Jesus the Proclaimer, or Jesus the Proclaimed? (Mark 1:4 – 11)

Introduction

The Gospel of Mark opens with neither nativity nor noetic, but rather with a voice crying out to the world: “Here is my messenger, whom I send on ahead of you to prepare your way. A voice of someone shouting in the desert, ‘Make ready the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”[1] And so begins a primary conflict within Christianity: Is the gospel about Jesus the proclaimer, or Jesus the proclaimed? Is Christian truth to be found through the words of Jesus, who made the imminent Kingdom of God the center of his message, one that reaches deep into the vibrant salvation history of Israel; or is Christianity rather expressed by the experiences of the first generation of Christians, who saw Jesus raised and understood this to be evidence of a new covenant?

In the Gospel of Mark, we see evidence for both positions.

The first thing to establish is that the author of Mark makes an error. The passage quoted in 1:2b-3 (known as the “epigram” of Mark) combines language from both Malachi 3:1—“Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold he is coming, says the Lord of hosts”—and Isaiah 40:3—“A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”[2] Despite this error, we know that something spectacular is occurring, an event that is reminiscent of God’s sending Moses to proclaim the covenant to the newly-freed Hebrews: “’Behold, I send an angel before you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place which I have prepared. Give heed to him and hearken to his voice, do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is him.’”[3] In the words of Bob Dylan, “Something is happening here/but you don’t know what it is/do you, Mr. Jones?”

The listener/reader[4]—and most importantly, the Markan Community—does know that something is going on, because we have been informed in v. 1 (known as the “title” of Mark) that there is good news (evangeliou) about Jesus the Anointed (Jesou Christou) contained in the story. It will be up to us to establish what these terms mean (i.e., what is the “gospel,” and what does it mean for Jesus to be an “Anointed One”?). Some manuscripts add the tag “Son of God” (uiou Theou) after “Anointed,” further complicating the investigation, but one thing is clear: This is no ordinary story, and listening to the details will have important and life-changing ramifications.

As we begin our journey, we should always keep in mind that, at the heart of Mark’s Gospel, there is a central question: Who is this Jesus?

Who is this Jesus?

As we shall see, throughout Mark’s gospel there are questions as to Jesus’ identity. In the main, there are three primary options: Jesus is John the Baptizer raised; Jesus is Elijah; or Jesus is one of the prophets (most likely, Moses). Clearly, Jesus cannot be John the Baptizer raised, for in the opening verses Jesus and John come into contact with one another. However, themes are established: John’s manner of dress—a mantle of camel hair and a leather belt around his waist—is the same as that of Elijah the Tishbite.[5]Yet, we cannot get off so easily, understanding only John to be Elijah, for the Tishbite, too, underwent a journey of forty days and forty nights without eating or drinking, so as to prepare himself for battle with the priests and priestesses of Baal and Ashterah, Canaanite fertility deities. Jesus has such an experience in 1:12-13. The author of Mark is using central theological symbols to signal the importance of both John the Baptizer and of Jesus. But what do these symbols mean?

Elijah the Tishbite

Elijah the Tishbite is a 9th century B.C.E. prophet who lived in Gilead, most likely an area that had retained a good deal of religious purity in the face of rampant syncretism, or integration of other traditions into cultic worship. At the time of his ministry, the throne of Israel is held by a man named Ahab, whose wife Jezebel is an adherent of Phoenician fertility deities. While Ahab seems to remain loyal to YHWH—for all of Ahab’s sons are named after the Jewish God—he is not only tolerant of other religions, but he also allows Jezebel to support her prophets out of the Temple treasury (1 Kings 18:19). This proves to be a bridge too far for Elijah. He storms into the court of the king and announces an impending drought, caused by God and meant to bring about the repentance of Ahab and larger Israel, who are engaged in apostasy. Elijah proclaims YHWH the God of All Things—specifically, the God of Life—and issues a direct challenge to the supposed purview of the Baal and Ashterah, that of fertility. As drought and pestilence spread across the land, Ahab becomes more desperate. Finally, he allows for a confrontation on Mt. Carmel between Elijah and Jezebel’s prophets, acting as surrogates for their respective deities. 1 Kings 18, in essence, records a divine playground fight. My God is better than your god, this narrative proclaims. The superior deity will be the one who will make it rain fire. Elijah, greatly outnumbered (450 to 1), mocks the prophets, who dance and wail, beseeching their deities to bring down fire. Elijah is highly entertained by this; he wonders if Baal has “gone aside,” a euphemism for taking a pee, and taunts the prophets until they fall to the ground in exhaustion. Then, Elijah arises, performs a sacrifice, confesses faith in God, and has some of those people present drench the altar with water. When it is flooded, Elijah asks God to bring about fire, which God does. Elijah then slaughters the prophets of Baal and Ashterah. Jezebel is enraged, and vows to kill Elijah, which sets up Elijah’s period of flight for forty days and forty nights, marking him as a new Moses (see below). Finally, God delivers Elijah from the wrath of Jezebel by sending a whirlwind—along with a chariot of fire and horses—and taking Elijah, still alive, into the heavens. According to Jewish belief (Malachi 4:5-6), Elijah is to appear before the Day of Yahweh, a time when God’s kingdom will be established and evil will be defeated definitively. Elijah’s role is to be one of reconciliation (Malachi 4:6) and, at least according to Sirach 48:10, to bring about the restoration of the twelve tribes of Israel. [6]

As we shall see, Elijah plays an important role in the Gospel of Mark; he even makes an appearance in Mark 9:2-13. Thematically, however, Elijah poses an interesting quandary. We can see him as a portent of promise, a prophet proclaiming the good work of God through Christ. Yet, we cannot ignore the troublesome aspects of the Elijah story: the ridicule, disdain, and destruction of non-Jewish prophets. As stated in the introduction, the purpose of the present commentary is to foster dialogue, to emphasize the commonalities between two of the world’s great Wisdom traditions. What then do we do with Elijah?

Moses

The secret to interpreting Elijah may come through the lens of Moses, the first and, arguably, greatest of all the prophets. The word prophet properly means “mouthpiece” or “spokesperson,” so Moses represents the ability of human beings to receive and communicate divine revelations. Under the leadership of Moses, the Hebrew people are liberated from the shackles of slavery and led into freedom; the Jewish story is one of deliverance from oppression. Indeed, each one of us experiences this (or the possibility of it) every moment of our lives. We can be delivered from the oppression of ignorance, sin, greed, hatred, selfishness, and into the promised land of community, fellowship, and commonality. With Moses, God starts again with the people, promising them an unbreakable covenant relationship.

Perhaps that is how we can see Elijah: a man who experiences God intimately, and despite forty days and nights of sustenance-free wandering, is never bereft of God. Elijah, who is rescued from the murderous rage of Jezebel, represents the freedom from fear and death we can experience when in relationship with God. When we have confidence in the Lord, we can prevail, even when greatly outnumbered.

In truth, Elijah is a difficult figure. For the Markan community, he most likely is used to symbol the coming of the eschaton (end times). As we will discuss later, the Markan community is wrong concerning the timing of the Parousia, or second coming, but we cannot dismiss the presence of Elijah in the narrative. It is also entirely possible that the figure of Elijah is used to highlight the denseness—even idiocy—of those around Jesus (and perhaps within the Markan community itself). Without question, Elijah is important to Mark’s gospel, so he must be important to responsible interpretations.

John the Baptizer

John is remembered for his act of baptism. The act of ritual cleansing was already a constituent part of Judaism by the time John began his ministry. God commanded that Moses bring his brother Aaron—considered the first High Priest—and his sons to the door of the tent of meeting for a ritual bath.[7] Other books in the Torah also contain proscriptions concerning ritual cleansing.[8]During the time of John the Baptizer, “ritual cleansing was instituted for the purification of gentile converts to Judaism.”[9]But the opening of Mark seems to indicate that John is baptizing Jews—people come from the Judean countryside and from the city of Jerusalem—and that he connects the act to a “change of heart that leads to the forgiveness of sins.” In Greek, the word metanao is translated as “repent” or “change of heart.” On a deeper level, “repent” means to “return,” much as the people of Israel return to God under the leadership of Moses. Here, we see John the Baptizer initiating a ceremony that will allow people to return to God. He baptizes them in the Jordan River, the very body of water the people cross under the leadership of Joshua in order to claim the land of Canaan, which had been given to them by God.[10]The return, symbolically, to the sight of deliverance for their ancestors, entering into the cleansing waters of covenantal redemption. They return to God in spirit, body, and mind.

There are other signs of covenant present as well. After Jesus is baptized by John, the spirit descends on him like a dove.[11]We are reminded how God creates in Genesis 1:1-5, sweeping over the waters and bringing order out of chaos; we are reminded, too, of God sending the bird to Noah as a sign of a new covenant in Genesis 8:8-12. Here, Jesus functions as a symbol of a new creation, a new model for humanity, a new paradigm for reconciliation. God says to Jesus: “You are my son, the one I love—I fully approve of you.” For the Markan listener/reader, there is a definitive answer to the question, “Who is this Jesus?”He is God’s son. But, again, we must ask: What does this mean?

The Significance of Baptism

Roman Catholics, the Orthodox Traditions, and Protestants disagree somewhat on the timing and purpose of baptism, but there is no doubting that it holds a central position in Christian faith life. In the main, we do it because Jesus did it. It marks the beginning of his ministry in the world, and for most of us baptism indicates the beginning of our walk with God through Christ. For Paul, baptism initiates us into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, which allows us to assume new identities in the person of Jesus.[12] We die and are born again, as it were. As to whether this was John the Baptizer’s understanding, we can never know. It seems clear to me, however, that John saw the act as one of reconciling wholeness, an external symbol that the fracturing of the individual life has ended by inclusion into a larger human family, one that has God as the pater familias (1 Corinthians 12:13; Ephesians 4:4-6). Baptism shows us that there are no solitary Christians; Jesus undergoes baptism and then, after forty days and nights of battling the Adversary, he enters into the world to proclaim the coming kingdom. So, too, are we who undergo baptism called to enter into the world as disciples of God. We are connected to all those who have been baptized before us, to those who are still living, and to those who will be baptized in the future. In baptism one dies to selfishness, and is given the largest family possible: the entire human race (Galatians 3:28). At baptism, we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that descends at Pentecost (Acts 2); the same Paraclete that seals us (2 Corinthians 1:21-22; Ephesians 1:13-14) to God. We are new creations, just as Jesus is the new Adam (Romans 5:18-21).[13]

Some might object that this is too broad and ecumenical an understanding of baptism, but in the coming posts I will show that Jesus, especially in Mark’s gospel, does not discriminate concerning whom he will serve: Lepers, sinners, hemorrhaging women, Gentiles, tax collectors: all make the cut. Why? Because Jesus stresses the commonalities of humanity as being divinely-mandated, whereas the differences so often stressed by mortals are manufactured by human beings.

The Dharma River

A foundational idea in Buddhism is that all life is dukkha, which often is translated as “suffering,” but better means that things are “awry” or “unsatisfactory.” We attach to impermanent things, such as a false sense of “self,” and, as a result, we suffer. Believing there to be a concretized “I,” we become prideful, lashing out in violence and ignorance when we perceive that the “I” has been insulted. In Buddhism, ignorance is mistaking the part for the whole. Imagine this: Man number one is speaking to a friend for 45 minutes; let’s call the friend man number two. A great deal of information is exchanged, and they bandy about a good number of ideas before a third friend sidles up to the pair just as man number one says, “Well, I guess my brother is just not a good sibling in that regard.” That third friend tells his wife about this statement, who then tells her sister, who just so happens to be the cousin of the first man’s hairdresser, who is the best friend of the first man’s brother. The brother, upon hearing the gossip, calls up his sibling and begins yelling, cursing, and denouncing him, believing that he has grasped the “reality” of the situation. Dukkha.

The second noble truth of is samudaya, that we continuously create our own suffering. We enter into a cycle of behavior in which we are attracted, disappointed, and then repulsed. We try to extricate ourselves from situations, most often through duplicity and selfishness. For example, imagine a party. A woman has gone out after a hard week of work. She is looking to unwind when, across the room, she sees the man of her dreams. He is physically attractive, and to her delight he is wearing a T-shirt bearing the name of her favorite band and is thumbing through a copy of her favorite novel. Their eyes meet, and the world stops. An introduction leads to conversation that leads to supper that leads to a goodnight kiss. The angels sing; the world stops, as if they are the only two inhabitants. Fast forward three months: after returning home from work, the woman finds that her paramour, who is unemployed, has slept all day, eaten her food, and has left the apartment strewn with beer cans and dirty underclothing. The same book he had been thumbing through months before lays unread on the side of the couch with a video-game controller on top of it. She wants out. They fight, call one another names, accuse each other of the most horrible moral lapses known to humanity. The relationship over, the woman decides to go out to relax. Upon entering a restaurant, she sees the man of her dreams…

This is what we do, according to the Buddha. We engage in a never-ending cycle that creates suffering because we are attached to that which is impermanent, that which is fleeting. The good news, however, is that there is a way out. This is the Third Noble Truth: nirodha. There is a cessation of dukkha, which can be achieved, in part, by following the Eightfold Path, the Fourth Noble Truth (magga). In the coming months, we will examine these beliefs in more detail as they pertain to the Gospel of Mark, but for now suffice it to say, this is the heart of Buddhism: One can end one’s suffering.

In Buddhism, the word dharma (dhamma) means “teaching.” Adherents enter into the dharma river, the river of teaching. While there are many interpretations regarding the river—it can be a metaphor for life, rather than teaching; it can represent tradition or community—one thing is clear; a person is fundamentally changed from the point of entry to the point of departure. In one interpretation of the dharma river, a person must build a raft to get from one shore to another. The shore of entry is that of dukkha; the shore of arrival is that of enlightenment, or nibbana. When on the other shore, a person does not place the raft on his or her back and then continue to walk. No. A person sets the raft aside, as it is no longer necessary for the journey. That raft is the Four Noble Truths. They can get one to the other side, but they are not enlightenment in and of themselves.

So what has this to do with Christianity and the Gospel of Mark? Jesus enters into the water, marking himself for his ministry. He is initiated into the divine plan, signaling his willingness to go where God directs him. He leaves behind that which he had done before, and embarks upon his divine mission. And, as we shall see, Jesus is driven into the wilderness before entering into the world. Baptism marks us, yes. But it is not the good news. We do not carry the river with us; we do not remain forever wet with the water of our baptism. We leave our old selves behind; we die to a life of selfishness, injustice, and lack of compassion. The dove descends upon us, propelling us forward to enter into relationship.

We go into the world to proclaim the good news.

The question then becomes, what does that mean? Both for Mark, and for those of us who call ourselves Christians? Such is the challenge that lies before us as we go with Jesus from the river to the cross.


[1] Scholar’s Version (SV) Translation

[2] Revised Standard Version (RSV) Translation

[3] Exodus 23;20-1.

[4] Please see “An Introduction to a Progressive Commentary; Assumptions Amidst Gumption.”

[5] 2 Kings 1:8.

[6] Readers are encouraged to reference the Elijah cycle (1 Kings 17-19, 21; 2 Kings 1:1-2:18).

[7] Exodus 29:4; more elaborate instructions are mentioned in Exodus 30:17-21.

[8] Leviticus 17:15-16; Deuteronomy 21:6.

[9] “Baptism.” Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible.Ed. David Noel Freedman.

[10] Joshua 3:1

[11] It is important to note that the Markan Greek is very clear; an actual dove does not appear, but rather the spirit acting like a dove.

[12] Romans 6:1-11; Galatians 3:27-29

[13] For an outstanding yet encapsulated discussion of baptism, see Ted Peters, God: The World’s Future, 288-295.

One thought on “Jesus the Proclaimer, or Jesus the Proclaimed? (Mark 1:4 – 11)

  1. I am loving this from the start. Can’t wait for the next posts, but for now, will make a comment about suffering. As a practicing half-Buddhist, I have read that the idea that one can EVER be free from suffering is an illusion. The Heart Sutra implies that while as long as we live, and love, we will suffer, but we will understand the cause, and enter into it mindfully, and hopefully, lessen it through the mindfulness and choices we make. This is a very simplistic summation, but I could not help but relate it to what you say about baptism, we are changed, we get wet, but do not stay wet, we can’t stay in the waters, we have to get out of the river at some point and walk on. Thanks for the conversation!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s