Quoting the prophets

How did these texts end up being quoted here, and what purpose do they serve?

Purely speculatively, I imagine something like the following history.

(i) John the Baptist, out preaching in the wilderness, perhaps understands himself, and is perhaps understood, in terms which are partly drawn from texts such as these. Texts such as these provide part of the background which makes the way he goes about his ministry ‘make sense’ – whether he, his followers, or his hearers think about it explicitly or not. (And, of course, behind this there would have to stand patterns of usage of such texts as these in the years running up to John’s ministry that would have allowed them to become part of people’s mental furniture.)

(ii) My guess is that at some point before Jesus comes on the scene, these specific texts may have been used to interpret or represent John’s ministry. And in my speculative reconstruction, I see this as an irreducibly complex process. In part, it might simply have happened because there were some handy (if dubious) verbal hooks – like the ‘voice in the wilderness’ phrase – which could be grabbed hold of and wrapped around John. In part, there might have been a recognition that the message, ‘prepare for the coming of the King’, was actually a good fit for the kind of message John was actually proclaiming. And in part there might simply have been a making explicit of the implicit scriptural background to John’s activity and its reception.

(iii) If something like this process took place, I suspect that it would have begun having two effects. (1) It might have further shaped perceptions (perhaps including John’s own) of what his ministry was – selecting and highlighting from a range of possible interpretations one which made ‘prepare the way of the Lord’ a central slogan. (Think of it as an accidental rebranding exercise.) (2) It might have meant that people’s ideas of the coming day of the Lord, and of the relation in which they stood to it, started taking on colours from John’s ministry – the application of these texts providing a conduit by which the innovations in John’s message can infect the eschatological ideas people already have.

(iv) At some point, Jesus emerges against this background. (He may, of course, have been involved in any or all stages of it; I don’t know what scholarly thinking currently is on the early relationship between John and Jesus.) And so he emerges on a scene where people’s eschatological ideas have begun to be reshaped by John’s ministry, and where John’s ministry is understood in part through texts like these – and perhaps through these specific texts. That background provides some of the parameters by which people try to ‘place’ Jesus – to understand his significance. And perhaps – just perhaps – this set-up allows Jesus’ ministry to be thought of as playing some part in the eschatological coming of God for which John was now seen as the forerunner. Perhaps that becomes part of John’s understanding; perhaps of some of John’s followers; perhaps of Jesus himself; perhaps of Jesus’ followers. These texts, prepared as it were by the existing uses in John’s movement, become part of the internal and external identification of the Jesus movement.

(v) In the process, however, these texts become political: they become caught up in the relationship between John’s movement and Jesus’ movement – and are used by the latter to place John (and his followers) relative to Jesus (and his followers), as well as being used to say something about the role or significance of Jesus himself. And as time goes by, this becomes the primary role of these texts in the Christian movement. And once John and his movement have vanished, it is this role that remains for these texts. They become the leitmotiv by which we identify John the Baptist: they are the summary statements of his identity, his role in the drama. And the eschatological content, and any claims about the role of Jesus, are eventually more or less erased.

Where might Mark’s inclusion of these texts fit in this history? If something like it is true, where does it leave us as readers trying to interpret these verses in Mark?

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