“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…’” – The Gospel of Mark 1:1-3
For many reading this reflection, the name ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ may seem extremely familiar (whether positively or negatively) and for others the name Jesus of Nazareth may seem strangely unfamiliar. However, in light of our familiarity and unfamiliarity with Jesus of Nazareth, I would like to invite you on a journey with me through the life of Jesus. Perhaps, some of you may be thinking well, “I am not a Christian”, yet this journey is not just for the Christian – in the traditional/institutional sense of the word – it is inclusive to all people from all walks of life. Hence, in this first of many reflections I pose this question:
Who is Jesus of Nazareth?
In contrast to our often domesticated and overly spiritual images of Jesus that are ever so present in our modern world, Mark’s portrait of Jesus is far from tame. Mark’s portrait of Jesus is not of some ‘other-worldly’ figure who came preaching an ‘other-worldly’ message of liberation (salvation), rather Mark’s portrayal of Jesus is a depiction of an anointed (or consecrated) kingly instrument of God’s liberation in the ‘present now’. Hence, this is particularly why Mark begins his gospel by describing Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. Often the Christian imagination has explained the titles given to Jesus, such as, the Christ and the Son of God in terms of divinity (suggesting that Jesus is God). However, the titles given to Jesus by Mark are not titles that suggest divinity; rather they are titles that are suggestive of kingship.
Jesus, the Son of God: The title Son of God has often been a title that has been characteristics of kings in the ancient world in both Israel (the community that Jesus belonged to) and in the greater Roman world (the empire that was in power during the time of Jesus). For example, Augustus Caesar (the Roman Emperor) called himself the divi filius (Son of God) and even on the Roman coin the inscription divi filius can be found. Another example is Alexander the Great (the king of the Ancient Greek kingdom) who also called himself the Son of God. Finally, it should be mentioned that the term Son of God was also used in Israel (the community that Jesus belonged to) way before Jesus can into the picture. For example, in the Hebrew scriptures (the Old Testament), the term Son of God was not uncommon for kings in the Hebrew world.
“And I – I appointed My king on Zion, My holy mountain.” Let me tell as is due of the LORD. He said to me: You are My son. I Myself today did beget you. – Psalms 2:6-7
Jesus, the Messiah (In Greek the Christ): In reflecting on this title we must remember that Jesus (and his entire world) was unashamedly Jewish. The title ‘Messiah’ in hebrew simply means ‘anointed one’. The title the Messiah, the one anointed by God, was applied to the king of Israel, the high priest, the prophet, and even the king of Persia when he enacted God’s plan (Isa. 45.1). However, around the time of Jesus the term ‘messiah’ came to refer to an ideal king who would come and redeem Israel from the dominating ‘would be powers’ of Rome. Also it came to refer to a king who would establish a kingdom like that of their ancestor David, whose reign was idealized as a time of peace, prosperity, and justice.
Consequently, in contrast to view of Jesus that is ‘apolitical’ (non-political) and ‘other-worldly’, Mark’s portrait of Jesus is extremely ‘political’ and ‘very worldly’. Mark living and writing his gospel (around 64 and 72 CE) during the time of Roman Empire makes a bold and polemical (controversial) statement to his Jewish audience. Mark’s gospel proclaims that Jesus is Lord (king/ruler). In making this statement, Mark suggests that Jesus is the rightful king who will liberate his people from the domination of Roman empire. Nevertheless, Jesus will also be the king that will free his people into the kingdom of God – a kingdom characterized by peace, mercy, and justice.
As a modern reader of Mark’s gospel, Mark’s claim may not strike you as ‘political’ or ‘polemical’, this due to the distance from our world to Mark’s Jewish-Roman world where claims to kingship were seen as treason. In Mark’s Jewish-Roman world, the actual king (the lord, ruler, emperor, anointed) was not Jesus of Nazareth, but was actually Augustus Caesar – the king who through power, might, violence and imperial dominance brought about the Pax Romana (the period of Roman Peace) to all Rome. Thus, ascribing kingship (lordship) to Jesus would be seen by Rome as seditious and treasonous.
Thus, at the beginning of Mark’s gospel when we hear the words: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” the writer of Mark’s gospel makes a huge statement. Mark’s gospel emphatically states the Jesus is Lord and not Caesar. According to Mark, Jesus is the kingly Messiah, that is, the ideal king who has come to redeem and liberate Israel. The Messiah has come to end the age of Rome’s imperial dominance in order to bring about a new age of peace, mercy, and justice.
According to Mark, the “good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” is not about going to this “other-worldy” abode in the sky called heaven, but the good news (or the gospel) is rooted in the idea that God will rescue and restore his people from the captivity and domination of a violent and unjust empire. The “good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” is connected to the reality that God will shepherd (rule) and care for the people of Godself. As Isaiah 40:10-11 says, “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”
The good news for Israel was about God acting on their behalf redeeming them from captivity and liberating them into a reality of peace, prosperity, and justice.
For now, hear is where our journey together comes to a pause. Our journey together pauses with Mark’s daring claim about Jesus of Nazareth, that is, the claim that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God.
- What should we make of these hefty claims found in the opening chapter of Mark?
- Will Jesus of Nazareth be all that Israel hoped for in the Messiah?
We are left wandering about these questions at the end of verse 3 of chapter 1. Nevertheless, perhaps our questions will be answered along our journey together throughout Mark’s gospel. Until then, I ask that the peace of God be with you all!
What do we know about this alternative way from Mark 1?
According to Mark 1, this alternative way suggests a way liberation from the dominating and oppresive forces of Rome. This alternative way has Jesus at its forefront liberating his people from the captivity of Rome and into a space of freedom.
How does one participate in this alternative way?
One participates in this alternative way through the act of repentance. Whether pastor, priest, imam, Politician, teacher, mother, etc. – all are called to reexamine their lives and repent from participating in the destructive ways of Caesar and empire.
This is precisely what Jesus meant when he said: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe (trust) in the good news.” In talking about repentance, Jesus was calling Israel to turn from their destructive ways of participating with empire, that is, he was calling them to reject the dominating, violent, unjust, and chaotic ways of Caesar.
What is this alternative way like?
All that we learn in Mark 1 is that participation in this alternative way necesitates one to renounce the oppressive ways of violence, oppression and injustice (personified in Caesar and Rome) and trust that God – God as the ground of all being – will bring forth peace and justice throughout the world.
A quick side note: I (like the philosopher and theologian) define God as the ‘ground of all being’. What does this mean? I believe that God precedes ‘being’ itself. More sharply, all things have their being in God – all things are the sum of God, yet God is not the sum of all things.
 Please note that I am asking a ‘theological’ question, rather than a ‘historical’ one. Research on the ‘historical Jesus’ has been extremely beneficial for my understanding of Jesus in his second temple Jewish/Roman historical context. Nevertheless, in this reflection I want to talk about the theological Jesus that I encounter in the gospels – particularly the gospel of Mark. In my perspective, the Jesus who we come to meet in the ‘gospels’ is not solely the Jesus of history; rather in the gospels we meet the Jesus of history as he is ‘interpreted’ by the early Christian community.
 Traditionally it has been argued that the author of Mark is none other than John Mark. Supporting this claim is an ancient tradition (by way of a church historian called Papias) who recalled that Mark collected all the eyewitness accounts of Peter (a firsthand follower of Jesus), On the other hand, many scholars doubt Markan authorship suggesting that gospel of Mark is anonymous. For the sake of efficiency, I will use the name Mark when referring to writer of the gospel according to Mark.
 Levine, Amy-Jill, and Zvi, Brettler Marc. The Jewish Annotated New Testament. Oxford Univ Pr, 2017. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&scope=site&db=nlebk&db=nlabk&AN=1561417>.
 Some scholars place date of Mark’s gospel before 70 CE. They argue that the destruction of the Jewish second temple (around 70 CE) had not happened yet by the Romans. In my perspective, Mark seems to be writing after 70 CE – which would be after the Jewish second temple destruction by the Romans.
 The Pax Romana was a period less military expansion and relative understanding of peacefulness. Nevertheless, the Roman period of peace can also be understood as a people of imperial peace where the Roman state dominated and controlled all other city-states.