Is Mark Liberating or Oppressive?

 “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.

2 Responses to Is Mark Liberating or Oppressive?

  1. [...] However, and here is where I have been trying to strike up conversation, in some of my last few posts I have also problematized some of this as some scholars argue that the Gospel writers just adopt [...]

  2. [...] way of servant leadership, Jesus exposes this domination system as in the wrong.  Now in a past post I concede that Mark, like the whole Bible, is open to liberationist or oppressive readings, but [...]

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