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The Gospel of Mark: a commentary

30 November, 1999

Michael Mullins’s commentary on Mark’s gospel is offered as a textbook for students of theology, as a guide for serious readers, as support for preachers, to the many people who practise lectio divina and spiritual reading. No prior technical knowledge of biblical scholarship is assumed.

506pp, Columba Press 2006. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie


Introduction to the Gospel of Mark


1. The Plot
2. The Superscription
3. The Divine Plan
4. Introduction of the Precursor, John the Baptiser
5. John’s Proclamation
6. Introduction of the Protagonist. Jesus’ Baptism
7. Testing in the Desert
8. The Good News proclaimed by Jesus




1. Plot and Outline
2. Summary
3. Call of the Disciples
4. Jesus’ Mighty Words and Deeds
i A Sabbath in Capernaum
ii A Typical Morning and Fresh Initiative
iii Crossing the Boundary. Touching the Leper
5. A Series of Controversies. Jesus’ Authority
6. Conclusion. Plot by Authorities to Destroy Jesus


1. Plot and Outline
2. Summary
3. Jesus Calls and Appoints the Twelve Apostles
i Jesus’ Family: Old and New
ii Accusations of the Scribes
4. Jesus’ Mighty Words
i He taught in Parables.
ii Outline of the Discourse
iii The Discourse
5. Jesus’ Mighty Deeds 
i Stilling the Storm
ii The Gerasene Demoniac
iii J airus’ Daughter
iv The Woman with the Haemorrhage
6. Conclusion: Rejection by his own people in his native place


1. Plot and Outline
2. Summary
3. Mission of the Twelve: Herod and John
i Commissioning of the Twelve
ii Herod and John the Baptist
iii The Return of the Twelve
4. Jesus’ Mighty Words and Deeds
The First Bread Cycle
i The Feeding of the 5,000
ii The Sea Crossing (Epiphany / Christophany)
iii Healings at Gennesaret
iv Dispute and Teaching. Purity Laws and Tradition
v Healing of Gentiles
The Syro-Phoenician Woman’s Daughter
The Deaf and Dumb Man
The Second Bread Cycle
i The Feeding of the 4,000
ii The Sea Crossing
iii Dispute with the Pharisees about signs
iv Boat Scene. Disciples’ Obtuseness
5. Conclusion: The Disciples’ Obtuseness


1. Healing of the Blind Man at Bethsaida
2. Peter’s Profession at Caesarea Philippi




1. First Prediction of the Passion
2. The Reaction of Peter
3. Teaching on Discipleship
i Teaching the Crowd and the Disciples
ii Transfiguration
iii Teaching when the Disciples failed to heal


1. Second Prediction of the Passion
2. Reaction of the Disciples
3. Teaching on Discipleship
i Instructing the Twelve
ii Instructing Pharisees, Disciples and the Crowd
iii Obstacles to Discipleship. Riches and Poverty
iv The Reward of Discipleship

JERICHO MK 10:32-52

1. The Plot
2. Third Prediction of the Passion
3. Reaction of the Disciples
4. Instructing the Twelve
5. Healing of Blind Bartimaeus



1. Royal Visit to the City
i Preparing to enter the City
ii The Triumphal Approach to the City
iii The Solitary Entry into the City
2. Prophetic Visitation of the Temple
i The Barren Fig Tree
ii The Cleansing of the Temple
iii Faith and Prayer: The New Temple
3. Clash of Authorities. Jerusalem Dispute Cycle
i Chief Priests, Scribes and Elders: Authority
Jesus’ Authority and the Authority of the Baptist
Parable of the Wicked Tenants
ii  The Pharisees and Herodians: Tribute to Caesar
iii The Sadducees: Resurrection
iv The Good Scribe: The First Commandment
v  Jesus Takes the Initiative:
Question about the Son of David
Condemnation of the Scribes (and others?)
Praise (and lamentation?) for the Widow
4. Eschatological-Apocalyptic Discourse Mk 13:1-37
i Introduction to the Discourse
ii Classifying the Discourse
iii Outline of the Discourse
iv The Discourse
v Conclusion: Two Parables about Watching


1. Approaching the Passion Narrative
2. Outline of the Narrative
3. The Passion Narrative
i Betrayal and Anointing
ii Passover / Eucharist and Betrayal
iii Gethsemane: Jesus’ Prayer and Disciples’ Flight
iv Jewish Trial and Peter’s Denials
v Roman Trial and Call for Crucifixion
vi Mockery and Crucifixion of the King
vii Portents and Cries: The Death ofJesus
viii The Watching Women: Deposition and Burial
ix The Empty Tomb and Terrified Women



1. The World of Mark
2. Who wrote the Gospel?
3. Where was the Gospel written?
4. Mark and the other Gospels
5. Explanatory Notes
a. The Tradition(s) of the Anointing
b. Herod Family Affairs
c. The Feasts of Passover and Unleavened Bread

List of Abbreviations Bibliography Index

This commentary on Mark’s gospel by Michael Mullins is offered as a textbook for students of theology and as a guide for serious readers in the hope that it will deepen their spiritual and theological insight, and bring them to a level of academic competence. It is also aimed at those many preachers who wish to underpin their preaching with serious reading and to the many people who practise lectio divina and other forms of spiritual reading. No prior technical knowledge of biblical scholarship is assumed.

Chapter One . The Prologue Mk 1:1-15


It was common practice in ancient literature and drama to begin a work with a prologue. It served to introduce the reader or audience to the plot, the characters, the issues and the outcome. (1) It gave privileged information of an authoritative kind which was not shared by the characters in the narrative or drama. The reader or audience, therefore, had the advantage over the characters in the story not only in understanding their relation to each other and to the plot as a whole, but also in having privileged access to their inner thoughts and motives and the influences to which they were subject. Matthew and Luke introduce their gospels with accounts of the birth and infancy of Jesus in which his true identity is revealed to the reader and his destiny foreshadowed. The prologue in St John’s gospel serves the same function, introducing the Word made flesh as the monogenês, the ‘only son’. Mark’s prologue reveals the identity of Jesus and the sources of divine and demonic powers that will be working behind the scenes throughout his ministry. The ‘omniscient’ narrator sets the scene at the beginning, clearly showing the initiative of God in sending the messenger to prepare the way of the Lord, in confirming the identity of the Beloved Son and in empowering him with the Spirit. The narrator then carefully guides the reader or hearer of the gospel through the story, ensuring the acceptance of his (or her) own point of view.

The prologue begins with the announcement of the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God, and builds up to the proclamation of the good news of the Kingdom by Jesus on his return to Galilee. It roots the good news of Jesus in the plan of God revealed long ago in scripture and historically initiated by John who was sent by God to prepare the way of the Lord. The prologue underpins the authority of the protagonist, Jesus, with the account of the voice from heaven and the coming of the Spirit. It describes the beginning of the contest between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan when the Spirit drives the protagonist, Jesus, into the desert to be tested by the antagonist, Satan, and to be ministered to by the angels. The prologue reaches its goal when Jesus emerges from the contest in the desert and proclaims the good news of the kingdom in Galilee initiating an attack on the kingdom of Satan, laying siege to the house of the strong man. The final victory in the contest will be proclaimed at the empty tomb when the Beloved Son is vindicated by the Father.

Where does the prologue end?
Scholars discuss the exact extent of the prologue, whether it ends at verse 13 or 15. Verses 14 and 15 form an inclusion with Mk 1:1 in referring to the ‘good news’ and bringing the prologue to a conclusion or climax with the announcing of the good news by Jesus for whom the way has been prepared. At the same time these verses round off the career of the Baptist with the notice of his arrest. Furthermore the purpose of Jesus’ coming from Galilee to be baptised results in his returning to Galilee announcing the good news, so his coming from and returning to Galilee are two parts of a single event in the prologue. For these reasons verses 14 and 15 seem to be an integral part of the prologue. However, looking at the overall structure of the gospel, Mk 1:14 to 3:6 forms a unit. It is one of three similarly formed units covering the ministry in Galilee and so verses 14 and 15 seem to belong also to the Galilee ministry. Furthermore, a definite change of time and place is indicated and a clear chronological separation of the ministries of John and Jesus is underlined in verses 14 and 15. These verses, therefore, are also an integral part of the Galilean ministry. For these reasons it is difficult to make a very clear division between the prologue and the beginning of the ministry in Galilee and it is best to see verses 14 and 15 as a bridge or hinge, rounding off the prologue and at the same time beginning the section Mk 1:14 to 3:6. The use of similar ‘bridge’ or ‘hinge’ passages will occur a number of times in the gospel. Furthermore, a number of bridge passages are summaries like Mk 1:14-15 which look back on what has been and look forward to what is to come. (2)


The first words of Mark’s gospel, Beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God (3) do not refer simply to the first words of the written text, as though the middle and end will be pointed out in due course. They refer rather to the whole gospel as an account of the origin and governing principle of the euanggelion, the good news brought about in the life, death, resurrection and glorification of Jesus Christ, Son of God, in whom it is very likely that the implied or originally intended readers or hearers had already come to believe.

Paul had already used the term euaggelion, ‘good news’, more than sixty times as a proclamation or a theological synthesis of the revelation and salvation brought about through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As already seen in the introduction, for Paul and other New Testament writers the term good news was particularly apt for the gracious offer of salvation revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, with its promise of a faith relationship in this life with the Risen Lord through repentance, baptism, forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit, and the promise of an eschatological fulfilment when all things would be made new at Christ’s return in glory.

In the Old Testament the equivalent Hebrew term for good news, bsr, was used especially in the Psalms and in Deutero-Isaiah with particular reference to the gracious act of God in effecting the return of the exiled or scattered people to Zion. The LXX (the Greek version of the Old Testament) used the verbal equivalent euaggelizomai for this saving work of God in preparing and opening up the way for their return from exile (Isa 40:9; 41:27; 52:7; 60:6; 61:1). Furthermore, the bringer of the good news, ‘the joyful messenger to Zion’ is a living sign or embodiment of the good news, of whom it can be said: ‘How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of the one who brings good news, proclaims peace and says to Zion, “Your God reigns”’(Isa 52:7). The news is good in itself, and being the good news of God it effects the good that it proclaims. No matter what human obstacles are in the way, the hearers are reminded that’ all flesh is grass and its beauty like that of the wild flower, the grass withers, the flower fades but the word of our God endures forever’ (Isa 40:7,8).

In the Greco-Roman world the term good news was widely used for the announcing of an important birth or significant political or military victory. It was used for the pronouncements, presence and performance of the ‘ divine’ emperor. The messenger who brought good news was closely associated with the good news he brought and honoured accordingly, as the good news of a royal birth or important victory was announced with pomp and ceremony. Conversely the bearer of bad tidings could fear a reaction to himself as a consequence of his association with the bad news he brought.

Mark’s gospel marks a whole new departure in presenting a narrative of the origin or beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God. From the very start the reader is drawn into the story and senses a new beginning in the history of salvation. The first word in the gospel of Mark is none other than the very first word in the Bible itself, beginning. It re-echoes the first word of the opening verse of Genesis which points to the origin and governing principle of all God’s work in creation and history. (4) Using it here creates for the reader the sense of a radically new initiative of God.

The good news of Jesus is not just the good news about him, or the good news that he preached, but he himself is the embodiment of the good news. Throughout the gospel narrative the announcing of the nearness, presence or mystery of the kingdom in the person, words and deeds of Jesus as he invites people to repent, to believe in the good news and to follow him on the way, constitutes the good news. In the narrative of the gospel the good news takes on a whole new dimension at the climactic moment when the young man sitting at the open tomb proclaims: ‘You seek Jesus the crucified Nazarene. He is risen. He is not here. Go tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you into Galilee’ (Mk 16:8). Jesus, formerly the preacher and embodiment of the good news of the kingdom, from that moment becomes himself in a whole new way the subject of the good news of salvation in the proclamation of his vindication by the Father in his victory over Satan, death and the powers that brought about his rejection and execution.

This first verse of the gospel introduces the main character (the protagonist) in the story about to unfold on the human stage. Jesus’ role and true identity are proclaimed. The first half of the gospel story builds up to Peter’s proclamation of faith in Jesus’ as the Messiah/ Christ, the expected anointed one of royal descent (Mk 8:29). The second half contains Jesus’ instruction about the proper understanding of that role as it ‘redefines messiahship in terms of suffering, death and resurrection. It replaces the royal Davidic descendent who would defeat Israel’s political enemies with a Messiah who must fulfil his destiny as Son of Man.(5) The story comes to a climax when the centurion who presides over Jesus’ execution, ‘on seeing how he died’ proclaimed his faith in the identity of the one he has executed as he proclaims: ‘In truth this man was the Son of God’ (Mk 15:39), reechoing the superscription at the beginning of the gospel and the declaration of the voice from heaven immediately after the baptism of Jesus (Mk 1:11) and the voice from the cloud at the transfiguration (Mk 9:7).

The reader, however, is given this privileged information about Jesus’ true identity and role at the outset and can therefore appreciate the unfolding story from a privileged position, sharing in the’ omniscience’ of the narrator and observing the reactions, difficulties and developing awareness of the characters in the story. However, the reader also has to wait and be challenged along with the characters to see how the Father vindicates the Son after his rejection and crucifixion. The Son is finally vindicated by the Father when the young man at the tomb proclaims: ‘He is risen. He is not here’ (Mk 16:8).


The established formula for quoting scripture, it is written, introduces the prime mover, God, into the story. The authoritative voice of God is heard through the teaching of the prophets in an adapted quotation rich in allusions to Isaiah, Malachi and Exodus, a quotation announcing the unfolding of a long awaited plan, foretold long ago (Is a 40:3; Mal 3:1; Ex 23:20). In the quotation God speaks through the prophetic voices to the protagonist Jesus, whom he addresses directly and to whom he promises to send a messenger to prepare the way: ‘Behold I am sending my messenger before you to prepare your way.’ The way (mentioned twice in the prologue) is described as ‘the way of the Lord’.

Though the quotation is ascribed to Isaiah, the first part of the quotation re-echoes the prophet Malachi’s prophecy that God will send a messenger, identified as Elijah, before ‘the great and terrible day of YHWH’ (Mal 3:1; 4:5). The second part of the quotation is from the Book of Isaiah and recalls ‘the voice calling out in the wilderness: “prepare the way of the Lord”.’ The ‘way of the Lord’ is a powerfully evocative term in both Old and New Testaments. In Deutero-Isaiah ‘the way of the Lord’ refers to the way through the desert back to the Promised Land from the exile in Babylon, a physical way going hand in hand with the spiritual way of the Lord which the people will follow in response to God’s gracious action on their behalf. The prophet to whom chapters 40 to 55 of the Book of Isaiah are ascribed, conventionally referred to as Second or Deutero-Isaiah, is the prophet of consolation, the ‘joyful messenger to Zion’, the prophet of the ‘good news’ for the people in exile. This good news was first heard during the exile as the ‘voice crying out’ to the people to prepare for their return home from exile in Babylon (Isa 40:3; cf Mt 3:2f; Mk 1:2f; Lk 3:4f.). It envisaged the end of the exile, a new exodus of the people and a passage through the desert, under the protection of God. In the Hebrew text of the Old Testament it was seen in terms of a physical journey, a real physical path in the desert and the path was described as the path of our God.(6) The imagery portrays God as the shepherd leading the people through the desert.

Here in Mark ‘the Way’ refers to the way of Jesus, to God’s way manifest in his life, death and resurrection. It is the way of discipleship in which Jesus will call his followers to share his destiny and walk with him on his divinely designated path. ‘The way’ becomes a dominant theme in the section of the gospel dealing with ‘the way to Jerusalem’ which is ‘the way of the Son of Man’, Jesus’ way to his passion, death and resurrection, and which is at the same time the context for the teaching on ‘the way of discipleship’ (Mk 8:27-10:52). By the time of the writing of the Acts of the Apostles the term has become so established that Christians are referred to as people’ of the way’ (Acts 9:2).

In the New Testament the emphasis moves somewhat from , a path in the desert’ to ‘ a voice in the desert’, so the way or path can be seen, not only in geographical and physical terms but also in spiritual terms, as the way of Jesus. This implies a new, spiritual, exodus, a calling of the people to the movement of repentance being carried on by John in the desert as a preparation for ‘the way of the Lord’. The voice in the desert calls the people to prepare the way of the Lord. The original physical journey is replaced by a spiritual journey signifying a return from spiritual exile, a path in the heart that makes possible the approach of God to his people, opening up their hearts, levelling their pride, filling in their emptiness, if one applies the imagery to a spiritual journey. (7)

‘The way of the Lord’ can be seen here both as ‘the way of God’ made manifest in Jesus or ‘the way of (Jesus) the Lord’. The title ‘Lord’, kyrios, was used in the LXX as a translation of adonai, used in the Hebrew Bible as a substitute for YHWH, since the Jews regarded the name of God as too sacred to pronounce. The title kyrios became a standard title for the risen and glorified Christ in the early church. Though referring to Jesus as Lord is not typical of the body of the gospel of Mark, it is not out of place in the theologically and christologically rich prologue where he is called Christ, Son of God, Beloved Son, addressed by the voice from heaven, and invested with the Spirit. In Jerusalem at the end of his ministry Jesus will refer to the Messiah as Lord (Mk 12:35-37).

This part of the quotation, the voice of one crying out in the desert to prepare the way of the Lord, focuses on another very significant place and source of imagery ill-the Bible, ‘the desert’. As pointed out in the introduction, the desert held a special place in the history and spirituality of Israel. It was the place where Israel became God’s chosen people through covenant, when God liberated them from the slavery of Egypt ‘with mighty hand and outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders’ (Deut 26:8). It was also the place where they were tested, where they grumbled, complained, hesitated and suffered punishment and purification as they were led to the Promised Land. It was through the desert that God, in a new Exodus, would lead them back from the exile in Babylon, straightening the paths and making smooth the way. (8) The desert was seen as the place where the devout and repentant would withdraw to be with God and remake their lives. Elijah repaired to the desert in crisis. The Essenes went there to found an ideal messianic community when they withdrew from the illegitimate Temple authority in Jerusalem. It was therefore the ideal spot for a group like the followers of the Baptist to assemble in their quest for new beginnings and for straightening the spiritual paths and making smooth the ways on which they walked in their lives. Jesus himself after his baptism will be driven there by the Spirit to be tested by Satan. The desert is mentioned twice at the beginning and twice towards the end of the prologue, and in the ministry of Jesus it will be his place of retreat for prayer. It will also be the place where he will take his disciples to rest, and the place in which he will be moved to compassion to teach and feed the multitudes who come to the desert to be with him, to listen to him and to be healed by him. In doing so he will re-enact the caring and protecting activity of the Shepherd of Israel.


The narrator introduces the precursor with all the solemnity of an Old Testament prophet. He uses the canonised LXX expression egeneto, often translated in the ritualised biblical language of English translations as ‘it came to pass’. Though it makes for an awkward sentence, the solemnity would be well expressed by ‘and it came to pass that John the Baptist was in the desert proclaiming. ..’ The messenger sent to prepare the way of the Lord, the one crying out in the desert, is identified as John the Baptist (lit. ‘the one baptising’).

John is preparing the way for the one coming after him. His baptism is a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins and it is sharply contrasted, by John himself, with the baptism in the Holy Spirit of the one coming after him. Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins describes the nature and purpose of John’s baptism. Unlike Matthew and Luke, the apocalyptic, fiery language of the wrath that is to come with the axe laid to the root of the tree and the burning up of the chaff is missing. (9) Missing also is the explicitly moralising tone of his preaching (Lk 3:7-14; d Mt 3:7f). He calls for repentance, metanoia. This New Testament term signifies a change of mind, heart, attitude and direction as in reassessment of one’s life and remorse for one’s past. It is more or less synonymous with the Greek word epistrephein, ‘to turn around’, and the Hebrew word, subh, ‘to turn back / return’. Turning round to face God in response and reconciliation, or returning to God and making a new beginning, are key concepts in the call to repentance. ‘Repent’ also captures the sense of the Hebrew niham, ‘to be sorry’. Here in the prologue it represents the call back to God from the crooked paths on which one has strayed. The purpose of the exercise is the remission (aphesis) of sins. Aphesis (aphiemi) signifies pardon, cancellation of a debt, release from captivity and remission of punishment. The people confess (exomologoumenoi) their sins. Confession of sins, in private and public, was reckoned as an important form of prayer / worship. This is obvious from the Old Testament, especially from the psalms, and from the apocryphal literature. Josephus Flavius states that God is easily reconciled to those who’ confess and repent’, exomologoumenois kai metanoousin.(10)

The account of John’s movement emphasises the ‘universal’ character of the response to his call to repentance. ‘All the Judean countryside (pasa) and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem (pantes) went out to him: This universal appeal on the part of the crowds in the context of the Baptist will be very characteristic of the response of the crowds to Jesus, particularly during his early ministry. In choosing the Jordan as the site for ritual baptism and inauguration into his movement, John the Baptist chose a place rich in associations with Israel’s past. Crossing the Jordan dry shod behind the ark, which was carried in solemn procession into the promised land, was a pivotal moment in the history of the chosen people as they entered into the land to live there as God’s covenanted people (Josh 3-4). Baptising in the Jordan river has the connotation of a spiritual crossing of the Jordan and it recalls the new life and dedication originally required of the people as they emerged from the desert wandering with its suffering and disaffection to the joyous occupation of the land of milk and honey. On that historic occasion they promised faithfulness to the covenant relationship with the God who had led them from the slavery of Egypt to the Promised Land. John’s followers now come to the Jordan to renew that promise. The prophets had regularly called for repentance and for a return to the covenant way of life. Now John is the latest and final prophet in the former dispensation. His dress and deportment recall those of the prophets and of Elijah in particular (Zech 13:4; 2 Kings 1:8). His food consisted of locusts and wild honey. Locusts were one of the winged insects permitted in the Levitical code and featured in the Qumran diet (Lev 11:20-23; CD 12:14). Wild honey could be got from among the rocks, from trees and carcasses of animals (Deut 32:13; 1 Sam 14:25f; Jdgs 14:8f). The similarity to Elijah does not end with the description of John’s clothes and diet. ‘Preparing the way of the Lord’ and announcing the coming of the’ stronger one’ who will baptise in Holy Spirit and preparing for the one coming after him re-echo very strongly the expected return of Elijah to usher in the Messianic time. The gospel will show how the similarity with Elijah continues as John is arrested and put to death by a latter-day Ahab tricked by a scheming latter day-Jezebel (cf 1 Kings 19; Mk 6:17-29).


Now after the narrator’s introduction, John the Baptist’s Own voice is heard. Picking up on the solemn” prophetic note of proclamation (kêryssôn), the imperfect tense signifies ongoing and repeated activity. John was proclaiming (ekêryssen): ‘the stronger one is coming after me’. The first word in the sentence is erchetai, ‘he is coming’. ‘The one who is coming’ is an established messianic designation. The apocalyptic tradition speaks of the one coming from among the followers, from behind, to take over the leadership. Here erchetai opisô mou, ‘there comes after me’, alerts the reader to such a coming one, a follower who will take over the leadership, confirmed by John as he identifies the ‘coming one’ in terms of ‘the one stronger than me’, ho ischuroteros mou. The designation ‘stronger one’ not only alerts the reader to the relative strengths of Jesus and the Baptist but also recalls the divine visitation in Deutero-Isaiah where God will come ‘with strength’, meta ischyos. The God-given strength in the one coming will also be ‘ stronger’ than the ‘strong man’, Satan, whose house he will spoil (Mk 3:20-27).

John’s reference to the one whose sandal straps he is not worthy to bend down and untie, or carry, is common to all four gospels and Acts (Mt 3:11; Mk1:8; Lk 3:16; Jn 1:27; Ads 13:25). A disciple was expected to do for a teacher what a slave did for his master, except tend to his feet / untie his shoes, as it was regarded as too demeaning. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi states: ‘All services that a slave performs for his master a pupil should do for his teacher, with the exception of undoing his shoes. (11) John is here proclaiming that ‘he is no more than a slave whose task is to untie his master’s sandal; and he feels unworthy even of that’ .(12)

To appreciate the significance of the contrast between their baptisms, which is highlighted by John the Baptist as he points to the one whose baptism in Holy Spirit radically surpasses his own baptism in water, John’s baptism should be put in the context of the practice and understanding of baptism at the time.

The baptism of John fits into a wider context as is evident, for example, from the baptismal rituals of the Qumran community with which he may have had contact or by Whom he may have been in some way influenced. Given the fact that he conducted his ministry in an area close to the monastery at Qumran it is quite possible that he was influenced in some measure by their asceticism, ceremonial practice and messianic expectation. Their Manual of Discipline is very definite, however, that mere washing cannot really make one clean. It can clean flesh, but only the submission of one’s soul to God’s ordinances can make one internally clean. It is only God who will finally purge all the acts of man and refine him by destroying every spirit of perversity in his flesh, cleansing him by a holy spirit and sprinkling upon him the spirit of truth like waters of purification to cleanse him.(13) The rite itself therefore was not seen as effecting forgiveness and purification and people could not use it to become like the holy ones. It was seen as an external expression of a sincere inner disposition of repentance. Josephus Flavius presents a similar view of John’s baptism. He says that it was’ not to beg pardon for sins committed, but for the purification of the body, when the soul had previously been cleansed by right behaviour’ (14)  Another possible influence may have been the process of proselyte baptism, signifying the cleansing process of a Gentile before entering into the spiritual heritage of Israel. These were the likely influences on John which he adapted for his purpose. Whatever the influences, however, John’s practice of ritual baptism, as it stands here in the gospel, is unique to John in its broad scope and eschatological thrust. (15) He, however, emphasised the preparatory nature of his baptism and accentuated the contrast with the baptism by Jesus who will baptise in Holy Spirit A new era and a new baptism are about to be inaugurated with the rending of the heavens, the descent of the Spirit on Jesus and the voice from heaven proclaiming him ‘My Son, the Beloved.’


The same solemn word egeneto, ‘it came to pass'” is used to announce Jesus’ entry into the story. It is here combined with another evocative expression, ‘in those days’, a phrase canonized in biblical tradition as a description of the times in which some great salvific event took place (Jdgs 19:1; 1 Sam 28:1). When Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptised by John in the Jordan a new era was about to begin. As Jesus came up out of the water the definitive salvific work of God began ‘immediately’ with the rending of the heavens and the descent of the Spirit like a dove. This is the first instance of the use of the word euthus, ‘immediately’. Forty-seven times euthus (often kai euthus and sometimes its adverbial variant eutheôs) is used, giving the story of Jesus’ ministry, especially in its initial stages in the Galilee ministry, its sense of urgency as the kingdom rushes in all around.

The rending or tearing open of the heavens described in the immediate aftermath of the baptism of Jesus is an eschatological sign, announcing the inauguration of the final definitive action of God. It recalls the sentiment of Trito-Isaiah, , O that you would rend the heavens and come down… to make known your name to your enemies, and make the nations tremble at your presence, working unexpected miracles such as no one has ever heard before’ (Is a 64:1-3; cf Isa 24:17-20; Rev 19:11). (16) Here at the baptism scene the rending of the heavens and the heavenly voice represent the divine presence, transcendent and immanent, joining earth and heaven, somewhat like the (Jacob’s) ladder image in John’s gospel (In 1:51). J. Marcus explains the significance exceptionally well: ‘God has ripped the heavens apart irrevocably at Jesus’ baptism, never to shut them again. Through this gracious gash in the universe, he has poured forth his Spirit into the earthly realm.’ (17)

The opening of the heavens and the descent of the Spirit mark a completely new initiative of God in the economy of salvation. Contrary to the impression given by many works of Christian art, the Spirit was not conferred on Jesus by the baptism of John but descended on him on the occasion of, and immediately following, the baptism, as he came up out of the water. Mark (like Matthew) states that Jesus had already been baptised and was coming up out of the water when the Spirit descended upon him (Mk 1:10; Mt 3:16). Luke further emphasizes the point when he says that he had been baptised and was at prayer when the Spirit descended on him (Lk 3:21). The gospel of John omits any reference to the actual baptism of Jesus and offers only to the descent of the Spirit showing him to be the Son/ the Chosen One of God (In 1:32). (18)

Though the ministry of John is unique and the baptism of Jesus without parallel, still the narrative is rich in biblical allusions, setting it within the wider scope of salvation history. Many see in the figure of the dove appearing above the waters of the Jordan an allusion to creation with the Spirit of God hovering over the waters (Gen 1:2) or to the dove sent out by Noah heralding the ending of the flood, the completion of the punishment and the inauguration of a new covenant (Gen 8:8-12). (19) For the readers in the Hellenistic world, comparing the Spirit to a dove highlighted the divinity of the Spirit since the dove was regarded as a divine bird in the Hellenistic world. (20) The descent of the Spirit, therefore, points to the divine origin and power of the one about to be declared Beloved Son by the voice from heaven.

All these allusions point to the new initiative of God, a new creation and a new definitive reconciliation. Whereas the baptism of John was called a baptism of repentance (Mk 1:4), and could be graphically described as an empty hand stretched out to God for forgiveness, the baptism of Jesus signifies the beginning of a new era, a pivotal point in the economy of salvation, a new and final initiative of God in Jesus. This new era will be marked by the gift of the Spirit. (21)  Baptism as an empty hand stretched out to God in repentance is now surpassed by the promise of baptism in Holy Spirit, announcing the beginning of the eschatological time, marked by the return of the Spirit and the work of the Messiah. Baptism has taken on a whole new significance. (22)

After the end of the prophetic times, when the Spirit no longer spoke through the prophets, the rabbis spoke of the bath qôl, ‘daughter of the voice’, the faint echo of the divine voice uttered in heaven. This ‘voice from heaven’ at the baptism, accompanied by the return of the quenched Spirit is no faint echo, but the sound of the voice (phônê) of the Father, transcendent and immanent at this moment, addressing Jesus saying: ‘You are my Beloved Son in whom I am well pleased’ (Ps 2:7). There is a density of meaning here. First of all it recalls Psalm 2 which probably reflects an enthronement ceremony, where the metaphor of adoption as God’s son (Ps 2:7) assures the royal prince of God’s protection at his enthronement as Davidic King. However, this sonship transcends the general sonship of the anointed king, the righteous priest, prophet or prince and the suffering righteous one, or the collective sonship of the people. The term agapêtos, ‘beloved’, reflects the Hebrew yahid, ‘unique’, as in ‘only son’ (as monogenês in Jn 1:18) and therefore especially beloved, as in the case of Isaac (Gen 22:2, 12, 16). It also reflects the Hebrew bakîr, ‘chosen’, as in the appointment of the chosen servant of God, in whom God is well pleased and in whom he puts his spirit. This recalls the suffering servant, obedient to God to the end in spite of persecution, and suffering vicariously on behalf of others, taking their faults on himself and praying all the time for sinners (Is a 42:1-2; 52:13-53:12). The divine voice speaks in the second person addressing Jesus in the baptism scene, ‘You are my Beloved Son…’ But later in the ministry, at the transfiguration, the voice will address the disciples speaking of Jesus in the third person: ‘This is my Beloved Son …'(Mk 9:7). Jesus is thus declared a messianic prince-king, a prophetic style servant, but above all the Beloved Son in a unique way. (23)

The ‘installation’ of Jesus in his role resembles (though in a much less dramatic way) that of Ezekiel who was also installed at the bank of a river as winged creatures (Ezek l:lff) appeared in the sky, and was then transported to another place by the spirit. The difference here is that Jesus does not become son at this point but his sonship is revealed to him, as it will be revealed to the three chosen disciples at the transfiguration (Mk 9:7). He is not sent on a mission, told what to say or do like the prophets of old, as in the case of Ezekiel eating the scroll or Jeremiah accepting that God would ‘put my words in to your mouth’ as he was sent ‘to tear up and knock down, to build and to plant'(Jer 1:9f). Jesus’ authority and mission spring from who he is, the Beloved Son, which has been declared to him and from the power of the Spirit, an integral constituent of his role as Messiah. His testing in the desert will show that the Spirit has not just paid him a fleeting visit, but in the words of John’s gospel, the Spirit remains/ dwells (menein) with him (In 1:32).


The narrator has let the reader in on the private revelation of the Father to the Son and is now about to let the reader in on the private temptation or struggle of Jesus in the desert as he prepares for his ministry. Jesus Christ, Son of God, has been introduced to the reader. Now Satan, the source and personification of the forces of opposition throughout the story about to unfold, is introduced to the reader. The Spirit is mentioned three times in the prologue – in John’s description of Jesus’ future ministry, in the description of the descent of the Spirit on Jesus just after his baptism, and in the action of the Spirit in driving Jesus into the desert to be tested by Satan. The prologue thus introduces the divine powers behind the ministry of Jesus and the evil power, Satan, the arch-foe behind the opposition to him. At the same time the agents of divine support, the angels, are introduced. This brings out clearly at the outset that’ … those who play a part in the rest of the book are not really the main characters in the drama about Jesus, but that hidden behind them there is another and more important struggle, of which the main figures are God and Satan’. (24)  The Spirit is constitutive of the role of the Messiah/Christ, the Anointed One, and when Jesus’ role and the power behind it are challenged and he is accused of casting out demons by the power of the prince of devils, Jesus describes it as blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, and designates it ‘an eternal sin’ (Mk 3: 22, 29-31).

The breaking in and onrush of the kingdom is again highlighted by the expression ‘and immediately’, lali euthus, which opens the sentence describing Jesus’ transportation into the desert. ‘And immediately the Spirit drives him into the wilderness / desert’. The verb ekballein is the verb used for the driving out of demons and for other acts of coercion in the gospel. It reflects the power of the Spirit which will be active behind the scenes in Jesus’ ministry. Forty days in the wilderness conjures up the memory of Israel’s experience on escaping from Egypt and experiencing the presence of God in their midst leading them through the wilderness for forty years. It conjures up also the memory of their struggle in the desert between accepting the unfolding if yet unclear plan of God and the desire to return to Egypt. It echoes also the stories of many other figures going there to recapture the original experience of Israel before God in the wilderness. It recalls the experience of the forty day journey of Elijah to Horeb (Sinai) when he was assisted in his exhausted state by the angel (1 Kings 19:1-8).

The desert was the place of testing, of temptation, of fiery serpents. In popular imagination it was the place of threatening wild beasts, the home of demons and forces of destruction. It was the opposite of the Garden of Eden where harmony existed between God, humanity, the animals and the earth. Jesus was driven there by the Spirit. He was tested by Satan. He is like a new Adam, in harmony with God and at home with the wild beasts, a reminder of the prophetic promise that in messianic times the harmony of man and beast would be restored when ‘the lion lies down with the lamb, the cow and the bear make friends and the infant plays over the cobra’s hole’ (Isa 11: 6-9). Here the battle lines are drawn between Satan, the strong man, and Jesus the stronger man in the gospel. (25) The narrator leaves the reader wondering about the exact nature of the testing / temptation and the exact identity of Satan. For the time being the reader is left to wonder. One thing, however, will become obvious very quickly in the narrative, and it is probably as a result of this initial testing. The demonic powers know who Jesus really is. The Beloved Son, empowered by the Spirit, has been tested and not found wanting.

The wild beasts also symbolise the evil powers that will threaten Jesus and his mission. But tradition, as seen in Ps 90 (91), also associates the protective care of the angels with the one present among the wild beasts. The Psalmist reflected: ‘He will give his angels charge over you, to keep you in all your ways… on the lion and the viper you will tread and trample the young lion and the dragon …'(Ps 90 (91):11-13). (26) Daniel emerged from the lions’ den with the affirmation, ‘My God sent his angel who sealed the lions’ jaws so they did me no harm since in his sight I am blameless …'(Dan 6:21-23). Similarly, the men tested in the fiery furnace were protected by the angel of the Lord (Dan 3:49). In his desert sojourn the angel came to the aid of Elijah in his hunger and weakness (1 Kings 19:1-8). St Luke speaks of the angel comforting Jesus in Gethsemane (Lk 22:43). Mark significantly closes his account of the testing (temptation) with the assertion ‘and the angels ministered to him’.

The preparation of the way of the Lord is complete. The recognition, empowering and testing of the protagonist have taken place and the good news is now being proclaimed in a whole new mission in Galilee (Mk 1:41, 15). The prologue has achieved its goal. Mark emphasises the fact by confining the account of the Baptist’s ministry to the prologue and introducing the ministry of Jesus with the words’ after John had been arrested’. The story of John’s arrest and murder will be by way of reminiscence after his death (Mk 6:14-29). In contrast to the Johannine tradition which has a chronological overlap between the ministries of John and Jesus, the synoptics put a clear division between the two eras by having Jesus’ ministry begin after John’s arrest. However, though verses 14 and 15 form an inclusion with Mk 1:1 both in the reference to the euaggelion and to Jesus’ continuing the call for repentance, a new era has already begun, and it is accompanied by a change of time and place as Jesus returns to Galilee whence he had come for the baptism of John and all that accompanied it. The activity at the Jordan and in the desert comes to a close. A new mission in a new area is about to begin.

The reader has now been led to see that God is the prime mover behind the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God, the Lord for whom the precursor was sent to prepare the way. Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee is the Christ, the Son of God, the Lord on whom the Spirit descended at baptism and whom the Spirit subsequently drove out into the desert. He is the one whom the Father through the heavenly voice addressed as ‘my Son the Beloved’ and reassured with the promise ‘my favour rests on you’. Satan represents the forces to be confronted and the protecting forces of God are represented by the presence of the angels. The reader is now equipped to read the story from a privileged position shared with the ‘omniscient’ narrator (though the narrator has a lot more to reveal). From the prologue one has acquired the necessary key to interpreting the gospel (27)


The introduction to the ‘beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, Son of God’ is complete. Jesus, the embodiment of the good news of God, becomes the messenger of the good news of the kingdom as he embarks on his ministry in Galilee. Now he begins his own and the reader’s adventure through his ministry as he comes into Galilee proclaiming the good news and calling on all and sundry to repent and believe in the good news (Mk 1:14, 15).

In the prologue we have a concentration of ‘high’ christological material, insight into the identity of Jesus and a privileged observation of the arrival of the Spirit and the voice from heaven. The rest of the gospel unfolds on a more’ earthly’ plane, with the exception of the transfiguration (Mk 9:9) and some scenes with epiphanic or christophanic elements, such as the calming of the storm (Mk 4:35-41) and Jesus’ corning over the water to the disciples (Mk 6:45-52). M. D. Hooker puts it very well:
It is as though Mark were allowing us to view the drama from a heavenly vantage point (whence we see things as they really are) before he brings us down to earth, where we find characters in the story totally bewildered by what is going on.’ (8)

1.See M. E. Boring, ‘Mark 1:1-15 and the beginning of the Gospel’, Semeia 52 (1990), 43-81; D. Dormeyer, ‘Mk 1:1-15 als Prolog des ersten Idealbiographischen Evangeliums van Jesus Christus’, Biblical Interpretation 5 (1997)181-211.
2. Furthermore, making a division between verses14 and 15 does not seem to be advisable as a solution because these two verses follow the typical Markan pattern of a general statement followed by a specific one: ‘announcing the good news’ is followed by the specific details of the nearness of the kingdom and the necessity of repentance.
3. There are variations in the text of the first verse, some manuscripts not having’ Son of God’. The presence of ‘Son of God’ in the important manuscript B, D, W, and the overall structure and theology of the gospel as outlined above, point strongly to the longer reading.
4. Beginning has no article, and as such the phrase beginning of the good news resembles the Semitic construct case. The same word is used also at the opening of John’s gospel and En arche in Jn 1:1 also has no article.
5. M. Hogan, op. cit., 61.
6. The MT has ‘path in the desert’, the LXX and NT have ‘voice in the desert’ .
7. The synoptics and John follow the LXX ‘voice in the desert’ rather than ‘path in the desert’ but John takes an independent line from the synoptics when he conflates the two elements of the LXX, which read ‘prepare the Lord’s road, make straight God’s path’ into ‘Make straight the Lord’s path’. The synoptics have the two elements. The Qumran community used this text to explain their living, waiting, preparing and studying in the desert (I QS VIII 13-16). The synoptic narrators apply this text to John the Baptist but in John’s gospel he applies it to himself in his response to the Jerusalem emissaries.
8. For an examination of the influence on Mark of Deutero-Isaiah’s concept of ‘the way of the Lord’ as a new Exodus, a new return under the care and protection of a shepherding and warrior God, see R. E. Watts, Isaiah’s New Exodus and Mark, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 2, Reihe 88, Tubingen: J. C. B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck), 1997.
9. Lk 3: 7, 9, 18; Mt 3:10-12. These verses are usually ascribed to the Q tradition which many scholars regard as a source for Matthew and Luke.
10. Ps 31 (32):5; 37 (38):18; 50 (51):3-5; cf Lev 5:5; The Prayer of Manasseh; Josephus, War, 5.415; cf Ant., 18:117.
11. b.Ketuboth 96a.
12. W. J. Harrington, John, Spiritual Theologian, 32. The remark about the sandals may be a reminder to those who continued to see John as the messianic figure, that John himself was the first to deny any such role for himself.
13. I QS 3:7-9; 4:20-22; I QH 16:12; cf 7:6; 17:26; fragment: 2:9,3. The influence of Ezekiel is evident here (Ezek 36:25-27).
14. Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 18:117.
15. J. P. Meier, A Marginal Jew 2, 53-55, sees John’s baptism as quite original to John.
16. The rending of the heavens is reflected in, and forms an inclusion with, the rending of the veil of the Temple at the crucifixion, and both ‘rendings’ are followed by a declaration of the divine sonship of Jesus.
17. J. Marcus, Mark 1-8, 165.
18. In the synoptics this descent of the Spirit signifies the anointing of the Messiah and is interpreted by the witnessing voice of the Father (Isa 42:1; Ps 2:7). It signifies also the return of the quenched Spirit in a Spirit anointed Messiah (Isa 11:2; 42:1; 61:1) and the eschatological event heralded by the rending of the heavens (Isa 64:1). Furthermore the river has salvific significance in the biblical tradition where it can be seen to symbolise life (Ezek 47:1-12), forgiveness (LXX Ezek 47:3) and healing (2 Kings 5:14).
19. The hovering of the Spirit in Gen 1:2 is like the hovering of a bird above the nest inciting the young to fly. The bird in question was interpreted by the rabbis as a dove brooding above the nestlings. The song of the turtle dove in Song of Songs 2:12 was interpreted in the Targum on the Song of Songs as the voice of the Spirit.
20. R. H. Gundry, op. cit., 4.
21. cf Acts 19:1£f as a practical manifestation of the promised reality.
22. ‘Baptism’ can signify the beginning of a new life and a new state and similarly ‘Baptism in a Holy Spirit’ signifies the beginning of a new state involving a new and critical ‘religious’ experience (cf Acts 1:5; 11:16). It can signify a crisis and decision about one’s response to the Messiah. Jesus himself used the metaphor of baptism for his impending passion and death (Mk 10:38; Lk 12:50).
23. Towards the end of his ministry in Jerusalem Jesus challenges the scribes’ teaching that the Messiah is (merely) son of David and goes on to  point out that David himself calls him ‘Lord’, elevating him to the divine plain (Mk 12:35-37).
24. B. van Iersel, Reading Mark, 34
25. In Matthew and Luke the significance of the testing is spelled out in tenns of the temptations to feed the crowd with physical food alone, to grasp at political power and to bypass the response in repentance and faith with miraculous proof. The tempter had begun his adversarial activity in Matthew and Luke by saying ‘If you are the son of God…’ Jesus’ responses to the temptations in Matthew and Luke removed the’if’!
26. This psalm is actually quoted in the temptation accounts in Mt 4:6 and Lk4:1O.
27. See F. J. Matera: ‘The Prologue as the Interpretative Key to Mark’s Gospel’, ]SNT 34 (1988), 3-20.
28. M. D. Hooker, The Gospel according to St Mark, 32.





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