Velleius Paterculus and the Gospel of Mark

18 August 2010

Augustus (Museo Nacional de Arte Romano, Mérida)

One of the (many) interesting aspects of the Gospel of Mark is that the reader knows more than the dramatis personae. In the first line, essentially the title of this short book, Jesus is identified as the Son of God. Unclean spirits (3.11-12, 5.7), the high priest (14.61), and a Roman officer (15.39) are aware of Christ’s divine nature, but the disciples remain puzzled. Maybe even Mark’s Jesus is unaware of his true nature, because he consistently calls himself Son of Man.

Perhaps Jesus believed that the Son of Man and the Son of God were identical. That is how I would read 14.61-62, but christology is not my subject and I want to focus on Mark’s double message. At first sight, Mark offers a story about the most miserable of men: in spite of successes, he has to leave his homeland, and in Jerusalem, he is abandoned by his disciples, arrested, judged by a Jew, mocked by Jews, abandoned to the Romans, judged by a Roman, mocked by Romans, abandoned to the cross, and mocked by criminals. His dying words show that he realizes even his Father has abandoned him (“Why have you forsaken me?”).

A Christian believer who reads this same text, will understand it differently. He knows that he must not focus on the opinions of the disciples, but on the words of Jesus’ enemies, who correctly identify that big loser as the Savior. The Gospel of Mark is a text with a message and a countermessage. Whatever you believe, this is great literature.

I had to think of this when I was occupied with the Roman historian Velleius Paterculus, about whom I blogged yesterday. In his Augustan narrative, he employs the same contrasts. There’s a message of praise, as was common in Roman sources about Augustus, and a highly critical countermessage. Take, for instance this line:

It was in keeping with his fortune and his clemency that not one of those who had borne arms against him was put to death by him, or by his order (2.87.2).

But this is immediately contradicted by the nine examples Paterculus offers: four of these people preferred suicide to the delights of Augustan clemency. Worse, in the next section, 2.88, we read how ruthlessly efficient Maecenas got rid of one of Octavian’s opponents. True, Augustus had no blood on his hands, but Velleius offers a strong counterpoint.

There’s more. The statement that everybody delighted in Augustus’ restoration is contradicted by three references to conspiracies. We learn that the prince of peace sacrificed his political friend Cicero to his alliance with Marc Antony and Lepidus, failed to control his men at Perugia, left the supreme command in battle to Agrippa, and did not properly educate his daughter.

This is not the work of a clumsy writer. It is intentional. Augustus’ successes are mentioned in passing, like the war in Spain, or ignored, like the rebuilding of Rome and the Secular Games. We read a lot, on the other hand, about the Third Civil War, which was launched by Octavian; about the Actium campaign; about the Pannonian Revolt, which proves that the pacification of the provinces was unsuccessful; and finally the disaster in the Teutoburg Forest, ‘the greatest calamity experienced by the Romans since the defeat of Crassus in Parthia‘ (2.119.1).

Message and countermessage. For every boast of Augustus’ propaganda, Velleius offers a counterpoint. I wonder whether there are more ancient texts structured like this. Suggestions, anyone?


Common Errors (36): A Needle’s Eye

3 June 2010

A camel and its child, two hours old.

One of the most famous words of Jesus, an expression that has become proverbal, is that “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God” (Mark 10.25). Tour guides in the Near East will, when they bring tourists to a kervansaray, inevitably point at the small door-within-the-big-door, and tell the people that it is called “a needle’s eye”, that a camel might pass through it, and that Jesus’ words referred to this type of door.

That must be a very comfortable thought for wealthy Christian tourists. Just as a camel may, with some difficulty, enter the saray, they can enter the Kingdom of God. Unfortunately, the tour guide’s story is not true. Neither is the story true that there was a gate in ancient Jerusalem that was called “the Eye of the Needle”. There is simply no ancient Jewish or Christian text that refers to such a gate. And it is also unlikely, although not completely impossible, that there was a scribal error, and that the Gospel in fact refers to a cable (kamilos) instead of a camel (kamelos).

Jesus’ words have a parallel in the Babylonian Talmud (Berakoth 55b; Baba Mezi’a 38b): here, the difficulty of something is likened to an elephant being drawn through the eye of a needle. Jesus is quoting a Jewish proverb, meaning that something can never be done. This impossibility is also the subject of other stories: think only of the remark that “No one can serve God and Mammon” (Matthew 6.24). Or take the parabel about Lazarus and the rich man – even though it is not said that the rich man has committed evil, he is punished in Hell (Luke 16.19ff). The fact that he was rich and could feast sumptously, is presented as sufficient explanation.

In Jesus’ view, the rich had already received their share of happiness. He was not predicting that in the not too distant future, the poor would be happier, he was announcing that the rich would be punished: “Woe to you that are rich … woe to you that are filled … woe to you that now laugh” (Luke 6.24). No one has every said that Jesus’ message was easy – on the contrary.

<Overview of Common Errors>