Mark Chapter 1:9-12

9 Καὶ ἐγένετο ἐν ἐκείναις ταῖς ἡμέραις ἦλθεν Ἰησοῦς ἀπὸ Ναζαρὲττῆς Γαλιλαίας καὶ ἐβαπτίσθη εἰς τὸν Ἰορδάνην ὑπὸ Ἰωάννου.

And then it occurred in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and he was baptized into the Jordan under John.

Here we see << ἐγένετο >> again. This time it has a slightly different meaning, and the Latin reflects this. The basic meaning of  << factum est >> would be ‘it was done’.  Here it’s impersonal.

Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee.  He appears, without fanfare and without any prior build up, or foreshadow, or anything.  He gets baptized. What are the implications? Does this mean he’s a disciple of John? We are told later (Mk 2:18) that John has disciples.  But we were told that all of Judea and Jerusalem were baptized by John, and I doubt we can assume they all were his disciples.

This goes back to the discussion above about the connection–if any–between Jesus and John.  We’ll pick this up again later in the chapter.

9 Et factum est in diebus illis, venit Iesus a Nazareth Galilaeae et baptizatus est in Iordane ab Ioanne.

10 καὶ εὐθὺς ἀναβαίνων ἐκ τοῦ ὕδατος εἶδεν σχιζομένους τοὺς οὐρανοὺς καὶ τὸ πνεῦμα ὡς περιστερὰν καταβαῖνον εἰς αὐτόν:

And immediately coming up out of the water, he saw the sky dividing and the spirit as a dove coming towards him.

10 Et statim ascendens de aqua vidit apertos caelos et Spiritum tamquam columbam descendentem in ipsum;

11 καὶ φωνὴ ἐγένετο ἐκ τῶν οὐρανῶν, Σὺ εἶ ὁυἱός μου ὁ ἀγαπητός, ἐν σοὶ εὐδόκησα.

And a voice came from the heavens, “You are my son, the beloved, in you I have been delighted.”

11 et vox facta est de caelis: “Tu es Filius meus dilectus; in te complacui”.

12 Καὶ εὐθὺς τὸ πνεῦμα αὐτὸν ἐκβάλλει εἰς τὴν ἔρημον.

And immediately, the spirit threw him into the desert.

12 Et statim Spiritus expellit eum in desertum.

And immediately coming up out of the water, he saw the sky dividing and the spirit as a dove coming towards him.  And a voice came from the heavens, “You are my son, the beloved, in you I have been delighted.” And immediately, the spirit threw him into the desert.

Taking these all together.

First, let’s talk about << τοὺς οὐρανοὺς >>.  Here, it’s singular, but it’s often pluralized. It means “the vault of the sky.”   It also often is translated as ‘the heavens.’ What is important here is to recognize that ‘the heavens’ is a very different thing than ‘heaven’, and especially “Heaven’, which is what this eventually turns into in a lot of translations. In 1 Thessalonians we saw the Christ coming down from ‘the heavens’, which is how this became “Heaven,” and how Heaven was located in the sky.

Second, we get ‘the spirit’, which is more significant than it appearing in the form of a dove.  It has to appear in the form of something, after all, if observers can, or did, observe it. Now, to this point, we have had a couple of half-hearted discussions about what “spirit” means, and if/how it’s different from holy spirit even if we know it’s different from Holy Spirit. And, to this point, my analysis has been fairly lame. Why? Because I’ve been suckered into a mindset based on 2,000 years of Christian exegesis.

IOW,  the problem is that I’ve been thinking in terms of a ‘spirit’. In modern terms, at least modern American terms, a ‘spirit’ is an entity, representing something that is coherent, cohesive, and singular, and most likely has a ‘personality’ of sorts; in short, a ‘spirit’ is more or less a person without a body, much like the ‘ghost’ which was the common translation of the Greek << πνεῦμα >>, which in Latin is << spiritus >>, which is obviously the root of our ‘spirit’. The thing is, neither the original Greek word nor its Latin translation really means ‘spirit’. At root, both <<πνεῦμα  >> and << spiritus >> mean ‘breath’.  Or even ‘wind’, as in the sense of moving air; hence, ‘pneumatic’.  The Latin root of << spiritus >> is << spiro >>, ‘to breathe.’ Hence, ‘inspiration’ is when the Muse ‘breaths into’ us some sort of poetic revelation. Given that we’re talking about breathing in both of these words,  let’s translate this as ‘the divine breath came down in the form of a dove’. Rather puts an entirely different twist on this, doesn’t it? And, by extension, we’d be talking about “The Holy Breath”? How does that work?

The answer is that, in our cognitive sphere, it really doesn’t. We’ve gotten so accustomed to thinking in terms of a spirit, that the idea of mere breath is just bizarre. To us. To the ancients, however, my impression is that this would have made more sense.  Because, recall, that in Genesis 1:2, we are told that “the spirit of God hovered above the water…”  Except the word used is << πνεῦμα  >> again. So it’s not the ‘spirit’; it’s the ‘breath’ of God. It’s used again Genesis 6:17, when God warns Noah that he’s going to destroy all flesh that has the ‘spirit–.i.e. ‘breath’–of life.  

The juxtaposition of these two uses, I hope, gets across the idea of the connection between ‘breath’ and that which animates a living creature; the absence of breath = the absence of life. So God’s breath becomes a proxy for God, as the spirit–in both senses of the word, original and our conception of the word–that animated God. And I hope it also gives some sense of how the word evolved from the idea of breath, became the animating factor, and this animating factor came to be seen or conceived as a separate entity, a being in and of itself.  This is why, as we noted above, the idea of  a “Holy Spirit” as a third part of a Triune God took several centuries before it became formalized as this entity, separate from–but identical with–God. Our breath is, in some ways, separate from, but identical with ourselves; the breath animates us, but, once gone, there is something left–our dead corpse–which is both separate from our breath, but definitely identical with the breath when we are alive.

Yes, this is philosophy, and it may not be my strong suit. I apologize, but seeing both the distinction and the identity of ‘breath’ and ‘spirit’ is critical at this point. And it is critical to understanding why the idea of a “Holy Spirit” at this point really doesn’t work.

Finally, just to note that<<  ἐκβάλλει >> is the same word used when Jesus casts out a demon in Chapter 3.  Rather an interesting image. Perhaps we should think of it as the spirit ‘blowing’  Jesus out into the desert. Note that the Baptist also spent time in the desert.  Hold this thought for a few more verses.

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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 December 4, 2012, in gospel commentary, gospels, mark's gospel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. When the translation shows quotation marks, how do we know this? I imagine that the word endings in Greek allow us to see a shift in the sentence structure to make it likely, or is there some other indications in Greek that lets you know?
    The imagery of a dove is interesting. Why a dove and not an eagle? Is the dove chosen as the default bird from the sky? Is it related to using doves in a temple sacrifice? Or is it a form of augury? In the Latin form of augury, the dove would probably not be significant enough to read, unlike an eagle. It’s position above in the divided sky would indicate neutrality, unlike the east (good) or west (bad). In Greek or Semitic, the interpretations would be different. The cries of birds were also used for divination, but the voice coming from the dove seems different than the average bird cry.
    The idea of blowing away a bad spirit is a common technique around the world for healing shaman, from Old World to New World.

  2. The quotation marks are purely a modern creation. For a very long time, Greek and Latin were written in ALLCAPITALSWITHNOSPACESBETWEENTHELETTERS. Oh, and, THEREWERENOPUNCTUATIONMARKSEITHER. Ergo, all punctuation, quotation, etc is done by inference and context. Yes, the case and/or verb endings help. Direct speech to address another person goes into what is called the Vocative case, but that’s often not terribly different from some of the other endings. So, really, it has to do with just knowing what is being said.

    IIRC, the system with which we are familiar became common in and after the time of Charlemagne. I suspect it had something to do with less-literate population of scribes. The new system was devised to reduce the number of copying.

    As for the dove, my suspicion is that the form of a dove was used for the same reason that turtle-doves (and such) were common sacrifices at the Temple. Why they were common, don’t really know. It is not my sense that the Jews were particularly keen on the eagle as a symbol of divinity, while the Romans certainly were. Come to think about it, I don’t believe the Jews weren’t keen on animal symbolism as a whole. Numerology, yes. Animals? Never say never, but aside from the snake/dragon, nothing jumps immediately to mind. The sheep/shepherd thing was a metaphor, and that is different. Wolf in sheep’s clothing, the same.

  3. I was thinking of a gentile audience regarding the dove, but the sky opening story may have been early enough to come from Judea, and may even have been added to lower John’s status a peg and give the real acknowledgement as coming from God.
    Though animal imagery is frowned upon in Judaism, animals do play an important religious part – animal sacrifice.

  4. You know, can’t really prove this, but IMO the image is definitely not pagan. Perhaps because I’ve come across so many pagan references, and this just feels wrong. As such, I would give it a Semitic background of some sort. It seems to me that the dove is to pacific to be pagan; not bloodthirsty enough. Or something like that.

    Yes, animal sacrifice. That’s why I said the author chose the form of the dove: for the same reason doves were often offered as sacrifices. Not sparrows, not crows. Doves.

    As for taking John down a peg…yes. Definitely needed to establish a pecking order, but I believe that Jesus needed John more than John needed Jesus. I think Jesus’ followers dd everything they could to emphasize their connection to John, because I believe John was more important than Jesus. Note that Josephus’ account of John is longer than his account of Jesus–especially if you take out all the Christian accretions; which is most of the passage on Jesus.

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