Monday, 8 December 2014

Gospel Beginning

I get a lot of emails every day; I suspect many of you do too. I also get a lot of posts on my Facebook wall. The challenge is to skim past the ones I'm not particularly interested in, whilst picking up on the ones I want to look into further. The subject and the first couple of lines are key to doing that.

'The more it changes ...'. Two thousand years ago, near enough, there was more information flowing around the Roman Empire than ever before. If you were a cosmopolitan sort of person, interested in what was going on - for instance a merchant whose business depended on knowing where there might be trouble and what trade routes might be affected - then you kept an eye on all the information you could. Even then, 90% of that information would be irrelevant - not quite cat videos perhaps, but not worth spending much time on. Nevertheless, you really didn't want to miss the 10% that did matter. So the first few lines of any document were important.
The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.
This seems harmless to modern eyes. I am inclined to think that it is therefore a lousy translation, however literally accurate the words may be. Because to any well-informed cosmopolitan person in the 60s or 70s AD this would be dynamite. The sort of thing you need to know more about, even if you do find yourself looking over your shoulder for imperial spies.

'Good news': a much devalued phrase these days - a kind of prelude to religious brow-beating perhaps, not news and unlikely to be good. If I saw it in an email subject or Facebook post I'd probably feel I ought to read it, but with low expectations. If I weren't involved in churches already, the odds are I'd just hit the spam button, or skip the post. Back then an evangelion ('good news') might be a personal celebration - "It's a boy!" kind of thing - but by this time it was at least as likely to be political - the emperor, or one of his key generals, has just won a great victory somewhere. A royal proclamation: probably heavy on spin but, for a cosmopolitan reader, vital to know. Better read on.

'Messiah', or 'Christ': oh dear! Christos means anointed one or king. Caesar is unlikely to be happy about an evangelion saying someone else is king. Unless it is about a subject king, of course, one who recognises that Caesar is boss ('Lord'). But anyone who knows the Jewish scriptures - or has an informant who does - is likely to be aware of the story of David: anointed king long before that was a political reality, but from then on his predecessor Saul was a doomed man, his reign limited and his line at an end.

'The Son of God': oh dear, indeed! Emperor Nero had claimed that title, as had his predecessors ever since the newly dead Augustus had been proclaimed divine. Somebody else laying claim to that title was not going to go down well. Especially in the late 60s/early 70s AD.

It is a little inconvenient for us now that we don't know exactly when Mark's Gospel - from which the above political hot potato is the opening line - was written. Best estimate is between 66-70 AD. In 66 AD Nero's erratic incompetence was starting to become a serious issue in the Empire. In 68 AD he was forced to commit suicide, leading to instability and a power struggle. 69 AD was known as 'the year of the four emperors'. By 70 AD Vespasian had come out on top and was busy stabilising his position.

At any time during this period a document claiming to be a royal proclamation about an anointed king who carried imperial divinity was inevitably both highly dangerous and highly important. If you were a cosmopolitan person within the Roman Empire you had to read on. This was a subject line which couldn't be ignored.

What bothers me is that nowadays what used to be an attention-catching, if risky, opening means little or nothing to a modern cosmopolitan reader. The other three Gospel openings, similarly designed to attract the attention of their targeted readerships, are likewise pretty meaningless to a non-religious audience today.

How would one open a modern telling of Jesus' story? What would catch a modern reader's attention and encourage them to read on? Any thoughts and ideas?

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