This post fulfills a course assignment to provide a close reading of a passage in the New Testament.
The Gospel of Mark opens with the most basic statement of who Mark believes Jesus to be: the “Son of God” and the “Christ” or messiah. Jesus’s status as God’s son is emphasized several times in the passage, demonstrating its significance for understanding who Jesus is. During Jesus’ baptism, God the father directly acknowledges Jesus as his “son.” This passage differs from the opening of the Gospel of John, however, where Jesus is portrayed as having been God’s Word (rather than son) and with God since the beginning of time. According to Mark, has Jesus existed since the beginning of time? Is Jesus eternal? As God’s son, Jesus appears to have divine powers in the Gospel of Mark. However, this passage does not claim that Jesus exists co-eternally with God the Father, nor that he is equal to God the Father. While both Mark and John assert Jesus’s relationship with the divine from the beginning of their Gospels, John 1 calls Jesus God’s “word” and asserts that the word “was” God; he therefore makes a stronger claim about Jesus’ eternal divinity and almost equal status with God than Mark does.
Like the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Mark emphasizes in the very first chapter Jesus’ claim to divine sonship; the reader is to understand unequivocally that he is God’s son, and that God is his father in all three Gospels. However, Mark does not “prove” Jesus’ divine sonship through a birth narrative. This raises the question of whether Jesus is biologically God’s son and whether Jesus has been God’s son since his birth. According to Luke, Mary conceives directly through the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35). God was always Jesus’ father. According to Mark, the Holy Spirit comes down to Jesus (not Mary), and first during Jesus’ baptism. Jesus does not receive the title of God’s son, and thus perhaps is not God’s son until his baptism. He was not born God’s son.
The quotation from Isaiah in 1:2 emphasizes that the events of Jesus’ life have already been foretold in the Jewish scriptures. The prophecy, however, is not about the Messiah but about someone who will come before Jesus – a messenger who will “prepare” the world for the coming of the Lord. Mark stresses that despite John the Baptist’s importance as a leader of many people, John the Baptist was not the Messiah but merely a “messenger.” His role was to prepare people for the coming of Jesus, by baptizing them and preaching the power of repentance. (See also the footnote in the HarperCollins Study Bible, which notes that Mark conflates Isaiah with Exodus and Malachi; it’s Malachi that emphasizes the “messenger.”)
After baptism, Jesus is tempted by Satan. However, Jesus does not choose this path for himself. The Holy Spirit “drove” him into the wilderness. Jesus’ actions and experiences in Mark were not always of his own choosing. An outside agent – here, the Holy Spirit – chose Jesus’ path for him.
The temptation of Jesus in this 13th-14th century painting in the Frick Collection (by the artist Duccio di Buoninsegna) gives a different representation of the event. As in Mark’s account, Jesus is accompanied by angels. However here, Jesus is surrounded by cities; it doesn’t feel like the wilderness. He also dominates the scene as the tallest and most powerful figure, in contrast to the language of Mark, in which the Holy Spirit is the agent of the narrative.
The temptation by Satan introduces a theme that dominates the entire Gospel: Jesus’ ongoing battle with the powers of the devil. Throughout the Gospel, Jesus exorcises demons and speaks against the devil. Mark presents Jesus’ ministry as an oppositional one: the earth is infested with demons, and Jesus as God’s emissary routs the world of them. Jesus’ temptation by Satan is but the first moment in a much larger role Jesus’ plays as exorcist and enemy of the devil.
Jesus in Mark 1 is an apocalyptic figure. When he preaches that “the kingdom of God has come near,” he preaches to the people that the end of this age will arrive imminently. His message is to prepare oneself for the end, and to prepare, one must repent of sins. This is similar to John the Baptist’s message, which Mark describes in 1:4 as a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Mark puts Jesus’s proclamation of his message immediately after the arrest of John the Baptist. Thus in Mark, Jesus does not begin his ministry until Johns comes to an end (in contrast to Luke, who has Jesus already teaching in the Temple as a 12-year old). Moreover, this placement suggests that may be seen as continuing John’s message and ministry, raising the question of whether Jesus is developing a unique message and ministry of his own.
In calling his first disciples, Mark’s Jesus manifests the authoritative power of Jesus’ personal charisma. His soon-to-be disciples do not question his call but “immediately” abandon their work to follow him. Thus Mark portrays Jesus as a figure of immense authority and power, authority and power that is “immediately” visible to the people around him. We have no sense that these disciples knew Jesus before, had heard of his reputation, or had any other reason to follow Jesus. They simply respond to his first call.
Following Mark’s Jesus requires personal sacrifice. Simon, Andrew, James, and John abandon their families and their livelihood to become disciples. This message is echoed in Luke 14:25-27, in which Jesus teaches that one cannot be his disciple unless one “hates” one’s mother , father, wife, children, and siblings. To follow Jesus entails abandoning all else, even one’s family. Because these traditions about abandoning family appear in different forms in different gospels, this instruction may be one of the more authentic teachings of Jesus preserved in the gospels.
This is a sample of a Close Reading Assignment for RELI 25 at the University of the Pacific.
Citations: I wrote this very quickly originally in 2009. I edited it and posted it online first in 2014. It reflects my ongoing engagement with Mark and a broad swath of biblical scholarship over the past 20 years. I wanted to model for students an assignment that is not based on secondary source research, so I don’t cite all the scholarship on Mark I’ve read. I am sure that the ideas and contributions of many other scholars are reflected in this piece, nonetheless, since my thinking about Mark has been influenced by what I have read over the years.
Note to students:
This post is 969 words long. Please note:
- There is very little summary – it focuses what the passage means
- There is very little quotation — only where the language is really relevant, I link a lot instead
- I haven’t even discussed Ehrman or the other readings. You could certainly do more with them (and probably should).
- I do not copy-and-paste the image because the Frick website specifically says its contents “may not be reproduced without permission”; I link instead. Note that I say briefly where the painting is and when it was painted to give context without going into a long discourse about its history. The link to the Frick provides more information.
- This is a quick piece; I dashed it out first a few years ago (not online) very quickly and then updated it quickly 2/11/2014. It could use some editing to make it more concise. But still: it’s pretty concise; I cover a LOT of ground in 969 words.
- I don’t expect as many links; this is just an example of the kind of thing you could do. You could do OTHER THINGS as well. This is a sample close reading but not the Platonic Ideal of a Close Reading.
Note to guests: Please feel free to comment! I welcome your thoughts on this assignment as an assignment, and your comments and critiques of my reading of Mark 1:1-20.