Three times, Mark records Jesus’ predictions of His coming passion (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34). In His explanation of the third of those prophecies, Jesus tells His followers that He is going to give His life as a ransom (λύτρον): “the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
The concept of a ransom doesn’t connect with western culture in the 21st century. The only common use of that word today is in reference to kidnapping—usually by terrorists. But this was a very common word in the first century Greco-Roman world. Although it is used only twice in the New Testament, this word aroused immediate associations in the minds of those who read Mark’s gospel. It comes from the culture of slavery: sacral manumission, the ceremony by which a slave is set free.1 In the case of a polytheistic Greco-Roman,2 the slave owner takes the slave being freed to the temple of his god and sells the slave to the god. He is reimbursed for the slave from the pagan temple treasury.
The ceremony takes place in the presence of witnesses, and the manumission record is often recorded in stone—typically on the temple wall or pillar. This transaction is somewhat of a legal fiction, because it is not really temple money that is involved. Rather the slave himself (or his family or friends) have previously paid the specified amount into the temple treasury. Once the slave owner received the money, the slave became the property of the god. Ownership has been transferred. He does not become a slave of the temple, however, but a protégé of the god. In respect to his former owner, he is now a free man.
We have the record of hundreds of such transactions from all across the ancient world. A typical formula that is chiseled in stone might read as follows:
[Name of slave owner] sold to [the god’s name] a male slave named [slave’s name] at a price of [#] minae, for freedom.
An actual example, using a slight variation of this formula, can be read in an inscription from the wall of a temple in Delphi from the second century BC:
Apollo the Pythian bought from Sosibius of Amphissa, for freedom [ἐπʼ ἐλευθερίαι], a female slave, whose name is Nicaea, by race a Roman, for a price [τιμᾶς] of three minae of silver and a half-mina. Former seller according to the law: Eumnastus of Amphissa. The price [τιμάν] he has received. The purchase, however, Nicaea has committed unto Apollo, for freedom [ἐπʼ ἐλευθερίαι].
You should recognize some familiar NT expressions in these words. When we read that Apollo bought a slave “for a price,” we ought to think of a passage such as 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, “You are not your own; you were bought for a price [ἠγοράσθητε τιμῆς] . Therefore honor God with your body.” And when we discover that the purpose of this slave transaction was “for freedom” (ἐπʼ ἐλευθερίαι), it brings to mind Galatians 5:13, “You, my brothers, were called to be free [ἐπʼ ἐλευθερίᾳ]. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.”
Now what does this have to do with the ransom of Mark 10:45? Consider this inscription:3
To [Μηνί] Gallikos, Asklepias, from the village of Kerzyeis, a female slave of Diogenes, a ransom [λύτρον].4
The ransom is the price that is paid to set the slave free. In the manumission ceremony, the money that the god paid to the owner to secure his freedom was the ransom. The verbal picture this word created in the minds of those in the first century was both graphic and meaningful. When Jesus announced that he was giving his life as the ransom, people understood that he was paying the price which would set them free. The analogy with slavery was graphic. They saw themselves as the slaves and Jesus as the one who paid the price. The price to set us free from sin and death was not 3 1/2 minae of silver; it was the very life of Jesus.
That is the explanation Jesus gave of His death. Mark, who was the associate and traveling companion of Peter, probably heard these words from Peter. We know from historical records5 that Peter and Mark ministered together in Rome about the middle of the first century. When Peter left Rome to minister elsewhere, he left Mark behind to continue the ministry there. The Roman Christians then asked Mark to write down for them the stories about Jesus that Peter used to tell. That is the origin of the Gospel of Mark. We know that Peter remembered what Jesus taught about the meaning of the cross. Although he does not use the word ransom in his own writings, Peter does use the verb form of that word when he says, “It was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed [λυτρόω]…but with the precious blood of Christ” (οὐ φθαρτοῖς, ἀργυρίῳ ἢ χρυσίῳ, ἐλυτρώθητε…ἀλλὰ τιμίῳ αἵματι…Χριστοῦ, 1 Peter 1:18-19).
In English, the word “ransom” holds a considerable amount of meaning. However, with a more complete understanding of its cultural context, we can gain a new and more accurate understanding of God’s love for us.
Reposted with permission from Paraklesis, Spring 2007.
1 See Adolf Deissmann, Light from the Ancient East (New York: Doran, 1927; reprint, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995), 322ff.
2 Similar ceremonies and inscriptions are found not only in gentile contexts, but also in Jewish contexts, the synagogue taking the place of the pagan temple. See the references in Deissmann, LAE, 320 n.4, 321-22.
3 Deissmann, LAE, 329.
4 Μήν is the name of the god worshipped in Gallikos (the name of the area). Asklepias is a woman’s name—in this case, the slave. Her owner was Diogenes. The last phrase is to be understood elliptically: “[I dedicate this inscription as] a ransom.”
5 Among others, see Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 2.15; 3.39; 6.14.5ff, and Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 3.1.1-2.
Rodney J. Decker (ThD, Central Baptist Theological Seminary) was professor of New Testament and Greek at Baptist Bible Seminary, a member of Northmoreland Baptist Church, Tunkhannock, PA, and author of many books and articles. He went to be with the Lord in 2014.