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CONVERSATIONS WITH SCRIPTURE: THE GOSPEL OF MARK
By MARCUS J. BORG
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2009 Marcus J. Borg
All rights reserved.
Overture and Beginning: Mark 1–3
The first three chapters of Mark not only begin the story of Jesus' public activity in Galilee but also function as an extended introduction to the gospel as a whole by introducing its central themes. To provide an overview, these chapters include:
* The overture to the gospel (1:1–20)
* A day in the public activity of Jesus (1:21–34)
* Jesus at prayer (1:35–39)
* Healing a leper (1:40–45)
* A series of conflict stories, the dominant theme of Mark 2–3
I encourage you to read Mark 1–3 before continuing.
The Overture: 1:1–20
Mark begins with an overture. So do the other gospels. Like the overture to a symphony, each sounds the central themes of the gospel that follows. In Matthew and Luke, the overtures are the stories of Jesus' birth. In John, the overture is the great "Hymn to the Word"; it opens with the famous line, "In the beginning was the Word," now revealed and become flesh, embodied, in Jesus.
Mark's overture is quite different. There is no birth story and no hymn to the Word. Rather, Jesus appears for the first time as an adult on his way to the wilderness to be baptized by John the Baptizer in the Jordan River. There Jesus has a vision of the Spirit descending on him and hears a voice declare, "You are my son." By the time the overture ends, Jesus has begun his public activity proclaiming the coming of "the kingdom of God" and calling disciples "to follow him."
Because of the importance of Mark's overture, most of this chapter is devoted to it. I begin by quoting it in full:
1 The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'"
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
6 Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.
7 He proclaimed, "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.
8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
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.
11 And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.
13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,
15 and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."
16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen.
17 And Jesus said to them, "Follow me and I will make you fish for people." 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him.
19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets: 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
Verse One: The Title
Verse one is the title of the gospel. Recall that Mark did not write "The Gospel According to Mark" at the top of his first page. Rather, this story is "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." As noted earlier, "good news" and "gospel" translate the same Greek word and we use them interchangeably.
Though brief, this verse is packed with meaning. Its first phrase, "the beginning" (of the good news), has at least three possible meanings. It could simply mean, "This is the beginning of this document," as when an essay might inelegantly begin, "I begin by saying...." Or it could refer to the verses that soon follow narrating the appearance of John the Baptizer in the wilderness, as if Mark were saying, "The gospel of Jesus begins with John."
Or, finally, it could refer to the whole story, the whole document that follows: all of it is the beginning of the gospel of Jesus—a story that is not over, but that has only begun. It is not just about past good news, but about good news that continues to unfold. I suspect that Mark intends this fuller meaning: the gospel is not just about the past—it was also about Mark's present and our present.
The rest of verse one contains two of the most important early Christian affirmations about Jesus: he is "Christ" and "the Son of God." Both are "titles" of Jesus used by his followers after Easter.
"Christ" (from the Greek word christos that translates the Hebrew word for "messiah"—and thus Christ and Messiah are synonyms) was a term of great significance in the Jewish tradition. It meant "anointed" and, implicitly, anointed by God. In the Jewish Bible (the Christian Old Testament) the term was used to refer to the kings of Israel and Judah who were "anointed" by God (see, for example, Ps 2:2). It was also used for a foreign king, Cyrus of Persia, who in the sixth century B.C.E. permitted the Jewish exiles to return to their homeland (Isa 45:1).
By the first century, the word had acquired a more specific and exalted meaning. For many within Judaism, in diverse ways, it designated a future figure who would be anointed by God to deliver Israel from centuries of oppression. Thus in a first-century context, it is appropriate to speak not simply of a messiah ... but of the Messiah. Mark affirms at the beginning of his gospel that Jesus is the Messiah, the hoped-for and longed-for anointed one of Israel. The good news is the story of Jesus the Messiah
The gospel is also the story of Jesus "the Son of God." The phrase has rich meanings not only in the Jewish but also in the Roman world of Mark. In the Jewish Bible, "son of God" could refer to Israel as a whole, as in Hosea 11:1: "When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son." It could also refer to a king of Israel, as in 2 Samuel 7:12–14 and Psalm 2:7. Nearer the time of Jesus, Jewish mystics were sometimes referred to as "God's son." What these three references have in common is that all designated a relationship of special intimacy with God.
"Son of God" was also central to Roman imperial theology. As mentioned in Chapter 1, it was one of the most important titles of the Roman emperor, beginning with Augustus Caesar who ruled the empire from 31 B.C.E. to 14 C.E. He was hailed as "the Son of God," as well as Lord and Savior of the World, the one who had brought "peace on earth"—the famous Pax Romana.
We will not fully understand Mark's and early Christianity's affirmation that Jesus is the Son of God unless we realize that there was another Son of God in that world. For Christians to call Jesus "the Son of God" directly countered Roman imperial theology and its rule of the world that they knew. Already in the title, Mark names the conflict that will by the end of his story lead to the execution of Jesus.
Verses Two and Three: The Way
Verses two and three of Mark's overture announce a major theme of the gospel: the good news is about "the way of the Lord." Note the threefold repetition of "way" imagery: "your way," "the way of the Lord," and "his paths."
2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; 3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'"
The language is drawn from the Old Testament. Though Mark says all of it is from Isaiah, verse two is from Malachi 3:1. Verse three is from Isaiah 40:3.
Given the location of these verses in the narrative, they point forward to John the Baptizer. In verse four, John appears as the messenger in the wilderness who prepares the way of the Lord. As such, he is "the Forerunner" of Jesus, as he is commonly known in Eastern Christianity, whereas in Western Christianity he is most often called "the Baptist."
But the verses are not just about John—they have a much broader meaning. They name one of Mark's major themes: "the way" as a metaphor for the meaning of the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God.
* The importance of "the way" is indicated by Mark's frequent use of the Greek word translated into English as the way, and also as the path and road. In Greek, they are the same word.
* "The way" is the primary theme of the central section of Mark's gospel, as we shall see in Chapter 5. That section, 8:22–10:52, begins and ends with stories of Jesus giving sight to a blind man. In between is the story of the climactic journey of Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem, death and resurrection. Three times in that story, Jesus solemnly speaks of his impending execution by the religious and political authorities, and after each he speaks of following him—a word that belongs to the same metaphorical family as the way, path, and road.
* At the end of that section, Mark tells us that the blind man who has just been healed "followed [Jesus] on the way" (10:52). To regain sight, to see again, means to follow Jesus on the way. In the next verse, Jesus and those following him arrive in Jerusalem, the destination of the way.
* The cumulative meaning of Mark's central section: to follow Jesus is to follow him on the way that leads to Jerusalem, the place of confrontation with the authorities, death, and resurrection. For Mark, this is the way that Jesus taught, embodied, and called his followers to follow.
As a metaphor for how to live, "the way" is central to both the Old Testament and New Testament. The Jewish Bible often speaks of contrasting ways: "the way of life" and "the way of death"; "the wise way" and "the foolish way." So does Jesus, who also speaks of "the broad way" and the "narrow way." In John 14:6, Jesus himself is "the way"—he embodies it, incarnates it, in his life, death, and resurrection. According to the book of Acts, the earliest name of the post- Easter movement was "the Way" (9:2).
As an image for the religious life, "the way" is quite different from common modern understandings of what it means to be Christian. Many Protestants as well as some Catholics think that the Christian life is foundationally about believing, understood as believing a set of statements about the Bible and God and Jesus. And, of course, an effort at good behavior is also included.
But the gospel as "the way of Jesus" suggests a path and a person to be followed, and not primarily a set of beliefs to be believed. Verses two and three are not simply Mark's introduction to John the Bap-tizer. Rather, they sound the theme of Jesus as "the way of the Lord"—and he calls people to follow the way that he taught and that Mark saw revealed in him.
Verses Four through Eight: John the Baptizer
Mark's overture now introduces John the Baptizer and concisely narrates his activity and message. John was of great significance to early Christians as they told the story of Jesus. All four gospels and the book of Acts begin the story of the adult Jesus with John. Moreover, John was significant enough that the first-century Jewish historian Josephus also refers to him.
He was a strange figure, even by the conventions of his time. He wore animal skins ("camel's hair"), ate locusts and wild honey, and preached "in the wilderness." He was what scholars call "a popular prophet" in a twofold sense: not an "official" prophet, but "of the people," and popular in the sense of attracting a following. Indeed, John became widely enough known to attract the attention of Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great and ruler of Galilee who, as we learn later in Mark, arrested and executed him.
Immersion in water—baptism—was a common Jewish religious practice. There were two different kinds, differentiated by frequency and function. Some ritual immersions were repeated again and again as prescribed by Jewish law—for example, after a woman's menstrual period, or a man's nocturnal emission. This is immersion as a purification ritual. The second kind was a once-only ritual of conversion. Namely, when a Gentile converted to Judaism, the process included immersion. This is baptism as a ritual of initiation into a new life.
John's baptism was more like the second than the first. It was not a repeated ritual of purification. Yet it also differed from the second in important respects. John's baptism was for Jews, not for Gentile converts to Judaism. It was, as Matthew and Luke say, for the "children of Abraham."
Its meaning is suggested by its location. That John baptized in the Jordan River and not just anyplace is significant. The Jordan was the traditional boundary between "the wilderness" and "the promised land." It was through the Jordan that the Israelites had passed to enter the promised land at the climax of the story of the exodus from Egypt more than a thousand years earlier. The wilderness and the Jordan were also associated with the Jewish experience of exile. It was through the wilderness separating Babylon from the homeland that the exiles journeyed in order to return. Thus John's baptism resonated with images of exodus and exile and "the way" that leads from bondage to liberation and from exile to return.
Mark 1:9–11: Baptism, Vision, and Voice
In verse nine, Jesus appears for the first time in Mark's narrative as he travels from Nazareth to be baptized by John. Mark does not tell us Jesus' motive. But he had to be more than curious about what he had heard about John. Why else would he walk several days from Nazareth—perhaps as far as a hundred miles—to where John was baptizing? For the same reason, we must also imagine that Jesus spent some time with John rather than going for a quick baptism and a journey home a few days later. We should probably think of John as Jesus' mentor.
It is instructive to compare Mark's story of the baptism with Matthew's. To Mark's account, Matthew adds a conversation between Jesus and John (3:14–15). John recognizes Jesus as his superior: John says, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" The effect is to suggest that Jesus didn't need to be baptized by John, but nevertheless agreed to be.
But in Mark there is no hint that John recognized Jesus as superior to him, or that Jesus accepted baptism in spite of that. Rather, Mark's account suggests that Jesus' decision to be baptized indicates an acceptance of John's call to repentance and an identification with John's message and vision—in short, that Jesus was, for at least a while, one of John's disciples.
VISION AND VOICE
Verses 10–11 report that Jesus had a vision and heard a voice at his baptism: "He saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.'" The language echoes phrases from the Old Testament, especially the prophets Ezekiel and Isaiah.
Visions are a dramatic kind of religious experience. Reported in many religions, they involve an ecstatic state of consciousness in which something "beyond" the ordinary is "seen," as the word "vision" suggests. They are often accompanied by a voice, an "audition," to use a semi-technical term. Vision and audition frequently go together. What is seen and heard has sacred significance and is often life-changing.
They are important in the Bible and associated with its major figures: in the Old Testament, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and many prophets experienced visions; in the New Testament, Jesus, Paul, Peter, the author of Revelation, and others did. Moreover, they are commonly about vocation—being called by God to a specific task.
Visions fall into two primary categories. Some involve seeing into another level or layer of reality, another "world." For example, Ezekiel saw the heavens opened and visions of God (1:1). Isaiah "saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty," attended by six-winged creatures from another world, accompanied by an audition that called him to his prophetic vocation (6:1–13).
Excerpted from CONVERSATIONS WITH SCRIPTURE: THE GOSPEL OF MARK by MARCUS J. BORG. Copyright © 2009 by Marcus J. Borg. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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