Exegesis Mark 5.1-20 – Part 3 – Josephus and Mark, Dueling Propagandists

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The History of Vespasian and Simon bar Giora according to Josephus

According to Josephus, the soon-to-be Roman Emperor advanced on the Jewish rebels in and around the Sea of Galilee so that in the space of about three months, Vespasian captured both Gerasa and Gadara. Understanding Vespasian’s actions here is important to understanding Mark’ telling of the demoniac and Jesus, not only providing a mimicking account of the historical situation, but also a dual with Vespasian in which Jesus is clearly seen as the victor (and thus the proper Messiah). Gerasa is a side note, which we will deal with shortly.  At the end of March 68, Vespasian was marching on the town of Gadara, on his way to Jerusalem. The leading and wealthy men of the city would send an embassy to Vespasian for peace. They had, according to Josephus, a “desire for peace and from concern for their property, for Gadara had many wealthy residents.” Thus, they surrendered, but only after the pro-war crowd had brutally left.  I note in Josephus’ account is the details which are provided and which resurface later by another author. In Wars 4.400-437, the tale is repeated with much more detail and indeed, a different ending. During the waste of the land, which Vespasian had caused, Josephus tells of the capital city, Gadara, and what amounts to appeasement. Those of the anti-Roman party were besieging the city, killing those who escaped; however some did and asked that Vespasian come and save them. On the 4 Adar (21 March 68), Vespasian entered the town as he was asked to do by the wealthy men of the city. Of course, the entire city was not excited about the surrender.

The anti-Roman party, who according to Josephus was seditious and brutal, decided that they could not take the surrendering of the city and decided to flee; however, they decided that blood must be drawn to preserve their honor. To do this, they found a young man by the name of Dolesus who, as the leader of the city’s nobility, sent the embassy to Vespasian. Josephus reports that the anti-Roman party ‘slew him and treated his dead body after a barbarous manner, so very violent was their anger at him, and they ran out of the city.’ The ‘lovers of peace’ however, was able to secure the peace with Vespasian and preserve their wealth and property. On the other hand, Vespasian sent Placidus after the rebels and in a very bloody end, they met their doom. At the final battle of the Gadarenes, the Romans killed fifteen thousand, ‘while the number of those who were unwillingly forced to leap into the Jordan was prodigious.’ The remaining two-thousand two hundred were taken as prisoners.

The town of Gerasa provides for us several connections to Mark’s story. First, Gerasa was itself conquered by Vespasian who slaughtered 1000 young men, plundering what remained. He did so with the Tenth Legion, represented by the image of a wild boar and stationed at the hilltop city of Hippos. Further, the town of Gerasa is the birthplace Simon bar Giora, a Jewish militant during the revolt. He was successful at first, but due to his popularity, the religious leaders at Jerusalem refused to award him a command position in fear that his popularity would outweigh them. His promise to set at liberty the slaves and to give a reward to the free, allowed him to raise a 40,000 man army. After being invited into Jerusalem by the Jewish religious leaders and heralded as savior and guardian, he claimed himself king, wore purple at the place of the Temple, and minted coins with the legend ‘The Redemption of Zion’ (Wars 4.486-504; 7.26-32). After the invasion and destruction of Gerasa, Vespasian learned of the death of the Emperor. He then retreated to Caesarea where he awaited the new Emperor, Galba.

Exegesis of Mark 5.1-20

As we turn to the exegesis of Mark 5.1-20, we find a passage which has described as ‘weird and solitary’ ‘eerie,’ and ‘elaborate’ in what one has called the ‘Cinderella Gospel’. I have already weighted heavily the passage with the idea that Mark is using mimesis to undue Vespasian’s actions in Gadara and maybe suggesting a counter to Simon bar Giora’ claims. It is necessary, however, that I examine the normative source for a Gospel writer, the Jewish Prophets. The Gospel writers’ use of the Old Testament as a means of showcasing who Jesus is is well documented and must not be overlooked during any exegesis. In Mark, the writer has a formula for introduction when he is using the voices of the Prophets to introduce something which Jesus has done/is doing to fulfill Scripture. The Evangelist used it least eight times, with a preference for Isaiah in the Septuagint. Knowing that, then, one must examine Isaiah 65.1-7 as a possible literary backdrop to Mark’s story of the demoniac.

On the surface, the two passages are similar. Gerasa was a Gentile city, which matches Isaiah 65.1c. Also of note is the imagery of living among the tombs and demons in Isaiah 65.3-4a while 63.4b speaks about swine’s flesh. The imagery of the tombs plays a large part in both passages, although in the LXX Isaiah the scenery is filled with the images which accompany pagan sacrifices and the move from henotheism to monotheism (65.3b – ‘the demons, which do not exist.’). Similar as well is the warning of the people to the Lord in Isaiah of not to come closer which is similar to Legion’s plea with Jesus not to have anything to do with it. Finally, what is also present are the images of hills and mountains as well as the repayment for the deeds done by the people.

What is missing, however, is the Markan use of the phrase ὡς γέγραπται. Without that formula it is difficult to assume that Mark is using his story in 5.1-20 as an eschatological fulfillment of Isaiah 65.1-7 (LXX). While Mark shows that he is familiar with the Septuagint and the Prophets, especially Isaiah, we cannot easily assume that Mark is writing to show that Christ fulfilled the words of the Prophet Isaiah. On the other hand, we might assume that the Evangelist is employing recent historical events in such a way that they themselves cause the situation in Isaiah 65.1-7 to take place so that Jesus as the Son of God can now fulfill them. The historical events which pre-dated Mark’s writing would have been prevalent in his mind, and if he was writing to counter, as Winn suggests, the rise of the Roman pretender to the Messianic throne then the author may well have seen the fulfillment of Isaiah’s oracle in Vespasian and thus would use mimesis to show that the mighty acts of Jesus were far superior to that of the Roman pretender.

μίμησις (mimesis), as I wrote earlier, was a literary tactic being employed around the time of Mark’s writing, in a variety of ways, but the use which we are concerned with is the use made by Lucan. Lucan used the great poetic drama of Rome’s history, the Aenied, to counter the moral decay of his present day Rome, taking political snipes at Nero along the way. While we cannot say for sure that Mark knew of this type of writing, the fact remains that his very Roman and Palestinian provenance would have given him access to such a style. It would be my contention that Mark was then using mimesis to develop his oral sources for his receptive audience and in doing so, issuing anti-imperial tracts in much the same vein as Lucan. Mimesis would have allowed Mark to not only prop Jesus up against Vespasian but allow Jesus through his mighty acts, to outdo Vespasian.

As Kennedy notes (Kennedy, 1980, 109), the delivery of rhetoric is important to the overall approach. While a text may be created due to the speech, the speech remains the act. Here, I follow Kenneth Bailey in his compilation of the oral tradition as developed by Bultmann (informal uncontrolled) and the Scandinavian School (formal controlled) into the idea that the informal controlled oral tradition which allowed for the waters of the Jesus Tradition to be added to with guided measure. The oral tradition allowed for the message to be contextualized suiting the hearing audiences. If Mark was collecting oral tradition then we can be assured that the oral transmission was contextualized to suit the next audience, which Bultmann would have noted. However, as Mark took to writing the text down, he would have been forcing upon it some control, along the lines of the Scandinavian school. In other words, Mark may in fact have been writing about an actual event, in some small measure, but as his readers would have heard the Gospel read aloud, it would have taken on a whole new meaning, especially in the political arena in which it was composed. What would they have heard from the reader of the Gospel?

Up until now, I have weighted the exegesis with the propaganda tales as written by Josephus, following Dr. Adam Winn’s lead. I have examined mimesis and stated that Mark may have been following Lucan’s use of the rhetorical technique, or at the very least, using letteraturizzazione to develop this passage in particular.  Further, I have briefly stated that as Mark moved from the informal uncontrolled oral tradition to the formal controlled writings, he may have used a historical event, but couched it in the political area of the day. Finally, I have suggested that had Mark used Isaiah 65.1-7 as a rhetorical backdrop, perhaps as a mini-mimesis, then he may have used it first as a situation created by the Gadarenes and their peace embassy to Vespasian and then as the historical flourish which allowed Christ to be presented as not only the Messiah, but one greater than Vespasian. In the following section, I will detail the proximity between the historical reality of Vespasian and his march upon Gadara and the Gospel of Mark’s telling of the demoniac in 5.1-20.

Mark’s lack of geographical detail has been a stumbling block for commentators and even his fellow Evangelists. Yet, we should consider what the point of the passage is. To that end, I suggest that Mark is using events which originally took place in Gadara while calling to mind the famous native of Gerasa to offer a juxtaposition not just between Jesus and Vespasian, but Jesus and Simon bar Giora. Further, as noted above, Gerasa had its own trouble with Vespasian. The town was conquered by the Tenth Legion, which had as its image the wild boar. Mark wasn’t using bad geography; Mark was using a rhetorical flair.

The demoniac man is paralleled in the historical figure of Dolesus, the rich leader of the pro-Roman party. He is brutally slaughtered by the anti-Roman party, but the brutality doesn’t end there. Josephus records that the Jews of the anti-Roman party actually continued to violate the dead body. In Mark’s account, the man who lived among the tombs was violent, but unlike Matthew’s account, was violent only to himself. The demoniac was constantly brutalizing his own body. The demonic had also torn apart the chains and simply could not be held due to his anger and strength. We may imply that due to the violent death of Dolesus, it would have been assumed that he was doomed to wonder the earth as an evil spirit. If we note that there is some manuscript evidence to suggest that δαίμονες is used in 5.12, then we may safely draw the conclusion that Mark was suggesting to his readers that the bound man who was brutalizing his own body was the former Dolesus.

In 5.11, Jesus sees a herd of swine on a nearby mountain. Mark’s readers would have understood that he was referring to the 10th Legion which had trampled Gerasa and was part of Vespasian’s larger contingent. This legion, which was about 6000 men, was stationed in a town near to Gadara called Hippos which was positioned on top of a hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Hippos would have been the seaport which Jesus would have used to land for his walk to Gadara/Gerasa. Here, the terminology of Legion comes into play. The Roman Legion was something to be feared, consisting of nearly 6000 men and were the force of Vespasian’s army, a fact not lost on Mark’s audience. To add to this use of Legion, we have Jesus’ address to the Legion in v13. When asked if they could be sent into the swine, Mark writes that Jesus gave them permission. Placher notes that the Greek word ἐπέτρεψεν would have been best understood as a military command along the lines of ‘dismissed!’ Once this command is given, the Legion rushes down the steep bank into the sea. Here, Mark is specific about the number of them, which was ‘about two-thousand’. The actions in 5.13 are eerily similar to the actions recorded by Josephus in Wars 4.435-436 in which after the last battle of the anti-Roman party, over 15,000 Jews were killed with more being forced to jump into the Jordan River, presumably drowning, while ‘two thousand and two hundred were taken prisoners.’ This, again, parallels Mark’s account with the leaping into the sea of about two thousand demons. In the collective memory of Mark’s audience, these mnemonic cues would have been enough to alert the listener to Mark’s rhetorical act.

This rhetorical act would have been heightened as well by the reversal of the town’s people. With Vespasian, they had welcomed him in to protect their property; with Jesus, they wanted to rush him out to protect their property. While the final few verses of the passage do not have the overall rhetorical flair of the first 13, they do provide the final mimesis, and in Lucan flair. Like Lucan who used the Aeneid’s ascent of Rome as the model of the descent in Rome his Pharsalia, Mark uses the same reversal of events to depict the reaction of the town to Jesus. Whereas they wanted the occupation by Vespasian, they refused the liberation which Jesus brought.

What then, if any, is the good news in this passage? Christ restores the victimized, as he did with Dolesus. The demoniac man who was unclean (Jesus follows this miracle with healing the woman with the issue of blood and raising the dead girl, both requires the touching of the unclean) and lived among unclean things. I note that his gashes and open wounds would have been infected and a cause for impurity, as the woman with the issue of blood. Christ went past the impurity to rescue the man. Further, if there is good news here, it is that Jesus has restored the dead man to life again, foreshadowing the Resurrection. While there is the element of the exorcism, the good news is that that people can be freed from superstition as well. The ‘demons’ (and here, I replay YHWH’s words in Isaiah, ‘the demons, which do not exist’) were actually the Romans who were brought into the city by choice. Here, Christ offers them the good news of liberation but as often is the case, they chose oppression and pleaded with the Liberator to leave their town. The town’s people weren’t just rejecting Jesus, but they were rejecting the Gospel which Mark’s Community may have been trying to bring to them, especially in light of Vespasian’s claim to the Messianic throne.

Bar Giora was trying to escape underground, but once caught, emerged through the ground upon which the Temple had recently stood. Marcus (1992) suggests that the ‘abomination of desolation standing where he should not’ (13.14) refers to Eleazer son of Simon or to Titus. A future investigation into this figure being Simon bar Giora may be warrented.

Evans, Craig A. (2006). “Messianic Hopes and Messianic Figures in Late Antiquity”. Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism 3: 9–40.

A Caesarea would be a turning point for Jesus, Vespasian and bar Giora, but that is of a different topic

Charles Gore, A New Commentary on Holy Scripture (London: SPCK, 1929).

William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press: 2001)

John R. Donahue, Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, (Collegeville: Liturgical Press 2005)

Brendan Byrne,  A Costly Freedom: A Theological Reading of Mark’s Gospel Collegeville: Liturgical Press 2008)

I don’t mean to imply that this formula is used for all quotes of the Old Testament in Mark’s Gospel, just for fulfilled prophecies.

1.2; 7.6; 9.12-13; 11.17; 14.21; 14.27

Kenneth Bailey, “Informal Controlled Oral Tradition and the Synoptic Gospels,” Themelios 20.2 (January 1995): 4-11.

McCasland (Portents in Josephus and in the Gospels S. V. McCasland Journal of Biblical Literature Vol. 51, No. 4 (Dec., 1932), pp. 323-33) 5notes in described Bultmann’s argument that the German theologian ‘writes that “Sitz im Leben” is a typical situation or mode of conduct in the life of a community and that the literary form which is created by such a situation is not an aesthetic but a sociological concept’ citing Bultmanns’ Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition

See The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation, Including the Demotic Spells By Hans Dieter Betz p333.

See Matthew 8.31 for the only uncontested usage

William C. Placher, Mark (Belief), (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press: 2010)


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5 Replies to “Exegesis Mark 5.1-20 – Part 3 – Josephus and Mark, Dueling Propagandists”

  1. What? letteraturizzazione again!

    “The demoniac man who was unclean (Jesus follows this miracle with healing the woman with the issue of blood and raising the dead girl, both requires the touching of the unclean) and lived among unclean things. I note that his gashes and open wounds would have been infected and a cause for impurity, as the woman with the issue of blood. Christ went past the impurity to rescue the man.”

    Where’s Aristotle? This is sounding more like — perhaps imitating — Luce Irigaray. She says (writes):

    “Is not the ‘first’ stake in mimesis that of re-producing (from) nature? Or giving it form in order to appropriate for oneself? As guardians of ‘nature,’ are not women the ones who maintain, thus who make possible, the resource of mimesis for men? For the logos? …. Re-semblance cannot do without red blood. Mother-matter-nature must go on forever nourishing speculation. But this re-source is also rejected as the waste product of reflection, cast outside….”

    We see her allusions to Aristotle (i.e., as if male only mimesis or male superior Nature). But I’m really just interested in the fact that “blood” is much associated, symbolically, with women, with women as weak or sickly or simply weaker and sicker than men. Then Jesus in Mark is associated with that, with blood, with them, with blood and females. You’re not trying to make Mark say more than he’s really saying. And yet, imagine all that he might be saying in his written rhetoric here.

    1. It would be helpful, Dr. Gayle, if you would teach a class on this!! 🙂

      I read Haber’s, A Woman Touch, on the following story, according to Mark, and she goes well into the idea of women impurity during this time.

      I think that we miss Mark’s rhetoric when we take things so literally/linearly.

      1. I’d love to sit in a class, Mr. Watts, with Marla Selvidge teaching this text. Susan Haber, I believe, dismisses Selvidge’s insights too quickly (i.e., Jesus as also a “liberal egalitarian” here) maybe because Selvidge’s views are so liberal and egalitarian. But, yes, Mark’s rhetoric is pretty profound; and Habor IS right to bring in the fulness of the woman’s bloody plight even if she fails to connect Jesus’s own plight, as a bleeder, like a supposedly weak and sinful woman. Mark’s Greek readers would more easily get the comparisons between Jesus and this woman.

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