Musings on Mark: Where the Wild Things Are

καὶ ἦν ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ τεσσεράκοντα ἡμέρας πειραζόμενος ὑπὸ τοῦ σατανᾶ, καὶ ἦν μετὰ τῶν θηρίων, καὶ οἱ ἄγγελοι διηκόνουν αὐτῷ.
Mark 1:13

The opening scene of Mark’s Gospel is set in the desert. A prophecy about one who preaches in the desert (1:2-3) is fulfilled in John the Baptist (1:4). People from Judea and Jerusalem came out to him to be baptized by him in the Jordan River (1:5). Then Jesus shows up from Galilee and is baptized by John (1:9). Following God’s statement to Jesus that he is his “beloved Son” (1:11), Jesus is driven into the desert further by the Spirit (1:12). The text then says, “And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.” (1:13, ESV)

That verse contains a curious detail, one that doesn’t appear in the other Synoptic accounts of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness (see Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13). Mark says that while Jesus is in the wilderness being tempted by the devil, he is “with the wild animals” (1:13). What do we make of this? Why does Mark include such a seemingly irrelevant detail?

Wild Things

To begin with, the word the English Standard Version translates as “wild animals” is the Greek word thēriona word used over forty times in the Greek New Testament but only once in Mark. It is used most frequently in the book of Revelation (37 times). Though diminutive in form, it is certainly not diminutive in meaning. During this period of writing, thērion was sometimes used to refer to the animals used in arena battles. (Decker, 2014, 16)

But why exactly does Mark use it here? There are a couple of theories. First, it could be that Mark is envisioning Jesus being like Adam, the first human, at peace with all of creation in the garden. This seems very unlikely. A second theory is that the term is meant to emphasize the hostility Jesus faces while in the wilderness being tempted. It is this second option that seems more plausible.

Remember, Jesus is cast out into the wilderness by the Spirit, the Greek verb ekballō being used to describe the Spirit’s action (1:12). Mark uses ekballō to describe violent actions as when Jesus “casts out” demons (1:34, 39; 3:15, 22, 23; 16:9) or when he expels those people buying and selling on the temple grounds from it (11:15). This is not meant to be a pleasant experience. Furthermore, Jesus spends forty days in the wilderness “being tempted by Satan” (1:13). Satan in Mark is a figure of opposition (indeed, the name Satan means adversary or opponent) who seeks to thwart Jesus’ mission to die on the cross (see 8:31-33).

But Jesus isn’t just opposed by Satan; here in 1:13 he is “with the wild animals.” In the Hebrew Bible, being in the presence of wild animals meant you were in a desolate area, one void of human interaction (Isaiah 13:19-22) and that your life was most certainly in danger (Ezekiel 34:5, 25). In other words, Jesus is in hostile territory. His life is in danger.

So rather than being an off-hand remark, the phrase “with the wild animals” is meant to convey to the reader that Jesus is not safe. He faces a severe spiritual threat from Satan and a physical threat from the wild animals. But he emerges from the wilderness alive. This is good news for those facing suffering in their communities. The trials they had faced and were facing (i.e. the Jewish War and the fall of Jerusalem) could be endured just as Jesus had endured.

Printed Works Cited

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

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