Shuck and Jive

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Authority, Empire, and Mark

Welcome all to Conversations with Bob! Please do join in! Bob's turn!

Yes John, you are famous! You just got your 15 minutes of fame on Presbyweb. Although from what I read in your blog you have had more than 15 minutes of fame. So let me respond briefly about part of that blog and then go on to Mark.

It should be clear by now that I believe Jesus is the Truth and that the Scriptures have authority. So when you say that you don’t care what the Bible or Jesus say that you disagree with them because of your experience, I have to say I disagree with you. Do you really mean to place your experience as a higher authority than Scripture? I read your paper: What to Preach? The Challenge of the Jesus Seminar to Contemporary Homiletics. It probably will not surprise you that I disagree with what you say in the paper. I am quite comfortable saying that the Bible is the Word of God and that Jesus is fully divine and fully human. This will not surprise you or anyone reading our conversations.

Let’s move on to Mark.

There may indeed be scholars who think that Mark as a whole is a response to Roman imperialism. I would have to read one of those books but commenting right now on what you have said I don’t see how the whole of Mark can be subsumed under that theme. Are there passages in Mark that speak to Roman imperialism? Certainly. As you pointed out the very first verse in Mark does call Jesus the Son of God and Caesar was called the Son of God so Mark 1:1 could be heard as a challenge to Caesar. I think Jesus’ proclamation of the coming Kingdom of God (Mk 1:14-15), his agreeing that he is the Messiah, (Mk. 8:27-30) and certainly his claim to be the coming Son of Man (Mk. 14:62) are clearer passages on the subject of Jesus being the ruler even over Rome.

Again, not having read the books on the subject I find it difficult to believe that the whole Gospel of Mark could be a challenge to Roman imperialism. How does Jesus’ healing of Peter’s mother in law fit in with that theme? How about the healing of the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman? Is disease a symbol for Roman imperialism? Or what about Jesus’ conflicts with the Pharisees about healing on the Sabbath or the disciples plucking grain and eating on the Sabbath? I think it more likely that these scholars have made Mark say what they want Mark to say rather than interpreting Mark correctly.

And to go back behind the final editing of Mark, were the various stories about Jesus all about Jesus’ opposition to Rome? Or do these authors think that the final editor took all these stories and made them into a long symbolic narrative against Rome?

I think you can find an interpretation by the crowd that Jesus opposes Roman imperialism in both Mark’s and John’s versions of the feeding of the 5,000. In Mark the people sit down in their in their groups of hundreds and fifties, which may be a military reference from the Old Testament. In John the people respond by wanting to crown Jesus as king. In Mark Jesus rushes the disciples into the boat, dismisses the crowd and goes off to pray. This may be a suggestion that the disciples and the crowd wanted to make Jesus king.

But what about the feeding of the 4,000? This passage has indications that the crowd is made up of Gentiles because of the probable location of the feeding, and, strangely enough the Greek word for baskets used in the passage. How does this fit in with opposition to Rome?

Sorry, I don’t buy it. But I will try to get a copy of Crossan’s book and take a look.

I do agree that God does speak through fiction in the Bible. After all, aren’t Jesus’ parables a form of fiction? And as I have said before I think that Jonah is not a factual story. I do think I believe there is more “what really happened” in the gospels than you do.

About Family Saga: I use the word to talk about the Bible differently than you do. If there was no exodus from Egypt than the whole basis for the Family Saga of the people of Israel has no meaning in my opinion. If Jesus did not rise from the dead then we are still in our sins and the Church is based on a lie. When I call the Bible “Family Saga” I mean the stories told around the campfire that were later written down that gave and give meaning to who the family called Israel was and is. Yes, that means that I believe God made a covenant with Israel, that God was at work with a particular group of people to bring about what God wanted to happen. And yes, I believe that God made a new covenant through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

I do believe there is symbolism in the Bible that speaks against Empire. Certainly Revelation was written in part as message against Roman imperialism.

And I am curious: do these authors also think that the letters of Paul also fit into this theme? Or does Paul take the message about Jesus and make it mean something different? And how does one square that with the consensus that the letters of Paul, (let’s for the sake of argument limit ourselves to the ones that most scholars believe were written by Paul), were written before Mark was put in its final form? And what about Matthew, Luke and John? Do they fit in this symbolic opposition to Roman imperialism too?

Unless you are correct about the intent of Mark’s final editor, I think you have interpreted the passage incorrectly.

Grace and Peace



  1. **Do you really mean to place your experience as a higher authority than Scripture?**

    But isn't that done already for a majority of Christians? There are verses in there that are clearly meant for that time period, such as verses relating to a flat earth, or the cosmology as seen in that time. Yet we put our experience as a higher authority than what the Bible says about the layout of the Earth.

    Today, we'd say those verses are either metaphorical or constrained by that time period. THe problem with the former is that the writers would've meant the description literally. When we look as the ascension of Jesus, do we still take that as he literally rose up to the clouds, which then hid him from sight? After all, this was written from a three-tiered perspective.

  2. Pastor Bob,

    There are quite a few credible scholars who take the approach of Mark being opposed to empire, I think you are dismissing it too quickly with not very good reasoning.

    Firstly, none of these scholars (perhaps with the exception of Crossan) are trying to say that the only message Mark had was anti-Rome or that every word in his gospel was intended to convey that theme. Most of them believe Mark was working from prior sources (Q) so he was actually reporting events that he understood to have happened, though structuring them in his own way for his own purposes. The point is not that every verse in Mark has to support the hypothesis for it to be true, but that we can recognize a broad thrust and that the key passages DO support the hypothesis.

    Second, Yes Mark has a different thrust than Paul or the other gospels. Each of the gospels actually has quite a different primary goal in sight, though they are all attempting to tell the same story. It is not that the anti-empire message is the only way to interpret Jesus Christ life, death and resurrection so the whole NT must interpret it this way OR ELSE... actually the NT is pretty diverse on just exactly what and who they think this Jesus guy was. Mark has his particular take, which seems to be that Jesus predicted a couple major signs that would bring about the downfall of Rome and the establishment of God's Kingdom on Earth.

    Finally, the Gerasene Demoniac story isn't a stretch to fit into an anti-imperial theme. The demon is named "Legion" who Jesus proceeds to "cast out". It seems pretty obvious to me.

    I very much respect your exegetical insight, but I think this might be a case of you having resistance to this reading of Mark for reasons other than what is apparent in the text.

  3. Thanks aric

    I have to admit that I haven't read the most recent scholarly work on Mark. Like I said, I do see an anti Roman Empire theme in Mark. And I can see how the word Legion may be a marker in the Gerasene text. But I see other markers too, like the placement of the story in non-Jewish territory. Guess I need to catch up some on Gospel research!