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A Tale of Two Gospels, Pt. 1

In the 18th and 19th centuries, a series of investigatory missions and archeological excavations uncovered the ruins of Priene. These ruins—located in what is now Turkey—are generally accepted as the most complete surviving example of an entire ancient Greek city.

Though it was originally constructed by the Greek Empire in 4th century BCE, Priene would be firmly under the control of Rome less than 200 years later.

In fact, a Roman calendar inscription dating back to 9 BCE found among the ruins of Priene should be of particular interest when we engage the 1st chapter of Mark. A translated portion of that ancient, Roman calendar inscription reads as follows:

“Since providence has ordered the whole of our life and ordained the most perfect consummation of human life by giving us Caesar Augustus—filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind—sending him as a savior for us and our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, by his appearance excelled even our anticipations, surpassing all previous benefactors and leaving no hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good news for the world that came by reason of him…”

While the journey from Latin to modern English is a bit bumpy, this calendar inscription is basically listing the reasons why Rome is establishing a new calendar based on the year of Caesar’s birth. Essentially, they’re changing their calendar because they believe Caesar Augustus to be the perfect savior—God on earth—who will end all war and make everything right—and because his birth is the good news for which the world has been waiting.

Does any of that sound familiar?

If you’re like me, you might find this a little disconcerting. Caesar is the savior? He’s god on earth—and we should commemorate his birth? And for that matter, the story of Caesar is the “good news?” Almost eighty years after this inscription described Caesar as a savior god and heralded his birth as the “good news,” followers of a Jewish rabbi crucified by Rome—people who had lived their entire lives under the boot of that empire—would use this same language to tell a different story.

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him and were baptized by him in the river Jordan. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.
And a voice came from heaven,
“You are my Beloved child in whom I delight.”

The calendar inscription in Priene states,

“…the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good news (or gospel) for the world…”

Mark’s testimony of Jesus of Nazareth—widely accepted to be the first of the four biblical accounts to be written—begins with eerily similar phrasing.

The beginning of the good news (or gospel) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

The Greek word behind all of this is euangelion—the root of the modern English word evangelical. Euangelion means good news, joyful tidings, or as the Anglo Saxons would later translate it—gospel. The citizens and slaves of Rome were used to hearing euangelion. It was a word associated with the cult of the emperor. They were familiar with stories of Caesar being god on earth and celebrating his birth and rise to power as festival days. Biblical scholar William Lane tells us the reports of those festivals were called euangelion, and they shared the “good news” and “joyful tidings”—the “gospel”—of Caesar’s rule on earth. In what would have been obvious to his original audience, Mark mimics this almost word for word as he purposefully co-opts the language of the Roman Empire to begin his story of Jesus. In fact, one could safely say that Mark didn’t just co-opt the language of the Roman Empire; he changed it completely. He interpreted it in a way it had never been used before. Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann teaches that when it comes to the stories of our faith, “Interpretation is inescapable.” It’s what we do. It’s what we have always done. Furthermore, Brueggemann asserts, “There is no innocent interpretation. All interpretation is subject to our vested interest, our experience, and our wounding.” If Brueggemann is correct, then it stands to reason that Mark and his fellow Jesus-followers had different interests, experiences, and wounding than that of the Roman Empire.

Accordingly, their gospel accounts—what they perceived as good news—would be different.


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