Well, here’s a theological turn. It’s surprising how little theology I post compared to how much I’m knocking about theological ideas in me noggin. I’m currently reading Craig A. Evans’ article “The Beginning of the Good News in the Gospel of Mark” (in Hearing the Old Testament in the New Testament) for a paper I’m working on for my NT Theology class and it’s got some interesting info, some of which I knew, some of which I didn’t.
The Gospel of Mark is widely held to have been written just prior (or maybe just after) the fall of Jerusalem, which means that Vespasian had just recently become emperor after a chaotic succession where there had been 4 emperors in one year. Murder, intrigue, yadeeyada. Vespasian had been the General of the Roman Legions who were busy opening up a can of whoop-ass in Judea against those crazy Jews and their insistence on their one God and their hatred of those pesky Roman pagans. Things get interesting when Vespasian captures this Jewish general named Josephus, who prophesies according to the Hebrew Scriptures that Vespasian will become Caesar.
And Caesar he becomes. A little background: Roman emperors were generally held to be divine and to be worshiped by all subjects of the Empire. This is the kind of widespread propaganda that accompanied the newly elevated Caesar:
…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, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war… the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good news for the world that came by reason of him… (Evans, 93).
Augustus (the first emperor) and those who followed him in his office were officially proclaimed in this kind of way. Caesars were also often referred to as the son of God. Furthermore, accounts were spread that Vespasian had healed a blind man by spitting in his eyes.
Is any of this sounding familiar? It should for those familiar with the Gospel of Mark. In this context, Mark writes his Gospel, boldly confronting the imperial propaganda of his day.
He starts, saying, “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). Gospel = good news, and good news is found in Jesus, not in Vespasian. Jesus is the true son of God, not Vespasian. In verse 2, Mark uses the Hebrew Scriptures (Isaiah) to show that Jesus’ coming has been prophesied, just like Vespasian was claiming. And of course, Jesus is also presented as a savior who came doing miracles, right down to spitting in a man’s eyes to heal his blindness (Mark 8:22). The parallels are astounding.
The parallels could be pushed even farther, but I’ll leave them there. Vespasian was parading around as the supposed divine savior of the world, but within the community of early followers of Jesus, someone said “that’s bullshit.” He (or she?) wrote a highly subversive account of the life of Jesus that undermined Vespasian’s legitimacy and authority at every step. What we now know as the Gospel of Mark was highly political and what it meant in the context of first century Palestine was:
After three failed emperors, Vespasian ascended to the throne, hailed as the new “son of God,” divinely empowered, able to heal. Omens hinted at his coming; Jewish prophecy foretold it. Surely in this man the Roman world would once again stabilize and benefit from the “good news,” which has now begun.
Not so, says the evangelist Mark. The good news begins with Jesus Christ, the true Son of God — the Son recognized by God himself at the baptism and later at the transfiguration, the divine Son who is fearfully recognized by the spirits , the Son who can heal great numbers of sufferers with a word or a touch (Evans, 103).
What this might mean for us today, I will not get into at this point.