Mark Chapter 1:1-4

Here we begin the Gospel of Mark.

1 Ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ [υἱοῦ θεοῦ].

This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus the Christ, [ the Son of God ].

A couple of interesting points right off the bat.  First, in this case, translating <<
εὐαγγελίου>> as ‘gospel’ would probably give a better poetic reading of this. Yes, the technical, pedantic, completely literal translation is ‘good news,’ but, here, that really does some injustice to the spirit of the text. IMO, anyway.

Then we’ve got Jesus the Christ. I mentioned this in passing in dealing with Paul, but the way Greek uses the definite article is very different than the way English does. “Christ” was not a surname; it was a description, or possibly could be thought of as a title. As such, to get the sense of this, “Christ” should, probably, be translated as “the Christ.” Otherwise, this gives a completely false impression of how this would have been heard by the audience.

In fact, this should probably always be rendered as “Jesus the Messiah.”

Two things to notice about “Son of God.”  There is no definite article here, either. Despite this, we would naturally translate this as “the son of God.” All four of my source translations (KJV, NASB, ESV, and NIV) all render this as “the son of God.” So it is with “the Christ/the Messiah” as well. Note that the [ son of God ] is bracketed. That means that the phrase is not found in all manuscript traditions.  As such, there is a very real chance that this was not there when “Mark” wrote this, but it crept into the various texts over time. It is possible that it was there, which is why it’s in most traditions, and was left out of others, but such things as this are more likely to be added rather than dropped. The term is ‘gloss’; something that a copyist included in the margin, that a later copyist took as part of the text.

We did note that this term was used by Paul. As such, it’s not impossible that “Mark” fully intended this to be there. As for the implications, though, recall that in both 1 Thessalonians and Galatians, Paul did use the expression “God our Father” on a number of occasions, And, if God is our father, then we are all children of God. As such, this term may not be all that exclusive to Jesus

Now, here is where things get really interesting. Why is this the beginning of the Good News? Why does the narrative start here, and not in Bethlehem as it does with Matthew and Luke (but not with John, either)? Is is possible that Mark did not see what came before this as part of the good news of the Messiah? That the tale of the Messiah starts here. Anything before this, was the story of Jesus bar Joseph, rather than Jesus the Christ. We’ll get back to this later in the chapter.

1 Initium evangelii Iesu Christi Filii Dei.

2 Καθὼς γέγραπται ἐν τῷ Ἠσαΐᾳτῷ προφήτῃ, Ἰδοὺ ἀποστέλλω τὸν ἄγγελόν μου πρὸ προσώπου σου, ὃς κατασκευάσει τὴν ὁδόν σου:

So it was written in the prophet Isaiah: “Behold! I send my messenger before your face (before you), he will prepare your way.”

As someone raised Christian, it’s a little odd to think that Isaiah does not have the stature in the Jewish tradition that Elijah has. Isaiah was truly brought to the fore by Christian, and even proto-Christian writers because of the section known as Deutero-Isaiah, the Second Isaiah. This starts with chapter 40, and tells the story of what has come to be called “the suffering servant” who was seen, by Christians, as the prophecy of the coming of Jesus, who would suffer and so redeem us.

Remember: it wasn’t Isaiah who appeared with Moses during the Transfiguration; it was Elijah.

2 Sicut scriptum est in Isaia propheta: “ Ecce mitto angelum meum ante faciem tuam,
qui praeparabit viam tuam.”

3 φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ, Ἑτοιμάσατε τὴν ὁδὸν κυρίου, εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους αὐτοῦ

A voice crying in the wilderness: “Prepare ye the way of the lord, make straight his paths”.

At first, I didn’t plan to say much about this. However, at second glance, I’m suddenly wondering if Jesus’ followers didn’t grab onto the Baptist as a ‘foreruner’ to Jesus in order to make this ‘prophecy’ work. Sort of a “if John the Baptist didn’t exist, it would have been necessary to invent him”. See the comments to 1:4 below.

3 vox clamantis in deserto: “Parate viam Domini, rectas facite semitas eius.”

4 ἐγένετο Ἰωάννης [ὁ] βαπτίζων ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ καὶ κηρύσσων βάπτισμα μετανοίας εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν.

It was John the one baptizing in the wilderness, and preaching baptism of repentance for (the purpose of) removing of sins.

Note about the Greek: ‘the one baptizing’ is translated to capture the sense of the participle, which is the form of the verb here. Greek has a variety of forms of participle, and uses them often to convey the immediacy of the action, or the simultaneity with the main verb of the action expressed in the participle.

While the base meaning of << ἐγένετω >> is ‘to become’, about 80% of the time it’s simply a substitute for the verb ‘to be.’  This is how I rendered it here, as did the Latin.  However, the standard translation among my 4 crib translations is ‘ appeared’. This certainly works, and is well within the possible meanings, but it was not my first choice. Another instance were a consensus translation has, seemingly, taken hold.

Note the Latin: << μετανοίας >> gets translated as  <<paenitentiae>>. There will be more to say about this when we get to Matthew’s version of this story.

Here is where a better background in the religious trends of the day would be very helpful. I do not know if baptism was a common practice of the time. It wasn’t among pagans, but I cannot say the same about Jewish practice. Repentance, OTOH, certainly has deep roots in Judaic history; that was the whole point of the prophets: calling Israel to repent, usually by returning to the practices of their elders, turning away from the innovations learned from the heathen surrounding them.

But another thing, this one about John the Baptist in particular. There is a fair bit of discussion about how the Baptist’s role in the NT and in the career of Jesus has been downplayed and squelched by the NT writers. This was done, so the argument goes, to diminish the Baptist’s role as mentor, or thought leader, thereby bolstering Jesus.

I disagree. If you look at this version, and then the gospel of John, if anything, the Baptist’s role has been increased. In John, Jesus is baptized twice. Seems like this would have gone the other direction if the idea was to write the Baptist out of the story. Rather, I believe that the followers of Jesus attached themselves to the possibly larger following of Baptist. This act would give Jesus a longer pedigree, and the claim to ancient wisdom was a very big deal in the Graeco-Roman world. This is especially true for the pagans; innovations were scorned; what was appealing was the ‘old time religion’ (as it were) that could trace itself back for centuries. The roots of Graeco-Roman religion went back to Homer; Judaism could trace itself back as far–or further. The precedence of Homer vs. Moses was a major topic of debate among the religious savants of the Mediterranean civlisation in the three or four centuries on either side of the beginning of the Common Era.

In fact, the more innovative that Jesus’ message was, IMO, the more likely that the need for a pedigree would have been more acute. John the Baptist could serve as the bridge between Jesus and the ancient traditions of Judaism, so it was necessary to preserve, if not increase–or even invent–the connection to John. Remember: Paul never mentioned the Baptist. Why not? By the time the gospels were written, a decent interval would have passed, and the Baptist could have been eliminated. One possible explanation for the retention of the Baptist is that the connection was too well known to be ignored; but another is that the connection was useful to the NT writers, so they at least maintained, if not increased the connection.

Remember: the audience for the gospels probably contained a higher percentage of pagans than the audience for Paul’s letters. Using the Baptist as shorthand for a connection to a very ancient tradition would have had enormous PR value.

4 fuit Ioannes Baptista in deserto praedicans baptismum paenitentiae in remissionem peccatorum.


About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on November 24, 2012, in Chapter 1, gospel commentary, gospels, mark's gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Everyone needs a reference to vouch for them. Saul and David had Samuel to anoint them.

  2. The more I read, the more convinced I am that the later followers of Jesus played up the connection to the Baptist.

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