|Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at|
As we enter Year B with its focus on the Gospel of Mark, you may want to check out the Markan study guides and reading guide available at www.CrossMarks.com
Mark begins his writing with a statement by the narrator: "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ [or Messiah] [(a?) Son of God]." Right from the beginning, we, the readers, know more than most of the characters in the narrative. We are already anticipating this writing to be "good news" -- which is a comment about what the writing does to us, rather than just what it says. We are already anticipating ways that Jesus will be attested as the Messiah, the Son of God -- and watching how the characters come to realize this -- if they ever do.
This first verse raises some important questions.
QUESTION 1: What is the "beginning of the gospel"? Is the beginning just the prologue (vv. 1-13 or vv. 1-15 where euaggelion forms "bookends")? Is the entire book the beginning of the Gospel?
I lean towards the entire writing being the "beginning". Especially since the probable last verse 16:8 is not an ending. For the readers of Mark, including us, this book is only the beginning of the gospel. The end has not yet come. The story continues beyond chapter 16 as we proclaim the good news to all nations (13:10).
I also wonder how we can revive the excitement and enthusiasm of the gospel. So often it becomes passé. We need to begin again -- to hear afresh the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God.
QUESTION 2: What is the "good news" of Jesus Christ?
R.T. France (The Gospel of Mark, NIGTC) writes about the grammar: "The genitive [Jesus Christ] may, in theory, be read either as subjective ('the good news proclaimed by Jesus Christ') or objective ('the good news about Jesus Christ'). Some commentators take up positions on one side or the other, but most prefer to have it both ways" (p. 53).
While France thinks it is more natural to read the genitive as objective and notes that it is the more normal usage in the rest of the NT, he also notes that vv. 14-15 make clear that the good news is also preached by Jesus (p. 53).
Schweizer (The Good News According to Mark) states: "The Greek word euaggelion denotes 'good news,' primarily of a victory in battle. This term figures prominently in stories of the lives of the Roman emperors who were honored as gods" (p. 30).
James Edwards (The Gospel According to Mark) expands on Schweizer's comments:
In 9 B.C., within a decade of Jesus' birth, the birthday of Caesar Augustus (63 B.C. - A.D. 14) was hailed as euangelion (pl.). Since he was hailed as a god, Augustins's "birthday signaled the beginning of Good News for the world." In the Greco-Roman world the word always appears in the plural, meaning one good tiding among others; but in the NT euangelion appears only in the singular: the good news of God in Jesus Christ, beside which there is no other. The concept of "good news" was not limited to military and political victories, however. In the prophet Isaiah "good news" is transferred to the inbreaking of God's final saving act when peace, good news, and release from oppression will be showered on God's people (Isa 52:7; 61:1-3). For Mark, the advent of Jesus is the beginning of the fulfillment of the "good news" heralded by Isaiah." [p. 24]
I have been reading Let the Reader Understand: Reader-Response Criticism and the Gospel of Mark, by Robert M. Fowler. He stresses in his opening chapters that first century rhetoric was meant to do something to the hearers. He offers this comparison:
At the most superficial level, the aims of the joke and of the Gospel of Mark are similar: both seek to do something to the hearer or reader. In particular, both stories use covert means to induce an understanding or a belief in the reader or hearer. What they then do with the belief they have elicited differs immensely. The joke induces a belief to deceive the hearer only momentarily, until the deception is dropped and the belief exploded in an instant of comic revelation. The Gospel of Mark is also designed to elicit belief, but a belief that bids to have a profound and lasting significance for the reader's life and to persist long after the initial encounter with the story. In other words, both stories use the rhetorical resources of narrative to affect the reader, but the aim of Mark's Gospel is more difficult to achieve. The joke is designed to seduce us temporarily; the Gospel is designed to seduce us permanently [p. 10]
I think that euaggelion is word that evokes a response. It is like shouting, "We won!" or "Victory is ours." When game show contestants are told that they've won, there is shouting and jumping and waving of arms. The words are more than just information. They are an event that engulfs the hearers.
What if these opening words were paraphrased: "The beginning of the victory of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God"? How might that color our reading/hearing of the rest of the story? I think that, among other things, we might be better able to see the many ironies in this story of Jesus -- the many times when the victor appears much more like a victim.
Jumping ahead a little, I wonder if Mark purposely used euaggelion at the beginning, as well as "Christ" and "Son of God," figuring that the hearers would misinterpret all three terms, which he will then reinterpret throughout his writing -- with meanings that the disciples don't get.
QUESTION 3: What was meant by "Christ"? A title? Part of Jesus' name?
This Greek word for "anointed" or "Messiah," would have probably made little sense to a Greek audience.
The uses of "Messiah" or "anointed (one)" in the OT do not help much in understanding Jesus as Messiah.
The word is used of "the anointed priests" (Lv 4:3, 5, 16, 6:22; 2 Macc 2:10)
The word is used of the king. (Throughout 1 & 2 Sam)
The word is used of Cyrus, a Persian! (Is 45:1)
The word is used of the prophets (Ps 105:15; 1 Chr 16:22)
Often, in the Psalms, it refers to God giving victory to a king (his "anointed") (2:2; 18:50; 20:6; 132:17?)
Would the Jews have understood the term "Christ" to refer to a conquering king? an anointed priest? a prophet?
QUESTION 4: What is meant by "(a?) Son of God"?
This phrase (two words in Greek huiou theou) is missing in many ancient manuscripts. Normally shorter readings are to be preferred over longer ones. It is more likely that copyists would add to a text rather than to delete. However, the omission of these words might be explained by an oversight in copying. The first six words in Greek all end with "ou," so a copyist may have jumped to the last "ou" before he should have.
It's also noted that the Greek does not have a definite article ("the"). The same is true when the centurion could be confessing: "Truly, this man was a son of God" (15:39). The demons, however, declare: "You are the Son of the God" (3:11) and "Jesus, (a) Son of the Most High God" (5:7). In contrast, definite articles are always found in the phrase: "the Son of the human". A grammatical argument can be made for supplying "the" in the phrase "Son of God." I present this bit of grammar so that we might understand how Mark's first readers/hearers might have understood the phrase.
If it were Greeks hearing this for the first time, I would think that their reference would be to their mythological children of gods. For example, Hercules was a son of the god Zeus and the human mother Alcmene.
A Jewish audience, based on Psalm 2, might think that "a son of God" (v. 7) was a king. Note also that "anointed" (christos in LXX) is used in v. 2.
These words do something to the hearers. They create a picture in their minds from their own experiences of someone called "Son of God". It is likely that this picture at the beginning is a wrong one -- and Mark will seek to change it through his story.
Donald Juel has a book called A Master of Surprise: Mark Interpreted. Mark begins with some loaded words: "good news" = military victory, "Christ" & "son of God" = anointed conquering king (or Greek "super-hero"). He will surprise us throughout his story by radically redefine these terms through his presentation of Jesus, the Son of Man -- the one who will be crucified.
We often interpret vv. 2-3 in light of Matthew and Luke where they clearly refer to John the Baptist. John is presented before the OT quotes are given. However, in Mark, the only person who has been named prior to the quotes is Jesus. Note also, for those who have difficulty memorizing scripture, Mark's quote is a hybrid: v. 2 seems to come from Ex 23:20 (LXX) and Mal 3:1 (MT) and v. 3 from Isaiah 40:3, but not quoted exactly.
The phrase "just as it has been written" (kathos gegraptai) that begins verse 2, is never used at the start of a new sentence in the Septuagint or the New Testament according to Robert Guelich in The Beginning of the Gospel -- Mark 1:1-15, quoted by Mary Ann Tobert in Sowing the Gospel: Mark's World in Literary-Historical Perspective.
In addition, Guelich states that when the phrase is used as an introductory formula, it forms a bridge between what has preceded and the quotation that follows. The only preceding person is Jesus.
Grammatically, this means that vv. 2-3 should be connected with v. 1, rather than with v. 4. Perhaps the period at the end of v. 1 and the comma at the end of v. 3 in the NRSV should be switched.
This arrangement allows for two major divisions centered on the word egeneto = "it happened"
v. 4 -- it happened that John the Baptist was in the wilderness
v. 9 -- and it happened that in those days Jesus came
Although John is in the wilderness (eremos) in verse 4, Jesus is in the wilderness (or deserted places) much more often (1:12, 13, 35, 45; 6:31, 32, 35).
John is never described as "crying out" (boao), but Jesus does -- from the cross (15:34) where he is forsaken by God -- a wilderness moment? Even though Matthew quotes Isaiah 40:3 with boao, he doesn't use that same word for Jesus' cry from the cross, but a closely related term, anaboao (27:46).
Clearly the LORD in Isaiah 40:3 is Yahweh. When Mark quotes that verse, does "the Lord" refer to God or to Jesus? Does Mark want to indicate that John prepares the way for Jesus or that Jesus prepares the way for God?
"Lord" (kyrios) is never used as a title for Jesus in Mark, except as a title of respect, "sir" or "master" (7:28; 11:3). Jesus calls God "Lord" (5:19; 13:20). In every other scriptural quotation that uses kyrios in Mark, it refers to God as distinct from Jesus (11:9; 12:11, 29, 30, 36).
[In contrast to Mark's non-use of "Lord" as a title for Jesus, such a use occurs twice in the addendum 16:19, 20.]
Unfortunately, if Mark intends vv. 2-3 to refer to Jesus as the apocalyptic preacher who prepares the way for the coming of God, that doesn't make for a very good Advent theme. So we move on to John.
I have described John's role to be like that of Ed McMahan. For nearly 30 years he introduced the star of the show with, "H-e-e-e-r-r-e-e's Johnny."
Sometimes an introducer can cause quite an embarrassment for the main speaker. I was at a church gathering where the introducer had much funnier jokes and a better delivery than the famous main speaker. He was not a good introducer. He shouldn't outshine the star of the show.
Actually, John the B is the third introducer in Mark. We first had the narrator tell us about Jesus Christ, Son of God. We've heard the (mis-)quoted words of the prophet about "My messenger" (aggelos or "angel" in Greek) -- probably referring to Jesus. Now we hear John's witness about Jesus.
John appears as a prophet, wearing garments reminiscent of Elijah (hairy and a leather belt -- 2 K 1:8, see also Zech 13:4). This also brings to mind Malachi 4:5: "Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes" (see also Mark 9:11-13).
John has two proclamations (kerusso):
(1) "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins," (v. 4) which involved the confession of sins (v. 5).
(2) "a stronger one is coming after me" (v. 7)
Concerning (1): Repentance is not a dominant theme in Mark. This is the only occurrence of the noun (metanoia -- 2 times in Mt, 5 in Lk, 0 in Jn) and the verb (metanoeo) only occurs twice: in Jesus' preaching (1:15) and, literally, as a result of the disciples' preaching (6:12) -- (5 times in Mt, 9 in Lk, 0 in Jn).
Besides the use of "sins" (hamartia) in vv. 4 & 5, it occurs only in Mark in 2:5, 7, 9, 10; where Jesus forgives the sins of the paralytic. This chapter also includes the account of Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners (hamartolos -- vv. 15-17).
If John had been completely successful, baptizing all for the forgiveness of their sins, would there have been any "sinners" for Jesus to call (2:17)?
This is also the only time "confessing" is used in Mark. Perhaps, in contrast to Matthew where Jesus' continues John's work -- proclaiming exactly the same message: "Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near" (Mt 3:2 for John; Mt 4:17 for Jesus), Mark seems to have a greater separation between the ministries of the two men. While Jesus forgives sins, it has nothing to do with the ritual that John proclaimed. In Mark, Jesus doesn't call people to confess their sins, like John does. They seem to have distinct functions in Mark: John points to the greater one, Jesus; who is the apocalyptic preacher who prepares the way for the coming of the LORD.
I think that this is the more important part of John's proclamation. Especially if John had a following at the time of Mark, Mark seeks to have John witness to Christ.
A few years ago saw a video tape on worship, Paul Westermeyer, the presenter used the phrase, "Music broken to word and sacrament." He also indicated that the leaders need to be broken to word and sacrament. His meaning for these images was that neither music nor leaders are to draw attention to themselves, but to the Christ who comes through the means of grace. This preaching of John could be a good model to follow concerning worship -- or ministry in general. No matter how "successful" we might be -- John had crowds come from the "whole Judean countryside and all the people from Jerusalem" (v. 5) -- our function is to always point to the stronger one.
This distinction can be difficult. As a church musician and a preacher, I want to do those tasks as best I can. I want my "performance" to be polished. I don't want to be making mistakes or stumbling over musical notes or words (even though that may happen). Both messing up and performing exquisitely can draw undo attention to one's self rather than to the God we have gathered to proclaim and to worship. The worship service is not about me, nor is it about the congregation. We are to be broken to Word and Sacrament. We have gathered to serve and be served by these Means of Grace.
The Greek word baptizo means "to wash" -- usually by dipping or immersing in water. Note its use in Mark 7:4. Symbolically, it can mean: "ritual purification," "immersion". What meaning(s) are implied by the phrase "He will baptize in the Holy Spirit"? How is that the similar or different from John's baptism in water?
I can't find that Jesus ever baptized in the Holy Spirit in the gospel of Mark. The word pneuma ("spirit") occurs 23 times.
Only 4 of those include the word hagios ("Holy"):
Jesus will baptize in the Holy Spirit (1:8)
Blaspheming against the Holy Spirit is unforgivable (3:29)
David spoke by the Holy Spirit (12:36)
The Holy Spirit will speak for those who are brought to trial (13:11)
Two others refer to Spirit (capital "S")
Jesus' baptism (1:10)
Jesus' being driven into the wilderness to be tempted (1:12).
Eleven times it is used with "unclean". Three more times, "unclean" or "evil" is implied. The "spiritual" theme in Mark centers more on the unclean ones – who often recognize Jesus and whom Jesus is able to cast out.
Perhaps the "baptism in the Holy Spirit" refers to the tempting persecution and suffering that the disciples would go through (13:9-13). Jesus uses "baptism" in reference to his suffering and death and indicates that at least James and John will undergo the same type of baptism (10:38-39).
This would be quite a change from the ecstatic "baptism in the Holy Spirit" proclaimed by Charismatics and Pentecostals.
Perhaps, like I indicated earlier in the note, as Mark seeks to redefine the good news and Jesus as the Christ/Messiah and Son of God, so he seeks to redefine what following Jesus means and what life immersed in the Holy Spirit means. All of these point to the cross. An ironic sign of victory or good news for God's anointed, the Son of God.
I've heard the gospel of Mark summarized with the statement, "Before you decide to become a Christian, you had better make sure that you look good on wood."
As we enter the fantasy of the commercial Christmas season, it may be good to remind our hearers about the real costs of following that baby who will be born.
Perhaps we need to look at the Advent/Christmas season as a time to begin to hear the good news again for the first time. While we probably don't have the same misconceptions about "Christ/Messiah" or "Son of God" as the ancient Greeks and Hebrews did, our understandings "victory" and of Jesus and what following him means probably needs some redefining, just as it did for those first readers of Mark. The way that is being prepared is a way that will lead to suffering and death on the cross.
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