I have little to add to the objections by Rachel Held Evans and several others (see the list compiled by J.K. Gayle, James McGrath, Dunedin School) to a post, since taken down with an apology, that provides divine sanction for gender inequality and supported by a depiction of sex in terms and imagery that have been utilized in colonial discourse on the violent conquest of colonized peoples/lands as any basic introduction to post-colonial criticism would attest. I am more disappointed that many rebuttals (see here, here, here, here, here, here) have focussed on personally attacking Evans, even perpetuating the gender stereotype of the overly emotional or shrill woman, or dismiss her (and apparently many other male and female academic bloggers) as misreading the authorial intent. On the latter fallacy, if I mark a student paper I may be able to make an educated guess about the intentions of the author but I ultimately mark how an argument is communicated in the paper (e.g., word selection, sytax, outline of case, evidence cited) and the student may not be aware of all the corollaries or full implications of a given argument. With that said I recognize clarifications were issued about how the post was intended to be read and I always want to read charitably, but it still seems to me that at the very least the social logic of the quotation is that essentialized gender roles are prescribed and naturalized because it is seen as evident that in sexual intercourse men are the active partner who pentrates and women the passive recipient (note other bloggers have noted how different this argument would sound if the imagery was switched to the woman embracing, enveloping or consuming the man). It is striking to me that this is precisely the logic that legitimated social inequality in the Greco-Roman world – free men penetrate women, boys, lower-class persons or slaves and colonized persons but they found it shameful to take on the female role of being penetrated. As Daniel Kirk (previously Michael Bird, Joel Willits) pointed out, Jesus himself was a victim of this mentality as crucifixion was a way to “feminize” victims of Roman imperial domination. Yet in triumphing over the powers on the cross and being vindicated at Easter, as well as calling the disciples to a different way of servant leadership, Jesus exposes this domination system as wrong. Now in a past post I concede that Mark, like the whole Bible, is open to liberationist or oppressive readings, but should we not use the gospel to oppose social injustice rather than perpetuate it?
This last month I’ve explored some difficult Markan passages and some ways interpreters have dealt with them, but a major conundrum is how to read Mark’s christological presentation as a whole. Basically, Mark seems to divide into two halves with a heavy concentration on power in the first (healings, exorcisms, 2 sea & feeding miracles) and, after Peter’s great confession at Caesarea Philippi (8:27-30), an emphasis on servanthood and suffering (3 passion predictions, the rebuke of Peter as Satan for resisting the divine plan, the discipleship section with its call to self-denial and take up the cross, Passion narrative). Of course, such an outline is not entirely accurate as there are hints in the first half of a mission to die such as the bridegroom to be taken away (2:20) and power in the second half such as Jesus’ miraculous foreknowledge, the supernatural portents at the crucifixion or the resurrection. Yet there is a question whether undergirding the gospel is a theologia gloriae or a theologia crucis. Famous for forcefully arguing the latter, Theodore Weeden (Mark: Traditions in Conflict) put forward that charismatic pneumatics that were also opposed in Paul’s Corinthian correspondence and behind sources such as the Johannine “signs source” or stories of the wonder-working apostles (cf. Acts) infiltrated the evangelist’s community. They presented a “divine man” (theios aner) christology and themselves as heirs of the disciples and prophets who come in Christ’s name to lead believers astray with “signs and wonders” (13:5-6, 21-22). Thus Mark undermines the presentation of a Christology of Power in the first half by focussing exlusively on the journey to the cross in the second half, relentlessly polemicizes against the disciples and attempts to expose and refute traditions inherited in the Gospel with redactional omissions or insertions (e.g., the disciples are denied resurrection appearances at the end and one appearance is relocated to the transfiguraton). Some aspects of Weeden’s thesis have fallen on hard times such as the scholarly construct of the “divine man” from the disparate Greco-Roman sources (side note: I am not sure what is the latest reconstuction of the conflict of Paul with his opponents or “super-apostles” in Corinth if any Pauline bloggers want to help me out?) and Weeden’s own reconstruction of the theology of Mark’s opponents from what he discerns as “tradition” versus “redaction,” but it still is a popular position that Mark has a Pauline emphasis on “Christ crucified” and on power in weakness and polemicizes against other Jesus followers who deny such an emphasis (e.g., the Jerusalem Church which allegedly represented Jesus as authoritative Teacher or Davidic Messiah or apocalyptic Son of Man while neglecting the soteriological significance of the cross).
Alternatively, a few other scholars have argued that Mark presents an overwhelming Christology of power. Robert Gundry’s well-known commentary challenges the idea that Mark was written to a specific “Markan community” and instead argues that Mark was written to outsiders as an apologetic for why Jesus was shamefully crucified. Thus, Mark infuses both halves with a christology of power to show that Jesus is firmly in control of his fate and willingly surrenders his life (e.g., note that even on the cross Jesus does not die with a whimper but a great cry). Although he demurs from Gundry’s judgment that Mark was written for outsiders rather than fellow Jesus-followers (Gundry’s commentary often downplays the significance of Jesus’ instructions of discipleship for those within the community of followers), Adam Winn (The Purpose of Mark’s Gospel: An Early Christian Response to Roman Imperial Propaganda) largely follows Gundry on this point and argues that the presentation of the powerful Messiah is meant to rival the imperial propaganda about the emperor Vespasian in light of his triumph in the Jewish War and ascension to power after a tumultuous period in Rome (e.g., the 3 shortlived emperors after the suicide of Nero). Again, I am not quite sure some of the parallels with Vespasian are as strong as Winn supposes nor sure that Mark was composed in Rome, but I have no problem with the idea that Mark challenges the imperial cult with the “good news” (euangelion) of Jesus Christ. For my part, I wonder if both halves ought to be held in tension and one should not be overemphasized at the expense of the other. On the one hand, in response to real (or perceived) persecution at the hands of political and religious authorities Mark reminds readers about the heavy price of discipleship but also that Jesus is a model to follow as he had already walked the path of humility, extreme suffering and death on their behalf. This also seems to me to partly explain the theme of the messianic secret as Jesus’ messianic identity cannot be fully understood apart from Mark’s redefinition of the task revolving around the cross. On the other hand, it hardly seems to me that the evangelist would spend over half the gospel presenting a “Christology of Power” that (s)he rejected (and indeed there is power in the second half as well) and it would be more comforting to Mark’s readers, not that Jesus was weak, but that Jesus was indeed powerful and after willingly relinquishing his life he was vindicated by God at the empty tomb and will return as the powerful Son of Man to vindicate his suffering followers. Where do you think the weight of Mark’s christology lies – power or suffering?
Mark 7:24-30 may be one of the most troubling episodes in the NT. It begins in Tyre with Jesus in a “house” (Markan redactional setting?) in an attempt to stay out of the public eye, but as so often happens with Mark’s secrecy theme the word gets out. He is approached by a Greek woman, a Phoenician from Syria, who begs him to cast a demon from her daughter. Jesus replies that the children (i.e. Israel) should first be fed as it is not right to take their bread and toss it to the dogs (i.e. Gentiles), but in response to her witty retort that even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table Jesus grants her request. Matthew’s version (15:21-28) drops the private house setting but notable changes include the woman is a Canaanite (a traditional enemy of Israel), the cry to the “Lord, Son of David,” the silent treatment she receives followed by a remark that Jesus was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel and Jesus explicitly commends her faith in the end. The scene is part of the great Lukan omission of Mk 6:45-8:26 so perhaps it was not in Luke’s manuscript of Mark or accidently skipped over, but I suspect Luke deliberately omitted the whole block, finding a story like this offensive and wrong in pre-dating a Gentile mission before Acts 10. There are many approaches one could take to Mark’s pericope: a historical-critical (does the story reflect the attitude of the historical Jesus or some early Jewish Jesus-followers), form-critical (a miracle tale? A Pronouncment Story that is unusual in the gospels for Jesus appears to be the opponent and the Syrophoenician woman the victor), narrative-critical (how does this fit larger narrative themes in Mark such as that Jesus’ presence or identity is unable to remain a secret, “outsiders” consistently have more perception about Jesus then the supposed “insider” disciples, the gospel will eventually go out to the nations after the mission to Israel [Mk 13:10]), ideological-critical (issues of gender, ethnicity, boundary-crossing and hybridity). To do full justice to it requires more than just this post, but my focus here will just be on the theological question of how to deal with the offensiveness of the story.
Over at the Text this Week, there a a number of resources listed at both the popular and the scholarly level and from google search I found some other scholarly or popular treatments available online (Great Shelford, “The Syrophoenician Woman and her Dogs” ExpTim; David Rhoads article reprinted in Reading Mark: Engaging the Gospel; Markus Schäfler, The Syrophoenician Woman; Alan H. Cadwallader, “When a woman is a dog: Ancient and modern ethology meet the Syrophoenician women” The Bible and Critical Theory and see also here; Surekha Nelavala “Smart Syrophoenician woman: A Dalit Feminist Reading of Mark 7:24-31” ExpTim; Brian Incigneri Jesus and the Dog; Holly J. Carey “Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman: A Case Study in Inclusiveness” or Anna Butler “A Place at the Table” in Leaven 19; David D.M. King The Problem of the Syrophoenician Woman: A Reader Response Analysis of Mark 7:24-31). What brought this story again to my attention was at the recent conference on the Bible and Zionism at Sheffield (I discuss my paper here), one session featured the Palestinian Liberation theologian Naim Ateek leading a group discussion on the parallel passage in Matthew and I enjoyed getting to discuss it with professors from different disciplines, students and Jewish or Christian religious leaders who sat in on that particular session. Ateek rightly dismisses the reading revolving around the diminutive κυναρίοις as suggesting Jesus meant little puppies instead of scavenger dogs (yet the possibility that she had a different cultural attitude to dogs under the table came up in the discussion; cf. the article by Shelford above). Ateek wants to interpret Jesus’ treatment of the woman as really designed to bring to light and challenge the disciples own prejudices, though others were persuaded that the woman truly taught Jesus to move beyond his culturally inherited prejudices. The latter reading could work for systematic theologians who accept Jesus’ full humanity, but how do you deal with this difficult text?
I wanted to post this video made by a fellow student when I was an undergrad to promote the good work they and other organizations do. Since Mark begins at the baptism and there is no infancy narrative (unlike Matthew and Luke), there has not been much Christmas posts at the blog. But I think Mark would agree with the theological sentiment expressed in Mary’s Magnificat “And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty” (Luke 1:50-53).
Since Jesus is a cultural icon, it is not surprising when he gets co-opted to support our politics, whether the Jesus of free-market capitalism (HT Scott McKnight) or the Jesus of Occupy (HT Jim West). But my last series suggested that Jesus, at least as our first narrative gospel Mark represents him, was something of a radical (rejecting the values of the contemporary social order with a vision of a new one he called “the kingdom of God”, challenging the politically powerful, overturning the tables of the money changers in the Temple as a public protest against injustice, advocating the absolute renounciation of wealth, etc). Granting the huge historical distance between an agrarian context in Galilee under Roman imperial rule and some contemporary socio-economic arrangements as well as that some radical demands in the Gospels may seem contingent on the expectation of imminent eschatological reversal (e.g., there is no time to say goodbye to family, to bury ones father, to store treasures on earth, to not give the kingdom one’s absolute commitment above all else [kinship, occupation, possessions], etc.), what does a radical Jesus mean for those who claim to be his followers? This issue seems to be especially important at Christmas when many in the pews gather to ponder the Incarnation and what it means to incarnate Christ’s presence on earth today as Christians. I really have no answer to what exactly is entailed for a contemporary community of faith to concede a radical Jesus/early Jesus community (e.g., Should we all become liberation theologians? Or admit our hypocrisy here and accept a Lutheran reading that perfection is unattainable so we need to fall back on grace? Or whatever other theological solutions?), so please share your own views in the comments section.
”For him, and other liberation hermeneuts, the ‘problem is not the Bible itself, but the way it has been interpreted’ (Richard 1990: 66). Postcolonialism, on the other hand, sees the Bible as both problem and solution, and its message of liberation is seen as far more indeterminate and complicated”
-R. S. Sugirtharajah, Postcolonial Criticism and Biblical Interpretation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 117.
Sugirtharajah defines postcolonialism criticism: “First, to analyze the diverse strategies by which the colonizers constructed images of the colonized; and second, to study how the colonized themselves made use of and went beyond many of those strategies in order to articulate their identity, self-worth, and empowerment” (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 evidence is Justin Meggitt “Taking the Emperor’s Clothes Seriously: New Testament and the Roman Emperor“) and the way the Gospel of Mark resists it whether through direct opposition, subversion or mimicry and attempts to articulate the collective identity and destiny of the marginalized and persecuted Christ congregation. Note, however, that Sugirtharajah above and Moore in the last post highlight the ambivalence, internal contradictions and hybridity of this task in, for instance how imperialism is both resisted and reinscribed in Mark or how Mark borrows the terms and concepts to express their own collective identity from the colonizers’ own discourse, e.g. euangelion or ”gospel”). Thus, Mark is open to different interpretations, so to first look at ways Mark has been read as liberating:
- The first verse (1:1), the royal titles of Jesus and the coming kingdom of God in power all at least implicitly challenge the imperial cult of the emperor and that the gods chose Rome to rule and that true peace (the pax Romana) comes through Roman might. The crucifixion itself is transformed from the tragedy of yet another poor victim of Roman imperial domination to Jesus’ triumph over the powers themselves, which is confirmed by his vindication through the resurrection.
- In the ancient worldview ’as above, so below’ where divine beings represent peoples and empires (e.g. in Deut 32:8-9 where the Most High divides up the nations according to the number of the sons of god which the Septuagint alters to “angels of god”; the rebuke of the “gods” of the nations for not upholding justice in Ps 82, the angel Michael as the prince of Israel versus the princes of Persia and Greece in Daniel), the conflict of Jesus vrs Satan & wild beasts (cf. T. Benj. 5.2; also reflecting beast/empire symbolism in apocalyptic texts? Or Incigneri’s view of an allusion to the Roman colliseum?), the downfall of Satan’s kingdom in the binding of the strong man & plundering his goods or driving out Legion out of the Land and into the Sea all seem to me to have political implications.
- Jesus critiques the collaborating local elites - he overturns the tables of the money changers and calls the Temple a den of robbers due to the leadership’s economic exploitation and predicts its destruction (cf. sandwich of Temple “cleansing” with cursing of the fig tree, the temple torn apart stone by stone, the poor widow who gives her last two coins to the Temple treasury, etc). Mark sets the stage for the basic political conflict with religious & political authorities, represented by Pharisees (representing interests of scribal party from Jerusalem) and Herodians, alligned against Jesus (however anachronistic such an alliance may seem or to have a death plot against Jesus as early as chapter 3!). However, note in the last post how Moore notices that judgment seems focussed on the local elites rather than the Romans themselves (perhaps Mark’s community were more immediately affected by them or felt their collaboration was even more offensive?).
- Mark’s egalitarian social ethics challenge the whole system of patronage. True disciples are not to lord it over others “like Gentiles” but are to serve as the Son of Man came to serve, to not violently resist but take up a cross, to follow the model of a servant or a little child, to not set up exclusive social boundaries (e.g. story of how the disciples attempt to silence an alien exorcist), to renounce wealth and give to the poor, or to not seek rewards (Jesus rejects the request of James & John to sit at his right & left when he is enthroned, indeed the only ones on Jesus’ right & left in Mark’s Gospel are those crucified with him, and 10:30 the community is mainly the reward with eternal life tacked on at the end). Mark also overturns many conventional standards – the last will be first, women are exemplars of faith (the bleeding woman who reaches out in faith to touch Jesus’ garment, the Syro-Phoenician woman who ingeniously responds to Jesus, the woman who remain at the cross and commissioned to proclaim the risen Jesus) and other outsiders possess more insight than alleged insiders like the Twelve (the paralytic and friends, the Syro-Phoenician, the father of the epileptic child, blind Bartimaeus, etc.).
- Jesus is presented as a liberating prophet like Moses and Elijah, especially with the sea and feeding miracles. This is similar to other sign prophets mentioned by Josephus such as Theudas who expected the Jordan River to part (Ant. 20.97-99) or the Egyptian who led people out to the desert (War 2261-63), both expecting divine liberation from Roman rule.
- Parts of Mark usually pointed to as pro-Roman – the centurion’s confession, the portrayal of Pilate, the saying on taxes – may be more ambiguous than thought.
However, others argue that Mark does not reject imperialism altogether, because he proclaims the imperial rule of Jesus:
- Jesus replaces the emperor – the “gospel” is now the proclamation of him and his kingdom (1:1; 1:15), the voice “you are my son” at the baptism (and transfiguration) echoes a royal Psalm (Ps 2) where the Lord’s annointed king is given authority over the nations, the Son of Man imagery evokes Daniel 7 with Israel as a more humane kingdom triumphing over the beastly empires (note Rome also saw its task as spreading humanitas or civilization to its subject peoples), Jesus is proclaimed the son of David by Bartimaeus and the crowd anticipates the kingdom of David (I don’t think Mark 12:35-37 is so much a rejection of Davidic Christology as much as a redefinition of it in light of Jesus resurrection and enthronement as Lord in heaven), he is set apart as the last heir or the beloved son who inherits the vineyard, etc. Also, some scholars argue that the Sea miracle is like a divine theophany where Yahweh walks on the waters and defeats the Sea monster (though see Daniel Kirk’s interpretation where God extends this authority to the Davidic king in Psalm 89), but in any case in the ANE this may be seen as an imperial myth where the divine king conquers the powers of chaos and creates ordered space. This might be even stronger were one to accept Adam Winn’s argument that Mark’s christology directly mimics propaganda about Vespasian.
- Using colonial mimicry, Mark internalized the imperialist ideology of the colonizers by (1) attributring absolute authority to Jesus, (2) preserving the same insider/outsider binarism, and (3) its understanding of the nature of “legitimate” authority (Lieu 1999: 13). Thus, Leiu argues that Jesus is the absolutely authoritative expositor on scripture, has his authority confirmed by the crowds (he teaches as one with authority unlike the scribes in 1:21) or his opponents (always silenced in debate) or great figures of tradition (Moses/Elijah) or God himself, is allowed to author his own assumptions that others may not be able to accept (e.g. pronouncement stories or allegorical parables that only make sense to insiders who share Mark’s theology), is not bound by the same rules as the disciples (he is annointed even when it is complained that the money could have been given to the poor, can disregard his mother/brothers or can determine insiders from outsiders such as who is near the kingdom or who is a false prophet and who represents Satan’s viewpoint) and is presented with overwhelming power. While the disciples are all to be equals, there is a hierarchy of God as Father and Jesus as Lord with the disciples playing the role of loyal sattlelites, janitors or gophers and calling them children may be seen as a form of infantilization.
- Mark may not always transcend some familiar prejudices in the ancient world - for example in the dismissal of the Syro-Phoenician woman as a dog compared to the children (Israel) or in the representations of gender in the story of Herodias and her daughter.
- Lieu ultimately sees the parousia (coming) of Jesus in power as a non-choice, ”serve or be destroyed” as some people are too wicked or barbaric to live (and noting the saying that “with the measure you use, it will be measured against you, with added proportion” as signalling a greater punishment) (1999: 23). Indeed, Burton Mack is content to blame the Markan legacy and its myth of innocence (Jesus and his followers are the righteous, the Other deserves to be apocalyptically destroyed) for the entire history of the imperialism of Christendom, European colonialism and down to America’s own myth of innocence and manifest destiny to civilize the world as the sole superpower (369-374). Mack insists we must give up our “messiahs” in a multicultural world and that ”the church canonized a remarkably pitiful moment of early Christian condemnation of the world… a future for the world can hardly be imagined, if its redemption rests in the hands of Mark’s innocent son of God” (376). However, note Moore’s argument in the last post that the parousia in 13:24-27 focusses more on gathering the elect than punitive action (contrast Revelation) and Jesus directs threats of eternal judgment only to his own disciples!
So I want to end with a theological question for those who affirm Mark as canonical scripture (or interested observers), part of which is tied in with the larger debate about how to reconcile the different images of God (e.g. justice or violent wrath) in the canon. If Mark not only advocates non-violent resistance against one kind of imperialism but also borrows imperial and violent language/imagery for Jesus, what do we do with that theologically? Is such language different in the case of Jesus (e.g., unlike any other human pretender for Christians Jesus really is the world’s rightful Lord) or do we see some of this as part of Mark’s cultural baggage in his colonial context and then pick & choose between what images we see as more liberating for today? Should we continue to use the language of a “kingdom” or “empire” and should Christians seek other non-imperial ways to speak theologically about the vision for peace and justice in the world? For those who read Mark as liberating or oppressive, see:
- Horsley, Richard. Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
- Liew, Tat-siong Benny. “Tyranny, Boundary and Might: Colonial Mimicry in Mark’s Gospel.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 73 (1999): 7-31.
- Meyers, Ched. Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. New York: Orbis Books, 1988.
- Mack, Burton. A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988.
- Moore, Stephen. Empire and Apocalypse: Postcolonialism and the New Testament. Sheffield: Phoenix, 2006.
- Sugirtharajah, R.S. Postcolonial Criticism and Biblical Interpretation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
- Winn, Adam. The Purpose of Mark’s Gospel: An Early Christian Response to Roman Imperialism. Tubingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 2008.
of his colonizers.
I have written on Mark’s attack on the powers that be, avoiding the post-Enlightenment confinement of ”religion” to the private sphere when it was embedded in ethnic/cultural identities and politics in antiquity and remembering that “apocalyptic” was a protest against the socio-political system from which one felt marginalized and saw the only solution in divine intervention to bring about a new social order (the kingdom of god, and not any generic “god” but the “god of Israel“). However, what of counter-texts – why does judgments focus more on the Temple and Jewish leadership rather than on Roman officials, what about the saying on taxes, does the passion white-wash Pilate (a trajectory continuing in other Gospels and culminates in the ugly charge of Deicide in Melito’s Peri Pascha)? Thus, I thank Eric (here, here) for calling my attention to Stephen Moore, Empire and Apocalypse: Postcolonialism and the New Testament (Sheffield: Phoenix, 2006). Especially valuable in his intro is highlighting the difference between ”post-colonial” vrs “postcolonial” (the latter doesn’t asume a clean chronological or ideological break from the colonial past and complex relations of domination/submission even after official European decolonization) and how postcolonial criticism outside the discipline of biblical studies is often akin to poststructuralist or deconstructive readings (e.g., Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Homi Bhabha) that highlight how texts produced under and negotiating with a colonizing culture reflect internal tensions, ambivalences, contradictions that may not be consciously recognized by an author. Recognizing ambiguity in literature of the colonized, Moore carves a path between Horsley’s liberating reading and Tat-siong Benny Liew’s counter that Mark uses colonial mimicry to replicate imperial ideology, and compares the many works of biblical scholars on Empire and those fluent on the theoretical side.
In his chapter on Legion (pp. 24-44), he notes numerous scholars who concede Roman occupation as background (25, n. 2), writing, ”With the emergence of a newly sharpened focus on ‘empire’ within New Testament studies, moreover, a focus enabled, on occassion at least, by the conceptual tools and critical vocabulary of extra-biblical postcolonial studies… we do have, pace Gundry, compelling reasons for hearing in Mk 5.9 a dual reference to demonic possession and colonial occupation” (25-26). He finds license for allegory in Mark’s parable theory (cf. 4:13-20) and contemporary postcolonial literatures where individual colonial subjects stand for the histories & destinies of colonized peoples (27). Applying an allegorical lens, he notes the root of Gerasa as grs means to ‘banish’ or ’drive out’ or ‘cast out’, the man speaks “in” (en) an unclean spirit which signifies his submergence in the possessing power and self-alienization as he internalizes the discourse of the colonizer, his self-injury reflects how armed resistance only leads to self-destruction, and echoes of the Exodus (28-29). This applies to other exorcisms (e.g. 3:22-30 plundering the ‘strong man’ as the downfall of Satan’s empire) (27). The collaborating local elites are exorcised in the “temple cleansing” and judgment comes on Temple (cf. cursing fig tree) and Israel’s tenants (29-30). However, while Jesus’ parousia (coming) spells an end for any other basileia (kingdom), he argues Mark’s representation of empire can’t be read straightforwardly anti-imperial without room for complexities, ambivalence and incoherence (cf. Bhabha on inherent instabilities of discourse & representation) (31). Is Pilate a benign but importent official or a consummate manipulator who shifts blame onto the crowd; does the centurion truly see Jesus’ divine sonship or is this a sarcastic “confession” alongside other insults; does “Give to Caesar” support the imperial right to collect tax or a coded message to those who share Israel’s covenant theology that everything belongs to God and nothing to Caesar (cf. Horsley)? (32-33). The parousia seems more to gather the elect (13:27) than a punitive strike on Romans or even the Judaean leadership (his interpretation is thus milder than Lieu, contrast Revelation’s vivid description of the destruction of “Bablyon”) as only the disciples hear threats of divine judgment [8:38; 9:42-49]) and invective seems reserved for local elites who mediate on behalf of Rome (Rome’s divide-and-rule strategy) and in 13:1-2 Rome acts as the instrument of judgment (cf. Jos, War 5.395) (35). Yet Mark is not politically quietist (26, n. 25 notes Mark’s aphorism on taxes is more open to different readings than Rom 13:1-7 or 1 Pet 2:13-17) – Mark does not enjoin respect for authorities (political or religious) as they are persecutors, advised his followers to not aspire to power/wealth but follow the model of a child/servant or relentlessly undermines the authority of the Twelve (36-37). Jesus himself is the only true authority but Mark does not simply replicate imperial structures. Rather, using Spivak’s concept of catachresis (denotes ‘misuse’ or ‘misapplication’) which is the way the colonized strategically appropriate and redeploy specific elements of colonial or imperial culture/ideology (37), Mark’s kingdom is presently concealed and of lowly origin (made up of servants, children, the deformed who cut off a hand or gouge out an eye, not the wealthy or powerful like “the Gentiles”) and even in its future appearance in power Jesus is evasive about what it will look like (he avoids reward theology inherent in the request to seat at his right and left, the community itself is the reward in 10:29-30 with the “age to come” as an afterthought) (38-40). Thus, Mark turns Greco-Roman values upside-down, yet the question must still be asked whether Mark’s radical ethics is negated by his apocalypticism (Jesus return in power and glory). In the end he concludes that Mark cannot quite let go of the dream for empire (albeit an eschatological one), but this vision is deconstructed by the bracketing of the parousia (ch. 13) with the story of two women who give extravagently (the women who donates her last two coins to the Temple and the woman who annoints Jesus) and, relying on Derrida’s concept of the Gift that cannot be reciprocated, argues that this undercuts the model of economic exchange (e.g., patronage and clients) that enables empires to function (43-44). I think I need to be a little more conversant in Theory to respond to some points more adequately (e.g., Spivak, Derrida) and I do have some critical questions (if Mark is pre-70 might it be the eschatological judgment on the Temple rather than Rome as God’s agent, I grant Mark is much more reticent that Revelation to explicitly speak of judgement on the Romans but does the drowning of the swine hint that the possessing power will meet the same fate as the priestly leadership and Temple, is the widow who gives her coins really an exemplary figure or just a lament of the temple’s robbery and reason for its divine judgment [Moore seems to resist this reading because Rome's response to the Jewish War caused great suffering and starvation for many a poor widow in Israel, but again what if the instrument of judgment was meant to not be Rome but God or the Son of Man at the eschaton?]) but all in all I found pretty convincing on the ambivalence of Mark as he both resists and re-inscribes imperialism.
Here is a good summary of the crucifixion narrative as parodying the imperial triumph (and of course scholars such as Brian Incigneri, Ivan Head and Adam Winn would put this in the context of Vespasian’s triumphal return to Rome to be acclaimed as emperor if you accept their arguments for a post-70 CE date):
The Praetorians gather early in the morning to proclaim the triumphator. He is dressed in the triumphal garb, and a crown of laurel is placed on his head. The soldiers then shout in acclamation of his Lordship and perform acts of homage to him. They accompany him from the camp through the streets of the city. The sacrificial victim is there in the procession, and alongside walks the official carrying the implement of his coming death. The procession ascends finally to the Place of the (Death’s) Head, where the sacrifice is to take place. The triumphator is offered the ceremonial wine. He does not drink it, but it is poured out on the altar at the moment of sacrifice. Then, at the moment of being lifted up before the people, at the moment of the sacrifice, again the triumphator is acclaimed as Lord, and his vice-regents appear with him in confirmation of his glory. Following the lead of the soldiers, the people together with their leaders and the vice-regents themselves join in the acclamation. The epiphany is confirmed in portents by the gods: ‘Truly this man is the Son of God!’
- T.E. Schmidt, “Mark 15:16-32: The Crucifixion Narrative and the Roman Triumphal Procession” NTS 41 (1995): 1-18, 16. I learned of this article through reading Michael Bird, “Mark: Interpreter of Peter and Disciple of Paul” in Paul and the Gospels (ed. Michael F. Bird and Joel Willitts; London & New York: T&T Clark International, 2011), 41-42.
To start off, here is one attempt to offer an economic scale for the Greco-Roman world (though this is by nature highly generalized and the data may be open to different interpretations and scholarly estimates):
|ES1||Imperial elites||imperial dynasty, Roman senatorial families, a few retainers, local royalty, a few freedpersons||3|
|ES2||Regional or provincial elites||equestrian families, provincial officials, some retainers, some decurial families, some freedpersons, some retired military officers|
|ES3||Municipal elites||most decurial families, wealthy men and women who do not hold office, some freedpersons, some retainers, some veterans, some merchants|
|ES4||Moderate surplus||some merchants, some traders, some freedpersons, some artisans (especially those who employ others), and military veterans||15|
|ES5||Stable near subsistence level (with reasonable hope of remaining above the minimum level to sustain life)||many merchants and traders, regular wage earners, artisans, large shop owners, freedpersons, some farm families||27|
|ES6||subsistence level (and often below minimum level to sustain life)||small farm families, laborers (skilled and unskilled), artisans (esp. those employed by others), wage earners, most merchants and traders, small shop/tavern owners||30|
|ES7||Below sustenance level||some farm families, unattached widows, orphans, beggars, disabled, unskilled day laborers, prisoners||25|
Chart taken from http://www.thepaulpage.com/remember-the-poor-paul-poverty-and-the-greco-roman-world/, a review of Bruce Longnecker’s Remember the Poor (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010) (itself in interaction with Steven Friessen’s article in JSNT 26 )
Of course, unlike Paul’s urban mission, a complicating factor is the difficulty of determining Mark’s provenance (i.e. Rome or one of the villages of Galilee or Syria-Palestine). Assuming at least some continuity of the social programme of Jesus and Mark, we must remember that in Jesus’ historical context two cities were built under Herod Antipas in Galilee (Sepphoris, Tiberius) and the increase of commerce & trade may have led to increased peasant labour, debt through heavy taxation and land alienation (landless peasants left with only a hope of becoming day labourers or tenant farmer for a wealthy landlord) and caused the desperate to resort to beggary and banditry (Meyers 1988: 44-52; Horsley 2001: 33-36; Crossley 2005: 400; 2006: chapter 2). Even if others have argued that Horsley exaggerates the plight of Galilean peasants and that building projects of Herod the Great or Herod Antipas created employment (e.g., Sanders 1993: 445-47), the perception that changes made things more difficult and disrupted traditional patterns of life must be factored in. Many parables reflect economic realities (day labourers, tenant farmers, absentee landlords, household masters & servants, debt, etc) and the message of the coming of God’s kingdom to overturn the old order (i.e. the first will be last and the last first) could be very attractive in this context.
A concern about wealth occurs across the Synoptic tradition, most famously in the saying that one can’t serve both God and Mammon (Matt 6:24). But lets focus specifically on Mark. One objection to the Markan Jesus is his association with “tax collectors and sinners [ἁμαρτωλοί]” (2:15-16). Objecting to the view that the “sinners” are simply the ‘amme ha-erets (peoples of the land) who did not meet the purity standards of the Pharisees for table fellowship, Sanders argues that the term refers to the notorious wicked who disobeyed Torah (see here for excerpts available online from Jesus and Judaism). Even more specifically, through a diachronic word study of the term “sinners” Crossley argues that they are to be identified as the oppressive rich (e.g. “if one is excessively rich, he sins” Ps. Sol 5:16) and note the link with ”tax-collectors” (2006: ch. 3 Jesus and the Sinners). Whatever one makes of Sanders controversial argument that the historical Jesus associated with sinners without calling for their repentance (see for instance Chilton’s critique here), in Mark it is clear that Jesus advocates repentance (Mk 1:15) and sees his reaching out to sinners as a physician reaching out to the sick (2:17). The most explicit criticism of wealth in Mark is in the story of a young man (later informed he had great possessions in 10:22) who inquires about how to be saved (10:17-31). First, Jesus repeats the commandments (*note: how does this square with the ”Mark is Pauline” camp as it assumes the normative authority of Torah?) but adds “do not defraud” which is not in the Decalogue (ἀποστερέω calls to mind LXX Deut 24:14-15; Mal 3:5; Sir 4:1; cf. Crossley cites other Aramaic evidence from the Targums) and implies that wealth is acquired by taking advantage of the poor (e.g. the perception of limited good, charging big interest on loans, defrauding workers of wages, etc) (cf. Horsley 2002: 191; Crossley 2005). Even though the man affirms he has obeyed these commands, whether rightly or wrongly, Jesus still insists that he sell all his possessions and follow him, a radical demand that he declines which leads to the saying that it is more difficult for the rich to enter than kingdom than a camel through the eye of a needle (a literal needle and camel, not some alleged “needle gate” in Jerusalem!). Naturally, there is a desire to soften the radical edge of Jesus’ words, and perhaps one out may be the (redactional?) addition of Mark 10:27 that what is impossible with humans is possible for God, but at very least the Markan Jesus sees the desire for wealth as a serious obstacle to embracing Jesus’ upside-down kingdom.
I think that an economic critique is also the best way to understand the action of overturning the tables of the money changers and calls the Temple a bandit’s den (11:15-17). I eventually will write posts in more detail on the criteria of authenticity for this incident in the lifetime of the historical Jesus or the diverse explanations offered for this scene within Mark’s literary context in the commentaries (e.g. resentment at the innovation of introducing animals & traders into the temple precints which ought to be sacred grounds, a rejection of the sacrificial system with replacement theology [Jesus pronounces clean, offers forgiveness, the eucharist replaces the cult, etc], protesting the temple as exclusionary of Gentiles [the Court of the Gentiles, "a house of prayer for all nations"], a protest of the temple as the seat of revolutionary violence [λῃστής for bandits or zealots in Josephus], forshadowing the Temple’s destruction]). E.P. Sanders deconstructs many of these explanations at least for understanding Jesus in his Jewish context, noting that the cult was commanded in Torah and it was actually a convenience to sell unblemished animals (imagine the costs of bringing animals from long distances for worshippers throughout the diaspora, let alone the potential that these animals be ruled unacceptable for sacrifice if they were not unblemished, and the buying/selling of animals and exchange of coinage was necessary for sacrifice to continue) (1985: 61-69). Sanders judges that Jesus intended it as a symbolic act of the eschatological destruction & restoration of the Temple, which Mark misunderstood by supplying the quotation at 11:17, and concludes, “He [Jesus] did not wish to purify the temple, either of dishonest trading or of trading in contrast to ‘pure’ worship. Nor was he opposed to the temple sacrifices which God commanded Israel. He intended, rather, to indicate that the end was at hand and the temple would be destroyed, so that the new and perfect temple might arise” (1985: 75). However, Craig Evans (1989) provides a plausible context for Jesus (like Jeremiah before him) to condemn the immense wealth of the Temple and the economic exploitation sanctioned by the priesthood (e.g., m. Ker. 1:7 complains of the excessive cost of sacrificial doves, which was the poor offering). Note also the later critique of scribes who devour widows house’s (12:40), followed by the story of a poor widow who has her last two coins taken away from her (12:41-44) and then the prophesied destruction of the temple stone by stone (13:1-2) (cf. Horsley 2002: 216-17). Again, this fits into the larger story of Mark where Jesus stands in opposition to the powerful Judaean elites backed by Roman imperial authority and promises a dramatic reversal in the imminent future for the losers of society.
- Crossley, James. “The Damned Rich (Mark 10:17-31).” Expository Times 2005 (116): 397-401.
- Crossley, James. Why Christianity Happened: A Sociohistorical Account of Christian Origins (26-50 CE). Louisville and London: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006.
- Evans, Craig., “Jesus’ Action in the Temple: Cleansing or Portent of Destruction?” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 51 (1989): 237-70.
- Horsley, Richard. Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
- Sanders, E.P. Jesus and Judaism. London: SCM; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985.
- Sanders, E.P. “Jesus in Historical Context.” Theology Today 50 (1993): 429-48
The following reflects the views of guest poster Michael Sandford, a 3rd year PhD student researching the historical Jesus at the University of Sheffield. For other posts he has written at the Sheffield Biblical Studies Blog, see here and here and the abstract for his BNTC presentation here.
Mike’s two entries below raise for me the issue of how Mark chose to represent the historical Jesus’ relationship with the Roman Empire. I would suggest that Mark was heavily influenced by Jewish nationalism, and that this leads to his presentation of Jesus as what some people describe as ‘anti-imperialist’. I think there is little evidence, however, that Jesus saw himself this way.
It is certainly possible that Mark may have intended the Legion episode to be suggestive of the destruction of the Roman dominion that many Jewish people were hoping for and to deny at least the possibility that Mark was expressing some negative feeling towards Rome requires one to put out of their head the hugely significant fact that, probably less than a decade after Mark wrote this, the Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem in the Jewish revolt. Also, as John Dominic Crossan has argued, there is much evidence that the ‘Son of God’ title was frequently used in relation to Caesar, and so for this title to be given to Jesus was likely to cause a stir. He argues that giving such a title to a Jewish peasant ‘was a case of either low lampoon or high treason’. Surely at least some of Mark’s audience would have made a connection here. In a time of escalating Jewish nationalism and increased hostility towards Rome – just a few years before the largest revolt that the Roman Empire ever saw – Mark’s comments were suggestive to say the least. Mark was not afraid to throw some fairly unambiguous jibes at Rome.
Jesus, on the other hand, seems rather more careful about what he will say on the subject; Jesus could have refused to pay taxes to Rome, like the Fourth Philosophy (Josephus, Ant 28.1), but he explicitly tolerated it (Mk 12:17). Jesus was not an insurrectionist. Maybe he would have been a bit more popular in his lifetime like, say, Mark’s ‘Barabbas’ was supposed to be, if he was a little more anti-Rome? But far from it, he was understood to have said that he, himself, would destroy the temple (Mk 14:58), because, according to Mark, he did indeed say something or other about it being thrown down (Mk 13:2). While Jesus speaks of the ‘Kingdom of God’, which could perhaps also seem quite provocative in the context of Jewish nationalism, this Kingdom for Jesus was associated with sinlessness (9:47), childlikeness (10:14-15), and renunciation of wealth (10:23-34), and was described in mysterious parables (4:11-32); it did not seem to have anything to do with Jewish political autonomy.
Doron Mendels argues that the historical Jesus cannot be understood unless he is seen in the context of Jewish nationalism. To me it seems that Mark’s memory of Jesus may have been influenced by this nationalism. Besides the ‘Legion’ episode and ‘Son of God’ title, Mark (along with the other evangelists) notes that the Roman sign above his head proclaimed him to be the ‘King of the Jews’ (Mk 15:26). With these things in mind, I would argue that Mark was happy to present Jesus as something of a national hero. All of the gospels suggest that Jesus was martyred by the imperial forces, and I think that Mark’s way of dealing with this fact is telling. Mark tries to explain this traumatic event by appealing to the Hebrew Scriptures, Psalm 22 in particular. I think that R.S. Sugirtharajah’s concept of heritagist readings might help us to understand what Mark was doing:
This mode of interpretation [heritagist reading] is an attempt by the colonized to find conceptual analogies in their high culture and textual traditions and philosophies, and also in their oral and visual art forms. It is an attempt to retrieve cultural memory from the amnesia caused by colonialism. This retrieval takes place sometimes in the form of reinterpretation of stories, myths, and legends as a remembered history of a region, class, caste, gender, or race, sometimes as intertextual interpolation of quotations, allusions, and references.
For Mark, describing Jesus’ execution as an almost exact representation of Psalm 22 dignifies and helps to explain Jesus’ execution in a way that turns it from a story of imperial domination into something much more hopeful. But Mark, and later Matthew, Luke and John go much further than this in trying to make something of the Jesus tragedy. The resurrection that they report suggests that the crucifixion, symbolic of Roman domination, apparently did not really defeat Jesus. For Mark and the other evangelists, even if the Romans did destroy the temple, there is some hope to be found because the Messiah miraculously undermined their attempts to kill him. It is easy to see, therefore, how Jesus might be interpreted as an anti-imperial prophet. In Mark’s story, I would argue that he did function in this way. But did Jesus see himself like this? There seems to be evidence to the contrary, but not much evidence in favour of such an argument.
- John Dominic Crossan, ‘Roman Imperial Theology’ in In the Shadow of Empire: Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance (ed. Richard A. Horsley; Edinburgh: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), p.59-73
- Doron Mendels, The Rise and Fall of Jewish Nationalism: Jewish and Christian Ethnicity in Ancient Palestine (Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans, 1997), p.ix
- R.S. Sugirtharajah, Postcolonial Criticism and Biblical Interpretation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p.55