Reprinted with permission from Paraklesis, Spring 2007.
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.