Book Review: Jesus in a World of Colliding Empires: Mark's Jesus from the Perspective of Power and Expectations, Volume One: Introduction and Mark 1:1-8:29; Volume Two: Mark 8:30-16:8 and Implications
This “commentary” (more properly an exploration of Mark’s Gospel under the impress of a certain approach) is different and out-of-the ordinary in a number of respects. Its aim is to read Mark’s Gospel against the backdrop of the kinds of power and political domination and machinations common in the ancient world, to show how it presents the story of Jesus as an alternative, “upside-down” type of “king” with a counter-cultural agenda. So, while the first brief chapter covers some of the usual background material: dating (“near the end of the Roman emperor Nero’s reign”, i.e. mid-to-late 60s AD, [6-7]), and authorship (John Mark), the next two introductory chapters cover the political and military situation of the ancient world: both the Roman Empire and preceding empires, e.g. Greek, Persian and Babylonian (Chapter Two), and the wider world of the time e.g. China, Central Asia, India, Southern Russia (Scythian Kingdoms), Iran and Africa, among others (Chapter Three).
Chapter Four considers the story of Israel in the midst of this world of clashing empires. Keown surveys Israel’s history from the time of the Wilderness wanderings, through the Conquest, and the time of the Judges, the united and divided monarchies, the decline and exile of both the northern and southern kingdoms, to the restoration and, finally, Israel under the rule of foreign empires and the Maccabean revolt. The upshot of this survey is to show that Israel’s story, despite its covenant relationship with God, was marked by the same kinds of military exploits, alliances, internecine political struggles, and pursuits of power, wealth and even empire that characterised the other nations and empires of the ancient world.
In a long Chapter Five, Keown explores the hope for deliverance and a Deliverer to be found in the literature of ancient Israel. Much of this hope, though not in all the literature, crystallized in the expectation of a particular individual deliverer, to whom Keown gives the acronym “Theo” (“the Expected One”); more conventionally known as the “Messiah.” The benefit to be gained from this chapter is that Keown explores the range of ideas and designations given to this “Theo” figure, and also explores Jewish hopes not only across the Old Testament and in the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, and in the writings of the rabbis, Philo, and Josephus, but also into the New Testament as well. The chapter thus provides a comprehensive compendium of texts and concludes with a composite picture of the role and function of the “Theo” figure. Keown shows that in many of these texts the Theo figure or God are shown to act against Israel’s enemies with violent force, and to win the victory or establish peace by military might and forceful subjugation of the nations.
In the final chapter of the first volume, Keown provides an overview of Mark 1:1 to 8:29. His approach is to present the material under a number of topics, so that while the text of the Gospel is examined sequentially to some extent, it is discussed in terms of what it shows us about how Mark uses terms or presents details which might be understood to portray Jesus and his ministry in terms of military might and power, but which ultimately show that Jesus’ concerns were quite other than such political ends. So, for example, the use of the term “gospel” (euangelion) could resonate with ideas of political, military, as well as spiritual, conquest, and the announcement of the coming kingdom of God (as e.g. in Mark 1:14 – 15) might have aroused hopes of God’s “Theo” bringing deliverance from Rome. The disciple-band Jesus chose, fit young men of fighting age, might have suggested Jesus was conscripting a revolutionary army. Fishermen would make ideal soldiers (174), the “Sons of Thunder” were perhaps so named because of their “zealous warrior spirit” (177), Simon the Cananaean was a Zealot, and Judas Iscariot may well have been an assassin or terrorist (Iscariot perhaps derived from sikarios meaning “daggerman”).
In this chapter, Keown shows that Jesus, like other major figures in Israel’s history, e.g. Moses, Joshua, Elijah and Elisha, did miracles; but unlike them Jesus showed no interest in winning any military victories (184), and in his teaching Jesus did not excite any messianic expectations. Furthermore, Jesus made no attempt to draw any of the Jewish leadership groups (such as the Herodians, Sadducees, or priests) to his side; nor did he make any moves to either oppose or side with the Roman overlords. Those groups who might have been expected to work with a “Theo figure”, such as the Pharisees, scribes or Essenes, Jesus either alienated or ignored.
The climax of the first part comes when Peter, speaking for all the disciples, recognises Jesus as the Messiah (or “Christ”, 8:29). But their expectation is that this will mean war with Rome. They are “victims of years of misinterpretation of the Scriptures and the Apocryphal and Pseudepigraphal writings of Israel” (206). They do not understand the true nature of Jesus’ messiahship until after the resurrection.
In the second volume, Keown considers the material in the remainder of the gospel (8:30 – 16:8; he accepts this is likely the original ending). Again, as in the first volume, Keown does not miss an opportunity to examine how Mark’s presentation could be understood in militaristic terms: for example, the Greek word used when Jesus calls the crowd (8:34) could have a military nuance of a “muster,” while the injunction to “take up [one’s] cross” could be understood as being ready to die for the cause of liberation, or the picture of the Son of Man coming with the angels could evoke the sense of a triumphal, victory procession. Later, when discussing the Last Supper (Mark 14:22 – 25), Keown draws out the militaristic possibilities of this account: the drinking of blood as a metaphor for war, and the phrase “This is my body,” is perhaps a reference to people gathered for war. Jesus’ later prediction that the Shepherd would be struck and the sheep scattered might even have been understood by the disciples to be a reference to the Roman ruler being defeated and his people scattered (2:196).
Throughout this volume, Keown shows how the disciples’ expectations of a military, political “Theo,” led them continually to expect that war with Rome would soon break out, and to interpret many of Jesus’ actions (e.g. in the Temple), or events such as Moses and Elijah appearing on the Mount of Transfiguration as leading to conflict (did Peter intend to set up a military camp when he suggested building three booths?).
Nevertheless, Jesus continually and consistently taught and showed how his way was the way of non-violence and sacrificial service. In Mark 10:45 and its wider passage of 10:35–45, Jesus “takes the patterns of power from the ancient world ‘head on’’’ and “envisions a world in which humanity no longer struggles for dominance in a survival of the strongest way, but lays down their lives in service of the other” (2:87). Even his Temple action, where Jesus exercises the greatest physical violence, is a “prophetic protest action [against injustice] that disrupts but does not destroy” and “demonstrates the upper limit of Christian non-violence” (112).
Space precludes a fuller discussion of Keown’s presentation of Jesus as the “Servant-King”. The argument might be summed up in this quotation from a final chapter (“Conclusions and Implications”): “The essence of Jesus’ message is one of love-motivated, humble, suffering, self-sacrificial service for the good of God’s mission, for the good of others without discrimination and to see authentic community formed” (2:218). Jesus is shown consistently to refuse the trappings of power, the use of force, the manipulation of influence, or the machinations of political intrigue. Keown outlines how a cruciform lifestyle, and following the serving, self-sacrificial way of Christ, is developed in the other gospels and the rest of the New Testament. He makes a pitch for Christ’s way as defining a unique way unseen in other religions. He raises the question of the implications of Mark’s presentation for reading the Old Testament, maintaining there are two ways of seeing the Old Testament material: one way, which perhaps arises from ancient Israel’s nationalistic interpretation rather than the will of God, portrays God as one who will establish Israel’s fortunes as a Warrior King bringing judgment upon Israel’s enemies; the other, which culminates in the person of Jesus, is seen in the Old Testament in bright flashes where the steadfast love of God is illuminated.
Keown, in conclusion, considers the implications of all this for Christian leadership: it is a call to servant leadership. It also requires a style of mission, evangelism, and apologetics that is invitational and not carried out by imposition or coercion. When it comes to involvement in politics, and in particular where violence is required, Keown advocates a pacifist approach. Males are challenged to eschew “macho” culture and operate out of love, compassion and grace. And, when it comes to the Second Coming of Christ, Christians should focus on service rather than fussing over the details of Christ’s coming, which may be a quiet and unobtrusive affair (2:252).
While Keown’s focus in the introductory chapters on “colliding empires” is an interesting approach, I found the chapters on the Roman world and “the rest of the known world at the time of Christ” somewhat of a romp through large tracts of both time and geographical space. The yield seemed a little thin, with rather obvious generalizations such as dynastic struggles and fratricide being typical of empire, or warfare and conflict characterizing “colliding empires.” “It was,” Keown states at one point, “a dog-eat-dog world” (17). I wondered whether it might have been better to have selected two or three well-chosen examples, and to have set up a picture of human imperial power that was then contrasted with the approach of the Markan Jesus in more depth. Again, in discussing Israel’s history, Keown makes the point that Jesus is compared and contrasted with Moses and Joshua, in particular. I would like to have seen this drawn out in more detail both here and in the subsequent chapters. I would also take issue with his statement (1:65) that David was not imperialistic. In fact, it was the way in which David expanded the borders of his kingdom and subdued neighbouring nations that, in part, made his reign seem like a “golden age”.
While Keown focuses mainly on Mark’s Gospel, he does not hesitate to draw in the other gospels, and even other parts of the New Testament to make his case for Jesus. This provides some nice cross-references to show how this picture of Jesus is not simply Markan, though Mark is most consistently attentive to Jesus as the Servant-King. But it also raises a question against Keown’s portrayal of the disciples as constantly expecting Jesus to lead them into war. In a footnote (2:69, footnote 63) Keown raises the question of whether the disciples were armed. When he references the fact that at Luke 22:38 they produce two swords, I could not help wondering why, on his suppositions, they did not all whip out swords crying, “We are ready!” As his discussion of the three disciples falling asleep in the Garden of Gethsemane implies (2:200-201), for men expecting to go into war at any time, the disciples were remarkably unprepared.
The book, unfortunately, has some grammatical infelicities in places, and the style sometimes suggests it has come off the computer in some haste. It could have done with a good editorial eye over it, especially to correct the occasional statement where misused pronouns, or pronouns without clear connection to their subjects, gives rise to ambiguity of meaning. Typographical errors are comparatively rare, but there is an incomplete footnote in volume two, page 180 (footnote 93).
Nonetheless, Keown succeeds in his aim to make this book accessible to the “educated Christian” not simply academics (1:11). And he has some nice turns of phrase: “We get an ironic picture of what cross-bearing can look like – bearing the burden of another in their pain” (2:171, on Simon of Cyrene bearing Jesus’ cross). “God had always planned a crucified Servant Messiah, not a crucifying military one” (2:214). And in many places his passion for contemporary application of Jesus’ teaching shines through: “Reading this some two thousand years later, Jesus has been proven correct in this detail [that there would be wars and rumours of war, Mark 13:7], as wars have gone on and on, and many supposedly in his name–anathema! ”(2:151, my emphasis).
Each volume includes a bibliography, and author and scripture (or ancient document) indices.
Derek Tovey is book review editor for Stimulus.