Musings on Mark: Jesus’ Origin Story in Mark

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.

Jesus’ Baptism

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.

NOTES

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.

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

Mark 1:9-11, AEV

Previously I had posted my own translation with notes of Mark 1:1-8. Today’s post will be of Mark 1:9-11. Though only three verses in length, it is an important episode in the ministry of the Markan Jesus. Here we see his baptism both in water as well as in Spirit (see 1:8).


Mark 1:9-11, AEV

9 It happeneda in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. 10 And immediately, as he was coming out of the water, he saw the sky splitting open and the Spirit as a dove descending upon him. 11 Then a voice appearedb from the sky, “You are my Son, the beloved; in you I am pleased.


Textual Notes

a The Greek phrase I have translated as “it happened in those days” is kai egeneto en ekeinais tais hēmerais. The lead verb, egeneto, also appeared in 1:4 where we read, “John appeared [egeneto Iōannēs].” But whereas egeneto in 1:4 was intended to create a dramatic and sudden appearance of John both in the Markan narrative as well as in the scene itself, here egento is coupled with the Greek conjunction kai which with the temporal expression en ekeinais tais hēmerais is intended to indicate a new event in the narrative flow.

b Here too we also read egeneto and I have chosen to translate it as “appeared,” though voices don’t appear. But I think the Markan author is deliberately using egeneto rather than a verb like legó (“I say”) and harkening back to 1:4 where we read “John appeared [egeneto Iōannēs].


Featured Image: By Jean Housen – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11821060

Musings on Mark: The Baptism of Jesus (2) – Baptized in the Spirit

“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 
Mark 1:11b, NRSV


In my first post covering Jesus’ baptism I argued that the baptism Jesus underwent implied that he too needed to repent of his sins (Mark 1:4). Not only is that the express purpose of the baptism that John performed but later writers tried to avoid the implication by either adding dialogue (as in Matthew) or by omitting the baptism altogether (as in John). Recall also that John told the people that while he had been baptizing them with water, Jesus would baptize them with the Holy Spirit (1:8). There are certainly eschatological overtones to such a statement but it also has some importance in the immediate context of the Markan narrative.

10   And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.

Jesus first experiences a baptism of water, a prerequisite for him to be the Messiah. But that wasn’t the only anointing required: he also needed to be baptized with the Holy Spirit. And so, as he comes up out of the water, Jesus sees the skies open and the Spirit descend to him.

The scene in Mark is a subtle allusion to the anointing of the kings of Israel, especially that of David. David was chosen by God to lead Israel (1 Samuel 16:1-13) after Saul was rejected (1 Samuel 15:10-35). Samuel is ordered by God to prepare anointing oil and to go to Bethlehem to anoint the new king from among the sons of Jesse. Each of the sons pass by Samuel but not one of them is chosen. Finally, the youngest son David comes before Samuel and God says, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one” (16:12). So Samuel takes the anointing oil and places it upon David. Then we read this: “And the spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward” (16:13). This is precisely what is going on in the Gospel of Mark.

John the Baptist is much like Samuel. He has anointed Jesus by baptism and immediately following this act the Spirit comes upon Jesus and continues with him from that day forward.

11   And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 

Having been anointed for the work of the Messiah and empowered by the Holy Spirit, God thunders from heaven and declares Jesus to be his “Son, the Beloved.” It is in him that God is “well pleased.”

The words of God in 1:11 are a combination of wording found in two passages of the Hebrew Bible: Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1. Psalm 2 is commonly referred to as a royal psalm since thematically it deals with the king of Israel, referred to as Yahweh’s “anointed” (Psalm 2:2). The Hebrew word used there comes from mashiach where we get the word “messiah.” In 2:7 we read, “I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you.'” The king has been adopted by Yahweh to be his son.

In Isaiah 42:1 we read, “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.” 42:1 opens up the first of the four Servant Songs in the book of Isaiah. And while in context the Servant likely refers to Israel, Mark has applied the words to Jesus, particularly the phrase “in whom my soul delights.” Furthermore, just as Yahweh “put [his] spirit upon” the Servant, so too God has placed the Spirit upon Jesus in Mark 1:10.

Mark has combined the words of these two biblical texts and applied them directly to Jesus’ anointing as Messiah. He has been adopted by God in the way the kings of Israel had been declared to be God’s sons and it is in Jesus the Son that God is delighted.

Musings on Mark: The Baptism of Jesus (1) – Jesus the Penitent

“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee
and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”
Mark 1:9, NRSV


The very first story we read in the Gospel of Mark isn’t about Jesus; it’s about John the Baptist. But unlike what we find in the Gospel of Luke, John has no real back story. “John the baptizer appeared,” Mark writes (1:4) in a very terse manner. All we know about John is that we wears weird clothes and he eats funny foods (at least from my Western point-of-view). And he also serves a very specific function: he baptizes. And what kind of baptism does he perform? “A baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (1:4). And what do people do as they are baptized by John? “[They] were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (1:5).

We know from the prophetic citation of 1:2-3 that John also serves as a “messenger…who will prepare your way.” That is, the work John performs is intended to prepare the people for the coming of the messiah. John says as much when he tells the people, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (1:7-8). The baptism that John performs is the prerequisite to the baptism that Jesus will perform. But not before Jesus himself is baptized by both John and by the Holy Spirit.

9   “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” 

Apart from the opening of the Gospel (1:1), this is the first time Jesus appears in the Markan narrative by name. Like John, we are not given any background information about him other than he was from the tiny town of Nazareth in the region of Galilee. The relationship of John to Jesus is not made explicit as it is in Luke’s Gospel where we are told that they are cousins.

That Jesus is baptized by John is a bit surprising because of the implications of such an act. Remember, John’s baptism is one of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” and those who are baptized by John do so while “confessing their sins” (1:4, 5). For Jesus to participate in such a ritual is an indication that he too underwent “a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins.” So is Mark telling us that Jesus needed to be cleansed of his sins? I think so. And there is another reason to think that.

Jesus’ Baptism in Matthew

In the Gospel of Matthew we find some dialogue between John and Jesus that doesn’t appear in Mark. Matthew writes,

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. (Matthew 3:13-15)

So Matthew’s John recognizes that if anyone should be doing the baptizing it is Jesus, not John. And if anyone should be baptized it is John, not Jesus. But Jesus insists on being baptized because doing so would “fulfill all righteousness,” a Matthean way of saying, “to fulfill God’s plan.” [1] 

What Matthew has done in inserting this otherwise unattested dialogue is to avoid the implications in the Markan narrative that Jesus was a sinner who needed to be baptized. In Matthew, both John and Jesus know that Jesus doesn’t need to be baptized but the action is performed anyway because it is part of God’s plan. Matthew has creatively side-stepped the penitent Jesus!

Jesus’ Baptism in John

Even more interesting is how the Gospel of John handles the baptism of Jesus: he doesn’t. Nowhere in the Gospel of John do we find a record of Jesus’ baptism. We know that John performs baptisms but the narrative in the Gospel of John is unlike any in the Synoptics, though it does share some elements. The priests and Levites that had been sent from Jerusalem come to John and ask him, “Who are you?” (1:19) John makes it clear that he is not the Messiah, Elijah, or a prophet (1:20-22) but is instead “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness” (1:23). So then the natural question arises from the lips of the priests and Levites – “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” The implication of this question is that John has no business baptizing anyone at all since he is (in their estimation) a nobody. John doesn’t disagree – “Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal” (1:26-27).

The next day John sees Jesus but does he baptize him? If he does, we aren’t told about it! Nowhere in the Gospel of John are we told that John baptizes Jesus. It is as if the question put forward by the priests and Levites is part of the narrative flow. If John is neither the Messiah, Elijah, or a prophet, then what business would he have in baptizing the one who is the Messiah? So, he doesn’t. There is no penitent Jesus, only “the Lamb of God” (1:29).

Penitent Jesus

For Jesus to be the Messiah, he must first be cleansed of his sins, and therefore he undergoes baptism by John. This isn’t surprising. As we will see in part 2, Jesus cannot be the Messiah until he is baptized by the Holy Spirit which occurs in Mark 1:10. The events of Mark 1:9-11 prepare Jesus for his activities as Israel’s Messiah. In fact, I will argue that it is at his baptism in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus is made to be the Messiah.

ENDNOTES

[1] Donald Hagner writes, “Righteousness is a key concept in Matthew (seven occurrences). It is preeminently the goal of discipleship (5:20; 6:1, 33), that is, the accomplishing of God’s will in its fullness. (Matthew 1-13, WBC vol. 33a [Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1993), 56.