Tag Archives: Pax Romana

Revelation 13 Rome Portrayed as a Beast

Emperor Claudius Portraying the Conquest of Brittanica in AD 43 as the Rape of a Woman from Aphrodisias Excavations Sebasteion South Building http://aphrodisias.classics.ox.ac.uk/sebasteionreliefs.html#prettyPhoto

 Revelation 13: 1-10 The Beast from the Sea

1 And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names. 2 And the beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And the dragon gave it his power and his throne and great authority. 3 One of its heads seemed to have received a death-blow, but its mortal wound had been healed. In amazement the whole earth followed the beast. 4 They worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?”

5 The beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. 6 It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. 7 Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. It was given authority over every tribe and people and language and nation, 8 and all the inhabitants of the earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slaughtered.

9 Let anyone who has an ear listen:
10 If you are to be taken captive, into captivity you go;
if you kill with the sword, with the sword you must be killed.
Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.

The scene begins at the conclusion of Revelation 12 where the dragon stands upon the shore of the sea and then we enter our chapter with the first beast arising out of the sea, the second member of an unholy trinity opposed to the will of the Creator and an agent of the destruction of creation. These scenes are meant to be an unmasking of the powers, to use the title of Walter Wink’s book, but for many people unfamiliar with the rich tapestry of interweaving echoes and allusions present the beasts become an obfuscation of a simple message in John’s time: Rome’s power is not benevolent or divinely bestowed but rather is demonic and derives from the power of the devil. This is where there is a prophetic bite to the words of Revelation and where it becomes undeniably a reference to the Roman empire that seven churches in Asia found themselves living within. In contrast to the imperial claims of piety and security John uses metaphor to parody the seemingly unstoppable power of Roman might by proclaiming it is a savage beast subservient to the dragon who is the Devil and Satan.

From the Roman side the beast in particular embodies many traits that allude to Rome generally and to Emperor Nero (who will appear frequently in the explanations of this and coming chapters) in particular. John writes in the time after Nero’s death, but for the message John writes in Revelation Nero is the embodiment of the true character of the empire. In addition to the seven heads (which alludes to the seven hills around Rome and seven emperors) and the ten crowns (although emperors did not wear crowns the kings that ruled provinces on behalf of the Roman empire often did) as a representation of the empire (see also Revelation 17: 9-13) it is also helpful to know that the Jewish word for the Romans, the Kittim, also refers to people who come from the sea. The Kittim as they are mentioned in the book of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 2:10) and Ezekiel 27:6 are the people of Cypress, an island people who came across the sea but by the time of the New Testament the Kittim is a way of referring to the Romans. The head who received the death wound is almost certainly a reference to Nero who either committed suicide or was killed by a knife to the throat but rumors would persist of his remaining alive because few had seen his body.

Even some Greco-Roman authors could refer to Nero’s reign as that of a beast as Craig R. Koester can illustrate by quoting Philostratus saying,

“as for this beast, generally called tyrant, I have no idea how many heads it has,” but “its nature is wilder than the beasts of the mountains or forests” because “this beast is incited by those who stroke it” so that flattery makes it even more savage. (Vit. Apoll. 4.38.3; cf. Sib. Or. 8:157) (Koester, 2014, pp. 568-569)

Nero’s reign is also famous for the great fire that consumed much of Rome. Many believe that Nero was responsible for the blaze desiring to rebuild Rome in his own vision and even in Revelation it will be this Nero-like beast that will destroy its own city with fire (Rome as the harlot is burned by the beast in Revelation 17: 16). After the fire in 64 CE, Nero deflected criticism away from him by burning the Christian community in Rome. Tacitus records the persecution of the Christians by saying:

“Accordingly, and arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sot was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight expired…it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed. (Tacitus, Ann. 15.44) (Koester, 2014, p. 586)

Even though the churches in Asia were not on the receiving end of the persecution that occurred in Rome in 64 CE it probably remained a continual reminder of their vulnerability in the midst of the empire. Revelation wants its readers to understand that the Empire is not a benevolent and benign force but rather a beast whose trues character is revealed in its persecution of the people of God. In contrast to Christ who conquers through the cross the beast conquers through violence. Although the beast may inspire awe and fear by its military strength so that people may say, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” the early church know that they serve the Lord who has cast the great dragon out of heaven and Rome’s power is derivative from this already beaten Devil.

Those familiar with the book of Daniel will also hear a number of echoes from this book as well. Daniel and Ezekiel seem to provide the background for many of the images of Revelation and here we have a modification of the four beasts of Daniel 7, a chapter that has already appeared multiple times in our reading of Revelation. The relevant portion for our current discussion is Daniel 7: 1-8:

1In the first year of King Belshazzar of Babylon, Daniel had a dream and visions of his head as he lay in bed. Then he wrote down the dream: 2 I, Daniel, saw in my vision by night the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea, 3 and four great beasts came up out of the sea, different from one another. 4 The first was like a lion and had eagles’ wings. Then, as I watched, its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted up from the ground and made to stand on two feet like a human being; and a human mind was given to it. 5 Another beast appeared, a second one, that looked like a bear. It was raised up on one side, had three tusks in its mouth among its teeth and was told, “Arise, devour many bodies!” 6 After this, as I watched, another appeared, like a leopard. The beast had four wings of a bird on its back and four heads; and dominion was given to it. 7 After this I saw in the visions by night a fourth beast, terrifying and dreadful and exceedingly strong. It had great iron teeth and was devouring, breaking in pieces, and stamping what was left with its feet. It was different from all the beasts that preceded it, and it had ten horns. 8 I was considering the horns, when another horn appeared, a little one coming up among them; to make room for it, three of the earlier horns were plucked up by the roots. There were eyes like human eyes in this horn, and a mouth speaking arrogantly.

In Revelation the aspects of the four beasts (which represent four empires in Daniel) are combined into the image of the beast of the sea integrating the lion, leopard, bear, ten horns all into one chimera-like combination of animals into one monster. Now instead of a single horn uttering blasphemous names all seven heads have blasphemous names in addition to the mouth uttering blasphemous things. The blasphemous names refer to the claims of divinity that were made for the emperors and the worship they received through the emperor cult. The Roman Emperors, from a Jewish or Christian perspective, were claiming titles that were reserved for God alone and in their persecution of the early Christians placed them in opposition to the coming kingdom of God and the Lamb. Just like the beasts of Daniel’s dream, the time when this beast would be destroyed was coming quickly in the vision.

Emperor Claudius portrayed astride allegories of the land and sea from
the Aphrodisias Excavations Sebasteion, south building. Image from http://aphrodisias.classics.ox.ac.uk/sebasteionreliefs.html

Revelation 13: 11-18 The Beast from the Land

11 Then I saw another beast that rose out of the earth; it had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. 12 It exercises all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and it makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound had been healed. 13 It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of all; 14 and by the signs that it is allowed to perform on behalf of the beast, it deceives the inhabitants of earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that had been wounded by the sword and yet lived; 15 and it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast so that the image of the beast could even speak and cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be killed. 16 Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, 17 so that no one can buy or sell who does not have the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. 18 This calls for wisdom: let anyone with understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a person. Its number is six hundred sixty-six.

I mentioned in the section above how the two beasts and the dragon form an unholy trinity opposed to the will of the Creator and bent upon the destruction of the creation. The beast from the land becomes the third member of this alliance deriving its power both from the beast from the sea and, by extension, from the dragon who stands behind the first beast. Where the first beast represents Rome, the second beast represents the cult of the emperor and the forces that proclaimed the message of Rome. The image of a beast that in many ways resembles a lamb but speaks like a dragon points to the reality that it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing-it may appear to be harmless but it is not. This metaphor of a beast like a lamb with a dragon’s voice causes those who resist its proclamation of the first beast to be put to death. The ruler cult here is placed in opposition to the people of God. Using several resonant images combined it unmasks the destructive character of the forces at work in economic, religious and social pressures designed to make people conform to the desires of the empire.

On the one hand the two beasts may allude to Leviathan and Behemoth, great chaos creatures from the land and sea that appear as threatening beasts to the ancient people and who appear as figures in the poetic imagery in the Psalms and Isaiah. A stronger correlation in Jewish tradition would be the traditions about false prophets who lead people astray and here the beast is a false prophet who leads people to deify the beast and turn away from the King of kings. Yet, even stronger for me, is the resonance with two familiar stories from the book of Daniel (as mentioned above Daniel and Ezekiel seem to provide background images that many of the images of Revelation resonate with). The first story in Daniel is from Daniel 3 when King Nebuchadnezzar has a golden statue erected and declares, “Whoever does not fall down and worship shall immediately be thrown into a furnace of blazing fire.” (Daniel 3:6) and the heroes of our story, three Jewish exiles renamed in Babylon Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, refuse to worship the golden statue. A central to Jewish (and later Christian) faith was the statement that there are no gods that are to be worshipped before the LORD the God of Israel and in keeping with this central portion of their faith they refuse and are cast into the flaming furnace. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are rescued by God in the midst of the fiery furnace and the people are reminded to remain steadfast in their faith in the midst of the oppression of Babylon. Later in the book of Daniel (Daniel 6) the current king, Darius, is tricked into making a proclamation that all must pray to him for thirty days. Daniel knows the document has been signed and is the law and yet he continues to pray to God. Daniel is cast into the lions’ den, but God closes the mouth of the lions and Daniel is safe while those who accused Daniel, along with their families, are thrown into the lions’ den and are consumed by the lions. Both of these stories helped people of faith remain faithful during times of persecution and to trust that God would ultimately deliver them from the empire of the day and the claims made on behalf of rulers.

The action of the second beast to make others worship the first beast is accompanied by violence, false signs, and social and economic pressures. Violence is used against those who do not comply, who will not worship the emperor and by extension Rome. For these false prophets there is to be no alternative gospel. There was no freedom of the press nor separation of church and state in the ancient world and the imperial cult, as well as most other religions in the empire, were viewed as being in service of the state. The gospel of Rome may have fashioned itself as the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, but it was a bloody peace spoken with a dragon’s voice and enforced through the violence of both the legions and the local authorities. While we are not aware of any miracles claimed by the imperial cult there is the continual demonstration of the power and might of Rome and as mentioned in the previous section, ‘Who can fight against it.’ Finally, is the social and economic pressure particularly highlighted by the mark of the beast.  Being a part of the imperial cult could bring a feeling of belonging, but it also allowed people the ability to participate in commercial opportunities. The mark may have been an allusion to the requirement to be a part of a trade organization, many of whom may have required people to demonstrate their allegiance to the emperor, or it may refer to Roman coinage, who many Jewish and early Christians viewed as containing blasphemous messages even though it was the medium of trade for the empire, or it may have referred to other types of pressures that Christians felt to demonstrate they were loyal.

The number of the beast which is a number for a person. In the ancient world gematria, adding up the numerical values of a word, was commonly used. Most historical readers assumed the name would have been known to John’s audience and the most common reading is Nero. Nrwn Qsr, as it is written in Greek (the language of the New Testament) is 666. When transliterated into Hebrew it comes to be 616 which is a common alternative to 666 in some ancient manuscripts. The number has been used to represent many individuals by different interpreters across time, but Nero was probably the individual that the first readers of John’s letter were to hear in this number.

Finally, a brief word about a word that does not appear in Revelation but is commonly linked with this chapter: Antichrist. The Antichrist appears as an opponent in 1 & 2 John which replace the true faith with a faith that is, from the author of the Johannine Epistles perspective, false. Matthew, Mark and Luke can mention false messiahs and 2 Thessalonians develops a theme from the book of Daniel about ‘the man of lawlessness’ who receives power from Satan but it is only in 1 & 2 John where the word Antichrist is used. The term is helpful in thinking about Revelation in the understanding that the second beast is in many ways the opposite of Christ and against Christ (what the anti- prefix means). But historically there is a desire to locate in one figure the role of an Antichrist: so, for Luther the pope could be the Antichrist, others would point to figures like Hitler or Stalin as the Antichrist or look for some futuristic figure. While I am uncomfortable when people use the term as an absolute title, searching for the Antichrist, as an adjective I find it is helpful. Is a concrete person acting in a way that is the opposite or opposed to Christ? Then the adjective can be illustrative. Yet, I still wouldn’t throw it around casually. Nor would I commonly refer to someone as a beast, as Revelation does, yet metaphor has its power. Revelation uses images both for illustration and parody, it wants its readers to see the world in the way that John is being enabled to see but it also wants to demonstrate the difference between the claims of, in this case, the Roman empire and its servants and its reality. Revelation continues to be powerful because its metaphors and parodies continue to resonate for people in multiple times, places and experiences to make sense of the reality of their world and to be reminded that whatever savage beasts that they are facing, no matter the bellow of the dragon and its servants that their God is ultimately able to allow them to persevere no matter the oppression they may experience.

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.