Caesar’s empire? Or God’s?

Mark, Jesus, the empire, and us

As we engage in reading the Bible, we cannot avoid speaking of kingdoms or empires. Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Romans, Greeks, not to mention the Israelite monarchy itself. Although we may happen to live in democratic countries, not within powerful empires of old, we may still be governed in many ways by some sort of imperial power, for instance that of capitalist economics.1

It has been long noted that the Gospels present Jesus and his ministry as anti-imperial message. However, a recent book edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica dealing with the topic has a chapter on each one of the Gospels, except for Mark.2

Mark’s Gospel has not received as much attention when it comes to its own anti-imperial rhetoric as other Gospels maybe because Mark’s rhetoric concerning the empire is somewhat ambiguous in its initial chapters. There is very little explicit confrontation between Jesus or Mark’s narrative perspective and the empire. On the other hand, if read carefully, the Gospel gives hints to its audience as to what its view of the relationship between God and Caesar is. The very first verse of the Gospel reads:

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Mk. 1:1 NET

Mark could hardly get more political than that. Scholars have proposed two possible backgrounds for this opening line, one Jewish and the other Greco-Roman. While some look for the background in Isaiah and his message of the coming Messiah and his victory over Israel’s enemies, others seem to be convinced that Mark is primarily thinking about the Roman setting of his first hearers/readers. While in the past the scholars used to choose between one or the other, Adam Winn has helpfully argued that such a choice is not indispensable:

Mark’s incipit proclaims the euangelion or good news of Jesus the messianic son of God. However, Mark makes this proclamation by bringing together the language of both Deutero-Isaiah and the Roman imperial cult. Because an incipit is important for communicating the purpose/intention of a literary work, any theory regarding the purpose of Mark’s gospel must adequately explain his incipit. Mark’s incipit points to a Sitz im Leben in which the world of Jewish messianic hope is brought together with the Roman imperial cult.3

Other well-known motif of Mark’s Gospel is the so-called “messianic secret”. Jesus’ commands not to tell anybody about the things he was doing has also been interpreted as an unusual way of resisting honor in a society where honor/shame dynamic was all-important and pervaded all social relations.4 Jesus, in a fashion similar to some favorably remembered Roman emperors, is represented by Mark as a world ruler who does not seek honor for himself.5

In the same way, though not so openly in Mark, the baptism of Jesus can be seen as a subversive act. How so? The way the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark and especially Luke) describe the baptism of Jesus, they imply that Jesus’ baptism is an act of prophetic and political subversion. In other words, the account shows Jesus as the God’s chosen ruler and thus an anti-imperial king who will challenge the Rome’s claim to rule. As Alan R. Street puts it:

His kingdom, based on social justice, covenant mercy, and the establishment of peace apart from the use of violence, was antithetical to the Roman domination system.6

Other scholars have noticed another thread running through Mark’s gospel account. If there is something that is beyond dispute in Historical Jesus studies, it seems to be the fact that Jesus was known and remembered for being a healer and exorcist both by his followers and enemies alike.7 The traditional authority for declaring person healed from any disease was the Temple and the people related to it, the priests.8 When Jesus arrives on the scene, he does not encourage people to look for confirmation of their healing there, in one of the richest and most powerful institutions of the empire. (When he does so in Mk. 1:44, it is probably to maintain the “messianic secret” mentioned above). Rather, Jesus heals the people, making them part of a new household, which is the place where the “power” now resides. Ernest van Eck aptly writes:

Roman imperialism, therefore, resulted in God’s people being possessed by demons on the social level. Roman imperialism indicated a power greater than oneself, admittedly ‘inside’ oneself, something evil, there-fore, beyond any collusion or cooperation. By driving out the demon(s), Jesus (symbolically) released the Jewish people from this oppression.9

The demon possession then, according to van Eck and others, is in great part the result of the oppressive Roman rule over Palestine. Therefore, any unauthorized healing activity would be essentially an act of subversion against the foreign domination. The temple is no use because as we will see later it has too been co-opted into the service of the empire. Jesus makes people part of the community again, something that the temple is unable to do. Perhaps the clearest case of an exorcism with anti-imperial overtones can be found in Mark 5 where Jesus is able to heal a man possessed by a Legion.10

Another point of contrast between Christ and Caesar can be seen in the use of the phrase “Son of God” at key points in Mk. 5:7 and Mk. 15:39. Those in the audience who remembered Augustus or were familiar with other emperor’s use of the title might have heard the stories as challenging the imperial cult.11

Jerusalem – the meeting place

So far we have seen that an anti-imperial material can be found right at the start of the Gospel, at Jesus’ baptism, throughout his healing ministry and possibly in the designation “Son of God”.

If these references to Jesus challenging the role of Caesar are ambiguous for some, the moment we enter the final part of Mark’s gospel account, in which Jesus finally gets to Jerusalem, we see much more open critique and challenge toward the empire.

Take for instance Jesus’ “triumphant” entry into Jerusalem. The traditional name is sort of a misnomer as it has very little triumph in it, or at the very least not the sort of triumph the Roman, Greek or Jewish audience would have expected. One aspect often neglected by scholars in this episode is the way Jesus, or the disciples who go ahead of him obtain the colt from the local villagers simply by saying: “The Lord needs it.” (Mk. 11:3) Scholars have suggested three different options as to whom the Lord in the verse 3 refers to: (1) God; (2) Jesus or (3) the owner of the animal. While the NET Bible mentions the practice of “angaria”, they do not draw the conclusion spelled out by Hans Leander:

What I would suggest, then, as a fourth option (referring to the three mentioned above) is to take the phrase ‘The Lord has need of it’ as a mimicry of the imperial practice of angaria and that ho kyrios refers to Jesus as almost the same as but not quite the emperor.12

The Roman emperor had the right to enforce labor or provision of services or food on the local population. Jesus does the same thing, even though his social position gives him no right to do so, and stranger still, his clients are most likely of a very low standing. For Leander, given the ambivalent signals within Mark’s story, such as cursing the fig tree, which would seemingly sanction the Roman destruction of the temple, it is difficult to decide whether Mark is being clearly anti-Roman. What I believe can be said at this point is that beginning with the entry into Jerusalem, the clash with the empire becomes inevitable and Jesus becomes more and more clear as to where his loyalty lies.

This loyalty shows itself in full strength during Jesus’ intervention in the Temple. The enigmatic action, since there have been many competing interpretations of the event, seems to be motivated by Jesus’ desire to take action similar to that of other prophets in response to Baal’s imagery on Tyrian coins used to pay the temple tax. Jesus as an advocate of the exclusive worship of Yahweh might have considered having to deal with this imagery as idolatrous:

For Mark’s audience, accustomed as many of them were to paying the temple shekel, the connection would have been absolutely clear. Moses, on Mount Sinai received the Ten Commandments, including the prohibition on the worship of other gods (Ex 20:1–3), and the making of graven images (Ex 20:4–6). Elijah, on another mountain (Mt Carmel – 1 Ki 18:20–40) took on the prophets of Baal and defeated them. Since the Baal, with whom he contended, was in all likelihood the Tyrian Baal introduced by Jezebel (see 1 Ki 16:29–33; see Bronner 1968:8–11), the connection with the Tyrian shekel is even more meaningful. Inspired by the vision of these two great champions of pure Yahwism, Jesus is determined to go to Jerusalem and to take on the establishment – for both its oppression and its failure to give honour to Yahweh alone.13

The Temple incident is immediately followed by the one concerning the payment of taxes. One question to consider is the payment of the tax itself and the means by which this was being done. During the temple intervention as we have seen Jesus might have asked the bankers at the temple:  “Whose image is on the coin?” To which they would have to answer: “Baal’s.” As we have seen the greed and ambition led the governing authorities to disregard the Decalogue (Ex. 20:3) and of course they were not receptive to the words of Jesus about the choice that must be made between serving God or Mammon (Mt. 6:24). That is essentially the image of the following pericope about the vineyard and the wicked tenants (Mk.12:1-12).

When questioned by Jesus about the image on the denarius, the Herodians and Pharisees admit that the denarius bears a Caesar’s image who rules them both religiously (they do not protest against human imagery on the coin, and for that matter an image of a human who makes himself divine) and economically (they will make sure the vineyard – either standing for Israel or the world – is not taken away from them and get as much profit out of it as possible). The whole conversation about the payment of the tax is even more interesting given the term used by the Herodians and Pharisees:

Is it lawful to pay the penalty?

Mk 12:14

Hans Leander points out that the term kensos, appropriation of the Latin census with the meaning “penalty”, based on the Jewish anti-imperial discourse and opposition to the tax paying, is used to make Mark’s audience aware of the Roman imperial power in a more conscious way. It is Mark’s masterful use of irony to put this word in the mouth of those who in his eyes collaborate so closely with the oppressive regime. Let us remember that Roman taxation was a practice that affected every aspect of people’s lives. It was not simply a matter of getting the money but had even political and religious implications.14 Judging from the resulting surprise of the people, Jesus’ evasive/ironic answer suggesting at least cautious distantiation from paying the tax must have still had an impact on his audience. By saying, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” in verse 17, he is telling his questioners that the way they posed the question already provides them with an answer. Paying a penalty? To the Emperor? Isn’t the answer obvious?

We have already mentioned the importance of Mk 1:1 and that Mark’s statement right at the beginning of his narrative should alert us to possible opposition to Caesar and the imperial cult. Sacrifice was an important aspect of the Roman imperial cult. While the Jews were happy to sacrifice on behalf of the emperor, the Christians would not make a sacrifice for or to the emperor.15 The sacrifice also means food and eating together. The contrast between the incipient reign of God and the empire is nicely described in the way Mark juxtaposes Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand and Herod’s banquet for the select few (Mk. 6:17-44). When Herod and his guests eat together, others sacrifice or are sacrificed for them; here, tragically, John the Baptist is decapitated. When Jesus, the disciples and the crowds eat together, Jesus makes a sacrifice for them by multiplying the food, so that all are satisfied. At Herod’s banquet, the ruler who is on the top of the hierarchy fears to lose his face in front of his guests and has to make use of violence to cling to his power. The Jesus’ banquet is characterized by people sharing food while sitting together in groups of fifty or one hundred. Many scholars see the story and Jesus’ action of “taking the loaves”, “looking into heaven”, “giving thanks”, “breaking bread”, and “giving it” to the disciples as referring to the later practice of the Eucharist.16 In the Gospels the miraculous feeding story is most definitely related to the account of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, which if read against the background of the Passover and the Exodus story, is also a subversive practice:

Jesus’ reinterpretation of the Passover and his exhortations to his disciples during his Last Supper provide the theological foundation for viewing the Lord’s Supper as an anti-imperial activity. According to the Exodus narrative, the Hebrew slaves sat to eat the first Passover as they were preparing to escape from Egypt’s totalitarian regime. Hence, the meal should be understood as a subversive act of defiance against the domination system of their day.17

Jesus’ exodus (Lk 9:31) happens ultimately through his resurrection on the third day. Whatever the answer to the question about the ending of the Gospel18 , Mark has placed its climax in Mk. 15:39 he has a Roman centurion exclaim:

Now when the centurion, who stood in front of him, saw how he died, he said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!

Mk. 15:39 NET

There have been different interpretations of that statement but as we argue, having the phrase “Son of God”, a title claimed by Roman emperors, appear on the lips of the possessed man in the synagogue (representing the oppressive Jewish system), the Gerasene man possessed by a Legion (representing the Roman oppression), and  the Roman centurion at the end of the Gospel, it must have been heard by the community, again, as a sign of the fact that this new reign of God is gaining strength and following, even among the most loyal subjects of the other kingdoms, be they Jewish or Roman.

Practical guide for living radically

What does all this mean for our lives as disciples of the one who poses a threat to Caesar who believed he was the rightful ruler of the world? I would dare to describe Mark’s account of Jesus’ life, the way he conceived it for his community as a practical guide for living radically.

This radical living will not be what many understand as Christian orthopraxis. In some way this is understandable as we all approach Jesus and the Gospels from a context that determines the way we read the text. It should therefore no longer come as a surprise to our community that there are feminist, queer, liberationist, postcolonial, social-scientific readings of the Bible. The old ideal of an objective reading happens to be illusory: 

There is no normative “clear” lens – a reader with no baggage, untainted by culture, history, or politics. All interpretation is socially, culturally, and ideologically situated somewhere, and therefore all interpretation has some kind of filter.19

This does not mean we have to give up on biblical exegesis or that anything goes. We ought to take advantage of all the endeavors that have been made so far to understand the biblical literature and contribute our own distinctive bits and pieces as a community.

Mark makes it clear for us from the start that this “son of God” will preach a different kind of gospel. The earliest connotation about the gospel, a term widely used throughout the Roman empire was political and therefore in its Roman version, violent. On the contrary, the community that is reading/hearing the Gospel, is encouraged to suffer violence by accepting the cross as their possible end (Mk 8:34). They are also called to be baptized and assume their new identity of the “sons of God”. They are also called to repentance (Mk. 1:15) which means they are to forget about the gospel preached by Rome or by the Jerusalem elites connected to the Temple and join a new household, a new center of power and to “be with Jesus” (Mk. 3:14). This “power”, however, does not use coercion in order to reverse the social pyramid by putting the former elites into a subservient position. The transformation happens through teaching, a big theme for Mark as he mentions it seventeen times: Mk. 1:21,22; 2:13; 4:1,2; 6:2,6,30,34; 7:7; 8:31; 9:31; 10:1; 11:17; 12:14,35; 14:49,20 and the community is taught not to rule over anyone (Mk. 10:42-45). The disciples are given the authority to heal but the healing as mentioned above does not refer exclusively to being cured and having no physical symptoms of the disease any more. It means inclusion, embrace and acceptance within the group of Jesus’ followers. Even though Mk. 10:31 has been interpreted to imply such a reversal of social order or exclusion, it seems more likely to refer to the reversal of the way the community will perceive itself and others. What we have in Jesus’ teaching instead of a hierarchal group, is a group where Jesus, the unusual patron not seeking honor, is at the center and the community of clients revolves around him, without anybody assuming the ultimate authority that belongs only to the resurrected Jesus.20

Repentance, baptism, taking up the cross, resisting the authorities, healing, not ruling over others. Being with Jesus and being his follower is not to be taken lightly. It is inevitably going to produce conflict with the “authorities and rulers” (Mk. 13:9). The non-violent, just, inclusive reign of Jesus will clash with the empire of this world each time we make a stand to honor Jesus, the patron who cares about everybody, be their rich, poor, healthy or sick; male, female, children, natives or foreigners. He does not care whether they are at the top of the social hierarchy or at its very bottom. And neither should we. The invitation of the Gospel is to be preached to all (Mk 13:10) through the very practical means used by Jesus: helping, suffering, healing, serving, listening, walking, talking, questioning, protesting and teaching. Will imitation Christi be a sign of our living faith?

Footnotes

  1. McCarraher, Eugene. The Enchantments of Mammon: How Capitalism Became the Religion of Modernity. Harvard University Press, 2019.
  2. McKnight, Scot, and Joseph B. Modica. Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not: Evaluating Empire in New Testament Studies. InterVarsity Press, 2012.
  3. Winn, Adam. The purpose of Mark’s gospel: An early Christian response to Roman imperial propaganda. Vol. 245. Mohr Siebeck, 2008.
  4. Moxnes, Halvor. “Honor and shame.” Biblical Theology Bulletin 23.4 (1993): 167-176.
  5. Winn, Adam. “Resisting honor: the Markan secrecy motif and Roman political ideology.” Journal of Biblical Literature 133.3 (2014): 583-601.
  6. Streett, R. Alan. Caesar and the Sacrament: Baptism: A Rite of Resistance. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2018.
  7. Evans, Craig A. “Prophet, sage, healer, messiah, and martyr: Types and identities of Jesus.” PB Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus (4 vols). Brill, 2011. 1217-1243.
  8. Hogan, L. P. “Healing in the Second Temple Period (NTOA 21).” Freiburg (Schweiz) ua: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht (1992).
  9. Van Eck, A. G. “Sickness and healing in Mark: A social scientific interpretation.” Neotestamentica 27.1 (1993): 27-54. This would have been a very important and encouraging reference point for the household churches in Rome, if indeed the Gospel originated there as claimed by Papias.
  10. Garroway, Joshua. “The invasion of a mustard seed: a reading of Mark 5.1-20.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 32.1 (2009): 57-75.
  11. Collins, Adela Yarbro. “Mark and His Readers: The Son of God Among Greeks and Romans.” Harvard Theological Review 93.2 (2000): 85-100.
  12. Leander, Hans. “With Homi Bhabha at the Jerusalem City Gates: A Postcolonial Reading of the ‘Triumphant’Entry (Mark 11.1-11).” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 32.3 (2010): 309-335.
  13. Domeris, William. “The ‘enigma of Jesus’’temple intervention: Four essential keys.” HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 71.1 (2015).
  14. Leander, Hans. Discourses of empire: The Gospel of Mark from a postcolonial perspective. Vol. 71. Society of Biblical Lit, 2013.
  15. Price, Simon RF. “Between man and god: sacrifice in the Roman imperial cult.” The Journal of Roman Studies 70 (1980): 28-43.
  16. Senior, Donald. “The Eucharist in Mark: Mission, Reconciliation, Hope.” Biblical Theology Bulletin 12.3 (1982): 67-72.
  17. Street, R. Allan. Subversive Meals: An Analysis of the Lord’s Supper under Roman Domination during the First Century. Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2013.
  18. Robinson, Maurice, Darrell Bock, and Keith Elliott. Perspectives On the Ending of Mark: Four Views. B&H Publishing Group, 2008.
  19. Barton, John, ed. The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion. Princeton University Press, 2016.
  20. Van Eck, Ernest. “Mission, identity and ethics in Mark: Jesus, the patron for outsiders.” HTS Theological Studies 69.1 (2013): 01-13.