From the Ashes of War: The Gospel According to Mark – Part 2

Mark 1:1 – On Empires, Osama Bin Laden, and the Smashing of Imperial Symbols.

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.”[1]

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.[2]  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.[3]

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:

  1. Why do you think the author of the Gospel elected to open it in such a confrontational manner?
  2. 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?
  3. 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? 

[1] Josephus, War, 7.1.1.

[2] 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.

[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.

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12 Responses to From the Ashes of War: The Gospel According to Mark – Part 2

  1. Ryan M. Mahoney says:

    Reblogged this on Christus Victor.

  2. Carrot says:

    Oh, I don’t know, I think you could take the comparison a bit further. Did America – a Christian Nation – respond to this destruction of its imperial symbols like the Romans with unleashing legions uncounted or as radical adherents to the principles of peace?

    • You raise a great point Carry. While I was only attempting to compare and contrast Mark’s announcement vs. Bin Laden’s annoucement, there is certainly grounds to make comparisons between the responses of Rome and the States. And I’m actually going to be touching on that as we get a little further into this Gospel.

  3. Rich Bennema says:

    I think you’re right on with your comparison to Bin Laden. 30-40 years before the writing of Mark, the same comparison was made:

    Acts 5:36-39
    “Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. Therefore, in the present case I advise you: Leave these men alone! Let them go! For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.”

    Have there ever been truer words? 2000 years later, how many have heard the gospel of Augustus or can even pronounce Vespasian compared to the billions who have heard the gospel of Mark and of the Jesus he heralds?

    • Great catch, Rich. Hadn’t even considered that, but that is EXACTLY what I’m talking about at the outset of Mark. I may have to use that in a later post. If I do, you can be sure that I’ll credit you and send all the fame and adulation your way.

  4. Richard Armour says:

    Thank you for bringing to life the world that Mark lived in and the power of his opening line in the Gospel of Mark. I really did get it where I hadn’t before. However I was able to understand that without the unnecessary interjection of your political view of America as imperialist, and the elevation of Bin Laden and his “message” as anything above demonic. You do avoid the moral hazard of several moral equivalencies but not by much. You’re a great writer. You don’t need the overly provocative political stuff to draw me into the Gospel narrative. You had me at “This is the world into which Mark is writing”.

    • Good morning Richard,

      First of all, thank you for your kind words. Five months into this journey, it still means a lot when people encourage me regarding my writing.

      Having said that, I do have a question for you. It seems to me that you disagree with my assertion that America is an empire. And I’m curious, on what grounds would you disagree? It seems to me that empires have several characteristics in common:

      1. A strong economy that privileges the few (in this case, the majority of Americans who only constitute 5% of the world’s population)

      2. A strong military presence in foreign nations and a willingness to use that military to defend the empire’s interests (here, 135 bases in 70% of the world’s nations)

      3. A willingness to build the empire on the backs of the broken (in this case, the Native Americans and the 11+ million Africans who were transported during the Atlantic Slave Trade)

      4. The exportation of the empire’s culture to the nations around the world (in this case, the exportation of democratic ideals, secularism, materialism, consumerism, etc…)

      Would you agree that the United States fits this definition? And if so, why would you not define it as an empire?

      • Richard Armour says:

        Your reply in one way makes my point but in another way reveals my more narrow interest in your post. My interest was the historical setting of the Gospel writers and with that knowledge to be able to understand my Bible in a deeper way. I thought you did that for me without the “distraction” of a discussion of American empire. Now you ask me about American empire elevating that discussion above the discussion of what Mark meant in the opening of his Gospel. With my narrow interest I missed that American empire was germane to the discussion, not just your back up point. Well ok, America has done or is partly all the things you say, but that is a dark picture of a place that on balance has left the world better off than if this country did not exist. This country is and always has been full of sinful broken people. This isn’t breaking news. The thing is some country will fill the vacuum when America passes from the scene which it will. Russia? China? Iran and an Islamist coalition? How’s that going to look? Those places have almost no influence at least at the leadership level from the Gospel. Look I don’t mistake the interests of America with the interests of the Kingdom of God (something else you have written about and may be what you are writing about here) although I do believe in certain aspects of American exceptionalism. America has basterdized the concept of human freedom and yet provides freedom for many with all those military bases around the world. They just don’t advance our empire’s interests, they provide freedom for people who otherwise would not have it. We are a mixed bag. No news here. So here we are with competing views of American empire which up against the Gospel means little, and that’s my point about the “distraction”.

        • Thanks for responding, Richard. With regards to this series, it will NOT be on America or contemporary history – of that I can assure you. In this particular piece, I was merely trying to make an analogy to help people understand the gravity of Mark’s challenge to the Roman Empire. If that wasn’t helpful to you, I can completely respect that. And I appreciate the fact that you thought I had already made the point sufficiently through my presentation on the history of that time.

          Hope you come back for more on Mark!

  5. Richard Armour says:

    http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/292125/taking-out-dictators-victor-davis-hanson

    If America is going to do Empire we need to study the Romans. This sounds to hap-hazard, half hearted, and mixed with good intentions with no follow through. All that, and not 1 inch of soil we can plant the flag on! 🙂

    • Cal says:

      Late on the discussion but I have some thoughts! :

      We can obviously conclude that the age of ‘Empires’ as we knew them has been over for years. The closest attempt was the Soviet Union letting in more ‘soviet republics’ for the interests of ‘freedom and equality’ under ‘communism’. As you can tell by the quote marks, all of it is garbage. The Russians absorbed lots of Asia.

      Anyway, back to the issue:

      The world doesn’t do ’empire’ anymore, however in times passed, especially for ‘civilized’ parts of the world, one did not just plant the flag. The Romans did not just march into Greece and proclaim it was theirs. It was a mission of ‘liberty’. Macedon had a stranglehold on Greece of varying degrees ever since Alexander’s father Phillip got involved in Greek politics. The Romans were ‘liberators’, except they never left. The Greeks, a wily, brilliant and perceptive people, caught on quickly. The Romans needed to ‘secure’ the area. Then Greece was flooded by Roman business men of all sorts who raped the economy of Greece. Eventually Greece was assumed as a Roman province. This happened countless times, it was rare when Rome just invaded an area and planted a standard.

      Back to the present:

      The business of the Romans was glorifying to the people and the state but ever declaring a region is a costly adventure. Not only do you get the land and the prestige but now you’re weighed down with possible nationalistic rebellions, paying for protection, civil projects and exporting culture with a demand for return. If the Greeks don’t buy the Roman line, they’re going to be a constant source of unrest for any governor. You can’t just hack people into submission, that only works for so long until the mass of people feel they have nothing to lose and go into total rebellion.

      The reason I’m saying this is America is probably one of the craftiest Empires. The British Empire was much about national prestige but much more about profitability. As the financial world changed and provinces and colonies became harder to maintain, England gave up much of her landed empire. When Ghana began to cost more to keep than to let go, the anti-colonial Labor government let Ghana go (mortifying many patriotic Tories). America is almost wholly business centered (the American Dream, American Exceptionalism and the focus of our history is almost all economic). Why make a concrete, landed Empire when it is a) morally difficult b) unprofitable. So, just have a stake in countries who bend the knee to the stars and stripes and collect on them.

      What does this mean?

      We institute friendly dictators and drop them or kill them (vis, black ops and CIA) depending on economic boon. When Saddam is helpful we’re friends, when he is agitating American interests he is an enemy of democracy, and freedom and all that jazz.

      America is an Empire, just a much fiscally smarter one. We don’t have to plant the flag, we just bind them in treaties and protectorate nets or make sure their political leader is friendly to American interests. Then, like the Romans, our businessmen swarm and the economy keeps chugging along and all the while the majority of the populace still thinks in terms of moral categories.

      Pure genius.

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