New Testament Reading | Mark 1
The first chapter of Mark starts in medias res, with John the Baptist being out in the wilderness. Thus Mark seeks to link Jesus to earlier Jewish tradition, albeit not quite as explicitly as Matthew with his genealogy of Jesus as a descendant of David. Mark is no less concerned with Jesus' bona fides, but seems to go about it in a different (and, to me, more compelling) way.
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The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As it was written in Isaiah the prophet:
Behold, I am sending out my messenger before you, and he will prepare your path. A voice crying out in the wilderness: prepare the Lord's path, make straight his roads.
John the Baptist came to the wilderness, teaching baptism of repentance as deliverance from sin. All of Judea was coming to him, along with all of Jerusalem, and they were baptized by him in the Jordan while confessing their sins.
John was clothed in camel hair with a leather belt around his loins, and ate locusts and wild honey. And he proclaimed that, “a stronger one is coming, and I'm not worthy of kneeling down and untying his sandals. I baptize you with water, he will baptize you with the holy spirit.”
It happened in those days that Jesus came out of Nazareth in Galilee, and he was baptized in the Jordan by John. As soon as he came out of the waters, Jesus saw the sky tear apart, and a spirit came down to him like a dove. And a voice came from the heavens: “You are my beloved son, and you I have chosen.”
Then the spirit drove him into the wilderness, and he was there for 40 days of temptation by Satan, surrounded by wild animals, and angels ministered to him.
After the betrayal of John, Jesus went to Galilee, teaching the good tidings of God, saying that, “the time has come, and the Kingdom of God draws near. Repent and believe the good news!”
While walking along the Sea of Galilee, Jesus saw Simon and Andrew, Simon's brother, casting their nets in the sea, since they were fishermen. Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.” Setting aside their nets, they followed him. Going a little farther, Jesus saw Jacob, son of Zebedee, and Jacob's brother John, mending nets in their boat, and called out to them. Leaving their father Zebedee in the boat with a hired hand, they went with Jesus.
Going into Capernaum, Jesus taught in the synagogue on the Sabbath. The people were amazed by his teachings, since he taught with great authority, and not like the Scribes. There was also a man there with an unclean spirit, who screamed at him, “What are we to you, Jesus the Nazarene? Leave us be. I know who you are, holy man of God.”
Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent and come out of him.” And the unclean spirit convulsed the man, and with a great cry went out of him.
Everyone was amazed, and started talking among themselves, saying, “Who is he? This new teaching has power, and he commands unclean spirits and they obey.” And word of Jesus went out throughout Galilee.
After they left the synagogue, he went to the home of Simon and Andrew with Jacob and John. Simon's mother-in-law was sick with a fever, and they had told Jesus about her. Jesus went to her and took her by the hand, and the fever left her, and she served them. That evening, when the sun had set, they brought all the sick and possessed to him, and the whole town gathered outside the gate. Jesus healed many people of different illnesses, and cast out many demons, whom he did not permit to speak, because they knew him.
Early in the morning, when it was still dark, Jesus got up and went out into the wilderness to pray. Simon and the other disciples went after him, and when they found him, said, “Everyone is looking for you.”
Jesus said to them, “Let us go to the other towns so that I may teach there, for that is what I came to do.” And he went around teaching in the synagogues throughout Galilee, and also casting out demons.
[At some point] a leper came up to him, and begged him, “if you would, cleanse me.”
Jesus was moved, and he reached out his hand to the leper and said, “I wish it, be cleansed.” Then the leprosy went out of the man, and he was cleansed. Jesus commanded him: “Tell no one what you have seen. Take yourself to a priest and cleanse yourself in the way that Moses has taught you.”
But the man went out and spoke freely, so that Jesus could no longer travel openly, and instead went out into an empty place, and people went to him from all over.
Jesus as Chosen
Many translations refer to God being “well pleased” with Jesus when he comes out of the river, but I don't believe this is correct.
To be clear, the Greek word used here, εὐδόκησα, could mean “pleased.” But the verb has a wider range than that, covering ground that in English we would render with words like “be content with,” “approve,” and the like. But the form of the verb, the aorist, does not refer to a state of being. The exact dimensions of the aorist remain debated, but this point (that it does not refer to the state) is not controversial.
Meanwhile, there's other textual evidence to support my interpretation (and I should add that I'm not alone in reading the verse this way). The parallel verses in Matthew and Luke use the same construction, so no help there. However, God later refers to Jesus as his “chosen,” using a different verb that clearly denotes choice, as well as a verb form that indicates a state (Mark 9:7, Matthew 17:5, and Luke 9:35). In addition, Luke also refers to Jesus increasing or growing in esteem in the eyes of God and man (2:52), which is more consistent with this idea of “choice” than “being pleased with.”
The context of the verse itself also demonstrates this. Jesus' life prior to baptism is not important to Mark. Instead, he gives just enough context to tie Jesus into the broader theological narrative and tradition (which, remember, already existed by the time Mark was actually writing things down), and then shows Jesus' true “beginning” as baptism. For God to just say that he was pleased with Jesus as his son in this specific instance doesn't really make sense. Why would Mark tell us this in that specific moment?
I do have to wonder to what extent this might show a different view of Jesus, but I don't want to overestimate that. The farther my interpretation deviates from the commonly accepted one, the more skeptical I should be. This doesn't mean I have to accept the common view for my own view of God, but I do think I need to be careful reading alternatives into Scripture, at least without a whole lot of evidence. That said, my own gut reaction is that Jesus was moved by God, but wasn't God made flesh. (I'll write about this on its own one day.)
Proof and Faith
This will be worth its own post, but one of the things that I personally think people misunderstand is the idea of faith: it is not supposed to be blind. The Greek word doesn't imply that, and how it's used doesn't, either. This is especially true in Mark. First, the way is prepared: we're told from one authority that someone even more authoritative is coming. Next, we're not told what Jesus was teaching, just that people saw this teaching as compelling and powerful. Jesus also commands other supernatural beings, and they already know who he is, although it's not clear if this is foreknowledge or whether they can somehow “sense” Jesus' true nature. We're also shown that he has greater power over the physical world, with his ability to cure diseases. Finally, his disciples saw something in him too: they follow this stranger almost immediately, and so they clearly saw something.
From this, it's clear to me that Mark isn't asking for blind faith. He's showing why we should believe this random guy from Nazareth that no one had heard of before. After all, the point of the Gospels was to spread Jesus' message, but there's no point in spreading it if no one takes that message seriously.
For myself, I find Mark's approach much more compelling than, say, Matthew's genealogy. Mark is showing by deed, not by birthright. Plus, Mark was likely writing to a Gentile audience (given his explanation of various Jewish customs), for whom a connection to David wouldn't have been as significant. But beyond that, it makes sense: if someone were to come along now and proclaim themselves as the Messiah, we'd rightly be skeptical unless and until they could do some things that no one else could.
I also like Mark's emphasis on action over words. I've never found much meaning in ritual, including baptism. The thought, the commitment in our hearts is far more important than an external action disconnected from anything inside us. I don't believe that God would condemn an otherwise virtuous person simply because they didn't go through one specific ritual or another. Thus I like John's statement that Jesus will baptize in (or with) the Holy Spirit, and that this is set as a contrast with John's own baptizing in the Jordan. I think that connection to the Spirit matters a whole lot more than whether we've been submerged in water. As an act with personal meaning, I'm sure it's a wonderful thing, but that meaning doesn't exist independent of what's in our hearts.
All this is part of why I don't take Christian doctrine on, well, faith. Jesus tells us constantly to think for ourselves, and not to believe something just because someone else tell us that's the rule. Many take this to mean that we should believe Jesus over those who came before or after, and of course there are bits in the New Testament that pretty much say this. But that to me strays from the core of Jesus' message. The beginning of Mark's Gospel tells us why: the proof is in the pudding. An atheist who acts with virtue can show us more about who God is and what He wants than the most ardent believer who clothes themselves in hypocrisy.