Musings on Mark: Mark 1:1 and the Case of the Ambiguous Genitive

Ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ [υἱοῦ θεοῦ]. – Mark 1:1

The word “of” is a funny little preposition. Not only does it look weird to me every time I write it, it is also one of the most versatile of all the prepositions and perhaps one of the most prolific. In that last sentence I was forced to use it three times. “Of” is used almost exclusively of words in the genitive case, the case of possession. But possession is not the genitives’ only use.

In English grammar, genitives can be of many varieties. A genitive of source may indicate where something comes from as in the sentence, “My son is of my lineage.” A genitive of composition (i.e. partitive genitive) may indicate that something is made up of something else as in the sentence, “The dinner tonight will consist of Beef Wellington, glazed carrots, and cream potatoes.” There are many different uses for the genitive in the English language.

The same is true of Koine Greek. The genitive case is one of five cases that a noun, article, or participle may find itself in, the other four cases being the nominative, dative, accusative, and vocative. When studying Greek syntax, you begin to see that the genitive has myriad uses that, depending on which grammarian you read, may fall into any number of categories. And in many cases, these categories overlap or are subsumed by other categories by differing grammarians. There are

  • Genitives of possession
  • Genitives of relationship
  • Attributive genitives
  • Attributed genitives
  • Subjective genitives
  • Objective Genitives
  • Genitives of material
  • Genitives of content

and many more. And for some genitives in the Greek New Testament, there is some debate over the kind of genitive that it is. Here in Mark 1:1, we have such a genitive.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ

The opening verse of Mark’s gospel reads in English, “[The] beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (ESV). There are four genitives in this sentence: “of the gospel,” “of Jesus Christ,” “son” (genitive in form) and “of God.” The first, third, and last of these genitives are the easiest to identify. The first – “of the gospel” – is a genitive of reference (Decker, 2014, 1). If we ask, “Of what is this the beginning?” the answer would be, “The gospel.” The third – “son” – is coupled with the fourth – “of God” – to form a genitive of simple apposition. If we ask, “Who is Jesus Christ?” the answer would be, “Son of God.” The final genitive – “of God” – is a genitive of relationship. If we ask, “Whose son is Jesus Christ?” the answer would be, “God’s son.”

But it is the second genitive – “of Jesus Christ” – about which there is some discussion. We can narrow it down to the general categories of objective and subjective genitives. But which is it?

If the genitive in question is a subjective genitive, then the force of it would be “the gospel from Jesus Christ.” This would make sense given that later in the first chapter we read, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel'” (1:14-15). That passage is significant in Mark because it comprises the first words Jesus speaks and is therefore the first exposure his audience has to the words of the Messiah as he is presenting them. Everything Jesus says and does should be in a way filtered through his first words.

Alas, this view is problematic for a few reasons. First, Mark didn’t begin his Gospel with verses 14 and 15. He could have kicked off his work with Jesus’ words but he chose to begin it with verse 1. Therefore, we should be interpreting verses 14 and 15 in light of verse one, not vice versa. (Guelich, 1989, 9) Second, there is no verb to be found anywhere in the first verse! We have six nouns and an article but not a single verb. This lends weight to the idea that verse 1 is serving as a sort of title or for the book (Garland, 2015, 182) or, at least, a prologue for the opening verses of Mark’s gospel (Guelich, 6-7; White, 2010, 282) and that the genitive in question is not subjective but objective. (Whether 1:1 is the introduction and title for the entire book or simply that of an opening section like 1:2-8, 1:1-13, or 1:2-15 is up for debate and may be the subject of a future blog post in my “Musings on Mark” series.)

If the genitive is objective then the text would essentially read, “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ” (Decker, 1), or, “The beginning of the gospel concerning Jesus Messiah” (Guelich, 6). The difference is clear: Mark is introducing the story of Jesus and his ministry of the gospel. But are the two ideas mutually exclusive? Are the gospel from Jesus and the gospel about Jesus two discordant themes? R. T. France lays out the case that we may not have to choose between the two.

The genitive Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ may, in theory, be read either as subjective (‘the good news proclaimed by Jesus Christ’) or objective (‘the good news about Jesus Christ’). Some commentators take position on one side or the other, but most prefer to have it both ways. Guelich will not allow this since ‘one or the other emphasis has to dominate.’ [Guelich, 9] Syntactically this is no doubt true, but if Mark is deliberately exploiting the ambiguity of the genitive construction, he would not be the first to do so, and either sense is entirely appropriate; moreover, ‘the gospel of God’ in 1:14 allows the same suggestive ambiguity. There are no other uses in Mark of the genitive after εὐαγγέλιον; the noun used absolutely refers in three cases to a message to be believed (1:15) or proclaimed (13:10; 14:9) rather than to the act of proclamation, though in the remaining two uses (8:35; 10:29) either sense is possible. It is therefore probably more natural to read the genitive after εὐαγγέλιον here as objective (the gospel about Jesus Christ), and this is the more normal usage in the rest of the NT (though note to the contrary Rom. 2:16; 16:25, etc., and, denoting the recipients of the gospel, Gal. 2:7). But vv. 14-15 will make it clear that the εὐαγγέλιον is in fact preached by Jesus as well. Whatever the dictates of syntactical pedantry, I think it likely that Mark would have approved, and may well have intended, the double entendre which the genitive construction allows. (France, 2002, 53)

This seems right. France’s assertion that the author of Mark is employing a kind of double entendre makes sense of the available data. And it isn’t unknown in the rest of Greek New Testament. Paul writes, for example, that “the love of Christ constrains us” (2 Corinthians 5:14). Well, is it his love for believers or their love for him? Why must we choose?

Daniel Wallace in his very thorough work on Greek syntax considers cases like 2 Corinthians 5:14 and our genitive in Mark 1:1 to be examples of what he calls a “plenary genitive.” In these instances, “a noun in the genitive is both subjective and objective. In most cases, the subjective produces the objection notion.” (Wallace, 1996, 119) Here I think we have such a genitive and France’s point stands. This need not bother us; Mark could have written in such a way that we must fall on one side or the other. The fact that he did not should perhaps cause us to consider that he intended for the ambiguity to remain.

It is cases like these that make biblical studies so interesting. We can spend some serious time going over what this or that phrase or construction means. And it is well worth our time to consider their meaning, regardless of your personal belief. The text is interesting even if it isn’t straight from the mind of God. In fact, the fact that it probably isn’t only makes it more interesting in my eyes.

Printed Works Cited

Rodney J. Decker. Mark 1-8: A Handbook on the Greek Text. Baylor University Press, 2014.

R. T. France. NIGTC: The Gospel of Mark. William B. Eerdmans, 2002.

David E. Garland. A Theology of Mark’s Gospel. Zondervan, 2015.

Robert A. Guelich. Word Biblical Commentary: Mark 1-8:26, vol. 34a. Thomas Nelson, 1989.

Daniel B. Wallace. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament. Zondervan, 1996.

L. Michael White. Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite. Harper One, 2010.

 

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