So here’s the plan: each week that the gospels are covered in Sunday School, I will post one question from my book along with a brief discussion of the issues that it raises.
The Question: Notice that Mark first introduces Jesus at his baptism. In what ways does this create a different impression of Jesus than Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, which introduce Jesus as an infant? Why didn’t Mark include a nativity story?
(adapted from Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels)
So I’ve raised this issue in previous lessons: taking the New Testament seriously means taking seriously the fact that we have not one but rather four accounts of Jesus’ life and, while sharing broad themes and events, they also differ substantially in details and emphases.
This lesson covers the ministry of John the Baptist, Jesus’ baptism, and Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. It is also precisely the point at which Mark’s Gospel begins.
Now, some scholars over-read a bit, I think, to conclude that Mark either didn’t know about or was actively denying the idea of a virgin birth (and wise men, angels appearing to shepherds, etc.). But that’s an argument from silence. It’s possible, but it is also possible that Mark simply chose not to mention these things because they didn’t contribute to the story that he wanted to tell.
What story was he trying to tell? Well, there is general agreement that a big (if not the biggest) theme in Mark is discipleship. And thus it makes perfect sense to begin not with a baby (who can’t be a disciple) but rather with John and a baptism and a temptation. This is what discipleship looks like: it looks like John’s ministry, it looks like getting baptized, it looks like getting tempted. This is an important point: the way Mark tells it, the inevitable and immediate result of Jesus’ baptism is that Jesus is thrust out into the wilderness so that he can be tempted. Choosing baptism means choosing temptation. Being baptized means being tempted. Temptation is, to borrow a phrase from the geek world, not a bug but a feature.
Note that in Mark, there are not three temptations. Jesus is just tempted. I think this is important because I worry that “the three temptations” makes people think that after this event, Jesus was no longer tempted. But I think that’s a misreading, at least for Mark, who will use the same word for “tempted” three other times in Jesus’ life. In other words, the scene in the wilderness after Jesus’ baptism in Mark is not “The Temptation of Jesus” but rather “The First [Narrated] Temptations of Jesus.” Jesus was tempted throughout his mortal life; we can expect no less. And we are no more sinning when we are tempted than he was. This is just what discipleship looks like.
And one more thing: this post and the article it cites push back against what the manual has to say about Zacharias. (That said, in general, I do not advocate contradicting the manual; I would probably just avoid this topic–it isn’t really germane to the main thrust of the lesson in any case.)
Julie: I was so pleased when you decided to do a weekly posting. I enjoy the New Testament greatly and I especially enjoy the chance to consider something I have “known” for years under a different light. Please keep it up and know that many consider your postings to be a true spiritual feast.
Julie. This is where the ministry really begins. Some of the birth narratives tend to sound a little like the Infancy Gospels, but here things really get going. I know that you (and others) don’t give Margaret Barker as much emphasis as some, but I found her Risen Lord to be her best book (its still the best, although Temple Theology and her latest King of the Jews are close). In that book, she has documented her findings in the notes, but what I enjoyed most was her engagement with other scholars in the notes (almost like a debate). She ties in the baptism, the Transfiguration and other things with the mission of Christ and shows how he (and others of his time) knew and welcomed him as the Messiah. I was wondering what you thought of it. In addition, you mentioned your feelings about Yarbro-Collins’ Mark (Hermeneia). How about R.T. France?
Terry H, I’ve read very little Barker because what I have read, I’ve found very frustrating because she seems to draw very strong conclusions from fragmentary evidence and thus loses me. Generally speaking, however, some people recognized Jesus as the Messiah; most did not because they did not consider the “suffering servant” passages from Isaiah to apply to the Messiah but rather to another figures (or group) and therefore Jesus didn’t fit their notion of the Messiah (for other reasons as well). I don’t see the baptism or Transfiguration as decisively declaring him to be the messiah (as opposed to the Son of God, a prophet like Moses, etc., which I think are suggested more clearly than messianism per se in those accounts).
France is OK but doesn’t really stand out from the crowd of Mark commentaries for me. At this stage, my top recommendation is Marcus; I’m sure that reflects my penchant for Hebrew Bible allusions in Mark.
Thanks Julie. I don’t see Barker’s comments as tying the baptism and Transfiguration to proving to the Masses that Jesus was the Messiah, but more to Jesus himself. That’s why the Risen Lord is the best of her books, since the evidence is better documented. I’ll check out Marcus. Thanks.
Oh, I may have misunderstood you, then. I do think it is possible that those events had a teaching function for Jesus, particularly because of the use of the second person (“YOU are my beloved son”) at the baptism in Mark.
Thanks much–for those of us who don’t attend Gospel Doctrine, this helps us feel connected to the adult world of scripture study.
Julie, I just wanted to thank you for your book Search, Ponder and Pray, I just got it after Christmas (treat to myself) and also for these blog posts. You are helping me to understand and appreciate the NT in new and thoughtful ways. Also, excellent interview on Mormon Studies Podcast, thanks for all you are doing!
Thanks, Naismith and hope_for_things!
Julie, I have a hard time believing that the author of Mark, who likely had no expectation of another Gospel writer doing the work of fitting the birth into their own particular narrative, would have left it out for thematic reasons. It could have been humanities only shot at hearing about it at all!
BUT, as it turns out, Mark really does work better without it anyway – I agree. So I like your approach.
We had lesson #3 yesterday (birth narratives) and one young RM finally expressed his frustration with us wasting time speculating on Jesus’ childhood and ignoring the more important topics of faith, repentance, etc. It really solidified in my mind the idea expressed in the OP (and other blog commentaries recently) that Mark may have similarly felt the birth narratives a distraction from the simple messages of Christ’s mission. It ended up sparking a good discussion as to why some of the gospel writers might have felt including the birth narratives (or discussion of Jesus’ premortal godhood in the case of John) would aid in building testimonies.
I’ve been enjoying these commentaries. Thanks!
Could I ask you to tease out this section a little more:
“Choosing baptism means choosing temptation. Being baptized means being tempted. Temptation is, to borrow a phrase from the geek world, not a bug but a feature.”
I am just looking for clarity. Is the intent of this section to explain that being baptized is to commit to live a certain way, and in doing so one must overcome/struggle through temptation in order to grow and progress? I just wanted to confirm that I was not missing something deeper or potentially more obvious.
Props for using “not a bug but a feature.”
Matt, I was just trying to emphasize that Mark links the stories of the baptism and temptation in such a way to imply that the temptation is a direct and immediate result of the baptism. One lesson we might draw from this is that we should expect to be tempted. That’s all.
I guess that was the more obvious answer. Baptism causes the result of temptation….I am going to have to chew on that one for a while.
I like the portrayal of temptation that you presented.
Why didn’t Mark include an infancy narrative? After all, there are so many to choose from.
Reading the Gospel of Mark, in relation to the other gospels, reminds me a bit like reading early versions of Joseph Smith’s First Vision vs. later versions. Mark is more of the “just the facts” gospel with less context about the place of Jesus in traditional Judaism, the broader Roman world, or in God’s plan for mankind. The later gospels clearly benefit from the additional discourse, dialogue and experience of the early church, which result in more comprehensive and mature narratives in Matthew, Luke, and John. Stories get better with more telling and with time to reflect on context.
To Julie’s point, it is quite possible that the import of virgin birth simply had not developed as an important part of telling the Christian story at the writing of Mark, much like in Joseph’s First Vision narrative, the identification of two anthropomorphic personages were not an important part of his story, early in his ministry.
It also makes we wonder at what point, if ever, Mary and her contempories began sharing “Joseph is not the father.” Not a taboo that any 1st century Jewish woman would likely acknowledge during her lifetime. There were probably some interesting “transparency” debates among early saints when they began sharing the narratives that Matthew and Luke authored.
Mike, there is merit to your thought that the other gospels are more “mature.” But there is also merit to the idea that Matthew and Luke found Mark’s Gospel objectionable and wanted to supplant it (but couldn’t entirely because of its popularity) but that their gospels are nonetheless efforts to censor, clean up, and basically “fix” Mark and that if we want an earlier, purer, less corrupted gospel, one closer to history, we need to look to Mark. There is value in both directions, which is probably why we have more than one canonized account.
My class didn’t like Mark’s bare bones account of Jesus’s trial in the wilderness, and told me all the reasons why the other accounts were better. So I guess the others fixed Mark in that instance. :)
Ardis, it’s funny to me how we generally assume more = better. But I think the removal of “plain and precious things” can sometimes involve the addition of material.