Chapter 11: Mark and the Social Gospel
The Gospel of Mark is the sacred traditional book -- that is, the book setting forth the sacred tradition -- of a religious movement or sect. In its origin, this tradition arose inside the religious thought-world of contemporary Judaism, to which it belonged and which it consistently presupposed. However, some time before the Marcan Gospel was compiled, the new sect had been cut loose -- or had cut itself loose -- from Judaism, and was now launched upon the broad seas of the Hellenistic world with its many competing cults and religions. It still remained a sect -- or, if we prefer, a religious movement -- but with no implications of nationality, race, people, or soil. It was now a "universal" religion in process of development. Thus the Gospel of Mark, though deriving its tradition from Palestine, was the sacred book of tradition of the early Gentile church. It still presupposed the Old Testament -- not however, as the sacred Law of God binding upon one particular nation, but as the scripture of an independent religious movement by which it was now reinterpreted. In large measure the Jewish element in it was explained away and its primitive flavor neutralized, for it was now no longer a Hebrew book, but a Greek thesaurus of most ancient oracles. The Gospel of Mark also presupposed the conditions of life in Palestine in Jesus’ day: but the book could be understood by readers with only the scantiest and sketchiest knowledge of things Palestinian. Indeed, the author himself is not wholly familiar with Palestinian geography or history. He lets "Herod," that is, Herod Antipas, remain a "king," as in the popular tale he takes over.(Mark 6:14) He has Jesus return to Galilee from Tyre and Sidon by way of Decapolis;(Mark 7:31) and it is not likely that he himself knew any more about the location of such places as "Dalmanutha" (Mark 8:10) or "Bethphage and Bethany"(Mark 11:1) than the average modern Bible reader knows, or that he knew who the "Herodians" were,(Mark 3:6) or what the argument about korban involved.(Mark 7:11-12) Enough that these names were found in the tradition; all he did was pass them on. For this we must ever be grateful; if Mark had edited his material more severely, he would only have cut away these old roots and presented us with a dry stock instead of a living tradition.
Thus Mark retains tradition, but it is a tradition that has already been torn loose from its native soil. The process has not gone so far as it has in the Fourth Gospel; but it is already in process. Mark is interested in theology -- a very elementary theology, but a real one -- rather than in history; that is to say, a theological idea is more important to him than the actual course of events in the life of Jesus. The sufferings, the death and resurrection of the divine Son of Man are the pattern to which the tradition is conformed, rather than a "biographical" outline of Jesus’ career. Not that there ever was a purely historical account of Jesus’ life, traditional or other; the only reason for remembering the events of that life, from the outset of the Christian movement, was the "theological" meaning they held.(See my "The Christ of the Gospels," Religion in Life, 10:430-41.) But the process and the emphasis, which may be seen more fully in the Gospel of John, are quite clear in Mark. The author is not a theologian, certainly not a systematic theological thinker; but he is profoundly interested in an idea, or m a group of ideas, which can be described only as "theological." And it is no private theology; it is the theology, very primitive and very simple, of a group, the early Gentile Christian church. This group, as we saw, was a sect uprooted from its native soil and transplanted to the larger world of Hellenistic popular religion, and growing steadily, now, into a purely non-nationalistic, universal religion. The seeds of that universalism were doubtless present from the first, that is, in the teaching of Jesus; but only in the wider Gentile world was the church now beginning to realize the potentialities of that germ of life.
We can see this all the clearer if we contrast with it the tradition found for example in Q and M, the purely Palestinian and Syrian tradition underlying the Sermon on the Mount. Here the figures of speech, the examples selected, and the persons addressed all belong to the villages of Galilee -- the savorless salt thrown into the street, the one lamp that lights the whole household, the village blasphemer with his string of profanity and terms of abuse, the temple pilgrim offering his one gift, the village judge and the jailer, the local ruffian swift to strike, the king’s man or garrison officer who compels the peasant to carry his baggage or to yield up his own cloak, the sinner’s field wet with the same rain that falls on his righteous neighbor’s, the local tax collector, the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, the child asking to be fed, the fruitful trees and the unfruitful, the wise and foolish house-builders. Nothing here about kings and councils, armies and tribute, civil or criminal law, the administration of government, the rights of the people, the duties of statesmen or rulers, the merits of various constitutions! Aristotle would have been much puzzled by these chapters, and so will we also be, unless we recognize that here is no formal treatise upon ethics, not even an examination of its major problems, but only the exposition of a religious principle -- even more systematically formulated, as it stands in Matthew, than in Jesus’ actual teaching -- the principle found in the ancient law:
"You therefore shall be perfect," as your heavenly Father is perfect.(Matt. 5:48; cf. Deut. 18:13; Lev. 19:2. I have presented a similar point of view in Ethics and Eschatology in the Teaching of Jesus," Journal of Religion, 20:359-70. This problem is one that is fundamental to the whole presentation of the gospel at the present day. We have already seen some of its bearings in the preceding chapter, and also the historical exegesis of Matt. 5:48.)
If we now inquire about Mark’s "sociology" or his "social ethics," we shall be checked at once. Hoc genus non est! Instead of the Sermon’s provision for cases at law, for the exercise of charity, for civic virtue, presupposing if at the same time reinterpreting the requirements of the ancient national code; instead of the Old Testament Law with its provisions for the inheritance of property, for various kinds of civic and social duties, albeit of a primitive order, which the Sermon presupposes, (Matt. 5:17-20) Mark has the ethical outlook of the sect. The rich, that is, the propertied, can be saved either not at all, or only with great difficulty.(Mark 10:23-27) Renunciation is the rule for all,(Mark 8:34-37; 10:21, 28:31) and the compensations are as simply and absolutely set forth as is the requirement: the good things of this life, such as they are, the blessings of family and of property, will be shared by all within the community, "now in this present time: houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life." The Christian religion, in all its long history, has never been able to absorb or assimilate that text. It has been the irritating grain of sand in the oyster, around which the Catholic ages deposited the priceless pearl of supernatural, otherworldly piety; but for the modern church it has remained an impossible ideal of asceticism, an ideal whose very first precondition of fulfillment is lacking, namely, the eschatological outlook upon the world, the belief in the impending Judgment and the Age to Come. What Mark did, apparently, was select out from the body of Jesus’ sayings those which emphasized the prospect of suffering and persecution in the "last days," and the requirement of abnegation and renunciation on the part of his followers. These sayings, or most of them, were certainly authentically Jesus’ own, though some may have been produced by imitation or further emphasis in the course of handing down the tradition.
We find genuine parallels to them in the other traditions -- Q, L, and M. But Mark simply left out the sayings which offset and balanced these in the primitive tradition. He was writing, not for a group within a group, the Palestinian church living on under the shadow of the Jewish synagogue and a part, though a somewhat segregated part, of Jewish society, observing its own peculiar Halakak; Mark was writing for a martyr church in the world’s metropolis, under the darkening shadow of a tyrant’s throne and in the midst of a corrupt society of which the church could not possibly form a part. To take Mark’s presentation of Jesus’ teaching as normative, or final -- as on the older "Marcan hypothesis" -- is simply out of the question, and sets before the Christian religion, as we have seen, a problem which nineteen centuries have now demonstrated to be insoluble. Never has this been clearer than now: if the church were consistent, we hear, it would not concern itself with worldly goods, or political affairs, or the rights and wrongs of classes, groups, nations; and -- this we are not told, or not by the same persons ! -- it would play at once and completely into the hands of tyrants, international gangsters, and murderers. But the church is not consistent -- that is, not with this one-sided presentation of Jesus’ message -- and it recognizes the importance of such "worldly" matters as education, hygiene, social justice, wages, freedom, and the common welfare. But the problem, I repeat, is there simply because the conditions under which the earliest Gospel was written excluded all consideration of these issues and questions.
But we must go still further back, in our study of the origin of this problem of the application of the gospel. Was Jesus himself as completely unconcerned with "social" problems and questions as the Marcan tradition -- and with it a large element in the rest of the tradition -- presupposes? Surely the answer must be Yes! For the conditions under which he lived were not wholly unlike those in which his Roman followers found themselves forty years later.
Palestine in the first century was a country in a state of transition. It lay between East and West, North and
[See the Gospel of the Kingdom, esp. chap. v. I may also refer to my earlier book, The Economic Background of the Gospels (1926). That pioneer work should be supplemented -- not to say supplanted -- by a study of the great modern researches of M. Rostovtzeff, The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire (1926; new ed., 1940), and his magnificent three-volume work, The Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World (1940). Another important work is F. M. Heichelheim, "Roman Syria," An Economic Survey of Ancient Rome, ed. Tenney Frank (1938), IV, 121-257. See also the chapters on economic history in the Cambridge Ancient History, esp. in the last 6 volumes, and Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem zur Zeit Jesu (1923-29). The chapter in Joseph Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth (1925), dealing with economic conditions (pp. 174.92) is important. It is unfortunate that Charles Guignebert’s The Jewish World in the Time of Jesus (tr. 1939) pays practically no attention to economic conditions, On the other hand, w. O. B. Oesterley, A History of Israel, vol. 11(1932) pays considerable attention to them; see chaps. xii, xxi, etc. H.. H. Rowley’s chapter in Record and Revelation (1938) is a welcome exception to the common neglect of the economic background on the part of Old Testament students. In this respect the volume marks a decided advance upon its predecessor, The People and the Book (1925).]
South, as the land bridge connecting Asia and Africa. Much of it lay "between the desert and the sown." For centuries it had fronted eastward toward that desert, a thoroughly Oriental country. Now for the space of a few centuries it turned ever so slightly toward the West, toward Europe, Rome, and Occidental civilization, though it never completely faced westward and soon went back to its original orientation.
The East bow’d low before the blast,
In patient, deep disdain.
She let the legions thunder past,
And plunged in thought again.
(Matthew Arnold, "Obermann Once More")
The Maccabean War, begun in 168 BC., had ended twenty-five years later in the freedom of the nation under Simon. During the next eighty years, from 143 to 63 BC., the later Maccabean kings considerably extended the borders of Palestine, so that when Pompey arrived at Jerusalem in the year 63 he did not attach Palestine to the province of Syria forthwith, but contented himself with arranging the internal affairs of the kingdom in accordance with Roman policies. When Herod became king in the year 40, he was a rex socius, or allied king; but it was perfectly clear that Roman policy was henceforth to dominate Syria and Palestine. Following the banishment of Herod’s son Archelaus in AD. 6, a succession of Roman procurators were sent out to govern Judea and Samaria. It is true, Galilee and Perea were still under another of Herod’s sons, the Tetrarch Antipas, while the region up in the northeast of Palestine was ruled by his brother Philip. But there was not the slightest prospect in the world of a restoration of the Jewish monarchy.(There was even less hope of a restoration of the priestly theocracy either in an independent priestly state or under such loose supervision as the nation had enjoyed in the days of the Persians. Josephus notes, however, that this plea was made repeatedly at every crisis in the political history of the period after the Maccabees. See Ant. 14. 4. 5; 13. 1-2; 15. 9; 17. 11. 2; etc.) By this time, the handwriting on the wall was clear for all to read. The divided nation was steadily slipping piecemeal under the mailed hand of Rome.
It was likewise a period of economic as well as political transition. Although according to the latest researches, the general level of prosperity was increasing throughout the Roman empire during the first century, and although Palestine might have been expected to share this increase along with a larger volume of trade, both import and export, and although this prosperity was apparently accompanied by a widespread increase in population, nevertheless Palestine was still geared to the past. Its economic outlook was more or less patriarchal and archaic -- in a word, "old-oriental." There was no great gulf fixed between the rich and the poor, at least nothing comparable to our modern extremes of wealth and poverty. But at the same time the power and rule of the king -- when there was one -- was almost unlimited. It was no longer as in the good old days when a king could go out to water the asses in the evening or visit his shepherds and see how the sheepshearing was progressing; the Herods had other ideas. Herod the Great had laid about every possible economic burden upon his people. Many of his vast undertakings were economically nonproductive, like the temple and palace which he built at Jerusalem, the fortified cities farther north, and his vast gifts to foreign cities. Though no doubt they earned the good will of the ruling classes in such cities as had large Jewish settlements and thus served to stem the rising tide of anti-Semitism, at least for a time, Herod’s benefactions were as economically nonproductive as was the tribute he had paid to Cleopatra, to Antony, and to Caesar.
In other words, Palestine was already in the throes of steadily declining prosperity. The fertility of the soil, the very productivity of the land was declining. Palestine represented a countercurrent or, we should say, an eddy in the flowing stream of imperial economic progress. There is remarkable testimony to the truth of this observation in the fact that the two periods which apparently marked the peak of Roman imperial economic achievement, namely the reign of Vespasian and later that of Trajan, saw Palestine ravaged and repressed and Jerusalem a heap of ruins. It is one of the saddest tragedies in all history. While the rest of the world prospered, the Jewish revolt of AD. 66-70 ended only in the utter and complete defeat of the Jews; and the unrest that broke out again under Trajan (It is a question just how extensive was the revolt under Trajan; I accept Scharer’s view -- Geschichte (4th ed.), I, 661 ff. -- "Palestine does not appear to have been involved to any great extent in the revolt . . . . It hardly amounted to a real war." ) led the way to the second revolt under his successor Hadrian in the years 132-35, when for a second time in two generations Jerusalem was totally destroyed.
These are factors that must be taken into account in all our study of the New Testament and the rise of Christianity. Over the whole era was written the legend of change.
Time goes, you say? Ah no!
Alas, Time stays, we go
. (Austin Dobson, "The Paradox of Time."
The ethos of this period in Palestine is very different from that of the world outside, and it is vastly different from the ethos of the early Maccabean period and even the early Herodian. We must acknowledge that our historical sources are not wholly adequate; but, such as they are, this fact of change and decline is unmistakably written all over them. Our chief source, at least for the sequence of events, is Josephus, supplemented of course by Philo, the New Testament, the Jewish traditions, and bits of contemporaneous literature.( See, e.g., Théodore Reinach, Textes d’auteurs grecs et romains relatifs au Judaïsme (1895). But Josephus remains our chief -- and almost our only -- source for the history of Palestine in the period from the Maccabees to the fall of Jerusalem in AD. 70. It is the fashion nowadays to emphasize the failings and limitations of Josephus as a historian, without adding a due recognition of his merits -- as formerly it was the fashion to criticize Tacitus as "morose," "severe" ‘‘pessimistic," and "biased." Of course Josephus is not a very good historian. There are serious gaps in his history, and there are many things he ought to have told us, if his history was to be as clear to us as it probably was to his own generation. If only, for example, instead of giving us in long detail the intrigues of Herod’s family, he had described in equal detail the religious, social, and economic conditions of his country, or even the buildings of Herod! But Josephus’ purpose is apologetic (in the Antiquities) and laudatory (in the War, where he describes the prowess of the Jews in fighting Rome). His histories, both of them, are histories of growing tyranny. The tyrants occupy the center of the stage. There are few other figures than the monarchs and their satellites -- but that only reflects the character of the age -- Roman history, Mediterranean history generally, in that century, was a history of Führers and Duces, strutting about imperiously and wreaking their destructions upon the earth. It is not a very good history, but it is probably as good a history as we can expect, not only because it is the best of its kind, and practically the only survival of its kind (Several other authors, according to Josephus, had undertaken to write accounts of the revolt -- see the opening paragraphs of his preface to The Jewish War. His only surviving rival is Tacitus, but unfortunately there are large lacunae, which we would give almost anything to recover. One of these dealt with the end of the Jewish war and the Fall of Jerusalem. See The Gospel of the Kingdom, p. 198, n. 7.) that is, a Jewish history down to AD. 70 -- but also because it is the only kind of history we have a right to expect from such an age of turmoil and destruction. Let it be acknowledged then that Josephus is not a first-class historian; but the failure to recognize the validity of his facts, especially in that part of his work which lay largely within his own experience and recollection, and the truth of his interpretations, as far as they go -- he is never exhaustive -- is surely responsible for the neglect of his writings by too many interpreters of the New Testament at the present time, and for the rise of theories which leave not only Josephus but likewise the New Testament out of the reckoning.("Henry St. John Thackeray, Josephus, The Man and the Historian (1929), has done a great deal in our generation to revive interest in Josephus and to show his value for historical study of the Bible. F. J. Foakes-Jackson’s Josephus and the Jews (1930) is another volume that deserves mention. Above all, recent study of Josephus in the English-speaking world owes most to Thackeray’s text and translation in the Loeb Library (1926 ff.). now being continued after Thackeray’s lamented death by Professor Ralph Marcus of the University of Chicago.) To be no more than fair, it must be acknowledged that his Jewish War is one of the most gripping, dramatic histories ever written. Superficial, apologetic, and not lacking in considerable personal bias or prejudice, no doubt, but nevertheless a deeply moving tragic narrative, it is really a prose tragedy of gigantic, epical proportions. Our grandfathers, who read Josephus along with the Bible, and were the first to buy the multitudinous cheap reprints of Whiston which may still be obtained at second or third hand, had a juster impression of the background of the times of Jesus and the apostles. One wishes that present-day Bible students would take Josephus more seriously -- and also that writers who discuss the relations of Judaism and Christianity, or "the Jewish question" as a social-historical problem, would read and reread that profoundly tragic history until its full meaning sinks deeply into their minds. For there was the turning point of all Jewish history -- not a point, really, but a vast curve, through whose arc the whole course and direction of Jewish history swung into a new line. Judaism has never recovered from that era; it has never been the same since the fall of Jerusalem that it was before.
Bousset has pointed out the gradual transformation of Judaism, during the period between the Old and New Testaments, from a national cultus to a religion of individual piety -- a religion of observance rather than of theology, on the one hand, or of deep personal feeling, on the other.(Despite some criticism in detail, Bousset’s Die Religion des Judentums remains one of the great works of modern scholarship. In the first edition, it must be admitted, it did make too much of the apocalyptic literature. This disproportion was corrected in the second edition (1906) and even more thoroughly in the posthumous edition prepared by Hugo Gressmann (1926). Another important work that deserves to be better known in this country is that of J. Bonsirven, Le Judaïsme palestinien au temps de Jésus-Christ (2 vols., 1934, 1935).
This process was of course vastly accelerated after the fall of the temple, but it had already been under way for several generations. Palestine was accordingly undergoing religious change as well as political and economic.
The old nationalistic religion of Israel was steadily being replaced by a type which undertook to retain all the gains of the old -- the prophets and the Law -- but to intensify and individualize those gains. This was in line with tendencies already observable before and during the Exile -- as President Julian Morgenstern insists, "Jeremiah, not Ezra, was the real father of Judaism." By the first century, it is clear, Judaism was a fully-developed system of piety, that is, of pious observance -- not a system of theology, nor a code of law, merely, but a system of piety. This is a point of view difficult for present-day Christians to grasp, in estimating that ancient religion, but one that is of vital importance; without it we are sure to misjudge first-century Judaism. Perhaps Roman Catholics might be expected to understand this more readily than Protestants, since Catholicism is likewise a system of piety; but at the same time Roman Catholicism has also a rigid system of theology and a rigid canon law, while Judaism was almost totally lacking in theology, at least beyond the main and fundamental tenets of monotheism, revelation, the spirituality and the sovereignty of God, and the divine election of Israel.( See the works of Bousset, Moore, and Bonsirven mentioned above; also Louis Finkelstein, "The Role of Dogma in Judaism," The Thomist, Jan., 1943. pp. 103-10.) Judaism had also a canon law; but it was still in process of evolution, in the first century, and many questions were still open, were still sub judice, and the full and final elaboration of the Halakak was only in process. Many questions of observance, ceremonial and other, and even rules of morals, were still hotly debated, and the process did not reach even a relative finality until Rabbi Judah and the written Mishnah at the end of the second century of our era.
As a religion of observance, a system of piety founded upon Torah (divine revelation), interpreted by the prophets and expounded by the scribes, first-century Judaism is best studied in its liturgy and prayers, its Psalter, its homiletic tradition, preserved in the later Midrash, its popular writings, and even its tales, parables, collections of aphorisms and wise sayings, and not solely in the later codified Halakah. The books of Judith, Tobit, Wisdom, Sirach, First and Second Maccabees, above all the Psalms in their final revision, and the great prayers of the Synagogue, the primitive Kaddish and the ancient Palestinian recension of the Shemoneh Esreh, echoing in almost every line the thought of the Psalter and the Second Isaiah -- it is here that we feel the vital pulse-beat of genuine Judaism. It was anything but a decadent religion, moribund, steeped in formalism, hypocrisy, and artificiality! It was in fact the most vital, most inspiring religion in the whole world at that time; and if we are tempted to contrast it with Christianity, say with the religion of the gospel or with Christianity as it ought to be, let us add that Judaism is likewise to be judged by what it aimed to be, not by what it empirically was; and also, that Christianity owes a vast debt to Judaism-in fact, as we have already observed, the best in Judaism and the best in Christianity are not two religions but one, historically and essentially. What happened to Judaism later, in the Talmudic era, and what happened later to Christianity, in the conciliar and imperial periods, lie equally outside our range of consideration at this point. Other times brought other conditions, other needs! Even so, empirical, actual Judaism, in the first century, like empirical, actual Christianity in the apostolic age, was something far too sublime and inspiring, far too creative, to be lumped into a formula, and then discarded! But it was a religion in transition -- that is the point I am trying to make just now. And this transition was taking place under the pressure of other changes, already noted -- political, economic, and social. Hence the background of Jesus’ "social" teaching was this complicated, shifting religious-economic-political situation of first-century Palestine -- the background not only of the question about the tribute money, but also of his teaching on nonresistance, oaths, offerings, Sabbath observance, vows, divorce, and other matters of which we read in the Gospels.
Now there is a true sense in which Jesus’ teaching was not "social" at all; but this negative statement is only relatively true -- for all Hebrew-Jewish religious teaching was socially conditioned. It was not only messianism that was "social" in outlook -- since back of the visions and rhapsodies of the apocalyptists and seers lay social dreams and urges, wants and aspirations.("See "The Economic Significance of Messianism," Anglican Theological Review, 6:196 ff.; 7:281 ff.; and "Economic Messianism and the Teaching of Jesus," ibid., 12:443 ff.) Back of the prophets’ visions of the future lay a social conception of religion, or, much more, a social conception of God’s relation to the world and of the world’s relation to God. Back of the Torah likewise lay that concept. The very foundation of Judaism itself, the Second Commonwealth, the work of the pioneers -- Haggai, Zechariah, Zerubbabel, Nehemiah, Ezra -- was idealistic and utopian enough, and rested upon a firmly fixed "social" ideology, namely a holy nation devoted to the worship and obedience of the one, true, holy God. Since Jesus’ teaching was closely related to the Jewish religious tradition and made use of its concepts, since he took for granted the fundamental conception of all Jewish religion, the eventual triumph of the will of God, and since his teaching is vitally concerned with the object of all prophetic hopes and predictions -- in a word, since Jesus was Jewish -- his religion was essentially "social." It could not be otherwise with a religion centered in a sacred covenant between God and a whole people and expressed in a sacred Law which set forth the will and the purpose of God for this people as a whole. It is true, Jesus revised this conception, and broke down its ultranationalistic limitation; but in the very fact of his revision of it, he presupposed it.
It grows clearer every year, as we study the Gospels, that Jesus took for granted the religion of the Old Testament with its "ethics" -- which was quite inseparable from the religion -- and that he was not setting up a new religion or ethics in place of the old but deepening, spiritualizing, renewing, "fulfilling" the old. This is the main point of the great array of parallels to Jesus’ teaching adduced from the ancient Jewish tradition and literature, for example in Strack and Billerbeck’s Commentary on the New Testament from Talmud and Midrash. It is only when his ethics is separated from the ethical teaching of Judaism -- which he deepened and spiritualized -- and is then given a purely apocalyptic setting, that it can be described as "interim ethics." What he presupposed was (a) the truth of the ancient revelation, (b) the final arrival of that stage in the accomplishment of the divine will which the prophets had predicted as coming to pass in "the latter days," and (c) the validity of his own insight into and declaration of the divine purpose and commandment. This is "eschatological," of course; but so is all prophetic religion, in Judaism as throughout the Old Testament generally -- it is a teleologically orientated religion, and looks steadily forward to the eventual triumph of good, of the will of God, and the establishment of God’s reign over all the world. Jesus’ teaching is eschatological" in outlook, but it is not necessarily "apocalyptic"; that is, it did not take for granted the visions, dreams, chronological calculations and symbols, the vast array of angelic and other supernatural figures, or the mechanical and deterministic schemes of history which were characteristic of the apocalyptists. This apocalyptic element is certainly present in the Gospels, and it was present in the gospel tradition; but it probably came in at a point early in the history of the tradition, and it grew stronger in some circles as time passed, reaching its climax in the Gospel of Matthew -- only to be all but completely rejected in John!
When we come back now to the question with which we began, Was Jesus himself as completely unconcerned with "social" problems as Mark represents? we must answer, Yes -- and No! For his ethics has no concern with the secular relations of men, but only with men as members, or potential members, of the Kingdom of God. Problems that arise only upon a secular basis of thinking, whether legislative or merely prudential -- like the division of property (Luke 12:13-14.) -- have no interest for him. "Seek first the Kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things shall be added unto you!"(Matt. 6:33)
It is from this point of view that we must approach such a question as that of the tribute money: "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s." (Mark 12:17) Not that there are two worlds, the secular and the sacred, each autonomous and each sovereign within its own boundaries -- that mistaken exegesis lay at the heart of the mediaeval dichotomy of church and state. Instead, it is clear from Jesus’ teaching as a whole, as it is from the Bible as a whole, that he took for granted the principle that all sovereignty belongs to God. Since that is so, render to Caesar, as you must, what belongs to him -- it is not much! But this neither dispenses you nor prevents you from offering to God what belongs to him; indeed, Caesar’s dominion is temporary, while the dominion of God is eternal. Surely it is something like this that Jesus meant, judging from the rest of his teaching. It is not mere "clever evasion" on his part; nor is it mere quibbling about the propriety of handling a heathen coin with its profile of the emperor or its pagan inscription -- as has recently been suggested.(Herbert Loewe, "Render Unto Caesar" (1940).)
Our answer must be Yes -- and No! Jesus’ teaching was not "social," in our modern sense of sociological utopianism; but it was something vastly profounder, a religious ethic which involved a social as well as a personal application, but within the framework of the beloved society of the Kingdom of God; and in its relations to the pagan world outside it was determined wholly from within that beloved society -- as the rest of the New Testament and most of the other early Christian literature takes for granted. Members of the Kingdom are still members of the Kingdom when they buy and sell, eat and drink, walk the streets of pagan towns, or -- God forbid ! -- appear before pagan tribunals. There was no dichotomy in morals, so that one might be compelled to do as a citizen or a tradesman what he was forbidden to do as a disciple of Christ. There lay the area of tension -- and there too shone out the heroism of early Christian ethics. It is reflected in the Gospel of Mark, brief and one-sided as is its selection of Jesus’ teachings appropriate to its own special situation, that of a church facing martyrdom; but it is also reflected in Matthew, with its presupposition of a more settled community life, though at the same time facing a steady threat of persecution; and it is reflected clearly in Paul and in the letters he wrote to those who, like himself, were "in jeopardy every hour" for the faith that was in them. It was a social gospel they proclaimed, yes -- but only as the gospel of the coming Reign of God over all the earth, and as the new Halakak, the description of "life in accordance with the sayings of the Lord" who was God’s final Messenger to his elect. It was no message of social reform, no blueprint for a perfect human society, save in the ultimate sense that the Kingdom of God is to take the place of all earthly societies, when "the kingdom of the world becomes the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ."