The Priene Inscription and Mark 1:1

Priene Calendar Inscription, ca 9 BCE:

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 [σωτῆρα], both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and  arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance [ἐπιφανεῖς] (excelled  even our anticipations), 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 Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by  reason of him [ἦρξεν δὲ τῶι κόσμωι τῶν δι’ αὐτὸν εὐανγελίων ἡ γενέθλιος ἡμέρα τοῦ θεοῦ],” which Asia resolved in Smyrna.

(H.T. for translation/bibliographic info, see also and

ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ υἱοῦ θεοῦ = The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ [Son of God] (Mark 1:1) (the words “Son of God” are in square brackets in UBS4 and NA27 because they are textually uncertain [see below])

Although many readers may not spot it, Mark 1:1 is a political statement.  But first, there are some textual issues with the opening verse.  There are grammatical issues as it stands:  verse 1 has a subject (i.e., beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ) without a predicate and no “verb to be” (i.e. “is”) to connect to verse 2 and verses 2-3 is a subordinate clause without a main clause (i.e., as it was written…).  A few scholars thus argue 1:1 in its entirety is a scribal addition (Horsley 2001, 250; Croy 2001);  Clayton Croy sees 1:1 as the point where a scribe marked where his “gospel” manuscript began while J.K. Elliot argues that different scribes made various insertions into the whole of 1:1-3 (one inserted 1:1 as a title, another Isaiah 40:3 to introduce the Baptist and another the composite scriptural proof text in 1:2-3 from Q or Matt 11:10/Lk 7:27 without deleting the initial reference to “Isaiah the prophet”) due to their “unique or non-Markan features” (Elliot 2000).   But in his critical review of Horsley, Robert Gundry notes that the omission has no external manuscript support and would leave the kathos (as)-clause of 1:2 standing alone when in 7 other instances it always depends on something preceding (4:33; 9:13; 11:6; 14:16, 21; 15:8; 16:7) (2003, 133) (note: the latter does not affect Croy’s case as he argues that 1:2 was attached to a now lost “beginning” of Mark).  Of course if 1:1 is original and yet is judged to stand apart as a title, that would also leave the kathos clause standing alone, but the lack of external support does lead me against the view that 1:1 is a scribal interpolation.  The major divide in manuscript and patristic witnesses is between the shorter version (omitting huiou theou) and the longer version above, so “Son of God” may either be a pious addition to enhance Mark’s Christology or an accidental omission due to the phenomenon of homoioteleuton (note all the genitive endings in ou and especially the issues when one takes into account the abbreviated nomina sacra = ΙΥΧΥΥΥΘΥ).  There are good arguments pro and con concerning the originality or not of “Son of God” (see the disagreement of Wasserman 2011 and Head 1991).  There are also internal considerations such as the larger themes of Mark’s narrative: “son” is a very important title and noted at critical junctures in the narrative (twice by God in the baptism and transfiguration and at the cross), so the question is whether Mark wants to let readers in on the secret of Jesus’ identity right at the start or gradually reveal it.

The second issue is what influenced the use of the noun euangelion – was it adapted from the verb in Deutero-Isaiah (e.g. Isa 52:7) (e.g., Betz 1991) or influenced by the imperial cult (e.g. Stanton 2004)?  On the one hand, there is influence of Deutero-Isaiah on Mark as well as Paul (Rom 10:15), but there is a question of how the verb (בשר [bsr] or the LXX euangelizomailed to the noun in the singular as the neuter noun is found only once in the plural in 2 Samuel 4:10.  Alternatively, there is a good case for the impact of the imperial cult, especially the claims of Caesar Augustus (“the revered one”) as huios theou or divi filius (son of god) (cf. Kim 1998; Evans 2000).  Stanton (2004, 24-35) presents a plausible case that euangelion was adopted by Greek-speaking Jewish Christ followers in Antioch (or Jerusalem) sometime in 37-40 CE when the crisis over Caligula’s attempt to set up his statue in the Jerusalem Temple made imperial claims particularly felt in the region, but again the noun in the singular neuter is relatively rare as one has the more conventional plural euangelia (see the plural in the inscription above and further Steve Mason’s article for relevant texts).  So I want to turn the attention over to readers and ask whether you think the background is in Isaiah or in the imperial cult, or do we have to choose between the two as Mark may have seen the announcement of the victory of the god of Israel (in the context of Deutero-Isaiah a political announcement of the return from exile) as a direct challenge to imperial claims that the gods had chosen Rome to rule and usher in a lasting age of peace? 

  • Betz, Otto.  “Jesus Gospel of the Kingdom.”  Pages 53-74 in The Gospel and the Gospels.  Edited by Peter Stuhlmacher.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991.
  • Croy, N. Claton.  “Where the Gospel text begins: A non-theological interpretation of Mk 1:1.” Novum Testamentum 43 (2001) 106-12.
  • Elliot, J.K.  “Mark 1:1-3 - A Later Addition to the Gospel?”  New Testament Studies 46 (2000): 584-8.
  •  Evans, Craig. “Mark’s Incipit and the Priene Calendar Inscription: From Jewish Gospel to Greco-Roman Gospel.” Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 1 (2000): 67-81.
  • Gundry, Robert.  “Richard A. Horsley’s Hearing the Whole Story A Critical Review of its Postcolonial Slant.”  Journal for the Study of the New Testament 26 (2003)
  • Horsley, Richard.  Hearing the Whole Story:  The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
  • Head, Peter M.  “A Text-Critical Study of Mark 1.1: ‘The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ’,” New Testament Studies 37 (1991): 621-29.
  • Johnson, Earl S.  “Mark 15.39 and the So-Called Confession of the Roman Centurion.”  Biblica 81.3  (2000): 406-413.
  • Kim, Tae Hun.  “The Anarthrous Υιος Θεου in Mark 15,39 and the Roman Imperial Cult”. Biblica 79.2 (1998): 222-241.
  • Stanton, Graham.  Jesus and Gospel.  Cambridge University Press, 2004.
  • Wasserman, Tommy.  “The Son of God was in the Beginning (Mark 1:1).”  Journal of Theological Studies 62 (2011): 20-50 (his handout and audio presentation is here)
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3 Responses to The Priene Inscription and Mark 1:1

  1. [...] (11).  In this series I have looked at Roman imperial propaganda (seen for example in the post on the Priene inscription about Augustus; another article available online that quickly surveys the [...]

  2. […] Matthew Ryan Hauge and Craig Evan Anderson are continuing their journey through Mark with a second podcast called Mark-02: The Gospel of the Son of God.  In this podcast, they especially highlight the political ramifications of Mark’s opening verse.  Since they were kind enough to send a plug my way, I have done a survey of the term “gospel” (euaggelion) here and a post on Mark 1:1 here. […]

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