Two Rival Versions of the "Good News"
As a Baptist Christian, I strongly support the separation of church and state. Baptist faith began as a flight from religious oppression, hence its leaders' historic support for local church autonomy, freedom from state interference, and the like. Whenever the gospel is conflated with state power, a huge red flag goes off in my vision.
So, does the good news of the Christian gospel emanate from God or from the seat of political power? The Gospel of Mark answers the question emphatically in favor of God.
Mark's Gospel begins in this way:
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Mark chooses to deliberately begin his account with Jesus as a full grown adult, admittedly at the beginning of his ministry. Why might the author have chosen such a beginning? The key is in the proclamation that what is beginning is that heavily freighted phrase "good news" which is taken from the Greek word euangelion.
We tend to think of "good news" in more prosaic terms. I've got some good news, and some bad news...which one do you want to hear first? Lost to our ears is the context of the word in the Hellenistic world and the Roman Empire. In that world, "good news" had a variety of meanings, but its most interesting meaning relates to Roman imperial power.
One richly suggestive possibility, often mined by commentators, is that Mark is up to something anti-imperial in his opening words. The word euangelion can be found in the so-called Priene inscription (located in modern day Turkey) which is thought to date from the year 9 BCE. The inscription reads:
It was seeming to the Greeks in Asia, in the opinion of the high priest Apollonius of Menophilus Azanitus: Since providence, which has ordered all things of our life and is very much interested in our life, has ordered things in sending Augustus, whom she filled with virtue for the benefit of men, sending him as a savior both for us and for those after us, him who would end war and order all things, and since Caesar by his appearance surpassed the hopes of all those who received the good tidings, not only those who were benefactors before him, but even the hope among those who will be left afterward, and the birthday of the god was for the world the beginning of the good tidings through him; and Asia resolved it in Smyrna. (translation by Ben Smith)
The Priene inscription is quite the encomium for the Roman emperor: notice the words "good tidings," "savior," "hope," and "god." The phrase translated above as "good tidings" is from the Greek ευανγελια, simply another form of the word euangelion. With the coming of Caesar Augustus into the world, who is called a "god," good news is proclaimed throughout the world. In the logic of imperial Rome, only the Caesar could be "Son of God," but Mark proclaims that the euangelion "good news" is proclaimed not around the birth of Caesar Augustus, but in the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The phrase "son of God" was by the time of Jesus' birth, common parlance for the emperor. Therefore, Mark's usage of the title is quite subversive.
Did Mark intend to begin his Gospel in such a provocative, and as we would say in contemporary parlance, political way? Scholar Ben Witherington suggests this might be the case, writing that "[t]he birthday of the emperor was celebrated throughout the empire and was the occasion of festivals called evangels. What is different about this announcement is that Mark wishes to begin with Jesus’ coming on the public scene as a significant historical figure, not his actual birth. " (Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001), 69–70.). The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament's article on the word groupings associated with euangelion states that
[The emperor] has appeared on earth as a deity in human form. He is the protective god of the state. His appearance is the cause of good fortune to the whole kingdom. Extraordinary signs accompany the course of his life. They proclaim the birth of the ruler of the world. A comet appears at his accession, and at his death signs in heaven declare his assumption into the ranks of the gods. Because the emperor is more than a common man, his ordinances are glad messages and his commands are sacred writings. What he says is a divine act and implies good and salvation for men. He proclaims εὐαγγέλια through his appearance, and these εὐαγγέλια treat of him...
(Gerhard Friedrich, “Εὐαγγελίζομαι, Εὐαγγέλιον, Προευαγγελίζομαι, Εὐαγγελιστής,” ed. Gerhard Kittel, Geoffrey W. Bromiley, and Gerhard Friedrich, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964–), 724–725); see also Craig Evans' article on this subject for an in-depth and excellent analysis.
Reading the Synoptic gospels alongside the Priene Inscription, we can see how two rival accounts of divinity in the ancient world were on offer. One identified divine power with the deified political leader of the Roman Empire; another identified divinity wholly in the person of a poor Palestinian Jew. Mark's Gospel announces a rival understanding of euangelion to the ideology of the Roman imperial cult: one cannot have both Jesus and Caesar as the Son of God. The violent conflation of these visions can be traced back to at least the reign of Constantine in the history of Christianity, and has had a sordid history thereafter. Whenever the specificity of a particular political ideology is said to be synonymous with God's will and purpose for human history, violence cannot be far behind.
It is impossible to get inside the author of the Gospel of Mark's head. We can only speculate as to his intention. But, it is quite amazing that he begins his Gospel not with the birth of Jesus, but with Jesus as a rival account of the Son of God. Mark does so with the use of gospel language which had some widespread usage in Roman imperial cult language referring to the emperor. It is as if Mark was saying that we must choose between Jesus the Son of God and those political leaders who anoint themselves as "son of God." Imagine that? The cult of the nation state, the hyper-nationalism of blood and soil, the idolatrous conflation of imperial power with divine blessing...all of these things might actually be shattered by Mark's subversive announcement: "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God." Shattered at least from a theological view of human history, but still clinging to life in their violent iterations over the centuries.
Good news begins with what God has done and what God is doing. It is not to be confused with the ascendant political party. It is not to be confused with the trappings of state power and hegemony. It is God's good news, not Caesar's.
Caesar's "good news" just ended up being about Caesar: the glorification of the cult of the Emperor, and the totalitarianism of state power blended with violence. Modern political movements which have resulted in state-sponsored violence against minorities and other oppressed people groups have invariably linked their political identity to the cult of the leader.
By contrast, the good news of God centers on Jesus' life, death, and resurrection for all people. The gospel announces forgiveness of sins, liberation, good news for the poor. It is universal in its scope, counter-cultural in its execution. Rather than be glorified using human political measures, Jesus was debased on the Cross. Rather than lording it over others with raw power, Jesus came to serve. "The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve" (Mark 10:45).
Against the cult of Caesar, may we proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. In season and out of season. Amen.