OK, I won’t do this for all the Gospels, but I thought rather than trying to type up at length how the beginning of Mark’s Gospel portrays Jesus (on the assumption that since it’s an ancient biography, it will lay out the character of the subject at the very outset), I should simply reproduce what I already say about this in print elsewhere, in my Introduction to the New Testament. Here is the first part of that discussion. The second part I’ll give in my next post.
One of the first things that strikes the informed reader of Mark’s Gospel is how thoroughly its traditions are rooted in a Jewish world view. The book begins, as do many other ancient biographies, by naming its subject: “The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” (1:1). But readers living in the Greco-Roman world would not recognize “Christ” as a name; for most of them, it was not even a meaningful title. It came from the verb “to anoint,” and typically referred to someone who has just had a rub down (with oil). It was a title in Jewish circles, however, as the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word “messiah.” This then is a book about Jesus the messiah. What though would it have meant to call someone the messiah?
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Jews in the first century could have meant a range of things by this title, as scholars have come to realize. Many of these meanings, however, can be subsumed under two major rubrics (which are not necessarily mutually exclusive). For some Jews, the “messiah” was to be the future king of Israel, who would deliver God’s people from their oppressors and establish a sovereign state in Israel through God’s power; for others, he was to be a cosmic deliverer from heaven, who would engage in supernatural warfare with the enemies of the Jews and bring a divine victory over their oppressors. Both notions had been around for some time by the first century; both, obviously, were designations of grandeur and power.
Mark begins his Gospel by calling Jesus the messiah. But, as we will see — and as everyone who read the book probably already knew — Jesus did not conform to either of the general conceptions of this title: he neither overthrew the Romans in battle nor arrived on the clouds of heaven in judgment. Instead, he was unceremoniously executed for treason against the state. What in the world could it mean to call him the messiah? This is one of the puzzles that Mark’s Gospel will attempt to resolve.
The Jewishness of the Gospel becomes yet more evident in the verses that follow. First there is a tantalizing statement that the story, or at least the first part of it, is a fulfillment of an ancient prophecy recorded in the Jewish Scriptures (it is quoted, of course, in the Greek translation, the Septuagint; 1:2-3). Then there is the appearance of a prophet, John the Baptist, proclaiming a Jewish rite of baptism for the forgiveness of sins. John’s dress and diet (1:6) are reminiscent of another Jewish prophet, Elijah, also described in the Hebrew Scriptures (cf. 2 Kings 1:8). This John not only practices baptism, he also preaches of one who is to come who is mightier than he. Mightier than a prophet of God? Who could be mightier than a prophet?
Jesus himself then appears, coming from the northern part of the land, from the region of Galilee and the village of Nazareth. He is baptized by John, and upon emerging from the waters, he sees the heavens split open and the Spirit of God descend upon him like a dove; he then hears a voice call out from heaven: “You are my beloved Son, in you I am well pleased” (1:11). The proclamation appears to have serious implications: Jesus is immediately thrust out into the wilderness to confront the forces of evil (he is “tempted by Satan,” 1:13); he returns, victorious through the power of God (“the angels” have “ministered to him” 1:13), and begins to make his proclamation that God’s kingdom is soon to appear (1:14-15).
Here then is a Gospel that begins by describing the forerunner of Jesus, the Son of God, and the miraculous proclamation of his own Sonship. Up to this point a Gentile reader may have recognized the Jewish character of the account; but the designation “Son of God” would no doubt have struck a familiar chord. When Jesus was proclaimed the Son of God (by God himself no less), most readers in the Greco-Roman world would probably have taken this to mean that he was like other sons of God — divinely inspired teachers or rulers whose miraculous deeds benefitted the human race. But given the Jewishness of the rest of the beginning, perhaps we should inquire what a Jewish reader would make of this title, Son of God.
In fact, as I have previously indicated, even within Jewish circles there were thought to be special persons endowed with divine power to do miracles and to deliver inspired teachings. Two of them we know by name, men living roughly at the time of Jesus, who were understood to stand in a particularly intimate relationship with God, and as a result were thought to have been endowed with special powers: Hanina ben Dosa and Honi the “circle-drawer.” Accounts of their fantastic deeds and marvelous teachings are recorded in later Jewish sources. What made these persons special was their unique relationship with the one God of Israel. The notion that mere mortals could have such a relationship was itself quite ancient, as shown by the Jewish Scriptures themselves, where an individual was sometimes called “the son of God.” The king of Israel, for example, was thought to mediate between God and humans, and so to stand in a special relationship with God as a child does to a parent. Even kings with dubious public records were sometimes called “the son of God” (e.g., 2 Sam 7:14; Ps. 2:7-9). And others receive the title as well — occasionally the entire nation of Israel, through whom God worked his will on earth (Hos. 11:1), and sometimes God’s heavenly servants, beings that we might call angels (Job 1:6; 2:1). In all of these instances we have a common metaphor: in Jewish circles, “the son of God” referred to someone who had a particularly intimate relationship with God, who was chosen by God to perform a task, and who thereby mediated God’s will to people on earth. Sometimes these sons of God were associated with the miraculous.
What then does Mark mean by beginning his account with the declaration, by God himself, that Jesus (this one who was to be executed as a criminal!) is his son? This too is one of the mysteries that will be resolved through the narrative of the Gospel. We can begin our quest for an answer by examining key incidents in its opening chapter, recalling that ancient biographies tended to set the “character” of their subjects in the early scenes.
This is where I’ll pick up in my next post.