In the blog article Jesus’ house in the gospel of Mark is the Herodian palace in Tiberias I tried to show that Mark’s four mentions of Jesus’ οἶκος (oikos – house) are not about his private dwelling but about the Herodian palace in Tiberias.
Below I will discuss the second mention of this palace in Mark 3:20, the reaction of Jesus’ family and of a Jerusalem delegation on the event described in verse 20, and finally the Binding the strong man fragment in the following verses (23-27). I will try to demonstrate that these passages are closely related to the initial event and that they assist in decoding it.
The Nestle-Aland translation of this pericope goes as follows (my subdivision):
(20) Then he [Jesus] went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat.
(21) And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for people were saying, “He is beside himself.”
(22) And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul, and by the prince of demons he casts out demons.”
(23) And he called them to him, and said to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? (24) If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. (25) And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. (26) And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end. (27) But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man; than indeed he may plunder his house.
In the blog article mentioned above I showed that in verse 20 Jesus went to the Herodian palace and that his army assembled there. In the next verse Jesus’ family strongly disapproves this action. They want to restrain Jesus and they label his action as foolish. This is a first indication that Jesus and his men may not have been making an uneventful walk to the palace.
In Life verse 65 Josephus describes Jesus son of Saphat’s seizure of the Herodian palace and, parallel with Mark 3:23, a delegation from Jerusalem is involved. The delegation in Life is headed by Josephus, who by his own account was a Pharisee, which is synonymous to scribe. (Moreover the version in Matthew 12:24 gives ‘Pharisees’). Josephus reports the following on his involvement in the occupation of the Herodian palace: I told them [the council and the principal men of Tiberias] that I and my associates had been commissioned by the Jerusalem assembly for the seizure of the palace erected by Herod the tetrarch. (…) We were, however, anticipated in our task by Jesus son of Sapphias, the ringleader of the sailors and destitute class.
How far-fetched it may look at first sight, maybe verse 22 is also a commentary on Jesus and his men marching against the palace. The first step in that direction is a translation issue. The Nestle-Aland translation says that Jesus was possessed by Beelzebul, but the Greek tense is active (Βεελζεβοὺλ ἔχει – Beelzebul echei), which means He [Jesus] possesses Beelzebul, or in a military context He occupies Beelzebul. This gentile deity is cryptically presented as the ruler of the demons, and in combination with the traditional translation ‘being possessed’ a supermundane atmosphere is suggested, the more as Satan is introduced further on in this fragment. However, given the military nature of the preceding and the following verses (see below), a superterrestrial intermezzo is improbable.
In the gospels the gentile Syrian inhabitants of Galilee are called unclean spirits or demons, and so ‘ruler of the demons’ may be the encoded term for an earthly ruler of the epoch. With the staging of an earthly, political Satan in the next verses, we should look at a ruler who qualifies as ruler of the Syrian inhabitants of Galilee. We do not have to search very far. In 61 CE Herod Agrippa II had become the client ruler of eastern Galilee, and as the Jews saw the Herodians as Hellenistic and not as Jewish kings, the ruler of the Syrians is Agrippa II, alias Beelzebul. Mentioning Beelzebul’s palace would have exposed Jesus and his men as marching against that palace in verse 20, and thereby have cancelled the encoding of the whole fragment. Therefore not the palace is mentioned but its owner (and moreover its owner in disguise) in combination with the verb for ‘to possess/to occupy’, to say that Jesus had captured the Herodian palace. This seems to be an example of a sophisticated two-stage disguise.
Proceeding on this revolutionary avenue, the Pharisees comment that Jesus casted out the demons ἐν τῳ ἄρχοντι τῶν δαιμωνίων (en tōi archonti tōn daimoniōn) which is traditionally translated as ‘by the prince of the demons’. If Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons, is the code for his palace, we should translate the Greek ἐν (en) not as ‘by’ but as ‘from within, from inside’. The plain message of this verse could be that Jesus seized the Herodian palace and that he hunted the Syrians from inside that palace, we could say from inside their own palace. In a situation of high ethnic tension between the Jewish and Syrian inhabitants of Galilee this method was an important supplementary provocation that fueled the civil war.
The Pharisees are generally depicted as Jesus’ religious adversaries, but maybe this is not the case here. Josephus the Pharisee and his following were partners of the Galileans in the nationwide revolt against the Romans, but the relation between the Galileans and the Judean ‘intruders’ was tense as Josephus repeatedly mentions. For Josephus and his men Jesus’ seizure of the palace will not have been a fundamental problem, as they had the same objective. Maybe the comment of the Jerusalemites is a mix of admiration and criticism. Admiration for Jesus’ swift and audacious action, and criticism because he used the palace as his base for ruthless ethnic violence against the Syrian inhabitants of Tiberias. After the negative reaction of his family this would be the second critical commentary on Jesus’ action.
Josephus ends the paragraph on the seizure of the Herodian palace in Life verse 67 as follows: Jesus and his followers then massacred all the Greek residents of Tiberias and any others who, before the outbreak of hostilities, had been their enemies. (It is clear that Josephus exaggerates, as in a later phase of the revolt the Syrian inhabitants of Tiberias were strong enough to surrender their city to the Romans and to force Jesus and his men to flee to Tarichaeae.)
This discussion of the negative reaction of Jesus’ family and the two-sided reaction of the Jerusalem delegation on Jesus’ action opens a new perspective on this feat. The outspoken reactions point to a controversial initiative. Jesus does not simply have an appointment with his soldiers in the palace to address them; this verse describes Jesus’ seizure of the Herodian palace. In a hectic atmosphere with no time to eat, probably referring to the speed with which the action was carried out, Jesus and his troops marched against the palace to occupy it. This contributed to the escalation of the conflict with Rome. To seize a conspicuous possession of a Roman client king was a challenge to Rome itself. Jesus’ family saw this military achievement as a foolish act, an irresponsible hostile action not only against the local Herodian ruler but even more against the latter’s powerful Roman overlords.
In verse 23 Jesus invites Josephus and his men in his new headquarter for a joint staff meeting. This section starts with the enigmatic How can Satan depose Satan? which I will leave aside. From verse 24 on this passage is a hardly veiled description of the Roman empire ruled by Satan, the Roman emperor Nero. In my translation below I shifted the emphasis to the imperial and military context of that era: empire instead of kingdom, dynasty for house, persist for stand, enchain instead of bind, and palace instead of house. I also replaced the code word ‘Satan’ with ‘the emperor Nero’.
(24) If an empire is divided against itself, that empire cannot persist. (25) And if a dynasty is divided against itself, that dynasty cannot persist. (26) And if the emperor Nero has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot persist but is coming to an end. (27) But no one can enter the strong one’s palace and plunder his goods, unless he first enchains the strong one; then he can plunder his palace.
This new translation emphasis brings forward the fully anti-Roman tenor of this passage. The weakness of the Romans is depicted from the general to the particular level: first the empire, then the Julio-Claudian dynasty and finally the ruling emperor Nero. Jesus seems to express that in his eyes the Roman empire was at the brink of collapse and that this created an ideal opportunity for the Jews to stand up against their oppressor. However, the empire would not fall into their hands for free. It would still be necessary to wage war against the Romans in order to take over their empire.
Above I fully focused on Mark’s version of the events. The parallel fragments in Matthew and Luke are similar on most points but nevertheless provide some interesting additional information.
Matthew 12:25b/c: Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand.
Matthew introduces two new elements: the city which could refer to Rome, and a clearer reference to the hoped for annihilation (‘laid waste’) of the Roman empire. Above I already mentioned that Matthew has ‘Pharisees’ in 12:24 instead of Mark’s scribes.
Luke 11:21-22: (21) When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are in peace; (22) but when one stronger than he assails him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted, and divides the spoil.
These verses breath a more pronounced political and military atmosphere than Mark’s story: fully armed, armor, palace, peace, assail, overcome, spoil. Luke also introduces the Jewish messiah, the one who is stronger than the powerful Roman emperor. If both the messiah and the emperor are used as representatives of their armies, then those who will be stronger than the Roman legions are the Jewish revolutionary forces.
A decoded reconstruction of this fragment could sound as follows, with my translation choices underlined, omitted information in bold and decoded terms upright:
(20) Then he [Jesus] went into the palace to seize it; and again the army joined him, so that they could not even eat.
(21) And when his family heard this, they went out to restrain him, for they said “He has lost his senses.”
(22) And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He occupies Agrippa’s palace, and from within the palace of the ruler of the Syrians he casts out the Syrians.”
(23) And he invited them in and said to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? (24) If an empire is divided against itself, that empire cannot persist. (25) And if a dynasty is divided against itself, that dynasty cannot persist. (26) And if the emperor Nero has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot persist but is coming to an end. (27) But no one can enter the strong one’s palace and plunder his goods, unless he first enchains the strong one; then he can plunder his palace.