The seemingly innocuous opening line of the Gospel of Mark is actually a broadside against the Roman Empire, or any empire. It is a loaded sentence.
Many think that Mark’s Gospel was written in the context of the city of Rome, perhaps to Roman Christians. Whatever the case, it was certainly written within the context of the Roman Empire. This context highlights the opening sentence of the Gospel.
To what “beginning” does Mark refer? Literarily, it is the beginning of the document and the sentence may function as a title; if not to the whole document, at least to the opening fifteen verses. But does it only have a literary function? I think it is theologically pregnant.
“Beginning” may call us to the beginning of the new creation as the first Greek word in the sentence reminds us of Genesis 1:1. The good news is that new creation has begun. “Beginning” may point us to the beginning of the ministry of Jesus which inaugurates the new creation; it is the beginning of the in-breaking of the kingdom of God. The good news (gospel) both belongs to Jesus and is about Jesus.
More than this, Mark’s language makes a claim that contrasts with the claims of the Empire.We know that the birthday of Augustus Caesar (under whom Jesus was born) was proclaimed as “good news” (gospel, euangelion) in the Empire. For example, a calendar inscription reads: “The birthday of the god was for the world the beginning of the joyful messages (gospel, JMH) which have gone forth because of him” (TDNT 2:724).
Further, just as Jesus is called “son of God” in Mark’s opening line, coins in the Roman world were sometimes inscribed with the Emperor’s name followed by the designation “son of God” (theou huios). The coins of Tiberius Caesar are a good example of this.
Mark begins his Gospel with an astounding claim. Jesus is the good news, not the Emperor. Jesus is the Son of God, not the Emperor. In effect, Jesus is Lord, not the Emperor.
The new era of peace, good news and justice did not begin with Augustus. Rather, it begins with Jesus. He is the servant of Isaiah who brings good news to Jerusalem and ultimately to the whole world. Mark tells the story of the Lord who rules through self-sacrificial service–the suffering servant of Isaiah–in contrast to the ruling coercive power of the Roman Caesar.
Mark calls us to believe this “gospel” (Mark 1:15)–the good news of the kingdom of God–rather than the proclamations of the empire….whether Roman or otherwise. The story of Jesus is the story of a different kind of kingdom.
Americana might hear this opening title as well as a judgment on the “good news” of the American dream and the American experiment. When Christians buy into a kind of civil religion where American values compete with the good news of Jesus we need to read the Gospel of Mark again.
My Sunday morning Bible class at Woodmont Hills (Nashville, TN) began a study of Mark this past Sunday. Hopefully, I will have some time to occasionally blog my thoughts on our reading of the text.