September 15, 2003
Mark 1

Mark is one of the three Synoptic Gospels, along with Matthew and Luke, and some scholars believe the latter two drew some material from Mark. But one thing that Mark has in common with John, that it does not share with the other Synoptics, is that it begins not with the Nativity but with John the Baptist. It starts off by quoting Old Testament prophets about the one who prepares the way for the Messiah (part Malachi and part Isaiah, though it attributes it all to Isaiah), and identifies John as that person.

Jesus, then, first appears as just another guy showing up to be baptized. Upon emerging from the water he hears God pronouncing him his beloved son. But the only immediate consequence of this seems to be that he's driven into the desert, where he's tempted by Satan. (No details are offered in this version.)

He comes back and starts gathering followers, healing, and teaching, while at the same time trying to suppress any idea that he's the Messiah. Evil spirits recognize who he is, so he drives them away. At the end of the chapter he takes pity on a leper and heals him, but tells him not to tell anybody about it. The former leper promptly goes out and blabs to the world.

A couple different questions arose in my mind from reading this. One is the role of John the Baptist. I have never actually discussed this with anyone, and I'm not totally sure what his purpose is. He fulfills prophecy, obviously, but that's not a reason for his being any more than a PTA meeting's reason for happening is to fulfill its announcement in the paper. He's there to get people used to the idea, maybe; to gather people together and cleanse them, so they're better able to recognize the Messiah when he comes.

Yet the Messiah, oddly, doesn't want to be recognized. Or does he? One of the strange things about the secrecy is that it makes Jesus seem ineffectual. He tells people not to talk, and he fails every time. Possibly he is, as they say in showbiz, building "buzz"; he knows people will tell but by keeping things half-secret he lets the news slowly build up, instead of revealing himself all at once. Possibly he's trying to draw people based on the truth of his teaching, rather than people who just want to be on the right side when the apocalypse comes. Maybe he just wants not to get killed yet.

Or maybe he's human enough that he is not in perfect control of things. An interesting feature of the leper story is that it mentions that when the leper asks for help, Jesus is "moved with pity." The narrative so far is so spare on details, every word seems to count, and the fact that it mentions Jesus' pity seems significant. Maybe he knows healing the leper will expose him more than he wants, but out of pity he does it anyway.

In the book Telford and I were blogging this summer, Marcus Borg went so far as to claim that Jesus may not have known he was the Messiah at this point. That seems to me to be taking it a bit far; it's hard to see why he would be so intent on hushing things up if he didn't know there was anything to hush up. I suppose there is a bit of room here to suggest he may not have been 100% sure. The vision at the baptism clearly indicated something, but the fact that he went off into the desert for that long suggests that it didn't turn him into an insta-prophet. But either way, by the time he comes back he seems pretty sure of what he's doing.

Posted by Camassia at September 15, 2003 04:22 PM | TrackBack

You used the word "Messiah" in your first notes on Mark 1. Are you sure that you're not getting ahead of yourself in so doing? If you read those opening lines as though they were the only lines, and Mark the only book, and this your first reading, could you derive Messiah from them?
(I am reading The New English Bible, btw).
"At the moment when he came up out of the water..." he saw the heavens open...the Spirit like a dove...and a voice spoke to him. The baptism is a rebirth, at that moment, apparently, he becomes the Son, the Beloved. It would seem that only Jesus sees the heavens open and hears the voice. He does not begin his ministry until after John is imprisoned. Does this indicate that, until then, is he one of John's disciples? After his rebirth, he is sent by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted. Mark does not tell us what the nature of this temptation is. Given his reluctance to disclose to the world the secret spoken to him by his Father, is it possible that the temptation was simply to refuse the role for which he had been chosen? At any rate, he now begins to preach. It is clear that he brings something new. In the synagogue the people note that "unlike the doctors of the law" he speaks "with authority". It's not the same old, same old. He preaches that "the time has come" and "the Kingdom of God is upon you". The future is now. Is the future also now for us, today? Are we waiting for something that we could have now, if only we could adjust our vision so as to see it?

Posted by: Rob on September 15, 2003 06:29 PM

Well, the first verse of the Gospel is "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." So the writer wants us to know that Jesus is the Messiah up front. When other people in the story get to know is something different. The Messianic secret is weird, but I agree that it has to do with what kind of a Messiah Jesus is. Also, one of the themes of Mark is insider/outsider. Who's in the know? Why?

Mark is very apocalyptic, but the true meaning of the word apocalypse is revelation. Again, what gets revealed, when, to who?

I like the first chapter because it's so fast paced. Look how often the word "immediately" is used. This guy is in a hurry. He's got stuff to do! Demons to cast out! People to heal! Let's hurry, people! The time is fulfilled!

"Are we waiting for something we could have now?" Rob, I think you're right. The kingdom is both here and not-yet, but we too often ignore the here part.

Posted by: Jennifer on September 15, 2003 09:47 PM

The author of Mark knew already that Jesus had not come as a Davidic Warrior King to violently throw out the Romans and conquer the earth for Yahweh. He was not, then, that kind of Messiah. By contrast, we get, right away, the summons of Jesus to come and "be fishers of men." This may be a stretch, but just as Jesus was pulled up out of the water by John and heard the word of God, so does a fisherman pull his catch up out of the murky water into the sun; where, of course, it must die to its old life.

Posted by: Rob on September 16, 2003 02:48 AM

Not to spoil it for you, but a commentary I've read says the two central questions of Mark's Gospel are, "Who is Jesus?" and, "How am I to be Jesus' disciple?" Mark knew the answers (or at least *his* answers) to the questions when he started writing. It's a very carefully constructed piece of writing.

One caution the Catholic Scripture scholar Raymond Brown often issued was to beware excessive psychologizing. (Note I say "excessive," so that later I can say, "No, no, I'm doing just the right amount of psychologizing.) Some of the things the Gospels report are there more to teach the readers than to record the motivations of the people involved.

The Messianic Secret is interesting. One way of thinking about it is suggested in T.S. O'Rama's post

"For the Semitic mind, image = reality .... symbol = reality"

Jesus didn't -- or shouldn't -- have to say, "I am the Messiah." His actions demonstrated that for all who had eyes to see.

Posted by: Tom on September 16, 2003 06:28 AM

I agree. That's exactly what each of us needs to decide (or perhaps "discover" is a better word) for himself, using the tool that is the Bible. I don't necessarily believe that "one size fits all" when material is presented metaphorically.

Posted by: Rob on September 16, 2003 06:59 AM

I agree with Jennifer that the author wants us to know up-front that Jesus is the Messiah -- not only by calling him Son of God, but by referring to the Jewish prophecies foretelling of the Messiah. So yeah, he's not the Messiah everybody was expecting, but clearly we're supposed to identify him as that guy, the one we're waiting for (or would have been, were we first-century Jews).

As I said in my last paragraph, there's an outside chance Jesus didn't fully realize himself yet what he was. Maybe he doesn't come to it till after John's death, but that would be getting ahead of myself, since I haven't read that part yet.

Posted by: Camassia on September 16, 2003 09:19 AM

No argument at all with the *that* guy concept. My distrust is of our particularly Christian use of the word "Messiah", to mean everything that we understand it to mean now, as opposed, perhaps, to what it meant to the author of Mark, or to what it meant to those OT sources to which he alludes.
At least I distrust it if we use it before Mark uses it.

Posted by: Rob on September 16, 2003 10:29 AM

Mark has use the word "Messiah" already! Or at least the Greek equivalent, "Christ," in Mark 1:1, as Camassia has already mentioned.

Of course, he has not, I don't think, put the word "Messiah" or "Christ" in the mouth of any person in the narrative yet.

An interesting point that I learned while studying Mark last spring with the Christian Graduate Fellowship group I am a part of: On the theory (which can be debated) that Mark was the earliest gospel written, one possible purpose for the book was to record the sermons and teachings of the apostles (particularly, in Mark's case, of Peter) as they were nearing the ends of their lives, and there would soon no longer be (living eye witnesses to the life of Jesus...

Posted by: Jenny on September 17, 2003 06:43 AM

It's true, of course, that the title "Christ" is used in the very first line. Christ (or Messiah) only means "one annointed with oil", however, and I believe that several kinds of people, including kings and temple priests, were anointed with oil when taking office. What I meant to say was that the *concept* of "Messiah" had not yet been used, which I think is true.
My idea here is that if you read through the gospel, starting with no preconceptions as to what the words, phrases, verses, and chapters mean, just letting yourself be instructed by the text itself as you read, you might come out of that reading with some new ideas, some new insight, some greater understanding.
There were several different Jewish concepts of "Messiah", forinstance: which one does Mark have in mind here? Does the evolved Christian concept of Messiah that we are familiar with today have anything in common with Mark's early concept, or with *any* of the earlier Jewish concepts of the term?

Posted by: Rob on September 17, 2003 07:53 AM

My long rambling confusion over this chapter has been posted on Shock and Awe. To me, this chapter raises more questions than it answers. Certainly I can see why further gospels were written. :)


Posted by: Kynn Bartlett on September 19, 2003 12:05 AM

I agree that in Mark it doesn't seem as though Jesus knows that he's the Messiah (in fact, in some places it almost seems as though he doesn't even *want* to be). Of course, as Mark is generally considered the oldest of the canonical Gospels, this raises some interesting questions (and eyebrows).

I *love* the Gospel of Mark for its immediacy and its conversational style-- it's certainly the 'darkest' of the synoptics. I recommend finding "The Unvarnished New Testament" for a fascinating translation.

I'll most likely post on this very subject myself in the near future over on fantastic planet. . . .

Posted by: J. Puma on September 19, 2003 11:03 AM

The baptism is the re-UNION or recognition between the Father (GOD) and his perfect(ed) SON. The revelation in absolute visual and auditory experience of the always internalized knowledge. At 31 this reunion - or affirmation is fully revealed to Jesus in his 'perfected' human state. He joins with the creator in a way he can percieve physically.

Messiah is a broad differently interpreted concept to the Jews. It means different things to different people who interpreted the teachings of the prophets. The Perfected Isralite, the Servant of Man, The Son of Man, or The Son of God and to some, the perfected Son of God/Priest/King all rolled into one to others.

Jesus had the knowing that comes from a much clearer communication with the Spirit that dwells within us all. Believer's trust that communication and work to perfect it. Jesus had perfected it. Still the revelation and the reunion that occurred during the baptism by John were physically sensed manifestations of what less perfected human believers take on faith to be true. At least that is my understanding of it.

Posted by: Barry Bozeman on September 19, 2003 08:51 PM

"Yet the Messiah, oddly, doesn't want to be recognized. Or does he?" - Camissa

On this point he walks a line between the expected (which is different for different Jews and Gentiles) and the truth. He wants to be recognized for what he is - and that is at odds with what most or many expect him to be.

Did Jesus know the pace at which he could safely move and the schedule he had to keep and the way of delivering his message of a truth at odds with the 'truth' others expected? I suspect that he did.

Posted by: Barry Bozeman on September 19, 2003 09:03 PM
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