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Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament
By Mark L. Strauss, Clinton E. Arnold
ZONDERVANCopyright © 2014 Mark L. Strauss
All rights reserved.
Mark 1:1 – 8
Mark begins his gospel with an introduction that sets the stage for the narrative that follows. The parameters of this prologue are debated. A few scholars include only vv. 1 – 8, the ministry of John the Baptist, as the fulfillment of Scripture and the forerunner of the Messiah. Others continue through v. 13, the baptism and temptation, since all of these are preparatory events for Jesus' public ministry. Still others continue through v. 15, treating the references to the "good news" (or "gospel"; [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) in vv. 1 and 15 as an inclusio, or "frame," around this introductory section.
We will treat vv. 1 – 13 as the prologue, in four parts: (1) the beginning of the gospel as the fulfillment of Scripture (vv. 1 – 3); (2) the ministry of John the Baptist (vv. 4 – 8); (3) Jesus' baptism (vv. 9 – 11); and (4) Jesus' testing/temptation in the wilderness (vv. 12 – 13). Verses 14 – 15 may then be seen as the introduction of Jesus' ministry proper.
Mark introduces his narrative with the message and ministry of John the Baptist, whose role was to fulfill Scripture by preparing the way for the coming of Jesus, the Messiah and Son of God.
See Literary Context (above) for the structure of Mark's prologue. Here we discuss the first two parts: (1) the beginning of the gospel as the fulfillment of Scripture (vv. 2 – 3) and (2) the ministry of John the Baptist (vv. 4 – 8).
Explanation of the Text
1:1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). The first line of Mark's gospel can be understood either as (1) the title to the whole work, or (2) the introduction to the first section of the gospel. If the former, the "beginning" refers to the whole ministry of Jesus, climaxing in his death and resurrection. If the latter, the "beginning" could refer to (a) the ministry of John the Baptist (vv. 4 – 8), (b) the preparatory events including Jesus' baptism and temptation (vv. 4 – 13), or (c) the whole series of introductory events, climaxing in Jesus' proclamation of the "good news" (vv. 4 – 15). Since this beginning is linked directly to the prophecy of Isaiah (vv. 2 – 3; "just as it is written ..."), which in turn is connected to the coming of John the Baptist (vv. 4 – 8), the most likely answer is 2a. Mark identifies the appearance of John as the beginning of the gospel. This is congruent with the rest of the NT, where John's baptizing ministry is consistently presented as inaugurating the gospel (Matt 3:1 – 17; 11:12; Luke 3:1 – 20; 16:16; John 1:6 – 8, 19 – 36; Acts 1:22; 10:37; 13:24).
Although strictly speaking not a title, the first line still introduces the whole gospel, since it announces the "beginning" of its central theme: the good news about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah. Mark may also be consciously echoing the opening phrase of the LXX (Gen 1:1 LXX: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], "in the beginning"; cf. John 1:1; 1 John 1:1) and in this way marking the beginning of the new creation through the salvation available in Jesus Christ.
Some English versions render "gospel" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) as "good news" (NIV; NLT; NRSV), while others use "gospel" (NET; ESV; HCSB; REB). The English term comes from the old English godspel, which meant "glad tidings" or "good news." The term has an important Greco-Roman as well as a Jewish background. It was used in secular Greek of a celebratory announcement, such as a victory in battle or the enthronement of a king. The famous Priene inscription celebrating the birthday of the Roman emperor Augustus reads, "Good news [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]] to the world!" Even more important is the term's OT background, where it appears in contexts of eschatological restoration. Isaiah 52:7 reads:
How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news
[MT: basar; LXX: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]],
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
"Your God reigns!"
This and similar texts (cf. Ps 96:2; Isa 40:9; 61:1) celebrate the eschatological triumph of God and his sovereign reign over the cosmos. The term was therefore a fitting one for Jesus to draw on when proclaiming the nearness of the kingdom and the need for submission to God's reign: "The kingdom of God is close at hand; repent and believe in the good news [[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]]" (1:14).
While this first line no doubt gave impetus to the early Christians to call this and similar accounts "gospels" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), for Mark the "gospel" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is not a literary genre but the proclamation of eschatological salvation that came to fulfillment in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.
The genitive phrase "of Jesus Christ/Messiah" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) could be taken either as an objective genitive ("about Jesus Christ") or as a subjective genitive ("proclaimed by Jesus Christ"). Both ideas are true, of course, since Jesus will begin proclaiming the good news in 1:14 – 15. But here Mark seems to have in mind the former, the whole Jesus-event as the fulfillment of Scripture inaugurated by John.
"Jesus" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is the Greek form of the Hebrew yehôua' or yeua', translated in the OT as "Joshua" and meaning "Yahweh saves" or "Yahweh is salvation." Matthew and Luke identify the name as divinely appointed to Joseph (Matt 1:21) or Mary (Luke 1:31) before Jesus was born.
"Christ" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) was originally an adjective meaning "anointed"; it rendered the Hebrew maîah. Anointing with oil symbolized being set apart for God's service, and Israel's kings and priests were anointed. By the first century, the term had come to be used as a title for the promised eschatological king from the line of David (see 2 Sam 7:11 – 16; Pss 2; 89; 110; Isa 9:1 – 7; 11:1 – 16, Jer 23:1 – 6; Ezek 34:23 – 24; 37:24 – 25)—"the Messiah"—who would bring salvation to God's people. Although by Mark's day it was common to treat "Christ" as Jesus' second name, the term occurs only seven times in this gospel (1:1; 8:29; 9:41; 12:35; 13:21; 14:61; 15:32) and, with one possible exception (9:41), always functions as a title rather than a name. It would seem best, therefore, to translate the phrase as "Jesus the Messiah" (NIV 2011; NLT) rather than "Jesus Christ" (NIV 1984; NASU; ESV).
The concluding phrase "Son of God" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) does not appear in some Greek manuscripts, including two important early uncials ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), and the decision to include or omit it is a difficult one. Support for omission is strong. (1) In addition to the early manuscript evidence, several quotations from early church leaders omit the phrase. Origen never cites it in the five times he quotes this passage. (2) It seems far more likely that a copyist added the title as a natural complement to "Jesus Christ" than that he intentionally removed it. Some have claimed the words were accidentally omitted through homeoteleuton ("same ending"), a technical term meaning a copyist passed over words because of their similar endings. The sentence in Greek has six identical genitive endings ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), and a slip of the eye may have caused the copyist to pass over "Son of God" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Yet accidental omission (caused by the copyist's fatigue?) seems unlikely in the first line of a book.
Despite these arguments, there is good support for the phrase's inclusion. (1) The reading has strong textual support from a variety of manuscript families (B D L W 2427, etc.). (2) An early editor ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) added the phrase to the margin of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], suggesting both readings were known at an early date. (3) The patristic evidence for omission is difficult to evaluate, since the church fathers sometimes paraphrased or abbreviated their Scripture quotations. Indeed, Irenaeus includes the phrase in two quotations and omits it in a third. (4) Accidental omission through homeoteleuton is not as unlikely as sometimes supposed, since the copyist may well have finished copying Matthew or other documents immediately before starting Mark. There is no certainty he was starting fresh at this point. (5) Finally, in terms of intrinsic internal evidence, the title fits well Mark's narrative, where Jesus as the Son of God is an important theme (1:11; 3:11; 5:7; 9:7; 12:6; 13:32; 14:36, 61; 15:39). Jesus' ministry begins with the Father's announcement of Jesus' divine sonship (1:11) and climaxes with the centurion's words, "Truly this man was the Son of God!" (15:39). Of course, an answer to this could be that copyists would also have been aware of Mark's emphasis on divine sonship, and so could have added the title for that reason. In light of the balanced evidence, it seems safest to leave the phrase in the text (perhaps in brackets) with a footnote indicating its debatable authenticity.
The title "Son of God" could be understood in a variety of ways in the Greco-Roman world. Legendary heroes, kings, philosophers, and miracle workers were sometimes referred to as sons of God. In Greek mythology Zeus was "the father of both men and gods." Roman emperors at times claimed divine sonship. Caesar Augustus took the title divi filius, "son of the divinized," soon after the murder of Julius Caesar, and the title was translated in Greek inscriptions as "son of god" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). In Judaism, angelic beings are sometimes called "sons of God" (Gen 6:2, 4; Job 1:6; 38:7; Dan 3:25), and Israel as a nation is referred to as God's firstborn son (Exod 4:22 – 23; Hos 11:1).
Most important for Mark's usage, however, are the messianic (= royal) and divine implications of the title. The messianic implications go back to the Davidic covenant (2 Sam 7:11 – 16), the prophetic foundation for later messianic expectations. God promised David that his descendant would reign forever on his throne, and that "I will be his father, and he will be my son" (2 Sam 7:14; cf. Pss 2:7; 89:26). As God's representative before the people, Israel's king was meant to have a special father-son relationship with God. The ultimate Davidic king, the Messiah, would have a unique and unprecedented relationship with God. Although this messianic sense of Son of God is predominant in the Synoptic Gospels (14:61; cf. Matt 16:16; 26:63; Luke 1:32), there are also implications of deity associated with the title. As the unique Son of God, the Messiah shares God's glory and power (1:11; 3:11; 5:7; 9:7; 13:32; cf. Matt 11:25 – 27; Luke 10:21 – 22).
1:2 Just as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: "Look! I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way." ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). Mark's opening sentence continues by affirming that this "beginning" of the good news was in fulfillment of Scripture, and so was part of God's sovereign purpose and plan. The comparative adverb "just as" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) commonly introduces fulfillment formulas. The author affirms that "the beginning of the good news ... [happened/came to pass] just as it is written...." The perfect passive verb, "it has been written" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]), indicates completed action with continuing results, a common Jewish and early Christian way of quoting Scripture. In English we commonly say, "it is written" (NIV; NASB; NET; ESV; HCSB, etc.) to express the same sense. NLT has, "It began just as the prophet Isaiah had written" (cf. GNT; CEV).
The quotation that follows is a mixed one, combining Exod 23:20a; Mal 3:1; and Isa 40:3. The first phrase ("Look! I am sending my messenger ahead of you") agrees almost verbatim with the Exod 23:20a LXX, where God promises to send an angel ahead of the Israelites in the wilderness. (The Greek and Hebrew words for "angel" and "messenger" are the same: Gk: [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]; Heb: mal'ak.) The present tense "I am sending" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) is probably a futuristic present, meaning "I will send" or "I am about to send." In Malachi this messenger (identified as Elijah in Mal 4:6) prepares for the eschatological coming of Yahweh to purge Israel and to judge the wicked. Jesus will identify John as this eschatological Elijah in Mark 9:13. The second phrase ("who will prepare your way") follows the Hebrew text of Mal 3:1, except that "my way" becomes "your way." With this change Mark allows for a messianic interpretation and also implies that Jesus is the embodiment of Yahweh himself.
Why does Mark attribute the mixed citation to Isaiah alone? Some have claimed that Mark is simply in error, or that he is citing from a book of testimonia, collections of OT texts that the early Christians used in apologetic contexts to confirm the fulfillment of Scripture. This latter option is possible, but a better solution is that Mark is affirming that the "beginning of the gospel" represents the fulfillment of Isaiah's broader vision of eschatological restoration and renewal. No OT prophet brings out this vision of redemption like Isaiah. Rikki Watts sees Isaiah's prophecies as the hermeneutical key to Mark's agenda. The introductory citation of Isaiah is programmatic for Mark and is the beginning of an Isaianic "new exodus" motif that runs throughout his narrative. Watts writes: "For Mark the long-awaited coming of Yahweh as King and Warrior has begun, and with it, the inauguration of Israel's eschatological comfort: her deliverance from the hands of the nations, the journey of her exiles to their home and their eventual arrival at Jerusalem, the place of Yahweh's presence."
1:3 "A voice of one calling out in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way for the Lord; make straight paths for him!'" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). This third quotation comes from Isa 40:3 LXX, except that the "the paths of our God" becomes "his paths," referring to Jesus. This identification would have come naturally for Mark and his community, where Jesus was worshiped and proclaimed as Lord ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). In its original context, Isaiah 40 predicted a new exodus, when Yahweh would return and triumphantly lead his people out of their Babylonian exile and to the Promised Land. Whereas the Hebrew text refers to preparing a way "in the wilderness," Mark follows the LXX in speaking of the voice crying out in the wilderness. This connects the passage more explicitly to John, whose ministry took place in the Judean desert.
Mark thus sets the ministry of John in the context of the fulfillment of Scripture and of eschatological renewal. John is God's messenger, a voice in the desert shouting out to God's people to prepare a path for the coming of the Messiah. The combination of fulfillment texts echoes not only the exodus from Egypt, God's greatest act of redemption in the OT, but Isaiah's prophetic vision for a new and more glorious exodus, when God will restore his people and dwell with them.
1:4 John came, baptizing in the wilderness and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]). All four Gospels connect the public ministry of Jesus with that of John the Baptist (cf. Matt 3:1 – 17; Luke 3:1 – 2; John 1:6 – 8, 19 – 36). The same perspective appears in Acts, where John's ministry is viewed as the beginning of the gospel (Acts 1:22; 10:37; 13:24).
The precise location where John baptized is unknown. The term "desert" or "wilderness" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) could refer to any uninhabited place (see 1:35; 6:35). From verse 5 we know that it was somewhere along the Jordan River and that the inhabitants of Jerusalem and Judea were coming out to him. This suggests a southern location, perhaps just north of where the Jordan enters the Dead Sea.
It is not the specific place that interests Mark, but its desert location, since the wilderness plays an important role in Israel's history. It was the place of God's deliverance in the exodus, as well as a place of testing and failure for the nation. For Moses, the wilderness was a place of escape, solitude, and his first encounter with God (Exod 3). As noted above, prophetic predictions of a new exodus beginning in the wilderness excited the eschatological hopes and imaginations of the people. Josephus speaks of a number of messianic movements that began in the Judean desert (J.W. 2.13.4 – 5 §§259 – 263; 6.6.3 §351; cf. Matt 24:26; Acts 21:38). The Qumran community applied this imagery to themselves, and Isa 40:3 was interpreted to justify the establishment of their desert community. The Community Rule reads: "And when these have become a community in Israel ... they are to be segregated from within the dwelling of the men of sin to walk to the desert in order to open there His path. As it is written, 'In the desert, prepare the way ...'" (1QS 8.12 – 14).
Excerpted from Mark by Mark L. Strauss, Clinton E. Arnold. Copyright © 2014 Mark L. Strauss. Excerpted by permission of ZONDERVAN.
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