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In die Skriflig

On-line version ISSN 2305-0853
Print version ISSN 1018-6441

In Skriflig (Online) vol.48 n.1 Pretoria Feb. 2014




Welcoming outsiders: The nascent Jesus community as a locus of hospitality and equality (Mk 9:33-42; 10:2-16)


Insluiting en verwelkoming van buitestaanders: Die ontluikende Jesus-gemeenskap as lokus van gasvryheid en gelykheid (Mark 9:33-42; 10:2-16)



Zorodzai Dube

Department of New Testament Studies, University of Pretoria, South Africa





The recent global economic crisis left millions of people destitute without formal work and further alienated the poor from the rich. As a remedy, modern Neoliberalism proposes that the poor must hope and steadily work their way up the economic ladder. What is the solution to such unbridgeable social and economic chasm? This article used the contemporary situation of economic inequality to imagine events during the first century, during Jesus' time, whereby the rich increasingly amassed wealth to the disadvantage of the poor majority. In this article, Mark 9:33-42 and 10:10-16 was used to explore how Jesus developed an alternative economic system - one that contrasted itself in every respect from that of the hierarchical and patriarchal Roman Empire. This article argued that Jesus formed communities that directly responded to the economic challenges faced by the landless and the homeless majority by creating an alternative economy based on love and hospitality. This was done by proposing that Mark 9:33-42 and 10:2-16 are amongst the passages where the two rival economies were contrasted by way of two different household economies. Firstly, the economic system outside the house that typified the hierarchical Roman economy, and secondly, the economic system inside the house that referred to Jesus' alternative system whereby he taught his disciples to welcome the homeless, the landless and the poor. Before developing this further, the plausible social context of the stories was attended to.


Die onlangse globale krisis het miljoene mense sonder formele werk gelaat en so die vervreemding tussen arm en ryk verder vergroot. Die moderne ideologie van neo-liberalisme stel voor dat die armes steeds hoopvol moet bly en hulleself geleidelik op ekonomiese gebied opwerk. Wat is die oplossing vir die byna onoorbrugbare sosiale en ekonomiese kloof tussen arm en ryk? Hierdie artikel gebruik die huidige situasie van sosiale polariteit om aan te dui dat 'n soortgelyke situasie reeds in Jesus se tyd bestaan het - toe rykes ryker geword het ten koste van die armes. Markus 9:33-42 en 10:2-16 word gebruik om aan te toon hoe Jesus 'n 'alternatiewe ekonomiese sisteem' geskep het wat lynreg teenoor die onderdrukkende hiërargiese en patriargale Romeinse Ryk gestaan het. Jesus het geloofsgemeenskappe gevorm wat direk op die ekonomiese uitdagings van die haweloses gereageer het deur 'alternatiewe ekonomiese sisteem' te skep, gebaseer op liefde en gasvryheid. Tekste soos Markus 9:33-42 en 10:2-16 kontrasteer op strategiese wyse die twee opponerende ekonomiese sisteme deur twee verskillende 'ekonomiese huise' uit te beeld: die ideologie van die 'die ekonomie van die breë samelewing' wat die hiërargiese Romeinse ekonomie vergestalt, en die ideologie van die 'die ekonomie van die huishouding' waar Jesus sy dissipels oproep om radikaal om te gee vir en uit te reik na armes, haweloses, weduwees en weeskinders. Voordat hierdie verder ondersoek is, is die moontlike sosiale konteks van die Skrifgedeeltes ondersoek.



Introduction: Conflicting social ideologies

The two stories in Mark 9:33-46 and Mark 10:2-16 indicate that, amongst other traditions about Jesus, the Markan community shared and remembered stories where Jesus placed a child amongst his disciples. The context in which such stories were told, is difficult to establish, though in agreement with Joanna Dewey (2004). Because of reference to households and the strong criticism of the political status quo, it is possible to suggest that the stories may have been retold at homes as a censure or disapproval of the prevailing social system.

On face value and without much knowledge of the first century context, these stories read like any of Jesus' stories - yet, on closer inspection, they are loaded with criticism against the prevailing socio-political context. The criticisms are buried inside the 'child' metaphor. Unlike our modern notions about children, during the first century Mediterranean epoch, children (except those from royal households) symbolised irrationality, vulnerability, poverty and were regarded as social misfits. Buoyed in such a worldview, it seems possible to imagine that the disciples were doi:10.4102/ids.v48i1.1379 - perplexed upon seeing a child in their midst and possibly interpreted the action as a violation of social hierarchies, power and belonging.

This passage has never been immune to different interpretations, and one dominant perspective suggests that Jesus used the story as a metaphor to teach humility and hospitality (Orton 2003; Patte 1983; Gundry-Volf 2000). This interpretation is mostly emphasised in churches, ascribing identity to Jesus' followers as pious and humble. Arguably, this interpretation focuses more on the comparative meaning derived from the metaphor of the child. The validity of this perspective makes sense if children were indeed regarded pious, humble and obedient. Reider Aasgaard (2007), who has done extensive research on children in antiquity, noted that children occupied the lowest social strata, were marginalised and represented the opposite construction of power and prowess during this milieu (Aasgaard ibid).

This article will not pursue Aasgaard's perspective, but is interested in how the 'child' metaphor functioned as a means to destabilise discursive constructions of power, space and hierarchy in this ancient context. Using social scientific perspectives and ideological criticism, this article argues that the story is concerned with space, place and boundaries (Elliott 2003). This will be done by establishing the social settings and power dynamics that are deconstructed by these narratives.

Using this perspective in this mini-drama, the story seemingly reveals delicate issues regarding who belonged inside and who remained outside. If a child who, according to the hegemonic ancient constructions and representations of sex and gender, was regarded as a social misfit was placed in the midst of male disciples, this article suggests that the story goes beyond the metaphor of humility. Arguably, it deconstructs notions of belonging, place and power, making it plausible to read the story as an ideological critic aimed at deconstructing, established social hierarchies which sidelined the poor and the weak (Spitaler 2011; Crossan 1991). In the story, the disciples were not economically rich, but being free men made them occupy a better social class than children, women and slaves. Narrated and acted out within a strong patriarchal community, conscious of hierarchy, Jesus' gesture may be understood as deconstructing the socially constructed meanings of power, place and social identity which agrees with Dominic Crossan's (ibid) assertion that, by accepting a child who embodied symbols of social and economic vulnerability, Jesus taught that the kingdom of God belonged to the poor.

This perspective is difficult to sustain before attending to the following questions pertaining the social context of the story:

1. What is the context of the stories?

2. What caused social fractures?

3. Through this action, did Jesus envision an alternative kingdom with different moral and ethical values than the prevailing kingdom?

This article will contribute in exploring how the story was remembered as a narrative that deconstructed hierarchy and inequality, focusing on how the story created alternative social space in which the poor were welcomed and nurtured. Arguably, these stories seemingly grapple with complex questions regarding the exclusion of outsiders. Instead of abandoning the poor, can society radically reorganise itself to accommodate the poor? Using the child as metaphor, Jesus challenged the hegemonic social boundaries and established a new system based on love, hospitality and care for the marginalised. The question of the plausible social context of the stories will now be attended to.


The context: Disrupted livelihoods

The meaning of the stories is inconclusive without the broader economic and social background that forms the backdrop to the narratives.


As simple as it sounds, the debate around the location and the identity of Mark's community is inconclusive. Markan scholars are in a tussle over whether Rome, a traditionally preferred location, or Galilee was the location of the community. Four reasons are presented in support of Rome as the location:

1. The tradition started with Papias, Bishop of Hierapolis during the 2nd century, who asserted that Mark, Peter's disciple, composed the gospel whilst in Rome.1 A majority of church fathers such as Justin (ca. 150 CE; Telford 1985), Irenaeus (ca. 130-200 CE; Adv. Haer. 3.1.1; H.E. 5. 8. 2-4), Eusebius (Hypotyposeis H.E. 6.14.6-7) and Tertullian (Adv. Marc. 4.5) support this view.

2. Furthermore, Rome is believed to be the likely location, because the content of Mark's gospel can be linked to events in Rome, especially reference to a possible situation of persecution during Nero's reign (ca. 54 to 69 CE; Incigneri 2003). If written in Rome, Mark's gospel possibly functioned as a counterclaim - that Jesus was the son of God - against Imperial propaganda that purported that Vespasian was a god - hence a subversive document.

3. Some scholars such as Guthrie (1990) and Collins (2007) further argue that it is inconceivable that the author composed the book whilst in Palestine, given the numerous internal literary inconsistencies present within the book. For example, reference to Dalmanutha (Mk 8:10), which is an unknown location, reference to Gerasenes as extending to the sea of Galilee (Mk 5:1), the description of Bethsaida as a village (Mk 8:26), as well as the incorrect description of Herod's family (Mk 6:17) which causes readers to doubt the writer's proximity to and knowledge of Palestine.

4. Furthermore, the existence of Latin words, for example legion (Mk 5:9) and praetorian (Mk 15:16), supports claims that the audience understood Latin, a language spoken in Rome - thus placing the community's location in Rome. Equally, throughout the gospel the author took time to explain to his audience some Aramaic words, the language spoken in Palestine, such as Boanerges (Mk 3:17) and talitha cum (Mk 5:41) which may explain that the audience had little knowledge of Aramaic and that they resided outside Palestine (Guthrie ibid).

On the other hand, strong arguments are presented in support of Galilee as the possible location. This article respects views that support Rome as the location, but deem those in support of Galilee seem more plausible:

1. Mark is the only gospel that took considerable time and space to detail the destruction of the Jerusalem temple and its impact on both the Jews and Christians - an explanation that makes sense if the community was close to Palestine (Mk 13:1ff.).

2. In addition, the narrative structure of Mark's gospel situates most of Jesus' activities in Nazareth, Capernaum and Gadara which are places located in the northern part of Palestine. Mark clearly showed Galilee as the location where Jesus and his disciples gathered after his resurrection in contrast to Jerusalem which was portrayed as the hostile venue where Jesus was killed. Throughout the gospel, Galilee was represented as a new emerging community after Jesus' death and resurrection (Myers 1991; Horsley 2005; Roskam 2004; Marxsen 1969; Kelber 1979).


Whilst the anti-imperial sentiments within the gospel equally support Rome, the context is more plausible if located in Galilee after 70 CE. During the second half of the 1st century, the region was engulfed in political turmoil, partly caused by Nero's incompetence, giving opportunity for sporadic revolt throughout the empire (Tacitus 1964). The army generals revolted against the Empire which threw the region and the entire Empire into general political decay. For a while, the Empire spent considerable effort and resources fighting sporadic revolts, for example the revolt in Gaul under Vindex in 68 CE and the revolt by the Celts, led by Civilis, in 69 CE (Josephus 1968). Throughout the Empire, political instability inspired other ethnic groups to seek political freedom from the Romans.

In Palestine, especially in Galilee, the Jews were amongst the various ethnic groups that revolted against the Roman imperial rule in demand of political autonomy. A Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus (1968), though writing from the perspective of the Empire, documented that religious grievances were the main causes underpinning the Jewish revolt. In response, the Romans destroyed the temple in 70 CE, but the people's resolve did not waiver. Instead, it exacerbated their hatred against the Empire. Amongst other reasons, the Jews were enraged by the temple tax that was redirected towards the rebuilding of the temple of the Roman god, Jupiter. After the temple destruction, the Jews mostly feared that the Romans would convert the Jerusalem temple into a pagan sanctuary. In response, some prophetic movements amongst the Jews, for example in Cyrenaica, rallied people in the wilderness - promising them deliverance and miracles like those of Moses (Theissen 1991).

Challenges on their livelihood

Besides political instability, the Galileans also faced mammoth economic challenges. Generally, the Galileans were rural peasants and land was central to their subsistence livelihood. They lived as country people in various villages scattered throughout the province (Freyne 2000b), maintaining their roots in the land and surviving through subsistence farming. The influence of Roman Imperialism coincided with the development of urbanisation and monetisation of the economy which severely affected their livelihoods. Commercialisation of land and tenancy fragmented kinship bonds and family values. A majority of city dwellers, for example in Tiberius, were retired Roman veterans and officials who served the interest of the Empire. Largely, this explains the peasants' resentment towards the elite whom they accused of buying land and forcing the peasants into feudal tenants.

Amongst other issues, Rome demanded huge amounts of tribute from peasants which negatively affected their livelihoods. Each province within the Empire was required to pay a stipulated amount of tribute and tax. Galilee was required to pay approximately 200 talents from all the territories of Herod Antipas (Freyne 2000b). The stipulated revenues were paid after every two years and a quarter of the harvest was handed over to Rome. Due to the rapid expansion of the city's population, especially in Rome, frequent food shortages and high tributes were inevitable. Tributes were paid to Rome in the form of grain such as wheat and other agricultural produce (Freyne ibid). Corn was demanded directly from the peasants or could be harvested from imperial estates that were established in the provinces at the expense of the peasants.2 The decree to pay tributes by means of wheat to Caesar remained in effect for almost the rest of the 1st century.

The growing demand for food, due to urbanisation, led to the creation of large estates owned by feudal Lords (Kloppenborg 2006; Oakman 2008). Agricultural specialisation shifted production from small household consumption to estate farming, resulting in peasants being driven from their land to marginal lands or they were assimilated as tenants on farms. Sean Freyne (2000a) commented saying that:

In an agrarian economy, specialisation would mean a shift in land owning patterns, from small families running farms to large estates in which the tenants cultivate the estate. They often work for an absentee landowner under a manager, receiving a subsistent living in return for their labour. (p. 34)

To achieve this, the elite amassed fertile lands through forceful expropriation or default in payment of taxes by small holders. In some instances, the Empire grabbed land from the peasants to create estate farming for large-scale production. The peasants were displaced from their land in Gaba, Trachonitis and from fertile lands in the great plain, as well as in lower and upper Galilee to resettle veterans (Freyne 2000a).

As the need for more land for commercial cultivation grew, land displacement became widespread (Horsley 2001). From the time of Herod the Great and Herod Antipas, land ownership was increasingly concentrated in the hands of royal estates. The rich controlled most of the land and owned a large number of slaves. The majority of the peasants were displaced from their ancestral land, resulting in land alienation and tenancy being a common feature, especially amongst peasants.