against it – forces capable of bringing it to its knees.
To understand the full meaning of Mark’s bold opening, you need to understand that Rome was an empire controlling vast stretches of territory, all held in check by the power of symbols and the power of the Roman sword. What’s more, you need to understand that the word “gospel” was a Roman symbol and not a newly minted phrase, coined by the church for its own purposes. The word “gospel,” which is derived from the Greek word euangelizo, was actually a word widely used throughout the Roman empire, most often in association with the Roman imperial cult. When a new heir to the throne was born, it was called “gospel,” or “good news.” When this heir ascended to the throne and began to rule in earnest, heralds were sent forth throughout the Empire, bearing testimony to the “gospel” of the Emperor’s reign. And when the forces of Rome, under the guidance of the Emperor, defeated an enemy, the battle was announced as “gospel,” for the Pax Romana – the peace of Rome! – had been established and this was to be understood as “good news” by all who heard it.
So you see, when Mark opens his account of the Christ’s life with these words, he is shaking a fist in defiance of Rome. He is striking at the heart of Rome by discrediting the symbols that it used to maintain its control. He is saying: “Your king is not the real king!” Yes, Rome may be capable of laying waste to Jerusalem. Yes, it may even be capable of bullying the known world into submission. But this – this announcement of Jesus – was the beginning of an insurgency – a revolution. Rome may have thought that it possessed the power to impose its will through the force of its economy and its military, but Rome and its Emperor were actually powerless and illegitimate. For there was a New King who had come to inaugurate a New Beginning; and it was His birth that inaugurated a new era of hope. It was His ascension to His throne that would bring about a new sense of justice. And it was His death and His resurrection that would upend the principalities and powers of this world.
So am I really equating the announcement of the Christ with the announcement of Bin Laden’s war on the West? Yes and no. In one sense, both the author of Mark’s Gospel and Bin Laden were making their statements within the context of war. Moreover, they both understood the power of symbols in maintaining the might of the Empire, and they both understood that subverting those symbols could lead to dramatic and profound confrontation. But that is about as far as the metaphor can be taken. Ultimately, Bin Laden was a man of violence, and his announcement came in a form that Empires are quick to recognize – the form of naked aggression. By contrast, the Gospel of Mark was a masterpiece of wartime rhetoric designed to undermine the “truth claims” of the Empire through the preaching of a sacrificial lifestyle that would be marked not by oppression, but by a radical obedience to the Prince of Peace.
Questions to Consider:
- Why do you think the author of the Gospel elected to open it in such a confrontational manner?
- What might this confrontational tone tell us about the author’s feelings regarding the power of Rome? He has heard and/or seen what has been happening in Jerusalem and the outlying regions of Israel. Does he seem fearful that this same power might be brought to bear upon the Christian community?
- What might this say to us, as readers in the 21st century? How might the author want us to see the powers of this era?
 Josephus, War, 7.1.1.
 One frequently cited example of a Roman “gospel” is found on an inscription that describes the birth of the Emperor Augustus, who ruled Rome at the time of the Christ’s birth. This inscription can be found on this blog in the third part of this series, entitled: From the Ashes of War: The Gospel Acccording to Mark – Part 3.
 For a deeper discussion on the roots of euangelizo in the Roman imperial cult, see: C.C. Broyles, “Gospel (Good News)” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, eds. Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, I. Howard Marshall (Intervarsity Press: Downers Grove, 1992), 283-286.