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Discourses of Empire

Discourses of Empire: The Gospel of Mark from a Postcolonial Perspective

Hans Leander
Series: Semeia Studies
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 404
  • Book Info
    Discourses of Empire
    Book Description:

    This inventive work explores Mark’s Gospel within the contexts of the empires of Rome and Europe. In a unique dual analysis, the book highlights how empire is not only part of the past but also of a present colonial heritage. The book first outlines postcolonial criticism and discusses the challenges it poses for biblical scholarship, then scrutinizes the complex ways with which nineteenth-century commentaries on Mark’s Gospel interplayed with the formation of European colonial identities. It examines the stance of Mark’s Gospel vis-à-vis the Roman Empire and analyzes the manner in which the fibers of empire within Mark are interwoven, reproduced, negotiated, modified and subverted. Finally, it offers synthesizing suggestions for bringing Mark beyond a colonial heritage. The book’s candid use of postcolonial criticism illustrates how a contemporary perspective can illuminate and shed new light on an ancient text in its imperial setting.

    eISBN: 978-1-58983-890-1
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  2. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  3. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-24)

    That such an ambiguous story as the Gospel of Mark is proclaimed as the “good news” of Jesus Christ (Mark 1:1) has been a question for many biblical interpreters and theologians through the centuries. Considering that both Matthew and Luke probably intended their Gospels to replace Mark, it is not even clear how it survived as a Gospel.¹ As illustrated by Augustine’s (Cons. 1.2.4) well-known treatment of Mark as Matthew’s “attendant,” Mark became a neglected canonical Gospel for a long time—a circumstance that Brenda Schildgen (1999, 35–37) has tellingly designated: “present but absent.

    As the hypothesis of Markan...

  4. Part 1: Postcolonial Theory and the Bible

    • 2 Postcolonial Theory
      (pp. 27-48)

      Notwithstanding the problem of allowing a single image to represent such a heterogenic field as postcolonial biblical criticism, the cover image ofAllegories of Empireby Jenny Sharpe (1993) is here selected to introduce this chapter on theory. Sharpe’s cover (fig. 1) has an image of a woman aiming a pistol. Somewhat enigmatically, there is also an image of the Holy Bible at the lower left corner. Looking inside Sharpe’s book (84), it is evident that the front-page image has been produced by cutting and pasting from the larger original—Charles Ball’s 1858History of the Indian Mutiny—in which...

    • 3 Postcolonial Criticism in Biblical Studies
      (pp. 49-72)

      Considering the prominent, yet highly dubious, role of the Bible in European colonialism, one could perhaps be surprised that biblical scholars were not engaging in postcolonial criticism when it appeared on the academic scene during the 1980s. If postcolonial criticism, as Moore-Gilbert (1997, 6) argues, arrived late in literary studies, its entrance into biblical studies is even more belated. A significant step was taken in 1996 by the experimental journalSemeia, with an issue entitledPostcolonialism and Scriptural Readingunder the expert direction of Laura Donaldson (1996b).¹ Shortly thereafter, Sheffield Academic Press launched the seriesThe Bible and Postcolonialism, publishing...

  5. Part 2: Mark in European Colonialism

    • 4 Modern Biblical Studies and Empire
      (pp. 75-86)

      One of the most influential and controversial works in nineteenth-century biblical studies wasLeben Jesuby David Friedrich Strauss. In 1835, as a 27-year-old scholar in Tübingen, Strauss composed this highly provocative work in which he argued that the Gospel stories should be largely understood as myths. As the work was translated into French (1840), Dutch (1840), Swedish (1841), Danish (1843), and English (1841–1843), it became famous, or rather infamous, in far wider contexts than Germany.

      The above quote is from the translator’s preface to an English edition of a popularized version of Strauss’s work.¹ In a slight tone...

    • 5 The Semitic and the Greek (1:1)
      (pp. 87-94)

      As a beginning, I will analyze the interpretations of Mark’s incipit (1:1), or more precisely the phrase υἱοῦ θεοῦ (Son of God) with which Jesus is titled. As will be seen in part 3, “Son of God” is a debated topic in Markan scholarship; and since it will constitute an important aspect of my postcolonial reading, it serves well as a starting point in this investigation. As will be seen, this dense phrase brings us straight into one of the main binary divisions of orientalist scholarship, the one between Semites and Greeks.

      Considering that the incipit is such a pregnant...

    • 6 Between Man and Brute (5:1–20)
      (pp. 95-108)

      The Markan episode involving the Gerasene demoniac dramatically describes a meeting between Jesus and a man who is possessed by what turns out to be a legion of unclean spirits. Being a benchmark for anti-imperial readings of Mark (see ch. 15), its inclusion in this study is a given.

      The following analysis of the nineteenth-century commentators focuses on three areas that are interesting from a postcolonial perspective. First, since several commentators argue that the exorcism took place in a non-Jewish area, “the heathen” becomes an important designation to analyze. Second, the matter of the demonic possession of an animal brought...

    • 7 Submissive Heathen and Superior Greek (7:24–30)
      (pp. 109-116)

      The story about Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman has received quite some attention from postcolonial biblical scholars, most notably Kwok (1995, 71–83), Perkinson (1996), Dube (2000, 125–201), and Donaldson (2005). The attention received is primarily connected to the intersecting categorizations that are curiously staged in their meeting: gender, ethnicity, religion, and rural/urban. Other interesting features of the episode include traveling into a geographical borderland, Jesus’ harsh attitude toward the woman, and the woman’s way of turning the conversation.

      The episode in Mark begins by reporting that Jesus traveled to the region of Tyre (7:24). In relation to this...

    • 8 The Embarrassing Parousia (8:31–9:1)
      (pp. 117-122)

      One of the features in Mark’s Gospel that has been debated from a postcolonial perspective concerns eschatology and what is often referred to as the Parousia. Postcolonial biblical scholars have discussed the matter of how Mark’s depictions of the future coming of a risen Christ in power and glory relate to imperial ideology. In chapter 17 I will return to Liew’s contention (1999b, 1999a) that the Parousia in Mark duplicates the imperial ideology of “might is right.” Of significance here, however, is the way in which Liew describes the approach that brought him to his conclusion. Referring to the way...

    • 9 “Only Absolutely Spiritual” (11:1–11)
      (pp. 123-130)

      The next two Markan passages to be studied are Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (11:1–11) and the tribute question (12:13–17). Two factors make these texts crucial for the current investigation. First, royal as well as imperial power feature prominently in them. Second, when the commentators interpret these texts, they generally make use of a binary division between the spiritual and the worldly or between religion and politics. Although this binary is not without its contemporary advocates, scholars in the empire studies cluster (see ch. 3) sharply criticize its application to the ancient texts (R. Horsley 2001, ix–xii; Carter...

    • 10 An Irish Cat among the Pigeons (12:13–17)
      (pp. 131-138)

      The episode about the tribute is one of the foundations of the dichotomous division between religion and politics that has had such fundamental importance for the development of Western societies. Being one of the most famous sayings by Jesus in the Gospels, the passage is often referred to in discourses about religion and politics during the nineteenth century as well as today.¹ As has been argued, this division played a crucial role in Protestant mission for establishing a critical, and yet cooperative, attitude toward the second-phase colonialism. Also, since issues about national independence, imperial rule and rebellion are discussed in...

    • 11 The Centurion between East and West (15:39)
      (pp. 139-144)

      As Mark’s Gospel approaches its end, Jesus dies on the cross and a Roman centurion who is standing in front of him says: ἀληθῶς οὗτος ὁ ἄνθρωπος υἱὸς θεοῦ ἦν (usually translated, “Truly, this man was the Son of God”). As will be discussed in part 3, Markan scholars often regard this saying as climactic. For the first time in Mark’s narrative, a human character realizes Jesus’ identity as God’s Son. Since the character is a Roman officer, the saying is crucial for the current investigation.

      Since the Roman soldier in Christian tradition is often considered to represent imperial Christianity,...

    • 12 Conclusion: Mark and European Colonialism
      (pp. 145-148)

      The aim of part 2 has been to analyze scholarly interpretations of Mark’s Gospel in relation to nineteenth-century European colonial discourse. Delimiting the material to sixteen biblical commentaries written mainly in Great Britain and Germany, I juxtaposed Markan interpretations with texts from Protestant mission and the academic field of orientalism, both of which in various ways tended to construe elevated European self-understandings during this period.

      I have already acknowledged the limited nature of this study. The analysis undertaken here has an explorative character and needs to be supplemented by further studies. There is a rather obvious problem involved in letting...

  6. Part 3: Mark in the Roman Empire

    • 13 Mark Begins to Circulate
      (pp. 151-184)

      To this point, I have refrained from engaging in the areas that are usually addressed in the trajectory of Mark and empire. Having studied how biblical scholars in nineteenth-century Europe interpreted Mark, however, I will now switch focus and embark on an exegetical journey myself. Whereas in part 2 I conducted a metacritical analysis of how the interpreters’ contexts affected their interpretations of Mark, in part 3 I am focused on Mark’s text itself at the time of its initial circulation, and how it related to Roman imperial discourse. In part 2 we saw how biblical scholarship, by generally standing...

    • 14 An Oppositional Beginning (1:1)
      (pp. 185-200)

      Approaching the content of Mark’s Gospel with the aim of analyzing how it relates to Roman imperial discourse, we will not need much patience in terms of finding relevant material. The Gospel’s very first verse (1:1) seems to be loaded with allusions to imperial discourse. The pregnant phrase runs: Ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ [υἱοῦ θεοῦ]. As I will argue, this phrase functions as a superscription to the entire work.¹ As such, its meaning is crucial to understanding Mark as a whole. As Evans (2000b), Samuel (2002), and Winn (2008, 92–99) contend, the phrase alludes to both Roman imperial...

    • 15 Imperial Satire (5:1–20)
      (pp. 201-220)

      “What’s in a name,” Stephen Moore (2006, 24) asks as he begins a thought-provoking exploration of the Mark-and-empire trajectory. Springing from a sixteenth-century Shakespeare tragedy, the question poetically connects the past and the present. The significance of the question is also evident in relation to Mark’s account of the Gerasene demoniac (5:1–20), where Jesus encounters an unclean spirit who presents himself with the baffling name “Legion” (5:9). Initially presented as an infestation by a single demon, the multiple character of the possession soon becomes evident as the name is pronounced together with the clause “for we are many.” Besides...

    • 16 Entering a Narrative Crisis (7:24–30)
      (pp. 221-238)

      “I cannot see the problem with this text,” one of my students exclaimed, after having been assigned the task of conducting an ideological critique of Mark 7:24–30. Evidently, the student was familiar with Luther’s (1983, 148–54) reading of the story. Taking the encounter between Jesus and the woman as a parable of a believer’s relation to God, Luther took the Syrophoenician woman (or Canaanite in Matt 15:21–28)—with her insistent refusal to give up—as representing how a Christian ought to pray: even if God seems to be silent and dismissive, the believer ought not to give...

    • 17 The Parousia as Pharmakon (8:31–9:1)
      (pp. 239-254)

      An important trajectory in postcolonial biblical criticism involves what is often called “reading against the grain,” an approach that calls upon the reader to adopt an attitude that differs from the text’s implied reader.¹ This resistant-reading approach has been typically applied to biblical texts that are generally thought to promote liberation and justice. Searching for silenced voices, aporias, and tendencies to duplicate imperial discourse, such readings press at the points where emancipation uncannily subverts into oppression. In an emblematic illustration of this trajectory, Robert Allen Warrior (1991) reads the exodus narrative from a Native American perspective. Identifying with the indigenous...

    • 18 With Bhabha at the Jerusalem City Gates (11:1–22)
      (pp. 255-268)

      In Mark’s story about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (11:1–11), a number of royal and messianic signals appear for the first time in the narrative: instead of walking, Jesus has here mounted an animal; there are garments placed on the colt as well as on the road; and the crowd spreads leafy branches and salutes the arriving Jesus by acclamations of “he who comes in the name of the Lord” with reference to the kingdom of David.²

      How might such an entry story relate to Roman imperial discourse? Whereas some scholars read it in oppositional terms,³ others take it as...

    • 19 The Emperor Breaks the Surface (12:13–17)
      (pp. 269-284)

      It is difficult for a postcolonial reading of Mark’s Gospel to avoid the passage in which Jesus pronounces the famous words, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (12:17). As Taylor (1953, 478) puts it, the saying “has deeply influenced all subsequent discussions of the complex relationships of Church and State.” Given the saying’s ambiguity, however, it would be fairer to say that its influence stems more from the various traditions ofinterpretingit. As we saw in chapter 10, the nineteenth-century interpretations of the passage typically applied the division between...

    • 20 The Secrecy Complex as a Third Space (15:39)
      (pp. 285-294)

      As the end of Mark’s Gospel approaches, a fascinating character appears on the scene—a Roman centurion. As we saw in chapter 11, nineteenth-century interpreters made prominent use of him in their constructions of Christian imperial identities.¹ From a postcolonial perspective, such a character invites careful scrutiny: how does he, and his curious saying, affect Mark’s stance vis-à-vis Rome? For the present investigation, such an analysis involves a reconnection with the incipit, previously discussed in chapter 14. As argued there, the textually uncertain title “Son of God” represents the ongoing negotiations of Mark’s audience with imperial discourse, and can thus...

    • 21 How Mark Destabilizes Empire
      (pp. 295-304)

      Equipped with the thoughts of Bhabha and Spivak, and fueled by an interest to move beyond a colonial heritage in Markan interpretation, in part 3 I have analyzed the various ways in which Mark’s Gospel negotiated a space in Roman imperial discourse. Taking Mark to be a significant representation of a collective identity, I have detected the complex ways in which its narrative positioned first-century Christ followers in relation to Rome’s order. In this chapter I will summarize the findings of part 3.

      Presenting the imperial context in which Mark’s Gospel began to circulate, I delineated Roman imperial discourse as...

  7. Part 4: Uninheriting a Colonial Heritage

    • 22 Different Marks in Different Empires
      (pp. 307-322)

      With the primary aim of studying the stance of Mark’s Gospel vis-à-vis Rome, in this study I have attempted a multifaceted treatment of the Mark-and-empire trajectory. Applying contemporary postcolonial theory as an interpretive grid, I have studied Mark in two different empires, Rome’s and Europe’s, thereby probing the divergent kinds of ties between Mark and discourses of empire. Here in part 4 I will discuss these different entanglements and locate the findings of the study in the contemporary discussions on religion and politics and the adjacent trajectory of the postsecular.

      At a recent conference in Bethlehem, Palestine, Richard Horsley posed...

  8. Bibliography
    (pp. 323-370)
  9. Index of Ancient Sources
    (pp. 371-380)
  10. Index of Subjects
    (pp. 381-384)
  11. Index of Authors
    (pp. 385-388)