A colonial heritage in scholarly interpretations of Mark's gospel

December 13, 2011

When the story of Jesus known as The Gospel of Mark began to circulate as a written text in the ancient Mediterranean cities, it became engaged in a form of negotiation with the Roman imperial culture. A newly published dissertation from the University of Gothenburg (Sweden) shows, however, that a European colonial heritage probably has caused biblical scholars to neglect the earliest Gospel's primary act of negotiation with its imperial context.

Biblical scholar Hans Leander has investigated how Mark's Gospel was related to Rome's Empire when it began to circulate among the early Christians during the first century C.E. He has approached the question from the supposition that the Bible is connected to a colonial heritage and that biblical interpretation, including the academic kind, is always affected by the interpreter's location and perspective. In order to verify the existence of a colonial heritage, he has studied how nineteenth century biblical commentaries on Mark were influenced by that epoch's colonial mindset.

"I found that ideas about 'Greek' and 'Semitic' within biblical scholarship interacted with an elevated European colonial identity. The 'Greek' often represented the metaphysical, the progressive and the Christian, while the 'Semite' (or the 'Jew') represented the theocratic and stagnant, often represented as 'the other'. There was also an established view of the 'heathen' that was central to the colonial expansion and that continued to be prevalent in biblical scholarship during the period", says Hans Leander.

Hans Leander then applied a postcolonial perspective to the Gospel of Mark in order to study how the Gospel related to the Roman imperial power. Various concepts have been developed within postcolonial theory that enables a more complex understanding of unequal relationships than a clear-cut "for" or "against" the dominating party. The dissertation applies these concepts to the Gospel of Mark, which it reads as a representation of a minority group at the fringes of the imperial culture. It is concluded that even if the Gospel of Mark is ambiguous in relation to Rome, its narrative transmits subtle and yet clear subversive signals.

The relationship between the Gospel of Mark and the Roman Empire, Hans Leander argues, has primarily been understood from the modern separation between religion and politics. But the dissertation criticizes such an understanding.

"Such a separation was alien to the first recipients of the Gospel of Mark. There was no secular political sphere that was separate from religion. We must think beyond this modern separation if we are to understand the significance of Mark for its first audience", says Hans Leander.
-end-
The thesis was successfully defended on December 9.

University of Gothenburg

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