A 'don't hold me to it' proposed outline:
As you have probably heard me say many times, when approaching the scriptures there are several things that must be kept in mind. Who is the author? What is the author’s agenda or purpose in writing? To whom or for whom is the author writing? All of this must be kept in the context of what is going on in their lives. It is then and only then that we can see how the scriptures apply to us.
Mark’s gospel account is the oldest of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). Synoptic is from the Greek and means “One Eye” as in “the Same Eye”.
These three authors utilize the same stories, often verbatim with only minor adaptations in order to help their intended readers to better understand the story—to make it more applicable to their lives.
Who were these authors we might ask? Let’s start with who they weren’t. They were not scribes with pen pads in hand, following Jesus and his apostles, writing down everything they said and did. If this were true, then their accounts would be in a more harmonious chronology. It is highly unlikely that Matthew and Luke were present at the time of Jesus’ birth nor would they be privy to the discussions between Gabriel and Mary or Gabriel and Joseph.
They must be relying on other sources.
This leads many biblical scholars to a “two source theory” of origination of the synoptic gospels. The “two sources” being Mark and “Q” (no, not the more readily recognizable conspiracy theorist). “Q” is from the German word “quelle” simply meaning “source”.
“Q” is an unnamed source or collection of sayings and bon mots concerning Jesus. This collection may very well date back as early as 40-50 AD. Matthew and Luke both rely in part on this unknown source. They also relied heavily upon Mark’s account. In fact, almost all of Mark’s gospel account is found within Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts. Apparently his gospel was known to them both.
Mark is actually the oldest of the gospels dating perhaps as early as 64-70 AD. His source may have very well been the earliest remembrances of Jesus’ life which were scattered in either an oral tradition or even possibly writings in Aramaic (the language of the commoner of the Palestinian region).
Although all three gospels are written in Koiné (koy-nay) Greek, Mark includes many Aramaic words.
Who is Mark? It would be great if I could tell you that archeologists have found his Palestinian Driver’s License along with the first edition of the gospel. But, alas, I can’t. Although some try to say that he is the John Mark who is mentioned as Peter’s companion in the Acts of the Apostles, there is no specific evidence. The reality is, Marcus (Latin) was one of the most common of names of the Roman Empire.
Where and when did he write? It is generally believed that he wrote in Rome. This assumption is because of the fact that he frequently uses Latinized phrases and because of his name, Marcus. It is also noted by some biblical scholars that the Greek of Mark is essentially a non-literary Greek, full of roughnesses and Semitisms—the kind of Greek which might be spoken by the lower classes at Rome. Then again, he evidently is familiar with Aramaic and the Palestine region, although some of his Palestine locations are vague.
The “when” is sometime after Peter’s death (64 AD) and before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (70 AD).
For whom is this written? It appears to be written possibly for gentile converts, possibly in the region immediately influenced by Rome who are anticipating persecution for their faith. This is evidenced by references to eschatological (end times) phrases: Messiah, Son of Man, Son of God.
Agenda? The Messianic Secret is a tactic employed by Mark. Although he boldly begins by acknowledging Jesus as the Messiah (Christ) as well as the Son of God, whenever any of the participants in any of the stories declare Jesus to be such, Jesus “shushes” them. Mark doesn’t want preconceived ideas to come into play of what a Messiah is, until Jesus reveals himself as such on the cross.
The “Messianic Secret” is Mark’s way of letting Jesus’ life redefine the Jewish term of Messiah.
A brief word on Biblical translations before we begin. Although you may use whatever Bible you have on hand to read along, I admit that I have two preferences: a Jerusalem Bible version or a Revised Standard version. These, I believe, strive to adhere to a more strict translation of the original texts (Hebrew and Koiné). There are other translations that are easier to read and more mellifluous, but they end up interpreting more than simply translating.
Read Mark 1:1-13
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 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. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 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. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 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. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
These 13 verses are a prelude to the public ministry of Jesus and are used by Mark to be very specific as to what Jesus’ life and ministry will prove: he is indeed the Messiah long awaited by Israel.
Unlike his synoptic friends (Matthew & Luke), Mark does not see a birth narrative as essential, so he skips right over that. I am sure Mark knew of the birth narratives, but he doesn’t seek any validation for Jesus through any of those stories.
Judaism, throughout the Roman Empire, under Nero was a difficult time. The last of the prophets had walked the earth nearly 4oo years prior. Jews lived in anticipation and expectation that God was just biding his time and that their lot in life would be redeemed in the End Times. Indeed, the Roman persecutions hinted that they might very well have one foot set into the End Times already.
Although Mark dives into talking about John, the baptizer, immediately after declaring that Jesus is the Messiah (the Christ) and the Son of God, he isn’t interested in telling John’s story. John is just a means to establishing Jesus’ messiahship.
Judaism believed that prior to the Messiah of the End Times, Elijah would return in order to herald God’s reign on earth. Mark points to that moment by recalling Isaiah’s words of prophesy and describing John as Elijah was dressed in 2 Kings 18 (A man wearing a hair cloak… and a leather loincloth...Elijah, the Tishbite.)
For Mark, John’s sole purpose is to point to the Messiah.
Mark even reports that John understood his role in all of this. John’s baptism is a ritual ablution, where as the one to follow John will baptize through the Holy Spirit.
Mark continues to establish that thought by what follows Jesus’ rising from the water. The heavens are rent open, much the same way as in the time of the prophets of old. Just as in the creation stories, and Moses, and the prophets: God speaks directly to earth. For Mark, God is back, baby! The in-breaking of the kingdom of God has begun.
The Spirit of God comes to Jesus, just as the very breath of God used to speak creation into being, Jesus is anointed the beloved and favored son. It doesn’t matter to Mark that apparently no one but Jesus hears God’s voice, Mark’s readers hear the declaration.
Immediately the Messianic spirit that Jesus has received drives him into the wilderness. Unlike Mark’s synoptic friends, he doesn’t tell us exactly what happens in the wilderness. I would also point out that we should not read into this story the temptation stories as told by Matthew or Luke. For Mark, Jesus’ entering the wilderness to face Satan is simply the means of telling us that the eschatological battle between good and evil has begun.
The Messiah has arrived, but what sort of Messiah? Mark’s readers are invited to join him in Jesus’ redefinition of the term.
End Week I
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The Rev. Benjamin Lee Lentz