Every superhero has a back story, a tale about what made them the way they are. My favorite superhero is DC’s Batman. What disturbing thing happened to him that made him want to dress up like a bat and beat up bad guys in the middle of the night? As most people know, when Bruce Wayne was young he witnessed his parents get murdered right before his eyes. It was this traumatic event that led him down the path to becoming one of the most iconic comic book heroes in history: the Dark Knight, the Caped Crusader, the Batman.
Jesus too has a back story, a tale about what made him the way he was. But in the New Testament we don’t have one version of that story but four. In John’s Gospel he was the preexistent divine being who “was in the beginning with God” and through whom “[a]ll things came into being” (John 1:2, 3). In the Gospel of Luke he was the son of God, the product of a union between a virgin and the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:34-35). In Matthew’s Gospel he was the Davidic king born of a virgin, also the product of a union of divinity and humanity and foretold centuries before (Matthew 1:20-23). But Mark is different. Very different.
“A Baptism for Repentance”
The opening narrative of Mark’s Gospel isn’t about its titular hero, “Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). Instead, it is about the one who prepares his way: John the Baptist. But what is John doing to prepare the way? According to Mark, John was in the wilderness “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (1:4). What this apparently entailed was John taking the penitent into the Jordan river and dunking them. Those who were being baptized were also “confessing their sins” (1:5). This explains the phrase “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”: they were being baptized to symbolize purification as they confessed their sins before John.
Then along came Jesus, about whom the Gospel is written. He hails from the tiny town of Nazareth in the region of Galilee (1:9). But in Mark, when he arrives on the scene of John’s work in the wilderness, there is no dialogue between the two. All we read is that Jesus “was baptized by John in the Jordan” (1:9). But why would Jesus need to be baptized at all? Wasn’t he the sinless Savior who was the God-man? Well, only if you read Mark through the lens of the other canonical authors. But if you had Mark and only Mark you would conclude that Jesus was baptized by John while confessing his sins.
In other words, the Markan Jesus is a sinner.
This makes quite a bit of sense. By all counts, the Markan Jesus was relatively unremarkable before he began his ministry in Galilee. In chapter three we read of how Jesus’ family, upon hearing that Jesus has returned “home” decides to find him and “restrain him, for people were saying, ‘He has gone out of his mind'” (3:20-21).1 We later read that when Jesus returns to Nazareth and teaches in the synagogue, people are bewildered: “Where did this man get all this? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” (6:2-3) The Markan Jesus is just a regular guy. That is, until his baptism.
Mark 1:10 tells us that as Jesus “was coming up out of the water” he saw the sky open and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. This is his anointing. This is when he is chosen by God. This is when he becomes the messiah. The confirmation for this comes in 1:11 when God himself declares to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus is thus anointed for his work as the messiah.
Some may object by appealing to the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke or the prologue of John but as stated earlier, Mark shows no awareness of them and even if he knew of them he clearly had no interest in them.
Mark tells us nothing of Jesus prior to this moment. It seems that his baptism is the beginning of his story and nothing before matters.2
Some may object that Matthew and Luke also have the baptism story and they do not give the impression that they believed Jesus was a sinner. But both Matthew and Luke are different from Mark in a few ways. For starters, both have the extensive birth narratives which preface the baptism. They serve to paint a portrait of Jesus different from the one we see in Mark and which consequently changes the import of his baptism. In fact, Matthew is quite direct about this with its inclusion of dialogue between John and Jesus that is not found in Mark (Matthew 3:13-15).
The Complicated Messiah
This view of Jesus that I am suggesting will invariably raise the ire of Christians who believe Jesus has been and always will be the sinless savior. I can appreciate that and I can understand how they arrive at their position. My point is simply that as far as the Markan text is concerned there was no always sinless savior. Perhaps we could consider post-baptism Jesus as sinless; I could probably buy that to some degree. But the fact that Jesus was baptized by John and that John’s baptism was specifically for repentance for the forgiveness of sins tells me that the author of Mark wanted us to think Jesus was a sinner and therefore a more complicated messiah than most have thought him to be.
And I’m okay with that.
1 I have written about this elsewhere (“Musings on Mark: He’s Out of His Mind!” [4.30.18]). There I contend that it isn’t “people” in general who claimed Jesus was nuts but his family in particular and that is why they’ve come down to “restrain him.”
2 Raquel S. Lettsome, “Mark,” in Margaret Aymer, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, and David A. Sanchez, editors, Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The New Testament (Fortress Press, 2014), 175.
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