Mark Chapter 1:5-8

Second Update 3/24/13

5 καὶ ἐξεπορεύετο πρὸς αὐτὸν πᾶσα ἡ Ἰουδαία χώρα καὶ οἱ Ἱεροσολυμῖται πάντες, καὶ ἐβαπτίζοντο ὑπ’ αὐτοῦ ἐν τῷ Ἰορδάνῃ ποταμῷ ἐξομολογούμενοι τὰς ἁμαρτίας αὐτῶν.

And the entire region of Judea came out to him, and all the Jerusalemites, and they were baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.

How much do we credit to hyperbole, and how much do we believe this? That ‘the whole region of Judea’ and ‘all the residents of Jerusalem’ came out to be baptized? For ‘all’, can we read‘a significant number’? A bunch? Several dozen?

The point is that the evangelist is telling us that the Baptist was very popular.  All the more reason to attach Jesus to the Baptist’s coattails, making Jesus seem popular by association.

5 Et egrediebatur ad illum omnis Iudaeae regio et Hierosolymitae universi et baptizabantur ab illo in Iordane flumine confitentes peccata sua.

6 καὶ ἦν ὁἸωάννης ἐνδεδυμένος τρίχας καμήλου καὶ ζώνην δερματίνην περὶ τὴν ὀσφὺν αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἐσθίων ἀκρίδας καὶ μέλι ἄγριον.

And John was dressed in the skin of a camel, and (=with) a belt of leather around his  waist, and he used to eat locusts and wild honey.

Very interesting. The aspect of the ascetic is very familiar to us nowadays. It wasn’t all that common among the pagans, but it wasn’t unknown, either. The Dead Sea Scrolls give some indication that the ascetic impulse was not unknown, and may have been something of a trend among the so-called Essenes. And there have been any number of gyrations and pretzel-bending to ‘prove’ that the Baptist was an Essene.

Pro: if this was becoming something of a trend, this would explain the Baptist’s popularity in Judea and Jerusalem. In European cities during the Middle Ages, the itinerant preacher was a common figure, coming ‘round and whipping the populace into a frenzy of religious fervour. And, the Baptist can be seen to fit into the mold of the OT prophets; a holy man preaching repentance. Perhaps the baptism was new, but the message may not have been.

Con: the argument from silence. This can be a dangerous weapon to try to use in ancient studies. The survival of evidence is so whimsical and so random that one can never take the absence of evidence as being in any way conclusive. However, the impression the evangelist gives is that the Baptist was a one-off sort of phenomenon, that he was a solitary figure rather than a member of a community. He may well have shared beliefs with members of the Essenes, just as he probably shared beliefs with a lot of the residents of Jerusalem and Judea as a whole. Again, if the intent was to tie Jesus to a larger context, it would have behooved Mark to make the Baptist’s connection to a more general movement rather than presenting him as a solitary figure.

The most telling detail is that he ate locusts and wild honey. This is not the diet of a member of a group, but of a single ascetic.

All this being said, Jesus did have a message that, as we have it, extolled the poor, oten putting them on a higher moral plane than the rich. This, we are told, was a radical idea in a world where the prevailing notion that “all Gods friends were rich.” (h/t, RK) However, ‘radical’ ideas often have deeper roots. The cockamamie government set up by the US Constitution, e.g. was certainly radical in the late 18th Century; the roots, however, trace back to ideas conceived a few thousand years earlier. “Radical” ideas catch fire because the are only the final spark to the dry tinder that has been accumulating in the general consciousness for some time. The ideals of the hippies of the 1960s resonated largely because they hit a demographic cohort that had been raised in opulence and privilege, so they could afford to despise the wealth their parents had struggled so hard to accumulate.

Jesus message resonated because it struck chords. Maybe the Essenes had drawn on Jewish social values and injunctions to help the poor, and the Baptist drew on this semi-subterranean idea of the moral superiority of the poor. Recall that the wealthy among the Jews were often–but not always–the ones most likely to “Hellenize” and associate with wealthy pagans, sometimes turning their backs on their co-religionists.

The point is that Jesus message of the moral value of poverty resonated. Not just among Jews, but the downtrodden among the pagans. But it also resonated among wealthier people, too. These became the financial patrons of the nascent movement. Perhaps, like their hippie progeny, these wealthier members had the luxury to hold their wealth in less esteem than their contemporaries. However, we’re verging into pop psychology here, and I’m not going to defend any of this with any vigour.

6 Et erat Ioannes vestitus pilis cameli, et zona pellicea circa lumbos eius, et locustas et mel silvestre edebat.

7 καὶ ἐκήρυσσεν λέγων, Ἔρχεται ὁ ἰσχυρότερός μου ὀπίσω μου, οὗ οὐκ εἰμὶ ἱκανὸς κύψας λῦσαι τὸν ἱμάντα τῶν ὑπο δημάτων αὐτοῦ:

And he preached, saying, “One more powerful than I is coming after me, of whom I am not worthy to stoop down to loosen the strap of his sandals.”

This is excellent. First, connect Jesus to the tradition of the Baptist. Then, have the Baptist tell everyone that Jesus is the more powerful.

And notice its ‘powerful’ (or strong, or mightier, or something such). It’s not ‘more holy’, or any sort of spiritual value. It’s the sense of physical strength, whether in an individual, or in the sense that Rome was more powerful than Judea. Why does he chose this word? It makes sense, but is ‘powerful’ the word we would associate with Jesus? Certainly, a case can be made, but it’s not necessarily the most obvious word to choose. It does, potentially, hearken back to the sense that the Christ would be a powerful ruler. Is that what the implication is meant to be?

7 Et praedicabat dicens: “ Venit fortior me post me, cuius non sum dignus procumbens solvere corrigiam calceamentorum eius.

8 ἐγὼ ἐβάπτισα ὑμᾶς ὕδατι, αὐτὸς δὲ βαπτίσει ὑμᾶς ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ.

I baptized you in water, but he will baptize you in the holy spirit.

The holy spirit. Or The Holy Spirit.  This latter translation of this as the Holy Spirit (Ghost) goes back to the KJV.

There are two separate issues here.

First, why is the spirit “holy” in some places, but not in others, such as in verse 12 below. There, it’s just ‘the spirit.’ Is this a different entity?

Second, is the holy spirit the same thing as The Holy Spirit? Of course not. So, when we encounter this combination of words, ought they be capitalized? What about ‘the spirit’? Should that be rendered as ‘The Spirit’? In all cases? Or only some? If the latter, which ones, and why not the other ones?

We ran across the words combined in Paul twice, both in 1 Thessalonians. They did not occur in Galatians. However, had we gotten to Romans and Corinthians, we would have encountered them frequently. They occur in Mark a total of four times. But not in Matthew. They appear in Luke five times, but only thrice in John.

So what does all this mean?

First of all, to think of this as The Holy Spirit, as in the third part of the Trinity at this point is wildly anachronistic. Per Jaroslav Pelikan, in The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, which is the first volume of a five-volume history of theology, the concept did not truly develop until the third century. As such, to see this as The Holy Spirit is just not appropriate.

So what is the holy spirit? Or, the spirit?

Of course, it’s the spirit of God, which means it’s necessarily holy. Beyond that, it’s hard to say at this point. I ran across a lovely quote about how the heavens hung low during the few centuries on either side of the Common Era, and how the traffic between the two was heavy. There was a widespread belief in spirits of all sorts; some good, some malign. This is the period when a lot of the Jewish Apocrypha and Pseudographa were written. These included things like the Book Of Enoch, Book of Jubilees, and others. One trait of these works is that they include references to spirits, angels, and other such creatures, which indicates that belief in such beings was widespread and had permeated into Jewish thought.

But this doesn’t get any closer to what Mark means here. We will keep track of this concept and, at some point, correlate the uses and see what we can make of this.

Update:  see the discussion to Mark Chapter 1:9-12 for additional thoughts on this.

8 “Ego baptizavi vos aqua; ille vero baptizabit vos in Spiritu Sancto ”.

Second Update.

See the discussion to Mark Chapter 7:1-13. I have just, belatedly, realized that the Greek word “baptizo”, which is the root of our word “baptize” does not have a special meaning in Greek. It is, at least here in NT usage, a common word for “to wash.” So, instead of taking the title of John the Baptist, we could very legitimately call him “John the Washer.” Sort of has a different implication, doesn’t it?


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 28, 2012, in Chapter 1, gospel commentary, gospels, mark's gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Did John the Washer do anything but purify and preach? I don’t remember any references to healing or other miracles, though maybe washing helped heal some people. Jimmy Carter told the story of the Carter Center fighting a disease causing blindness amongst the Masai in Africa caused by flies causing infection on the eyes of the young children. It was successly fought by teaching them to clean the area around the eyes. One may wonder how this could happen, but when I was in Arabia, I was told that in a land where water is limited, it takes the religious necessity of purification to pray 5 times a day to make people use water for washing instead of drinking. Christians are only baptized once, as initiation, but how many times did John baptize someone? Maybe “washing” has a better meaning of “re-establishing purity”? Isn’t that what the sacrament of Confession does for Catholics today – re-establish purity?

  2. From the little I’ve read, no healings were attributed to John. Josephus refers to Jesus as a ‘wonder worker’, but says nothing such about John. And I’ve also read that the washing was not for the removal of sins as it became in the Christian tradition, but a physical lustration of the sort that Jews and a lot of ancients undertook to cleanse themselves of the profane world before entering the holy. For John, the sins were presumed to have been taken care of before the baptism.

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