A scene from The Canterbury Psalter (12th century)

Mark’s Start

Mark/Lion from Santa Pudenziana, Rome

If you’re already familiar with the other Gospels, Mark can be startling. How in the world can he leave out so much? How can he start the story of Jesus without explaining either the virginal conception or the genealogy of Jesus? How can he bring in John the Baptist with no historical backstory? How can he just start right in with the heavens being torn open and Jesus hearing the voice of the Father saying, “You are my beloved son”?

Even if you affirm Mark’s chronological priority, and on that basis believe that the proper form of these questions ought to be flipped around (“Why do Matthew and Luke add so much?”), Mark’s narrative parsimony is remarkable. His “suddenly this happened!” storytelling strategy leaves you wondering how we got here, even when we just got here.

Consider the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. The heavens are opened, Jesus sees the Spirit descend like a dove, and the voice from above says “You are my beloved Son.” Is this where it all starts? Have these three agents (Spirit, Jesus, God speaking as Father) met before? With no narrative setup and no time for questions, the story bolts forward.

But I keep saying no narrative setup or backstory. What other Gospels do with narrative, Mark manages by another method. That method is Old Testament quotation and allusion. Here are the first words:

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,
“Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way,
the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”

And then, enter Baptist, begin story.

But look how much Mark has put into play with his opening move. He flags the prophet Isaiah, and does eventually give us key words from Isaiah (the voice crying, the wilderness, prepare the way) that are intended to make us think of John the Baptist’s forerunner work. But first he sets up these Isaianic words with other words drawn from Exodus 23:20 (“Behold, I send my angel before your face”) and Malachi 3:1(“Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me”), rather mingled together. It’s complicated, and the word “face” becomes more prominent in translation (though it’s definitely there in the source material of Exodus and Malachi, both in Hebrew and in LXX Greek). The result is what can only be described as God speaking not to John the Baptist but rather to the one who John prepares the way for. “I send my messenger before you to prepare YOUR way.”

Four hundred years before the action of Mark’s Gospel begins, in a kind of prologue in literary, oracular heaven, God speaks, or spoke, or was speaking, to someone who is more than a messenger, to one who is the Lord. And as soon as Mark starts the story proper, a voice speaks from heaven: “You are my beloved Son.” So these persons did not meet for the first time in the Jordan. What Jesus hears above the Jordan –and though this part is less clear, what he sees in the descent of the Spirit– is the continuation of an older form of address. It is the speaking voice which has been addressing him before this story started. And within the story, it calls him by a name more obviously intimate and familial than we might have expected: beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.

Mark is making do without genealogy or miraculous conception or family ties between John and Jesus. But he’s hardly skimping on setup. He actually comes to the story of Jesus from a long way off, or from a very great height indeed.


Recommendations for further reading:

Joel Marcus, The Way of the Lord: Christological Exegesis of the Old Testament in the Gospel of Mark (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), chapter 2, “Mark 1:2-3: The Gospel According to Isaiah.”

Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (Baylor University Press, 2016), chapter 1, “The Gospel of Mark: Herald of Mystery,” especially section 2, “Apocalyptic Judgement and Expectancy: Israel’s Story in Mark’s Narrative.”

About This Blog

Fred Sanders is a theologian who tried to specialize in the doctrine of the Trinity, but found that everything in Christian life and thought is connected to the triune God.

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