Mark’s Portrait of Jesus and the World in which He Lived Part 2

Mark’s Portrait of Jesus and the World in which He Lived Part 2: The Pax Romans and the Peace of Christ

Statue of Caesar Augustus

Statue of Caesar Augustus

In the 1990s and early 2000s there was a vast amount of writing done by New Testament scholars that was taking into account the world of the Roman empire and its impact on both Jesus and the gospel writers. Prior to this time it was no secret that the Roman empire was a part of the context of the gospels but nobody seemed to take seriously the implications of the language of the empire or the context of nations who had garrisons of Roman soldiers stationed in them or the reality of conflict between the Jewish people and Rome as a context for the writing of the gospels. Yet, once one begins to look hard at the gospels in this light it is hard to imagine not seeing the impact of Rome upon these communities and the way they viewed the world. The conflict that would emerge between the Pax Romana and the Peace of Christ would come out of two different views of what the world was all about and two different dreams of different kingdoms.

Roman Empire in 117AD

Roman Empire in 117AD

At the time of Jesus and at the time of the writing of the Gospel of Mark the Roman Empire was near the peak of its power and influence. The Roman Empire at its height in 117 CE would stretch from modern day Portugal and Spain, through part of England, France, Italy, Greece, and the Balkans, Turkey, Iraq, Egypt and the Northern Coast of Africa. Its impact is still felt today in many ways, even in language where the Romance (from Rome) languages of Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French all share common vocabulary and form while the defiant Germanic tribes would not have a unified language until the time of the Reformation. Commerce flowed effectively throughout the empire which built extensive networks of roads and managed commerce in Latin in the Western half of the empire where Greek remained the language of the western half of the empire (hence the New Testament being written in the language of commerce of the people of the western half of the Roman empire rather than Hebrew or Aramaic). The very genre that we refer to these stories as being, gospel, takes their background as the proclamations of the Roman emperor when an area was conquered or a feast or major event was being declared. The Romans believed and executed peace through continued conquest. The heart of the Roman Empire was the legions that were, for their day, an effectively trained fighting force that worked together as units and not as individuals. The individual Roman legionnaire is not equipped well for one on one conflict, but rather the typical soldier’s primary weapon was a lance or spear and not the sword (swords were short and used for defensive measures) and their large shields not only covered the individual soldier but the soldier to their left. Discipline was essential to this type of fighting and the legions relied upon individual soldiers acting as a part of a unit and not as self contained warriors. For the Romans the idea that the U.S. Army used in its advertising a couple years ago, “an army of one” where the individual soldier was able to call upon the resources of the rest of the army as a force multiplier of their capabilities would have been unimaginable. The individual only existed as a part of the unit and only fought as an extension of the person to their right and left.

The time of Jesus was the time of Rome becoming the empire. Most people learned a little bit of Roman history in English class where they had to learn William Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ where Julius comes and takes over the empire with his army and then is appointed Emperor and shortly executed. After Julius Caesar the empire erupts into a civil war between Mark Anthony and Cleopatra in the south and Octavian, the son of Julius Caesar in the north. Octavian is victorious, Mark Anthony and Cleopatra vanquished, the empire is united and Octavian attains the title, Caesar Augustus son of the divine Julius. Throughout the empire this is the time of the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome that is attained by the legions and other allied forces of Rome continuing to push the boundaries of the empire outward. Unlike modern warfare in America where we can talk about the economic cost of forces involved in conflicts in Afghanistan or Iraq, which run into the billions of dollars, in the ancient world war was a profitable enterprise. Armies were financed by the spoils of war and by the addition of agricultural property (since most wealth was agriculturally or extraction (mining) related). In addition to providing revenue, the legions also served as one of the primary builders of roads throughout the empire and through their building and protection they enabled trade and taxation to flourish. Even though many of the individual Roman emperors may not have been successful the empire flourished in spite of their exuberance or sometimes madness. Whether it was Nero at the time of the execution of St. Paul and St. Peter and his suspected burning of much of Rome and using Christians as a convenient scapegoat or whether it was the year of four emperors, where Vespasian has to leave his command of the legions in the Jewish war to bring stability back to Rome and become Emperor the wheels of the empire continued to function.

Gladiators Crucified after the Third Servile War (73-71 BCE)

Gladiators Crucified after the Third Servile War (73-71 BCE)

There are two sides to the Roman Empire, the Corinthian column and the crucifixion. The Romans built incredible engineering structures from aqueducts to temples to coliseums. Their road network far outpaced anything else in the ancient world and some of these roads are still visible today, others became paved over to become roads used in the modern world. Yet, they reigned through fear. For all the beauty of Rome there is an intensely dark experience of life if one opposed Rome or where not one of its beneficiaries. Crucifixion was more than an instrument of death and simply trying to equate it to the electric chair or lethal injection miss the point that this was about not only killing the individual but wiping out their honor and instilling fear in the rest of the population. In our day we are, rightly, offended when ISIS, for example, has beheaded people it has captured and considers infidels. In the ancient world beheading was considered a humane and honorable way of death. This for example is why St. Paul, a Roman citizen according to tradition is beheaded while St. Peter, who is not a Roman citizen, is crucified. Crucifixion took an individual, placed them on the ways into and out of town to where the person was exhibited and made a public spectacle while they slowly died of suffocation. The Romans were good at this. They were not evil, not any more than any other empire of the day, but they were ruthless. If a person could be made an example of they would be, whether in the crosses or in the coliseums. The Romans did not put up with rebellion, like Babylon or Persia or Greece before them they knew responded quickly and brutally to any attempted uprising.

First Century Palestine

First Century Palestine

At the time of Jesus’ birth Galilee, Samaria, Judea, Idumea, Perea, the Decapolis were all under the reign of Herod the Great. Herod, like the Romans was a study in the contrasts of the age. Herod did build some incredible structures including the temple in Jerusalem that Jesus would encounter in his day as well as great fortresses like Masada which would play into the Jewish War after Jesus’ death but in the time of the writing of the Gospel of Mark. Herod during the civil war was one of the few leaders who chose the wrong side (he sided with Anthony and Cleopatra) and maintained his position and actually increased his power after he went and directly appealed to Caesar Augustus. Herod was a shrewd politician within the Roman world but also very paranoid, killing some of his own sons who he perceived as threats to his power.  When he died shortly after the birth of Jesus the empire was divided among his sons (many of which who are also named Herod), but many proved to be ineffective administrators. At the time of Jesus ministry, Herod Antipas reigns in Galilee and Perea, but Jerusalem is under a Roman administrator, Pontus Pilate.

The first Jewish-Roman War, 66-73 CE, where the Judeans rose up in revolt against the Roman Empire and enjoyed a brief success, embarrassing Legion XII Fulminata at the Battle of Beth Horon, but the Romans responded decisively sending in Vespasian with his son Titus as second in command. By 69 the Romans are have defeated much of the resistance in Galilee and have moved into Judea, but Vespasian is called back to Rome to become the emperor and his son Titus completes the campaign. After a seven month siege, Jerusalem falls to Rome in 70 CE and mop up operations continue, including the final stand of the Jewish rebels at the mountain stronghold of Masada in 73-74. The result of the campaign would be a destroyed Jerusalem and temple and a demoralized Judean and Galilean people. The Christians would be scattered throughout the empire, not taking an active part in the Jewish war by this point but by the end of the Jewish War the connection of the early followers of Jesus were no longer being considered by many as a part of the Jewish religion.

Section of the Arch of Titus showing the Spoils of Jerusalem

Section of the Arch of Titus showing the Spoils of Jerusalem

The Romans were also very good at publicizing their victories. Whether on public structures like the Arch of Titus, or through commemorations or through the coins of the empire like the ones below where Emperor Vespasian is on one side and the Judea is shown as a conquered woman on the other. The Romans wanted people to see and understand that their empire was now at the apex of history. That resistance to the Roman regime would end up with defeat and that the way forward was to accept the Pax Romana that was offered. It is into this world that the gospels speak of the kingdom of God or as Paul’s letter’s can say the peace of Christ.

Coins Depicting Emperor Vespasian on one side and the Captivity of Judea on the other

Coins Depicting Emperor Vespasian on one side and the Captivity of Judea on the other

My Name is Legion

1They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. 2Andwhen he had stepped out of the boat, immediately a man out of the tombs with an unclean spirit met him. 3He lived among the tombs; and no one could restrain him any more, even with a chain;4 for he had often been restrained with shackles and chains, but the chains he wretched apart, and the shackles he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him. 5Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always howling and bruising himself with stones. 6 When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him; 7and he shouted at the top of his voice, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” 8 For he had said to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!”9Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion; for we are many.”10 He begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country.11Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding;12and the unclean spirits begged him, “Send us into the swine; let us enter them.”13 So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered into the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea. 14The swineherds ran off and told it in the city and in the country. Then people came to see what it was that had happened.15They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had the legion; and they were afraid.16Those who had seen what had happened to the demoniac and to the swine reported it.17Then they began to beg Jesus to leave their neighborhood.18As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed begged him that he might be with him. 19But Jesus refused, and said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you.”20And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed. Mark 5: 1-20

Tiles of Legion X Fretensis showing a Pig as a part of their emblem

Tiles of Legion X Fretensis showing a Pig as a part of their emblem

This is one of those passages that captured my attention for a long time and I always wondered about the demons using the title of Legion in a context of Roman rule. The reading is made stronger when one realizes that Legion X Fretensis has the swine as one of its major emblems, and Legion X Fretensis was one of the major legions involved in the Jewish War. So what is happening here? Is the demon trying to pick a fight between Jesus and Rome? Is the Roman Empire demonic? There were certainly Jews who believed so. For me the text is suggestive of the questions that were certainly swirling around the heads of the readers of Mark as they wondered how they were to navigate the reality of the Roman empire, but it is also an exorcism which is a central part of the spirit filled ancient world we mentioned in the previous post on Mark.  There is much more that could be said but at this point I am going to leave this ambiguous just as Mark does. Mark does a far better job of suggesting and hinting at things but prefers to leave us with a mystery to wrestle with.

There are many places where the reality of Rome plays a foil in the story, for example when Jesus sets aside the 12 apostles on the mountain in chapter 3 he is suggestively setting up a new nation of Israel, what part will they play in the empire of Rome? When Herod Antipas, a Roman puppet king orders the beheading of John the Baptist is this one more way in which the Pax Romana is ill at ease with the kingdom of God? When Jesus feeds 5,000 and 4,000 in Mark is this also a political act which works against the control of the food supply and distribution by the empire? Perhaps this is one of the factors behind Mark’s messianic secret where Jesus never allows people to speak of him as the Messiah until the end of the story and the crucifixion?  The calling of tax collectors to be a part of the kingdom of God and away from the taxation mechanism of Caesar is certainly a political act. If Judas Iscariot’s name is a part of the Sicarii, a group of Jewish assassins who targeted Romans, which is not conclusive but an interesting question, it poses a very interesting dynamic within this group of 12. Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem certainly among other things also parodies the entry processions of Roman emperors and dignitaries as well as the Herodian kings. One of the challenges to Jesus in Jerusalem is over paying taxes to Caesar; Jesus spends almost all of chapter 13 talking about the destruction of the temple and the effects of the Jewish War. Jesus is put on trial ultimately before Pilate, a roman administrator and crucified on a Roman cross by Roman soldiers. The empire has a part to play in the narrative. It is the world in which the gospels are heard and which Jesus did his ministry. Next time we will look at the Jewish setting of the gospels and the world of second temple Judaism.  

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