Ched Myers. Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988.
I have been interested in the political ramifications of Jesus and early Christianity in terms of their Jewish and Roman environments. Did Jesus and early Christianity somehow challenge the political authorities or attempt to foster political change, or did they rather encourage a sort of spiritual retreatism from the political sphere?
Well, Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man argues that there was a political agenda in the Gospel of Mark. According to Myers, the Gospel of Mark depicts Jesus challenging oppressive political and religious authorities, lifting up the downtrodden, and encouraging mindsets that were revolutionary—-not in a violent sense, mind you, but in a radical sense. For Myers, Jesus in the Gospel of Mark promoted non-violence, and this was significant in the setting in which Myers believes that the Gospel of Mark was written: Galilee around the time of the Jewish revolt in 70 C.E. (Myers disagrees with the scholarly view that the Gospel of Mark was written in Rome, attributing the Gospel’s Latinisms to the influence of Roman administration on Palestine, and Mark’s explanation of Pharisaic practice to the possible ignorance of even Jewish readers about it.) The Gospel of Mark, according to Myers, was opposing Rome and its puppets (albeit rather cryptically), as well as the scribes, Pharisees, and priests, yet it was also criticizing the Jewish revolutionaries’ reliance on violence in their fight against Rome. Myers contends that the Gospel of Mark supports social change, including the redistribution of wealth and inclusiveness towards Gentiles, and yet also maintains that a non-violent stand will somehow bring about this social change. How, according to Myers? Myers disagrees with the view that the Gospel of Mark envisions a violent return of the Son of Man to overthrow evil, interpreting many of the references about the Son of Man’s appearance in light of Jesus’ crucifixion. Does Myers believe that the Gospel of Mark held that a non-violent stand on the part of early Christians would somehow melt the hearts of the oppressors and encourage them to repent, or that Jesus in Mark’s Gospel was creating an alternative society, with alternative values? I do not know. On one occasion, if I recall correctly, Myers says that the Gospel of Mark envisions social change coming about mysteriously. Does not Mark 4:26-29 affirm, after all, that the Kingdom of God grows, and people may not know how it does so?
There were times when I thought that some of Myers’ interpretations were slightly far-fetched. For example, Myers depicts Joseph of Arimathea in Mark as somewhat of a villain, one who wanted Jesus to be buried primarily to keep the Sabbath from being defiled, or to discourage Jewish uprising. As Myers notes, Joseph of Arimathea did not even treat Jesus’ corpse appropriately, for the women were the ones who came to anoint Jesus’ body after its burial, showing that Joseph had not already anointed it. These are important observations, yet I do not think that Myers dealt adequately with Mark 15:43’s statement that Joseph was waiting for the Kingdom of God. That somehow is relevant to Mark’s story, and I think that it is because Mark is portraying Joseph positively.
There were times when I was not entirely convinced by what Myers was saying, yet I did not rule it out, or I was intrigued. For example, in Mark 1:17, Jesus calls his disciples to be fishers of men, and many Christians have interpreted that in light of evangelism or missions. Myers, however, states on page 132 that “the ‘hooking of fish’ [in parts of the Hebrew Bible] is a euphemism for judgment upon the rich (Am 4:2) and powerful (Ez 29:4)”, and that Jesus “is inviting common folk to join him in his struggle to overturn the existing order of power and privilege.” Myers also refers to Jeremiah 16:16, where God sends fishers, and that appears to relate to wrath. I cannot rule that out, and yet I am also hesitant to rule out the idea that Jesus through this metaphor was calling the disciples to encourage people to become converts to the Kingdom of God, or that the metaphor pertains somehow to the restoration of Israel. Jeremiah 16:14-15, after all, mentions God restoring the Northern Israelites.
There were times when I was not entirely clear about what Myers’ exact argument was. This was the case with Myers’ treatment of Jesus’ exorcisms. Myers says that he is treating them as symbolic, while he also makes clear that he is not denying their historicity. When Jesus casts out demons in Mark’s Gospel, Myers argues, Jesus is challenging the powers-that-be. What I thought that Myers was arguing was that Jesus in Mark was defeating the demons that were supporting the oppressive powers-that-be: when Jesus cast out a demon in a synagogue, for instance, Jesus was undermining demonic support for the oppressive scribes. Later in the book, however, Myers quotes favorably Walter Wink’s statement that interpreters should see “the powers not as separate heavenly or ethereal entities but as the inner aspect of material or tangible manifestations of power (Wink’s words, quoted on page 438). Does that deny that there are spiritual demonic powers supporting the earthly powers-that-be?
Overall, I found Myers’ book to be a delightful and informative read, and I would like to highlight three reasons for this. First, the information that Myers provides about the oppressive power structures in first century Palestine is invaluable. According to Myers, taxes and tithes were crushing Jewish peasants, and cities in Galilee were breaking up Galilean village systems. Jesus in Mark, however, was saying that one could pray to God and move mountains outside of the Temple, was challenging Roman taxation in his statement that one should render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, and often snubbed big cities. Myers also maintains that Jesus in Mark’s Gospel, or the narrator in Mark, was opposing patriarchy, as when the Gospel depicts Jesus being persuaded by a woman he had called a dog, or presents women as the earliest witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. I agree with Myers that Jesus’ activities in Mark had profound socio-political ramifications, even if I am unsure what Jesus’ (or Mark’s) program exactly was for political transformation.
Second, Myers attempts to explain why the Gospel of Mark was written down in an oral culture. Myers argues that Mark did so in order to set a control on the interpretations and applications of Jesus’ sayings, since oral tradition could be unstable and changing, plus prophets with all sorts of agendas were appealing to Jesus’ sayings or claiming to have words from Jesus. Myers also seems to maintain that Mark believed he was writing authoritative Scripture, on some level: an authoritative account that was to be used in a church. Myers’ discussion intrigued me, in light of Richard Bauckham’s argument in The Gospels for All Christians that a Gospel author probably would not write a Gospel for his own local community (see here). Myers offers reasons that he would.
Third, Myers defends the historical plausibility of Pilate asking some of the Jews to choose between the release of Jesus and the release of Barabbas. There are scholars who dispute the historicity of this event, noting the absence of evidence for political prisoners being released on the Passover. Myers, however, states on pages 373-374: “A specific policy of selected amnesty during the Jewish feast time (as Mk 15:6 suggests) is historically unverifiable, though R. Merrit (1985) has argued that, given similar customs in Hellenistic antiquity, it is highly credible. There is evidence, however, of politically motivated prisoner deals struck by procurators in the years just prior to the revolt. Josephus tells us that Albinus (62-64 C.E.) was blackmailed into releasing political prisoners by the ‘sicarii’ (Ant., XX, xix, 3), and was later regularly bribed to release social bandits…who were apprehended in periodic sweeps…We can conclude from this that the release of one popular dissident in order to defuse public protest over the execution of another, in the context of a politically charged atmosphere, is not only plausible but probable.”