Mark tells a dark story. All Europe and half of Asia Minor were in the power of Rome's emperor, backed by the most powerful army ever known and revered throughout his empire as a god. But there is another emperor: God himself. And Mark proclaims his viceroy: Jesus. Jesus had challenged the power of his own people's leaders, of demonic powers, of Rome itself and had been hung up on a cross to die. So much, it seems, for his claims and his kingdom. He dies, abandoned and in agony, with words of despair on his lips: 'My God, my God, why have you deserted me?"
The leader had died, his pupils were scattered. Those young men had joined Jesus for the excitement and revolutionary purpose of this new master's way. How little they understood! They would follow him to the death, they said, and at the crucial moment they ran away. But this was not the end of the story. These pupils insisted that Jesus was once more alive. Their conviction led them to bear brave witness to this extraordinary "Lord." Some paid dearly for their courage. The Greek word for witnesses has become part of the English language, referring to those whose testimony cost them their lives: the martyrs.
These followers of Jesus spread throughout the empire and took their message with them. Within twenty years of Jesus' death, they were in Rome. Here in the empire's capital is the setting for Mark's gospel.
The crisis that Jesus' pupils faced had to be faced again by Mark's young church. In 64 C.E. a fire swept through Rome. Arson was suspected, and the Christians were soon blamed. Jesus' warning echoed down the years: 'All those, "he had said, "who want to follow after me must take up their cross an follow me. "The Christians in Rome were rounded up, tortured, and killed. Where in these terrible days was the victory of Jesus, mysterious rival to the emperor's power? Jesus asked, "Do you still not understand?" Mark knows his readers need all they help they can get if they are to open their eyes and see.
Mark's story sounds simple enough. His storytelling is abrupt and unadorned; the Greek in which he writes is basic. We can still hear the accent of a story, once told in a different language and translated into Greek by missionaries, such perhaps as Mark himself, who would never be mistaken for its native speakers. But such translation was essential. Greek was a cosmopolitan language, the empire's lingua franca, in which the gospel must be heard if it was ever to spread. We first hear of the Jewish Mark as a young man at home in Jerusalem. We might imagine him writing his gospel, decades later, as an immigrant to Rome. He would have been based in the outskirts of the city. Most of Rome's Jews lived across the river Tiber from the city's center, engine of the empire and unparalleled in wealth and power, just as families from Europe in the twentieth century might live in Queens and cross the river to make their living in Manhattan. Such modern immigrants master English; it was just as important then for missionaries such as Mark to write in Greek.
Jesus had been an artisan in a distant province of the empire. His pupils had been country people. His movement, it seemed, had been nipped in the bud. Few grandees in Rome would have heard of his claims; fewer still, if any, acknowledged them. But the forces of Rome, claimed the church should take care. For Jesus' followers maintained allegiance to their master still. Those in Rome made little fuss; they worked in the city and may well have served its elite, as an army of manual and clerical workers serves Manhattan's businesses now. The followers of Jesus crossed the Tiber, as thousands of others, and gazed on the city's marble temples and on the mansions of nobles and of government from which its vast empire was run. But this handful of Jesus' devotees remained quite clear: The emperor to whom all Europe did obeisance was not the king in whose hand this empire really lay. These "Christians" might suffer for the fire of 64 C.E., but there was suffering far worse still in store for those who resisted the reign of God and his Anointed, his "Christ." In Mark's stern, stark story we hear a rebel speak.
Copyright Robin Griffith Jones 2000. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without the written permission of the publisher - Harper Collins.
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