Negotiating Imperial Ideology in the Gospel of Mark

 “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 University Press, 2002),  117.

Sugirtharajah defines postcolonial 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).  New Testament and early Christian writings were written under the shadow of empire.  Imperial propaganda proclaimed that the Romans had a divine mandate to spread the rule of law and civilization, humanitas, to the rest of humankind (e.g., Pliny, Natural History 3.39; Virgil, Aeneid 6.851-3). Meanwhile, one scholar has attempted to chart where most subjects on the Empire stood on the economical scale:

Scale Description Includes %
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

Taken from, a review of Bruce Longnecker, Remember the Poor (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).

The situation in Galilee in Jesus’ day is that Herod Antipas rebuilt the city of Sepphoris and his administrative capital Tiberius in 17 CE upon a graveyard, so devout Jews would not want to relocate there, and hatred of rural Galileans for these urban centers that were parasitic on villages and had pro-Roman factions ran deep (Josephus, Life 30, 39, 98-100, 373-89).  The increase of trade and commerce may have led to increased peasant labor, debt through taxation, and land alienation with the only hope of becoming day laborers or tenant farmers for a wealthy landlord and caused the needy to resort to beggary and banditry (Meyers 1988: 44-52; Horsley 2001: 33-6; Crossley 2005: 400; 2006: ch. 2).  Even if the plight of peasants was not so extreme and the building projects created employment (Sanders 1993: 445-7), perceptions that change disrupted traditional patterns of life is enough.  By the time of the composition of Mark, tensions spilled into open revolt (66-74 CE).  The kingdom and royal language applied to Jesus, the fulfillment of Israel’s history and destiny as an alternate narrative to the pax Romana, the condemnation of unjust wealth acquisition and call to rich sinners and tax collectors to repent (2:13-17; 10:17-31; cf. Ps. Sol. 5:16) (Crossley 2005; 2006: ch. 3), the protest against financial exploitation in the temple (11:15-17; cf. m. Ker. 1:7) (Evans 1989), the expectation of eschatological reversal (8:34-38; 9:35-37; 10:31, 42-45), and the hope for the Son of Man to gather the elect from all nations (13:10, 27) resist imperial Rome’s hegemonic claims.  Yet Sugirtharajah and Stephen Moore, influenced by Homi Bhabha on colonial mimicry and the instability of representation, stress the ambivalence, contradictions, and hybridity of Mark’s task in resisting and re-inscribing imperial ideology, expressing a collective identity with terms or concepts borrowed from the colonizer’s discourse (euangelion, “good news”).  Moore points out Mark’s representation of empire is not straightforward anti-imperial without complexity, ambivalence, and incoherence: is Pilate a benign impotent official or manipulator who shifts blame on the crowd, does the centurion recognize Jesus’ divine sonship or is this a sarcastic jibe, does Mark accept Caesar’s right to collect tribute or give a coded message that nothing belongs to Caesar because everything is God’s [cf. Horsley 2001: 43] (2006: 31-33)?  Tat-siong Benny Liew (1999: 13) argues that Mark internalized imperialist ideology by 1. attributing absolute authority to Jesus, 2. preserving the insider/outsider binarism, and 3. explicating the nature of legitimate authority.

For example, Mark 1:1 may be influenced by the verb euangelizomai in LXX Deutero-Isaiah (40:9; 41:27; 61:1; cf. Mk 1:2-3), in a political announcement of liberation from exile in Babylon, or the Priene Calendar Inscription (ca. 9 BCE).  It reads:  “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” (translated by Craig Evans).  Tae Hun Kim (1998) shows that huios theou or divi filius (son of god) was a title for Octavian as the adopted great-nephew of the deified Julius Caesar.  Jesus is called God’s son at the baptism (Mark 1:11), alluding to a royal coronation Psalm (Ps 2:9), and a recent article by Daniel Kirk and Stephen Young (2014) how Yahweh extends his authority to trample the sea (Job 9:8; Ps 89:9) to the Davidic king (Psalm 89:25).  This may be why Horsley, who insists that Mark’s Jesus follows a liberating prophet (Moses, Elijah) rather than messianic script, argues 1:1 is a scribal addition and denies that Mark was influenced by the imperial myth of the divine king conquering the waters of chaos (2006: 105, 250).  While Mark redefines the nature of Jesus’ Davidic sonship to his enthronement as Lord in heaven (12:35-7; cf. 10:47-8), his return as Son of Man (13:26-7) signals the end of rival kingdoms (Moore 2006: 31).  Lieu sees the parousia (coming) of Jesus in power as a non-choice, “serve or be destroyed,” (1999: 23), but Moore notes that the emphasis is more on gathering the elect (13:27) than a punitive strike on Romans or even the Judean leadership (only the disciples hear threats of divine judgment in 8:38; 9:42-49 and Mark’s invective is largely reserved for local elites who mediate on Rome’s behalf) (35).  Jesus rules the “empire of God” (basileia tou theou), which might be strengthened in Brian Incigneri (2003) and Adam Winn (2008) are right on the parallels with Vespasian, but this depends on accepting a post-70 CE date for Mark.

The Gerasene demoniac (5:1-20) is a Jewish story about unclean places (tombs) and animals (pigs) where Jesus confronts a non-Jewish demoniac who addresses him as “Son of the Most High God” (cf. Gen 14:18-20; Num 24:16; Deut 32:8; Ps 82:6; Isa 14:14; Dan 3:26; 4:32, 34).  Many scholars read a political edge to it ( Myers 1988: 191-97; Horsley 2001: 141-47; Moore 2006: 25, n. 2; Cohen 2010: 159).  “Legion” calls to mind a military unit (up to 6000 soldiers) and the “herd” (ἀγέλη) of 2000 pigs “charge” into the sea like the Egyptians in the exodus.  They build on Frantz Fanon that the colonized displace their anger from political forces that invade and oppress them to malevolent spirits and so the demoniac’s public symbolic acts reflect collective anxiety over Roman imperialism.  Finally, while the location has caused all sorts of text critical issues since Gerasa is 34 miles (55 km) from the Sea, unless Mark intends a more suitable location for the region of the Gerasenes, Myers (1988: 191) argues for an allusion to Vespasian’s reconquest of northern Palestine by sending Lucius Annius to Gerasa with a calvary and a number of foot soldiers (Josephus, J.W. 4.9.1).  Brian Incigneri finds the allusion to the Tenth Legion, whose symbol was the boar’s head, that besieged Jerusalem (J.W. 5.71-97) and attacked the fortresses of Machaerus and Masada over cliffs by the Dead Sea in 71 CE.  Simon ben Gioras also came from Gerasa (J.W. 4.503) and may have been executed in the Roman Triumph (2003: 191-4).  Alternatively, Moore sees political imagery in the root of Gerasa as grs as meaning to ‘banish’ or ‘drive out’ or ‘cast out’, the man speaking “in” (en) an unclean spirit in his submergence in the possessing power and his self-alienization as he internalizes the discourse of the colonizer, his self-injury as reflecting how armed resistance only leads to destruction, and the echoes of the exodus (2006: 28-9).  Not all embrace the political reading; Gundry (2003: 137) states that “legion” just means numerous (“for we are many” in v. 9)  and Boring (2006: 151) cites a parallel from Horace on a “cohort of fever demons” (Odes 1.3.30).  But in an ancient worldview, political conflicts are mirrored in the heavens, such as in Daniel 10 where Israel’s angelic prince Michael battles the princes of Persia or Greece.  Walter Wink writes, “The spirit [Satan] they perceived existed right at the heart of the empire, but their worldview equipped them to discern that spirit only by intuiting it and then projecting it out, in visionary form, as a spiritual being residing in heaven and representing Rome in the heavenly council (1992, 7).  Thus, I agree with Moore that “With the emergence of a newly sharpened focus on ’empire’ within New Testament studies, moreover, a focus enabled,  on occasion 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” (25-6).

For the Sources Used:

  • Boring, M. Eugene.  Mark: A Commentary. The New Testament Library. Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, London, 2006.
  • Cohen, Daniel.  “The Geransene Demoniac:  A Jewish Approach to Liberation before 70 CE.”  Pages 152-173 in Judaism, Jewish Identities and the Gospel Tradition:  Essays in Honour of Maurice Casey.  Edited by James G. Crossley; London and Oakville: Equinox, 2010.
  • Crossley, James.  “The Damned Rich (Mark 10:17-31).”  Expository Times 116 (2005): 397-401; 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; “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.
  • Incigneri, Brian.  The Gospel to the Romans: The Setting and Rhetoric of Mark’s Gospel (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2003)
  • Kim, Tae Hun.  “The Anarthrous Υιος Θεου in Mark 15,39 and the Roman Imperial Cult.”  Biblica 79.2 (1998): 222-241.
  • Kirk, Daniel and Young, Stephen L.  “I Will Set His Hand to the Sea: Psalm 88:26 LXX and Christology in Mark.”  Journal of Biblical Literature 133.2 (2014): 333-340.
  • 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.
  • Myers, Ched.  Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus.  New York: Orbis Books, 1988.
  • Moore, Stephen.  Empire and Apocalypse: Postcolonialism and the New Testament.  Sheffield: Phoenix, 2006.
  • Sanders, E.P.  “Jesus in Historical Context.”  Theology Today 50 (1993): 429-48.
  • 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.
  • Wink, Walter.  Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination.  Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.f his colonizers.

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