Dr Robert Myles, Senior Lecturer in New Testament, Wollaston Theological College and University of Divinity
During the first century, Palestine was under the direct or indirect control of the Roman Empire. The Gospels tell us Jesus was put to death by this foreign power for being a deranged royal pretender (eg John 19:19). While this background is widely acknowledged, what is usually missed or downplayed is the crucial point that because the Gospels were formulated in the context of Roman imperialism, they are thoroughly implicated by it.
Most Christians know that ‘gospel’ literally means ‘good news’. In the first century, the Greek term behind it, euangelion, also had strong connotations of Roman power - both imperial and divine.
The day of the divine Caesar Augustus’ birth, for example, was celebrated as ‘the beginning of the good news for the world’ (IK Priene 14). After Vespasian became emperor in 69 CE, this event was also referred to as ‘gospel’. Oaths of personal allegiance were sworn, and great celebrations, including sacrifices offered on his behalf, were held around the Empire
Many scholars think that the Gospel of Mark was written around the time of Vespasian’s accession to the throne. By re-appropriating this imperial term, euangelion, and using it in the title of their own work (Mark 1:1), the author of Mark was making a bold statement: the power of Jesus the Messiah and Son of God both imitates and rivals the assertions of the ‘good news’ of Rome’s ruling power. Furthermore, Jesus predicted that he would appear with great strength and glory to be enthroned at the right hand of power (14:62; cf 10:37; 13:26).
In 2024 I will teach an exciting new unit through Wollaston Theological College and the University of Divinity called ‘Decolonising the Gospels’. It will run as a week-long intensive from 24-28 June (TBC) and should be of particular interest for anyone looking to sharpen their understanding of postcolonial theory and empire studies as these burgeoning fields have taken root in Gospel studies over the past several decades.
Students will learn about the effects of Roman imperialism on the composition of the Gospels as well as the impact of later colonial legacies upon their interpretation. The unit will offer students some intriguing and alternative entry points into the Gospels which they can add to their interpretive toolkits.
The Gospels have functioned, and continue to do so, as handmaidens of empire. Indeed, alongside their radical visions of justice, peace, and counter-cultural ideas, sit ideas of power, dominance, and the Jesus movement’s own brand of theocratic rule.
‘Decolonising the Gospels’ will equip students to think critically about how imperialism and colonialism were negotiated in often complex and ambivalent ways by the authors of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John: whether by advocating strategies of resistance, marked indifference, or accommodation or even assimilation into Roman rule.
Gospel studies informed by decolonial and postcolonial concerns are not, of course, limited to ancient texts and contexts. Students will also learn about how the Gospels have been interpreted as both a mechanism of colonial dominion as well as a resource for resistance and liberation through the history of modern colonialism.
The Bible in general, and a number of Gospel texts in particular, have been utilised alongside the invasion and conquest of many parts of the world, including Australia. One need not go much further than the reception of the Great Commission—to ‘make disciples of all nations’ (Matthew 28:19) - which was appealed to by European missionaries to justify concomitant Christian evangelization of the colonised alongside European conquest, dispossession, and the seizure of lands.
But just as important for modern Christians is to uncover the many ways the Gospels have been used by the colonised to inspire movements of resistance and for the creative negotiation of imperial forces.
In developing an Aboriginal theology, for example, Yolngu man Djiniyini Gondarra draws on Jesus’ parable of the rich man and poor Lazarus whose fates are reversed in the afterlife (Luke 16:19-31). He sees an affinity between Lazarus and the resilience of Aboriginal people ‘who are trying to survive their identity in the midst of the foreign white man’s world. The world is full of oppression, racial discrimination and starvation. But we have a living hope in Jesus Christ.’.1 Gondarra does not disclose the corresponding identity of the damned rich man; rather, the discerning reader is left to figure this out for themselves.
Another interesting example, this time from my home country of Aotearoa New Zealand, involves certain groups of Māori who, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, started to identify as ‘Jews’ rather than ‘Christians’. These Māori, who had been regarded by the missionaries as successful Christian converts, justified their new identification as ‘Jews’ on the grounds of having ‘left the way of the Son’ and adopting instead the way of the Father. Such language resonates strongly with the Gospel of John, especially John’s condemnation of a character group known as ‘the Jews’ (eg John 5:17-18; 10:29-33). ‘The way of the Son’ was likely perceived by these Māori as ideologically connected to the assertions of settler superiority imposed by British colonial rule. To leave the Son behind was, in the words of Mary Huie-Jolly, a coded way of defiantly shaking ‘the dust of empire from their feet’.
As we explore this complex relationship between the Gospels and imperialism, a pivotal question emerges: What might it look like to proclaim a ‘gospel’ which has been decolonised? Is such a thing even possible?
1. Djiniyini Gondarra, Series of Reflections of Aboriginal Theology (Bethel Presbytery, Northern Synod of the Uniting Church in Australia, 1986), 24.^