Jesus in the language of the empire?
The short incipit to Mark’s Gospel has always been the subject of intense debate among scholars. More than simply an introductory sentence to the proceeding narrative of Jesus’s life and works, this single verse holds a key position in debates about Mark’s Christology, theology, and overall aims, with some believing this to be the earliest indication of the author’s intent to write into his Gospel a subversive critique of the Roman imperial system under which he and his earliest audience lived. In particular, the textually uncertain “son of God” as a title for Jesus has divided interpreters both as to whether it represents an original part of the text, or a later addition by a theologically-minded and/or politically ideological redactor (see discussion below) wishing to assert Jesus’s divine heritage from the outset of the narrative.
Some scholars see the entire Gospel of Mark as having an underlying political message, and it has been suggested that this opening verse might be the first attempt by the Markan author to undermine the authority of the Roman emperor and elevate that of Jesus, by utilising language that was common in Roman imperial propaganda and more general language. Specifically, εὐαγγελίον (good news/gospel) is utilised in reference to the emperor’s birthday, battle success and rise to power, and υἱος θεοῦ (son of God) is often used to refer to Augustus (see, for example, Craig Evans, “Mark’s Incipit and the Priene Calendar Inscription,” p. 67-81, and “The Beginning of the Good News,” p. 83-103). For instance, Craig Evans discusses the Priene Calendar Inscription (dated to around 9 BCE; for the Greek text, see Wilhelm Dittenberger, Orientis Graecae Inscriptiones Selectae, p. 48-60; for an English translation, see Craig Evans, “Mark’s Incipit and the Priene calendar Inscription,” p. 69), which represents notable parallels with the opening words of Mark. The inscription praises Augustus, stating that “the birthday of the god (Augustus) was the beginning (ἀρχὴ) of the good tidings (εὐαγγελίον) for the world” (αλλ ουδ εν τοις εσομενοις ελπιδα υπολιπων υπερβολης, ηρξεν δε τω κοσμω των δι αυτον ευανγελιων η γενεθλιος ημερα του θεου) (see Craig Evans, “Mark’s Incipit and the Priene calendar Inscription”). Evans argues that Mark uses the incipit of his Gospel to challenge Roman imperial power, including the emperor directly, by firmly asserting that Jesus, not Caesar, is God’s son. The emperor’s reign was commonly celebrated as “good news” (εὐαγγελίον), and Josephus, Jewish War IV.10.6, for example, describes how Vespasian was greeted upon his arrival in Alexandria by the “good news” from Rome that the empire was secure. As Evans identifies, while Jesus is the agent bringing the good news in Mark’s Gospel, it is Augustus who brings it in the inscription. Moreover, there are various references to Augustus as either υἱος θεοῦ or divi filius (see Craig Evans, “Mark’s Incipit and the Priene Calendar Inscription,” p. 69 for these, which include PRylands 601 and POslo 26). The significance of the inscription for interpreting the Gospel, therefore, should not be underestimated (for a further discussion of the inscription, Gerhard Pfohl, ed., Griechische Inschriften, p. 134-135 and Helmut Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels, p. 3-4).
Moreover, as Adam Winn points out (Adam Winn, “Tyrant or Servant?” p. 327-329), there are several occasions in Mark where it can be argued that Jesus is being modelled on, but presented as superior to the emperor. For instance, Jesus’s two healings in Mark 3:1-6 and 8:22-26 are reminiscent of the narration of Vespasian’s healings in Alexandria (Tacitus, Histories 4.81.1-3) (see Brian Incigneri, The Gospel According to the Romans, p. 170-171). In addition, the healing of the Gerasene demonic (Mark 5:1-17; see the discussion of the parallel in Luke 8:26-33), who is possessed by a λεγιῶν (“legion” – a Latin loanword denoting 5000-6000 soldiers) of demons, sees Jesus cast them into a herd of pigs, who run off a cliff and drown. Aside from the implication of Jesus as the commander of the legion (the emperor was of course the supreme head of the Roman army, with subordinates underneath him), it is perhaps also noteworthy that the 10th Legion, commanded by Vespasian, and stationed in Palestine during the Jewish revolt, had a boar on their insignia, making the ill-fated swine of this story potentially significant. This legion was also responsible for burning the city of Gerasa (see, for example, Richard Horsley, Hearing the Whole Story, p. 140-141).
It might be, however, that the reference to the “good news” of Jesus Christ is inspired more by the hopes presented in Isaiah. Immediately following the opening incipit, in Mark 1:3 (“A voice crying out in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord…’”), Isaiah 40:3 is alluded to. As Craig Evans discusses, the term “good news” is found in various parts of Isaiah (also 41:21-29, 52:7-12, 60:1-7, 61:1-11) in reference to the restoration of Jerusalem and a new promised land, a coming herald who is to proclaim God’s reign, and an anointed messenger who will heal the blind and give good news to those who suffer. Nonetheless, this vision of renewal does somewhat mirror the promise of Roman new world order, which embodied law, order, prosperity, health, and justice. It may be, then, that the Markan author fuses together the seemingly conflicting rulerships of God and Rome (Craig Evans, “Mark’s Incipit and the Priene Calendar Inscription,” p. 76-77).
The final two words of the opening incipit, “υἱος θεοῦ,” are not witnessed in all manuscripts (for the specifics, see Novum Testamentum Graece, Nestle-Aland 26th edition, p. 89), and according to Bruce Metzger (A Textual Commentary, p. 73), may be the result of a copying error. Adela Yarbro Collins (“Establishing the Text: Mark 1:1”), however, argues that the words are a deliberate, later addition from the second century CE. As Morna Hooker (The Gospel According to Saint Mark, p. 34) points out, Mark’s Christology does not really lose anything without the presence of the phrase, but it is certainly consistent with the Gospel writer’s apparent beliefs. Scholars remain divided. If the phrase “son of God” was not an original feature of the text, therefore, then it could be that a later redactor wished to emphasise from the start a strong theological statement – that Jesus has divine parentage, reinforce some of the anti-Roman rhetoric which is arguably present throughout the rest of the Gospel (although not all scholars agree over the extent and/or presence of such sentiments), or possibly even both.