While it is impossible to ignore the theological weight of the New Testament, it is perhaps somewhat reductive to belittle the political ramifications of the text. From its very inception, Christianity self-consciously aimed to draw and build on a reservoir of Jewish (and other) religious traditions and philosophical patterns of thought. There are numerous examples of this appropriation of the Hebrew Bible in the gospels, but perhaps the most conspicuous instance is Christ’s discourse in the Temple of Jerusalem, as described in Mark 12-13. Through a close examination of that passage this paper tries to show how Christ simultaneously uses and metamorphoses Jewish doctrine to syncretically create a religion that reflects his unique conception of God.
Unlike Paul, whose epistles are specifically directed towards helping followers remain strong in their faith, Mark does not overtly advertise his political intentions. However he too is intrinsically concerned with winning over the faithful, creating an “us” to counter the “others” surrounding him. He relies heavily on Christian re-evaluations of Jewish doctrine to do this, but it is important to remember that Mark’s audiences were not solely Jews. None of the Apostles could afford to forget the Gentiles, and Mark’s insistence on Christ’s corporality, his portrayal of Jesus as an extraordinary man with ordinary beginnings is designed to capture his audience’s sympathies in a manner that transcends existing religious beliefs. Heathen or not, one cannot fail to be moved by Mark’s Jesus, who is characterised along the lines of a Greek tragic hero. According to this gospel, Jesus’ hamartia is his inability to express himself articulately — his readers already know the outcome and yet they read his story, spellbound at how events escalate to their final disastrous conclusion. It is proof of the genius of Mark that he taps into the cathartic emotions that a secular reading might inspire and directs them into religious channels so efficiently. Unfortunately, for the purposes of this paper, this aspect of the narrative will have to remain unexplored.
Postcolonial literary theory recognises three main stages in the evolution of a subject-nation’s artistic output. At first the subjects adopt the dominant ideology, then they become adept at it, and finally they become so skilful in the manipulation of cultural functions (such as language and literature) that they begin to adapt these functions to their own ends, often turning the tool against the dominant discourse itself. This held as true for first century A.D. Christians as it did for Commonwealth authors writing under the shadow of nineteenth century British rule. As Christ himself is quoted telling a Samaritan woman, “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews” (John 4.22). Clearly, he identified himself as intrinsically Jewish.
The working of the principles of ‘adopt’ and ‘adept’ are clear early on in Mark’s text. Soon after his anointing by John the Baptist, Christ goes into the wilderness, emerging after forty days to proclaim the “good news of God” (1.14). We are given almost no details about this time alone, but we can assume that he was doing more than just fraternising with the wild beasts. This hypothesis gains substance with the next vignette, which describes how he entered a synagogue and “taught [the congregation] as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (1.22). So, not only was Jesus adept at Hebrew scripture, he was also actively engaged in interpreting it in ways that the “literate elite of scholar-lawyers” (1.22n) of Jerusalem were not.
Chapter 12 contains the crux of Jesus’ challenge to the entrenched socio-religious order. He had preached at other smaller temples before, and had gathered a fair number of followers, but the Temple at Jerusalem was a veritable bastion of Jewish power. His choice of parable again demonstrates his intention of moulding Jewish religious law to his own purposes. He starts with the story about recalcitrant vineyard tenants, an allegory for his present situation: he is the “beloved son” that the “tenants” will proceed to kill. He ends with a rebuke, “Have you not read this scripture…?” (12.10); his quote is from Psalm 118, a celebratory hymn that gives thanks to the Lord after victory in battle (Ps 118n). The poem mentions enemies that “surrounded [the devotee] on every side; / in the name of the Lord I cut them off!” (Ps 118.10). Jesus too is, literally, surrounded by an antagonistic religion on every side with only the Lord’s sanction to help him. By inserting himself into the psalm he subtly reinterprets it so that the speaker is no longer a Jew singing hallelujahs but a Christian praising his lord, the one true God.
Mark continues this sophisticated pattern of appropriation in Jesus’ debate with the Pharisees and Herodians. The Messiah refuses to give a direct answer about paying taxes, simply saying, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” (12.17). While literally espousing a separation between the institutions of Church and State, Jesus is actually negating the State’s command — after all, God is the ultimate master (as he had pointed out in the preceding parable). So far in their history the sons of Abraham had had a precarious existence under a dual system of power, declaring their God while recognising the regulatory force of their heathen rulers. Thus, his binding together of the two axes of authority has several significances. Most obviously it advocates a move away from the material world of coins and valorises the philosophy of love that is developed more fully in the later gospels. A deeper examination might show the extent of Jesus’ self-awareness: he (or, the narrator) knew that there would be scant hope for the Christian faith unless it was the only focus of regulatory power. In this he is directly drawing on the Hebrew Bible’s insistence on the uniqueness of Yah, but instead of attacking other religions, he attacks the socio-political bases of society. Again, an Old Testament tradition is skilfully reinvented and added into the Christian canon.
Another important political ramification of Christ’s gospel of love is in locating the Other. Obviously Christians are different from others in terms of their religion. But if that encourages them to love all the different heathen practices, that would fundamentally weaken their own. Before examining the gospel’s response to this problem, it might be significant to note that Jesus’ injunction to love God and love one’s neighbour thematically completes a narratorial problem that was introduced with Satan’s question, “Does Job fear God for nothing?” (Job 1.9). The subsequent trials and tribulations of Job and Yahweh’s final rejection of an androcentric worldview provide a lengthy, though rather unsatisfactory, answer. Christ recognises that while mankind cannot move beyond its context, trying to understand the vagaries of one’s life is one of our primal urges. Thus he takes the Deuteronomic exhortation to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might,” (Deut 6.4) but rejects the latter half of that passage, which specifically separates the children of Israel from “the peoples who are all around [them],” (Deut 6:14). Mark mentions two instances where Jesus feeds large groups of people with only a few loaves of bread and some fish: first the Jews (6.30-44) and then the Gentiles (8.1-9). These instances have been read as a parallel of the time that manna fell from heaven to feed Moses’ escaped Jews in the desert (Ex 16), but with an important difference. There food was used to remove the last vestiges of identification with the Egyptians that the freed slaves might have retained, heightening the sense of “us” and “them.” Here, with the pointed repetition of the miracle for a Gentile crowd, the power of inclusion is put into play. After all, the text itself admits, “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand… But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man,” (3.24-27). Throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus continually asks his friends and disciples, “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables?” (4.13). Given his penchant for speaking in allegories, it doesn’t seem a stretch to read the entire gospel as a “metaparable,” a canny political treatise masked as simple religious doctrine.
Almost all the teachings of Jesus can be read as cynical attempts to win over his audience and ensure the continuity of his religion; now love, not birth, demarcates the chosen ones from the damned. Thus in its very conception Christianity contains the seeds of anti-Semitism and anti-paganism. John David Dawson quotes a modern Christian scholar and theologian, writing in 1948, “As Christians see it, history is symbolical… But there can be no progress in history without the destruction of what went before… [In the Old Testament] God began to detach his people from the carnal economy they had lived under at first. If man was to reach his full spiritual stature, he would have to make up his mind to leave his childhood behind him.” (Packet IIIb 53)
This passage not only shows how, paradoxically, the religion of love relies on establishing differences, but also points to the fact that the Jewish faith did the very same at its establishment. It also drew on pagan customs like circumcision, endowing them with a specific significance and adapting them as its’ own. At that time, nomadic pastoralism being the main form of social organisation meant that there was enough space for rigid boundaries between peoples based on religion and birth. By Jesus’ time, people had moved into cities, living in close proximity with the Others; an all-inclusive religion of love was the best solution in these sociological conditions. Northrop Frye acknowledges this sociological/religious paradigm, noting, “As the Bible goes on, the area of sacred space shrinks… [Until] for Christianity… a central sacred space could no longer exist… what became sacrosanct about [the headquarters of Christianity at Rome] was the administration,” (Packet IIIb 73). Ironically, the nomadic Christ had the best solution for urban social organisation.
In light of all this, it is important to remind oneself that early Christian teachers also taught out of real faith and love for their followers, not just political necessity. At the very end of Jesus’ preaching in the Temple, he says, “this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury” (12.43). This can be interpreted as a blatant attempt to cull mass favour, but Mark’s Jesus, with his stupendous faith and his knowledge of his own impending death, doesn’t seem quite so coldly political. He seems to be speaking out of genuine compassion and recognition of the woman’s proportionately greater sacrifice (and thus, love for God). The fact that a reader hesitates to even question his motives is only further proof of Mark and the other Apostles’ success.