The Beginning of the Gospel (2)
What does it mean to be at the beginning?
Place to start:
A direction in which we are facing
A mark in time when the things that have happened, that have lead us to this point are now categorized as the past. Something that has been completed and brought to an end; leaving the distinct notion that here, right here is something ‘new’.
And this is... The Beginning of the Good News
A beginning not born out the triumph of human effort, but a victorious proclamation born out the workings of God in spite of human failure.
And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him.
This the end, no the most probable original ending to the entire Gospel! The Gospel ends with trembling, terrified women fleeing from an empty tomb, too bewildered to the process the amazing reality they found themselves in.
“And they said nothing to anyone...”
We are used to an ending that fulfills the beginning: Victory, Light banishing darkness, Resurrection solving everything, no loose ends dangling...
Yet the this Gospel ends with the Divine Winning and Humanity Failing.
The story ends with the need for a new beginning.
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Translation: The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
There are simply not too many literary works that begin with a summary statement of a previously unheard of message of the whole text. And as modern readers of the Bible, this would come across as a seemingly unremarkable statement. But to the original audience, every word of this opening line would have connected them to a larger cultural meaning.
Mark’s first word, in Greek, is arche, beginning.
To a Jew, this was an allusion to the first Hebrew word of the Bible, bereshit: the very beginning, when God created the world (). The Septuagint has en archē: ‘In the beginning God created’.1
To the Gentile audience, Mark's first word would call to mind a barrage of philosophical truths. For Anaximander (6th Century BC) the word Arche signified the fundamental, original laws which controlled the world.2 Plato (427–347 bc) linked the concept of an imperishable archē with the immortality of the soul.3 And in Aristotle’s Poetics, the great fourth-century Greek philosopher (384–322 bc) established the use of the word ‘beginning’, archē, as a technical term, to indicate the beginning of new dramatic action.4
The second and third Greek words, tou euangeliou, ‘of the gospel’, were quite common in the first century but not for the reasons that we as modern readers think. Every citizen of the Roman Empire would have recognized the word euangelia, ‘good news’. The term was used to herald in the reign of a new Caesar and the celebrations of his accession to power.
This inscription, found at Priene in Asia Minor and dated to the year 9 bc, highlights this truth...📷
"It seemed good to the Greeks of Asia, in the opinion of the high priest Apollonius of Menophilus Azanitus: Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance (excelled even our anticipations), surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings [euangelion] for the world that came by reason of him which Asia resolved in Smyrna."
Mark makes, what would have been, a startling interpretive use of the term. He alone among the ancients (Homer apart, where the term refers to the reward, not to the actual news), he uses ‘good news’ in the singular. Attentive readers would have noticed it straight away; for others, it would become apparent in the course of the text: in his book, the panoply of good news was abolished. In place of the multitude of good news, there now was only one, in the singular: the one and only euangelion. But whose was it? An unknown emperor’s perhaps? The answer follows in the next word of Mark’s first sentence: ‘Jesus’.
What the Gospel writer is saying is, “Yeah….about that savior and good news business. Caesar can’t deliver. Jesus does. Let us explain what we mean by that, because it’s not what you might expect. Let us unpack what ‘savior’ and ‘good news’ are all about. Let us tell you about his reign, his kingdom–and what it means for you to be a part of it.”
Greek and Roman readers who saw the words ‘Son of God’ at the end of Mark’s first sentence had no choice: they had to think of the Roman emperor. And it was not just a polite formula. As we saw at the beginning of this chapter, the imperial cult was a serious matter, particularly in the East—there were 37 temples dedicated to Augustus while he was still alive, and 19 more after his death. Thus, those readers of Mark’s Gospel would have understood that the new dramatic beginning, the hitherto unheard-of good news, did indeed concern a rival to the emperors. The unknown Jewish Jesus with his ointment was a force to be reckoned with. Not a myth, not a legend, but a religious and political challenge to the established system.
It goes without saying that those first readers would have felt compelled to find out more. Mark’s introduction, one of the most brilliant beginnings in Greek literature, would have transfixed Jewish and non-Jewish readers alike. And let us finally remember Mark’s subtlety in the middle of the sentence. Accustomed to the plural of the good news, the euangelia, those readers now find that Mark employs the singular, euangelion. With Jesus the Christ, the true and only Son of God (), the one and only piece of good news that matters to humankind has been proclaimed. It is, indeed, a singular message of salvation.
Carsten Peter Thiede, The Cosmopolitan World of Jesus: New Findings from Archaeology (London: SPCK, 2004), 48.