“I am Richard II, know ye not that?”
This was Queen Elizabeth’s famous remark about William Shakespeare’s Richard II as she clearly observed many of her popular stereotypes humorously reflected in the play’s title character. Importantly, her observation spoke to a truth common to many if not all of Shakespeare’s histories. Their power is most richly experienced when viewed beyond just “history” and more as commentary on his present day. That is to say, Shakespeare was less interested in “accurately” depicting his subject characters and more in crafting stories tailored to his observations of 16th and 17th century England and the house of Tudor.
The iconic Queen Elizabeth was both successful as the monarch of England and yet frequently criticized for lacking decisiveness. So, Richard II was depicted strikingly with similar indecisiveness. Sometimes the complicated political nature of Elizabeth’s day required making concessions that arguably lacked principal. This too was how Richard II was depicted. Elizabeth was accused of murdering Amy Dudley, the wife of Lord Robert Dudley, but never ended up marrying him, despite their courtship. Correspondingly, Richard II’s indecisiveness made him look guilty in the death that is the central problem within the plot.
Of course, criticizing Elizabeth I for excessive caution was wildly unfair. Elizabeth I was the product of both a complicated political climate and quiet years observing the hasty mistakes of her Tudor predecessors. Mary was completely decisive, but lead England into religious, economic, and military disaster. On the other had, Elizabeth I made caution work for her. By the end of her reign, England was the dominant political and military force of a fractured European continent. So, when she was accused of being indecisive—usually on account of her sex—the Bard of Avon whipped up a play that depicted a man with exaggerated versions of her supposed flaws without—unlike Elizabeth I—any accomplishments to show for it. Fun stuff.
I tell you this because Bible history and Shakespeare history have a lot in common.
The Old Testament history you find in Genesis and Exodus is less videotaped history as it is commentary on life in Israel after war with Babylon. The book of Daniel, the last-written book of the Old Testament, is less the “true” story of Daniel in Babylon and more commentary on life in Israel in the 2nd century under the abuses under Antiochus IV that ultimately lead to the Maccabean Revolt. You could say I’ve written about this at length.
But this creative use of “history” doesn’t end with the Old Testament.
The story of Jesus was not told in written form until immediately after the destruction of Jerusalem. Not surprisingly then, it reflects and speaks to the most important things that people were thinking after losing everything in that war. Jesus’s story and stories are tailored to speak to its time and agony. This means that our cultural and temporal distance from the Bible require us to retrain how we read it.
The Bible is mostly the product of war.
War is the subtext of virtually its every subversive word.
Including the angry Gospel of Mark.
In the fifth chapter of Mark, Jesus encounters a man said to be possessed by demons—so many that they would later enter two thousand pigs—and these demons apparently gave him great strength and made him terrorizing in the countryside. In fact, the story tells us that “no one was strong enough to subdue him.” However, when Jesus encounters him in the region of Gadara (modern-day Jordan), this all-powerful man immediately kneels down before Jesus.
We make this a spiritual story.
But, to those who lived through the terror of Rome’s War on Terror, the message was far less a spiritual one, but a tangible one. They had just experienced the relentless power of the Roman legion, a force that no one on Earth was strong enough to subdue. No one had the audacity to claim they were greater than the Roman military. But this story not only depicts this all-powerful being kneeling before Jesus, but begging—yes begging—to enter a herd of Judaism’s most famously unclean animal, pigs, and descend down a lake to their death.
And—did I mention?—the man’s name is “Legion”.
That one is a dead giveaway.
Last, but not least, Gadara (or the “region of the Gerasenes”) was where a diplomatic mission was sent to the Roman general, Vespasian, as he was destroying the countryside around Jerusalem before his later siege. The details aren’t clear, but, apparently, they made some show of allegiance to the empire in order to protect their investment.
Josephus tells us in The Wars of the Jews as follows:
However, [Vespasian] was obliged first to overthrow what remained elsewhere, and to leave nothing outside of Jerusalem behind him that might interrupt him in that siege. Accordingly, he marched against Gadara, the metropolis of Perea, which was a place of strength, and entered that city on the fourth day of the month of Dystros for the men of power had sent an embassy to him, without the knowledge of the seditious, to treat for conditions of surrender; which they did out of the desire they had of peace, and for saving their effects, because many of the citizens of Gadara were rich men.
Just in case the reader might think this story about anything other than Rome, Mark tells us in his story that when the men of the region lost their huge investment, they pleaded with Jesus to leave their region.
What do you think Mark saying about those who pledge allegiance to the empire?
Does he think you can pledge allegiance to the empire and to Jesus?
Does he think war-making and “fire and fury” makes the world safer?
I simply cannot accept that Mark—after the bitter destruction Israel had experienced at the hands of Rome—told this story with any other motivation than to say that the way of Rome was dying to the way of Jesus. That Jesus was greater than Caesar. That war destroys those it conquers as well as the conquerers.
Again, we fundamentalists spiritualize everything in the Bible, and we do so to the benefit of only one man, Caesar. This is unfortunate. The “miracle of the swine” is a dangerous story about quite visible empire, not a fun story about some amorphous devil.
Which brings me back to Shakespeare. I can imagine the powerful Romans—whose understanding of the world was tethered to the might and security of their Empire—listening to the story about Legion and asking themselves:
I am Legion, know ye not that?