Dr. Green requires two interpretive assignments from four texts from the Gospels. My first one was on Mark 1:1-15. No research required. Here is what I found in my close reading of the text:
Verses 1-15 are the correct verses for this pericope. Verse 1 is obviously the beginning of the Gospel according to Mark. There is no earlier place to begin the reading. The beginning even uses the word “beginning” (v. 1). Verse 15 is a proper end to the text. The word “gospel” or “good news” (v. 1) is repeated twice in vv. 14-15, creating bookends. The focus of the story changes in v. 16 as Jesus is in a new location (“along the Sea of Galilee”) and new characters are introduced, as Jesus calls the first disciples (vv. 16-20).
Verse 1 is not a complete sentence. It sounds like a full statement but is not a complete sentence. Mark’s writing will tell the story of the good news of Jesus Christ. Mark uses the title Christ (anointed, Messiah) alongside the name Jesus, which indicates that Mark sees a larger story than just a man Jesus happening. Translations include (or footnote) “Son of God” (v. 1), bringing God into the story. Is v.1 only meant for what Mark includes in vv. 2-15 or for the entire Gospel? The use of the word “beginning” could be simply for this opening section because it sets up vv. 2-15. One clue as to v. 1 being intended for only this text is the use of “gospel” (vv. 1, 14-15). Using v. 1 as the introduction to this text, rather than the whole Gospel, leads to a close reading of the text in which Mark tells what he believes to be the actual beginning of the good news about Jesus. It creates a prologue to the rest of the Gospel.
Verses 1-15 are a narrative. The OT echoes (Mal. 3:1; Isa. 40:3) introduce John and Jesus (v. 4). Mark also then introduces Jesus through the work of John (v. 9). From that point the story builds on Jesus: his baptism (v. 9), revelation from God (vv. 10-11) and temptation by Satan (vv. 12-13). The climax comes with Jesus’ proclamation and the start of his ministry (vv. 14-15). The theme of the prologue is that Jesus was the Son of God and brought the kingdom of God to earth so that humanity could become a part of it. God’s work is ongoing and Jesus is here to proclaim that. That is summarized (v. 15): “‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel’” (ESV). Mark explains to the degree he believes necessary who Jesus is and from where he came with a focus on the baptism of Jesus rather than the birth and childhood. Mark begins with Jesus as an adult, following the expectations of ancient biography.
Keywords are “voice,” “proclaiming,” “wilderness,” “repentance,” “gospel,” “after,” “Spirit” and “baptism.” “Voice” (v. 3) cited from Isaiah is “crying” (or calling?) and later Jesus comes into Galilee “proclaiming” (v. 14). “Proclaiming” (v. 7) is paralleled with “voice” (v. 11). “Wilderness” (vv. 3-4) appears in the OT reference and in reference to John and later twice in reference to Jesus sent to the wilderness by the Holy Spirit after his baptism (vv. 12-13). Repentance is linked to baptism by John (v. 4) and repent (v. 15) becomes part of Jesus’ message. Gospel (v. 1) is repeated twice in vv. 14-15. John uses the phrase “after me” (v. 7) in his preaching and Mark begins Jesus’ public proclamation or the start of his ministry “after John was arrested” (v. 14). Spirit or Holy Spirit (vv. 10, 12) is introduced. Baptism (baptizing, baptized) appears twice in v. 4, twice in v. 8 and once in v. 9.
Baptism is the central action of Mark’s prologue. The story centers around the two main human characters baptizing (John) or being baptized (Jesus). Mark must believe baptism is an important feature of the Jesus story as he uses the event to introduce Jesus. The baptism by John is “of repentance of the forgiveness of sins” (v. 4). Why does Jesus come to be baptized if he was sinless? No mention of Jesus’ sinless nature is made in this text, unless the revelation of God (vv.10-11) counts (“You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”). Even there, Mark appears to give his audience information that perhaps John heard (or anyone else present at Jesus’ baptism, which is unclear in the text). Mark writes, “And when he (Jesus) came up out of the water, immediately he (still Jesus?) saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him (Jesus) like a dove” (v. 10). This text reads as if Jesus was the only character to see or hear this event. “And a voice came from heaven, ‘You (Jesus) are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased’” (v. 11). God speaks directly to Jesus. Did Mark believe that Jesus was the only one who heard that? What does that mean for the rest of the Gospel? No one was aware of Jesus as the Son of God if Jesus only heard the words of God. And even if one were to think that John heard or saw, he was removed from center stage in vv. 14-15.
Verse 12 then immediately moves Jesus from baptism in the Jordan to the wilderness, where he faces Satan and angels minister to him. The temptation of Jesus is only given a summary but the mention of the Holy Spirit, Satan and angels introduces a story in the divine or spiritual realm outside the physical realm alongside the wild beasts.
Why was John out in the wilderness? There is no background on John given here outside the OT reference “as it is written” (v. 2) then “John appeared” (v.4). Does Mark’s audience know the significance of John? Is Mark setting his Jesus story in the world beyond Jerusalem (or Israel) by describing John out in the wilderness, dressed in camel hair and a leather belt (v. 6)? Mark describes John as living outside (apart from) the Temple and Jerusalem, eating locusts and wild honey. The wilderness could describe anything outside the city, not necessarily a no-man’s land of wilderness. Jesus’ movement into the wilderness was described as being with wild animals (v. 13) though. Mark’s prologue begins with Jesus receiving a “secret” word from God and emerging from the wilderness, as if he appears from nowhere with an aura of mystery around him.
The OT texts given (vv. 2-3) in the ESV, NIV, RSV and NASB all use “in Isaiah the prophet” (v. 2). Typically there is a footnote that remarks “in the prophets,” which would fit better as the quotation in v. 2 is Malachi 3: 1, and verse 3 comes from Isaiah 40:3. Isaiah 40:3 is cited differently in Mark 1:3 than in the original. Isaiah 40:3 says, “The voice of one calling: ‘In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God’” (NIV). In Mark 1:3, the break comes after “in the desert” rather than after “calling”: “a voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord….’” The voice as cited in Mark 1:3 sounds as if it is coming from the desert, whereas the voice in Isaiah is merely a voice calling about preparations to be made in the desert. A reference to the desert or wilderness and a reference from a prophet would have an impact on a Jewish audience. Who was Mark’s audience? Can this subtle change in the reference be traced anywhere? The reference as it reads in the Gospel according to Mark sets up the story for John to be in the wilderness or desert calling for the preparation for the Lord. Such a citation works to Mark’s advantage in this prologue as it sets up the entrance of Jesus (v. 9), and that is what this text is about.