The Gospel of Mark and the Self-Sacrifice of Rulers

Though the “many for one” political ideology was widespread in the first century CE, the Gospel of Mark, passage 10:45, rejects this ideology. Instead, this type of rule is contrasted with Jesus’s own as the servant king, sacrificing himself (the one) for his followers (the many).

McMaster Researcher


Thiessen, M. (2016) ‘The Many for One or One for the Many? Reading Mark 10:45 in the Roman Empire’, Harvard Theological Review, 109(3), pp. 447–466. doi: 10.1017/S0017816016000171.

What is this research about?

This paper is an examination of the Mark 10:45 with the assumption that the Gospel was written in the context of the Roman Empire.
In Mark 10:45 Jesus maintains that those who are sovereign exist to serve, not to be served, and the sovereign’s life should be sacrificed for the good of the many. This belief is compared to other philosophies in order to better interpret and understand Mark’s intention in classifying Jesus’s death as ‘ransom’. Ransom refers to a significant price (e.g. a life) to be paid in general, but not to anyone in particular, in order to rescue people from punishment for sin.

What did the researchers do?

The researcher conducts a literature review of works completed by historians examining the Roman Empire and the Gospels. This is paired with a close reading of specific religious and political texts in order to compare the language used to discuss rulership and ransom. In particular, the researcher explores:

  • The self-sacrifice of rulers: For example, the ‘noble’ suicide of Emperor Otho, in which Otho committed suicide to end a civil war and protect his supporters from further loss.
  • De Clementia (On Mercy): An instructional political text written by Seneca for Emperor Nero, intended to provide examples of a good ruler (one who shows ‘clemency’, or mercy) in contrast to tyrants, and to comment on the relationship between the ruler and the subjects.
  • Mark 10:45: Jesus claims he exists to sacrifice his life for his followers.

What did the researchers find?

Through a survey of portrayals of some Roman Emperors, the researcher reveals several examples of Greek and Roman literature where rulers are depicted as willing and committed to offering their lives to save their followers. This shows that the ideal of a self-sacrificing ruler was widespread in Greece and Rome, especially during the Roman imperial period. Jesus’s words in Mark 10:45, where he claims to exist to serve his followers, represents this type of leadership.
De Clementia contains a contrasting but parallel notion of leadership compared to what is discussed in Mark 10:45. In particular, Seneca advises Nero to accept the sacrifices of his followers, because many lives can be used to ransom one greater life (the Emperor’s). This comparison shows a parallel in the use of ‘ransom’, however, an opposite approach to leadership. The close examination of Mark 10:45 shows a rejection of the political philosophy advocated by Seneca in De Clementia.

How can you use this research?

This research can help build understanding and awareness of early Christianity’s interaction with other contemporary beliefs and political discourses.

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