The advent of Vespasian and the good news of Jesus Christ

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I have just finished reading an excellent essay by Craig Evans entitled “The Beginning of the Good News and the Fulfillment of Scripture in the Gospel of Mark” in [amazon:978-0802828460:inline], edited by Stanley Porter. I think I can just about spin this as a belated advent post.

Evans suggests that Mark portrayed Jesus as the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy ‘as a conscious challenge to the rumors circulating in the Roman Empire that Jewish prophecy was fulfilled with the advent of Vespasian as the new emperor and, by virtue of his exalted office, the new “son of God” ’ (86). This slots into a fairly heated scholarly debate about the extent to which the “gospel” in the New Testament was framed in anti-imperial terms. I won’t attempt to summarize the arguments and counter-arguments here, but this interview with Justin Hardin, though typographically untidy, gives an impression of the debate.

Evans cites some pagan presentiments of Vespasian’s accession, but more significant are two pieces of Jewish evidence for these rumours. The first is a story about Rabban Yohanan be Zakkai, who supposedly told Vespasian directly that he would become king in order that Isaiah 10:34 might be fulfilled, for it “has been handed down to us, that the temple will not be surrendered to a commoner, but to a king; as it is said, ‘He will cut down the thickets of the forest with an axe, and Lebanon with its majestic trees will fall’ ” (89).

Secondly, Josephus’ prophecy that Vespasian would become Caesar was widely known in the Roman world. Suetonius writes: “One of his high-born prisoners, Josephus by name, as he was being put in chains, declared most confidently that he would soon be released by the same man, who would then, however, be emperor” (Suetonius, Vespasian 5.6). Suetonius notes that “There had spread all over the east an old and established belief, that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judea to rule the world. This prediction, referring to the emperor of Rome, as afterwards appeared from the event, the people of Judea took to themselves; accordingly they revolted” (Vespasian 4.5). Evans suggests that the prophecy Josephus had in mind was Numbers 24:17: “A star shall come forth out of Jacob, and scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab, and break down all the sons of Sheth” (91).

Against this background Evans highlights a number of features of Mark’s Gospel that suggest that it was written as a deliberate response to the “good news” of Vespasian’s accession.

1. There are allusions in Mark’s “incipit” or opening (“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”) to the euangelion of imperial propaganda. There is the Priene calendar inscription with its presentation of Augustus as a divine saviour, whose birthday was “the beginning of the good news for the world”. Similarly Nero is described as the “good god of the inhabited world, the beginning of all good things” (POxy 1021). Josephus records the widespread celebrations of the “good news” (euangelia) of Vespasian’s accession, by which the Roman state had been “saved beyond expectation” (94). Evans then points out that Mark, in all likelihood writing in Rome at just this time (this is contentious), substantiates his claim with reference to the prophet Isaiah (Mk. 1:2-3). “Thus, Mark’s Gospel opens with a challenge to the view circulating the very year that Vespasian was proclaimed emperor, that is, that Vespasian’s accession and divinity were in fulfillment of Jewish prophecy” (95).

2. Suetonius records miracles of healing performed by Vespasian in which he would spit upon blind eyes or touch a lame leg (Vespasian 7:2-3). The comparison with Mark’s Jesus is immediately apparent (cf. Mk. 1:41; 6:56; 7:33).

3. Just as Vespasian was ultimately responsible for the destruction of the temple and the erection in its place of a “temple of peace”, so Jesus was accused of threatening to destroy the temple and to build a new one, not made by hands, in its place (Mk. 14:58).

4. The details of the mock coronation of Jesus before a “whole battalion” of Roman soldiers prior to his crucifixion (Mk. 15:16-19) have their counterparts in imperial ceremonies. “It has accordingly been suggested [by Schmidt] that the mockery and crucifixion of Jesus have been modeled after imperial triumph traditions” (96).

5. The preternatural signs and events that accompany Jesus’ death are mirrored in accounts of the deaths of Roman emperors (96-97). The acknowledgement by a Roman centurion that “this man was son of God” is obviously significant.

6. Evans tentatively suggests that Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree (Mk. 11:12-14, 20) is an allusion to the belief that the laurel planted by each Julian emperor would die just before his death—and that just before Nero died in AD 68 the whole grove of laurels “died from the root up” (97). It seems more likely, though, that the fig tree here stands for Israel, which had borne no fruit and is therefore condemned (“May no one ever eat fruit from you again”).

Some of these parallels are perhaps a little forced, but particularly in view of the historical provenance of Mark’s Gospel it seems to me that the basic argument is highly plausible: Mark deliberately directed his euangelion concerning Jesus Christ, the Son of God, against the confidence or faith that the Roman world placed in Vespasian and in the imperial system generally.

Thus, lying at the heart of the Markan Gospel is this question: Who really is the son of God and which one of these divine sons will occasion good news for a Roman world greatly troubled by recent war and political upheaval? (87)

The Gospel itself does not explore the historical implications of this challenge to the rule of the divine Caesar because Jesus’ own concern was with the fate of Israel—his eschatological horizon is the destruction of the temple. This observation, I would suggest, goes some way towards answering the criticism made by Andreas Köstenberger in a response chapter that the Roman context is not really “large and significant enough to warrant making it the major occasion for writing and the determinative christological trigger for Mark” (271). The Gospel is not about Rome; it is about Israel. But what happens to Israel will ultimately have implications for the empire.

Evans’ essay highlights the intrinsic historical continuity between the story of Jesus and the subsequent realization—this is essentially Paul’s gospel—that the resurrection of Jesus signalled the end of pagan imperialism and the advent of a new world order. This is not an outcome that can be measured purely in terms of personal salvation and inner transformation: this is a political gospel with radical, historically determined, political implications.

But then we are left with a final question hanging in the air: If Mark presented Jesus as “good news” in this specific political sense, how is the story to be construed as still “good news” today? To be continued…