Monday, May 20, 2013

"What Power Expels Us" (Part 3)

This is the third installment of my five-part series on the Gerasene Demoniac episode in Mark 5:1–20. See also: Part 1 and Part 2.

Power Over Politics
            In the first-century Judean context, not a single person who read or heard Mark’s naming of “Legion” would have misunderstood its explosively political connotation. The legion was a Roman military unit consisting of as many as 6,000 men, though frequently averaged around half that number.[1] Just as the unfortunate Gerasene man was occupied by thousands of destructively violent demons, so did Roman legions occupy much of ancient Palestine.[2] Unfortunately, this is a connotation which is lost in translation with paraphrases such as the CEV, and the GNT, which translate Legiw;n as “Lots” and “Mob,” respectively. In fact, the entire passage is rife with military imagery: the “herd” of swine is cleverly suggestive of a group of military recruits, Jesus’ dismissal of the demons in v.13 is reminiscent of the command of a superior officer, and as the pigs rush into the sea the reader is reminded of a battalion of troops charging into the frontline of a battle.[3] Furthermore, Marcus goes so far as to suggest that Legion’s request to “enter” the pigs in v.12 carries an obscene sexual innuendo, as “ancient armies, like modern ones, were famous for rape.”[4]
            It is not difficult to see how ancient Judean Christians might have been entertained by this image—the omnipotent, oppressive force of Rome is here depicted as subserviently cowering to Jesus, son of the Most High God—even bargaining with him!—[5]and ultimately fleeing from his presence to their own destruction, in addition to possible speculation by the author of Mark as to what Romans like to do with pigs in their free time. And perhaps most peculiar of all is the fact that Jesus manages to liberate the region from this veritable army of demons without any sort of violent struggle with the legion itself: “The options of violence have not worked. No one is stronger than the demoniac, just as no army is mightier than the Roman Empire’s.”[6] Only the presence of Jesus—the one with power over the sea and over demons—can exile the oppressors, a notion ironically illustrated in the fact that the word from which Gerasa is derived meant “to banish.”[7] Jesus thus has power greater than that of Rome.

[1] Marcus, 345.
[2] Ibid, 351. Marcus also notes that one such legion stationed in Palestine carried as its standard emblem the image of a wild boar.
[3] Myers, 191.
[4] Marcus, 352.
[5] Culpepper, 168.
[6] Beck, 77.
[7] Marcus, 342.

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