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Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Mark
By C. Clifton Black
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2011 C. Clifton Black
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The Prologue of the Gospel (1:1-15)
Mark opens with a simple statement (1:1) and a scriptural epigraph (1:2-3), followed by four elements: (a) a précis of John the baptizer's ministry (1:4-8), (b) Jesus' baptism by John (1:9-11), (c) Jesus' temptation (1:12-13), and (d) a transitional summary of the start of Jesus' own ministry in Galilee (1:14-15). In musical terms Mark 1:1-15 is a brisk overture, whose first notes announce a work that will unfold not as a Mozartian minuet but as a Beethovian blast.
The Gospel's Opening and Epigraph (1:1-3)
Titles for NT Gospels (such as "According to Mark") were added to the texts long after their composition, at a time when the early church recognized that the expression of its "gospel" in alternative literary forms required differentiation (Hengel 2000). The Second Gospel opens abruptly: literally translated, "Beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ [God's Son]." This comment raises important interpretive questions.
The Opening (1:1)
What is this clause "beginning" (, v. 1)? Is the author arch-suggesting the beginning of the entire book? Not necessarily, unless we assume that "the good news" refers to a literary document (on which, see below). Does "beginning" refer only to the passages, immediately following, in verses 2-3 and 4-8? Possibly, though such an interpretation may be too limiting. Is the Evangelist thinking theologically (that the following narrative offers a summary of the gospel) or existentially (that the beginning of the good news occurs with the reader's encounter with Jesus, whose story Mark will now tell)? Perhaps so; yet these latter options may read more into the clause than it clearly connotes. We may consider the clause in 1:1 an abrupt technique to draw our attention to the upcoming scriptural quotations (vv. 2- 3). To paraphrase: "Here's where the gospel originates—in Israel's prophetic Scripture."
Equally uncertain is the meaning of "the good news" or "the gospel" (to euangelion). Modern readers often assume reference to a literary document. Nevertheless, Paul's letters, written two decades before Mark, use the term gospel in reference to the Christian message of salvation accomplished by Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection (e.g., Rom 1:1; 1 Cor 15:1; 2 Cor 11:7; 1 Thess 2:2, 8-9). Although Mark tells us far more about Jesus' life than does Paul, the Evangelist concurs with the apostle in using the term gospel to refer to preaching, not to a literary composition (see Mark 1:14-15; 8:35; 13:10). (Not until Justin Martyr, around 150 C.E., is the term gospel clearly used for a book: 1 Apol. 66.3; Dial. Trypho 10.2, 100.1.) Like Paul, Mark appears indebted to Isaiah's "proclamation of glad tidings" (LXX, euangelizesthai), the encouraging announcement of the Lord's promise to restore a shattered Israel (Isa 40:9; 52:7; 61:1). A cognate of the same Greek term—euangelia (glad tidings)— also occurs in imperial inscriptions of first-century Rome, with reference to the emperor's birthday and benefactions associated with his reign (Koester 1990, 3-4). For Mark's earliest readers, the term gospel likely activated reverberations both religious and political. Mark's presentation of Jesus' preaching resonates with the assurances of Second Isaiah: an euangelion now associated not with Caesar, but with Jesus, the new herald of a very different dominion (1:15).
The referent of this good news is Jesus "Christ": the "messiah" or "anointed one" (ho christos), a term that by Mark's time already enjoyed a rich history in Hebrew psalmody (45:7; 89:38, 51), prophecy (Isa 45:1; Hab 3:13), and Jewish apocalypticism (CD 7:18-21; 1QS 9:11; Pss. Sol. 17:32; 18:5, 7; see Neusner, Green, and Frerichs 1987). In Mark "Christ" usually appears as a title (8:29; 12:35; 13:21; 14:61; 15:32), though it can function as a proper name for Jesus (9:41) in the manner characteristic of Paul and other NT writers (Rom 5:6, 8; Col 1:24-28; 1 Pet 4:12-14). (For further consideration of "Christ," see the discussion of 8:27–9:1 ad loc.) "The good news of Jesus Christ" is grammatically ambiguous. Does Mark refer to the good news proclaimed by Jesus (a "subjective genitive"), the good news about Jesus (an "objective genitive"), or the good news whose substance is Jesus (a genitive of identification)? Later in Mark (8:35; 10:29; 13:9-10) the Evangelist differentiates, while correlating, what believers may do "for [Jesus'] sake and for the sake of the gospel." One may infer that a similarly "associative distinction" is present in 1:1.
Ancient manuscripts of Mark disagree on whether "Son of God" (ho huios theou) was included in the original text of Mark. Scribes tended to enlarge, rather than to abbreviate, the beginnings of books. The tendency to clarify through expansion inclines toward the shorter reading's originality, in which "God's Son" is absent from Mark 1:1. On the other hand, a strong combination of diverse witnesses favors the inclusion of a title that is undeniably important in Mark (3:11; 5:7; 12:6; 14:61), occurring at climactic points in this Gospel (1:11; 9:7; 15:39). The textual evidence is remarkably well balanced (see Swanson 1995, 7). If Mark had originally written the longer form, why would later scribes have truncated it?
What does "Son of God" signify about Jesus? In Greco- Roman antiquity that term carries many connotations, only one of which is "a divinized human being" (Corp. herm. 13.2). By virtue of their valor in combat or other exemplary conduct, heroes like Dionysius and Hercules were regarded as "children of Zeus" (Diatr. 3.26.31); an emperor like Octavius was acclaimed divi filius, "son of the deified" (i.e., "the previous emperor": Aug. 94.4). In the biblical tradition "son of God" referred especially to Israel's king (2 Sam 7:13-14; Pss 2:7; 110:3) or to the entire nation as beneficiary of God's solicitude (Exod 4:22-23; Jer 31:9, 20; Hos 11:1). As children mimic their parents, so too was a "son of God" expected to exemplify divine attributes, like righteousness (Wis 2:18). In later Jewish literature "son of God" is associated with the figure of the Messiah (4 Ezra 7:28-29; 13:32, 37, 52; 14:9; 1 En. 105:2). Mark's earliest readers likely heard several nuances in its designation of Jesus as God's Son (see below, ad loc. 9:2-8).
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Mark's opening—crisp, forceful, compressed—anticipates the style of the scenes following it. This Evangelist does not ease his reader into the narrative; instead, one is hurled into a rapid-fire series of affirmations. Like the rest of this Gospel, those claims are ambiguous, patient of multiple interpretations that are not mutually exclusive. Here begins the good news, but that euangelion carries multiple connotations. Mark presupposes readers' knowledge of Jesus, identifying him as "Christ" and (perhaps) as "Son of God" without defining, much less defending, either ascription. Like the other Gospels, Mark offers a confession of Christian faith for those who have or aspire to such faith. That Jesus is the Messiah, whose advent spells glad tidings, is an assumption the Evangelist makes. What it means to believe that Jesus is God's anointed Son and how such faith discerns "good news" are complex issues that will haunt the reader throughout this Gospel.
The Epigraph (1:2-3)
Fond of asides (e.g., see also 2:10, 15; 7:3-4, 19b; 13:14; see C. H. Turner 1993, 23-35), Mark sets as his Gospel's epigraph a parenthetical reference to "the prophet Isaiah" (v. 2a). In fact, only verse 3 cites Isaiah (40:3), since the quotations in Mark 1:2b ("See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you") and 1:2c ("who will prepare your way") conflate material found in Exodus 23:20a and Malachi 3:1a, in a manner characteristic of later Jewish biblical interpretation (Exod. Rab. 32.9; Deut. Rab. 11.9; see Marcus 1992, 12-17). Mark's confusing attribution prompted some scribes to change the wording of 1:2 to "in the prophets," thus erasing doubts about the Evangelist's familiarity with Scripture. The quotations in verses 2b-3 are similar to, though not identical with, the LXX (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible).
Mark's adaptations of Scripture are noteworthy. The three quoted verses originate from works that refer to different phases of Israel's history. In its original context Exodus 23:20a promises that "an angel [or 'messenger'] of God" (see also Exod 14:19) would precede and protect Israel in its settlement of Canaan. Malachi 3:1a is part of a prophetic oracle to Israel (ca. 445 B.C.E.), promising that Yahweh's emissary, "my messenger" (Heb. malachi), would prepare the way for God's occupation of the temple and the nation's purification. In 4:5 Malachi identifies that messenger with Elijah: the prophet who, because he did not die but was taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot (2 Kgs 2:11), was expected someday to return to earth as herald of "the great and terrible day of the LORD." Isaiah 40:3 introduces Israel's great consolation. While in Babylonian exile (597–539 B.C.E.) an anonymous prophet encourages preparation of the highway that God would use to revisit his people and to lead them through the desert stretching from Babylon back to their Judean homeland. Members of the Qumran sect believed this passage in Isaiah referred to themselves: those who had renounced a society considered unrighteous and had exiled themselves to the Judean desert (1QS 8:12-16).
By selecting these texts to introduce his Gospel, Mark invites the reader to assemble and to tease out a number of important biblical themes. First, "a way" is once more being cleared for God's people: a divine intervention that will transport readers along "straight paths" (Mark 1:3c). Second, preparation of that way is again delegated to an envoy entrusted with God's message: an emissary who stands in line with Moses, Elijah, and Deutero-Isaiah. Third, those led in that way are again called to abandon that to which they have become accustomed, for a life under radically changed circumstances: a shift no less extreme than that from the wilderness to Canaan, from foreign exile to a return home, from business as usual to "the Day of the LORD." Gentile readers of Mark, wobbly in their knowledge of Jewish Scripture, would have been acquainted with ceremonial processions, whose bystanders were encouraged to cheer a visiting senator or the emperor himself (Mamertinus, Panegyric 3.10.5). Those more familiar with Israel's history might have drawn subtler inferences from Mark's scriptural epigraph, since not everyone challenged by God to a radical change in life had proved able or willing to make it (see Exod 14:11-12; 16:2-3; Num 11:1-6; 14:1-3; Isa 57:1-13; Mal 3:2b-4; 4:1). Even those delighting in the Lord's unbroken covenant with Israel were asked, "[W]ho can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?" (Mal 3:2a).
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Mark's epigraph (1:2-3) is at once atypical of his Gospel, yet much in character. Unlike Matthew, whose "formula-quotations" of Scripture punctuate the First Gospel (e.g., 1:22-23; 2:5-6, 17, 23; 3:3; 4:14), the Second Evangelist does not obviously alert the reader to fulfillments of Scripture within his narrative (though see 7:6; 11:17; 12:10-11; 14:27). Most of Mark's nods toward Scripture are more allusive and depend on the capacity of readers with ears to hear (Mark 4:12/Isa 6:9-10; Mark 8:18/Jer 5:21; Mark 12:1/Isa 5:1-2; Mark 13:2426/Ezek 32:7-8, Dan 7:13-14; Mark 15:34/Ps 22:1). Mark's reference to "Isaiah the prophet" conjures up for the biblically articulate reader a larger Isaianic chamber—replete with the images of wilderness (Isa 40:3; cf. Mark 1:4, 78, 12-13), rent heavens (Isa 64:1; cf. Mark 1:11), and tamed beasts (Isa 11:6-8; 65:25; cf. Mark 1:13b)—within which "the good news" (Isa 40:9; cf. Mark 1:1) again resonates. In any case Mark 1:1-3 weds the coming of Jesus Christ to a miniature panorama of Israel's history.
Yet, even as we observed in Mark 1:1, verses 2-3 leave as much unsaid as spoken. Isaiah explicitly bolsters Mark's point of view—but, by implication, so do the Scriptures from Exodus to Malachi. Exactly who, for Mark, is "my messenger," sent by the Lord? As yet we do not know. News that "the way of the Lord" (God? Jesus?) is again under construction is good indeed—unless the inadequacies of another, more popular, less newsworthy path are thus exposed, and their travelers along with it (see Watts 1997, 29121).
The Ministry of the Forerunner (1:4-8)
Mark's thumbnail description of John seems to answer one question left dangling from verses 2-3: the identity of "my messenger" who prepares the Lord's way. The NRSV identification of John in verse 4 ("John the baptizer appeared") adheres to the wording of some ancient manuscripts—the majority of which, however, are best translated, "There was John, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming." The latter wording may have been the original: it is rougher, more abrupt, and diverges from Mark's tendency to describe John as "the baptizer" (ho baptiz-on: 6:14, -es: 6:25; 8:28; see also Matt 3:1; 24) or "the Baptist" (ho baptist 11:11, 12; Luke 7:20, 33; 9:19). A scribe trying to clarify John's identity might have imitated the Evangelist's style more slavishly. It is worth contemplating that, given this Gospel's reports that some confused Jesus with John (6:14-16; 8:28), Mark may have left momentarily ambiguous exactly who in 1:2-3 is "preparing the way."
Beyond Christian sources, the Jewish historian Josephus corroborates much of Mark's report that John, "surnamed the Baptist," called the Jews to baptism and a life of righteousness, and was eventually arrested and executed by Herod Antipas out of "fear that John's powerful ability to persuade people might lead to some sort of revolt" against Rome (Ant. 18.5.2; cf. the different explanation for his death in Mark 6:14-19). Josephus tells us almost twice as much about John as about Jesus; of the two, John receives from Josephus greater praise (see Meier 1994, 19-99).
Mark's portrait of John highlights five features. (1) His appearance was in accordance with veiled scriptural precedents (vv. 3-4, 6). (2) The site of his activity was the wilderness, in the vicinity of the Jordan River (vv. 4-5). (3) Baptism, symbolizing "repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (v. 4), was the focus of John's ministry. (4) Popular Jewish response to that ministry was extraordinary (v. 5). (5) He acclaimed a successor, whose importance diminished John's own (vv. 7-8). Each of these aspects invites comment.
1. John's location in the wilderness or desert (en te eremo, v. 4) implies that his is the voice "crying out in the wilderness" (v. 3), in alignment with Isaiah. Like the Jewish sectarians at Qumran, Mark takes the prophet to mean that the desert is where the voice is crying out, not the place of preparation for the Lord's way, as the reading of Isaiah 40:3 in Hebrew suggests (see NRSV). Unlike Mark, however, the Qumranites suggest that theirs was the voice crying out in the desert (1QS 8:13-14; 9:1920). Mark does not expressly forge an association of John with Exodus 23:20 and Malachi 3:1, as do Matthew (11:10) and Luke (1:76; 7:27). Most forthright of all in establishing a scriptural connection is the Fourth Gospel, wherein John expressly identifies himself as "'the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,' ... as the prophet Isaiah said" (John 1:23).
John's attire and diet—"dressed in camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist, and eating locusts and wild honey" (AT)— are frequently cited by commentators as echoes of OT characters: specifically, Elijah the Tishbite (2 Kgs 1:8) and the Nazirites, who abstained from wine (Num 6:3-4). The LXX and MT of 2 Kings 1:8 may be translated as referring either to a man in a hairy mantle (RSV) or to a hairy man (NRSV); however, neither 2 Kings 1:8 nor Zechariah 13:4 (which refers to a prophet's conventional garb) says anything about camel's hair. Mark's reference -on-en dermatin-en) more clearly alludes to to a leather belt (z the description of Elijah in 2 Kings 1:8 (LXX), even though leather belts were worn by many in the ancient world. More tenuous are connections between John and the Nazirites: their diet was not restricted to locusts and uncultivated honey; their abstention from wine is akin to Luke's portrait of John (1:15), not Mark's. Mark does not mention the most characteristic sign of the Nazirites' (temporary) vow: letting one's hair grow uncut (Num 6:5, 9, 19). To sum up: as Mark portrays them, John's dress and diet conform to those of poor desert nomads. Here an association with Elijah is at best whispered (a hairy mantle, a leather belt), not shouted—setting a pattern that will recur in this Gospel (6:15-16; 9:11-13).
Excerpted from Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Mark by C. Clifton Black. Copyright © 2011 C. Clifton Black. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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