Mark 1 Notes

[For my Davenant Hall class, "Reading the Gospels with Wisdom," I will be analysing a portion of Mark's Gospel each week. I figured I would also post the notes here.]

Mark opens his account by declaring the beginning of the Gospel (ευαγγελιου) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (perhaps, depending on the textual variant). The reference to the beginning probably does invoke Genesis, as all of the Gospels seem to do. That "gospel" was generally used of public news good for the Roman imperium and that the Caesar was known to be called "son of God" also contribute to the flavor of this initial declaration. Yet both of these terms also have a history in the Septuagint. Terms including and related to ευαγγελιου occur throughout the Septuagint to refer to various kinds of good news, but especially news of great political import, like the victories, births, or fortune of kings, or of national experiences of blessing. "Son of God" likewise seems to have a background in the Davidic monarchy, as God speaks of David and Solomon on various occasions as His sons whom He begot.

These two backgrounds taken together tell us what kind of story Mark is telling. The Roman Empire is at this point the primary theater of world events. It constitutes what another Gospel writer could call "all the world" (Luke 2:1). The imperial cult has its own eschatological narrative: the world was dark and barbarous until a divine hero arrived on the scene and created an empire of law, order, and peace, an eternal kingdom as the consummation of history. Mark agrees that an eternal kingdom has arrived as the consummation of history, but he identifies its origins with the history of God's dealings with Israel and the line of David. Jesus, the Messiah of Israel, the people of God who made the world in the beginning, is the king who has come to save the world.

Other notes stand out. The salvation of the world comes by Israel's restoration, which Mark highlights by immediately citing Isaiah 40. God's people will be saved, and from there all flesh will see His glory. John comes as the last prophet, a greater Elijah, who will prepare the way by calling forth a penitent people. He baptizes Jesus, a Nazarene, which splits the heavens and brings down the Spirit as a dove. Jesus is God's beloved Son, surely not because He has been cleansed in this baptism, but rather because in His baptism, He does the will of His Father in taking upon the necessary judgment and repentance of Israel symbolized by immersion in the boundary waters of the promised land.

Jesus is then cast into the wilderness by the Spirit. After His own water crossing out of a wicked land, He spends 40 days being tempted in the wilderness by Satan. Unlike Israel's 40 year experience, He does not test God but resists His own temptations using the same words God had given Israel in the wilderness. Mark then cuts abruptly, as he favors doing, to John's arrest and the proper beginning of Jesus' own preaching, in which He announces the coming of the kingdom of God.

Being in Galilee, He finds Galilean fisherman and calls them as disciples. They are named fishers of men, as they will be bringing people into the kingdom Jesus is preaching by their participation in His work. That they cast into the sea may pick up the Old Testament connotations of the seas as pertaining to Gentiles, so that in this the Gentile mission and the replacement of a pagan empire with the Lordship of the Messiah is obliquely foreshadowed. (On another note, the name "Zebedee" is repeated seemingly superflously. It seems to mean "giving." Further investigation to find out if this is significant may be worth it.)

Mark says "immediately" very frequently. One of the most intriguing suggestions I ever read about this (perhaps from T. F. Torrance?) is that it is intended to give the feel of a dream or a vision, where scene changes can be very abrupt. At this point I am not entirely convinced; perhaps further reading will clarify the plausibility of the claim.

Some of Jesus initial highlighted activities are exorcism and healing. The significance of this combination could probably be seen from a number of angles, but one noteworthy point is how thoroughly it confounds a clean distinction between spiritual and temporal goals. Jesus' ministry is not purely limited to earthly matters: there is a heavenly war involved. Yet neither is the picture of Jesus as purely concerned with matters of an otherworldly kingdom and spiritual states an accurate one: the healings take a prime place in the nature of the work and are not just support for His claims of Messiahship, deity, or whatever else. Jesus' kingdom may not be a matter of eating and drinking, or of this world, but it certainly will take eating and drinking into itself, and it will inhabit this world.