Category Archives: Mark 1:2-3

Continuity and Discontinuity

I’ve been on holiday for a week, in (mostly) sunny Cornwall, and confirming that Kynance Cove is one of my favourite places in the world (and the Lawrences some of my favourite people).

Anyway, just one last post to put the ‘abducting John’ strand of thinking to bed. I have spoken of a ‘dialectic of description and registering resistance, within a life in pursuit of holiness’, and then suggested that needs to be rethought. I’d like instead to suggest that a theologically nuanced reading of the relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus in Mark (and, more deeply, between Mark’s Jesus and the ‘as it is written’ of the Prophets) will start with a ‘reading for continuity’: reading John in terms of Jesus and Jesus in terms of John: John the Baptist as the one who made Jesus possible; Jesus as the one who was made possible by John. Reading John as theotokos, as I put it a long time ago). This is itself an ongoing process, a matter of continual adjustments in reading as a better ‘fit’ is sought between the two sides; it is not a matter of a static, achieved interpretation.

This ‘reading for continuity’ will be shadowed and interrupted, however, by ‘registering discontinuity’. Register the resistances on both sides: that in Jesus which exceeds anything we can see made ready in John; that in John which is unassimilated, unpreseverved, unfulfilled in Jesus.

Mark’s Gospel lends itself to reading for continuity (that is how it tells the story) and to seeing the ‘resistances’ on Jesus’ side. It allows glimpses or hints of resistances on John the Baptist’s side only indirectly, through the gaps in what it says. When it comes to the Prophets, and to the Hebrew Scriptures in general, those resistances are considerably more visible.

What I am suggesting has some connections to the ‘criterion of dissimilarity’ and opposing proposals of a ‘criterion of similarity’ in Jesus research – but I am not proposing criteria for judging historical authenticity: rather, I am proposing (to myself, if no one else) a set of questions to have in mind when reading, a set of processes of reading to go through, and hold in tension, in order to be sent more deeply by these texts into serious thought.

And I have one last complication to throw back in, from another strand of posts on this blog. ‘Reading for continuity’ may well be rather complex, if one of the forms of such continuity involved is precisely the ‘prophetic’ continuity of speaking from within the excess involved in any attempt at continuity. John the Baptist is made, in Mark, to stand (in part) precisely for that inspired discontiunity-for-the-sake-of-obedience which is an authentic, continuous strand in the Hebrew scriptures…

On and on and on

So here’s the story so far on the ‘abduction’ strand of my thinking. (And, yes, I know I am belabouring this to death and back, but the whole point of this kind of exploration is to see attend to the little niggles of irritation that suggest to me that I’m talking rubbish, and see whether I can make them go away.)

Really, this is all part of an exploration of the first two Greek words after the superscript in Mark: ‘As it is written’. I am interested, roughly speaking, in what kind of relationship to the Hebrew Bible, and to the Judaism of Jesus’ day and before, we are talking about if we take those words seriously. But in order to approach that hoary old topic at an angle, with the faint hope that it might help me think about it differently, I have been investigating a proxy issue that Mark immediately presents to us: the nature of Mark’s (the Markan community’s, early Christians’) reading of John the Baptist: the way in which the historical figure in the desert (I’m assuming there was one) became the textual John, written entirely as forerunner to Jesus.

After much footling, I came to a provisional and partial answer, based on thinking about what it meant for a Christian to claim that John’s identity was truly ‘hid with Christ in God’, and the difference between saying that and saying that Christians therefore knew John’s true identity in a way that John did not: a difference that has a lot to do with the fact that Christians are not God. And yet persisting in wanting to say that Christians do, through Christ, have ways of speaking truly about God – and so ways of talking about what it means for identities to be ‘hid with Christ in God’. I talked about a dialectic between Christ-focused reading (e.g., of John, starting our description of his identity with talking about how he related to Jesus) and registering the resistance, the excess of John relative to our Christ-centred description. And this whole dialectic making sense only as practised by people, a community, that is pursuing holiness (the purification of its love), so as to purify its descriptions from selfishness.

When we take this rather abstract idea back to Mark, however, we are forced to say that Mark displays only one side of the dialectic clearly: the Christ-focused description of John. The other side is present only in glimpses: the way the unassimilated John appears between the cracks in Mark’s description. (That’s a deeply problematic way of putting it, but let it stand for now.) This dialectic is not something I have derived from Mark, in other words – but is about asking what I, as a Christian reader of Mark who has a whole lot of other bits of Christian theology bubbling around in his head, have to say in order to be able to follow Mark, at least in part.

Then, I back-pedalled slightly, by noting that there might be ways in which we could describe John such that the tension between what we could glimpse of his unassimilated, pre-abducted identity through Mark’s Christ-focused description, and that Christ-focused description itself, was lessened. And that’s what I was talking about in the last post. But, as I noted in that post, my way of raising that possibility seemed to have comitted me to a kind of investigation for which I have neither the aptitude nor the appetite; I seemed to be back-pedalling for the sake of unconvincing, speculative apologetics – which isn’t what I had set out to do at all.

However, what that back-pedal does reveal which is more directly appropriate to my project is that speculating about John suggests that my dialectical hermeneutical proposal may rest on too dichotomous, too discontinuous, a picture of the unassimilated/assimilated distinction: that it may simply be assuming that John’s unassimilated distinction is utterly distinct from the use that Mark has made of him. Or at least that it tends in that direction. And whether or not that is unfair to John (I leave the detailed investigation to those who have the stomach for it), if we broaden our perspective back out to the wider question I started with, that overly dichotomous picture is more obviously a pretty dodgy one: it itself smacks of supersessionism.

So my neat, pious, ‘dialectic of description and registering resistance, within a life in pursuit of holiness’ might need to be rethought a bit.

Okay. If this is really all exegesis of the first two words of Mark, how long is the rest of it going to take me?

Back to John’s Abduction

In an earlier post, I suggested that Mark’s application to John of the prophetic texts from the Hebrew Bible may have been sparked by playful verbal connections between those texts and John, but that the fuel set alight by those sparks might be a somewhat deeper connection:

John’s ministry of repentance was, I suspect, a ministry that self-consciously performed a preparation for the coming of YHWH as already understood in ways shaped by verses like these from Isaiah. John prepares for the coming of the Lord – and when the Lord comes in ways unexpected even by John, John’s ministry of repentance does not cease to be a preparation for it.

This is an inviting line of argument, or so it seemed to me at the time. It promises to give me a way of saying that to read John as preparing for Jesus is a reading with the grain of his lived specificity, even if John did not see himself as a forerunner of Jesus. And so it promises me a way out of worries about the violent abduction of John.

It is too easy, however – and not only because it involves a kind of speculation about John’s message and motivation which takes us way beyond any historical warrant we have. It either involves reading John’s obedience to YHWH purely formally, as if John will proclaim the Lord’s coming with no content, refusing to say anything about what that arrival will involve (a move which tends towards reading obedience as a purely negative submission, not as participation, and tends towards a reading of YHWH as arbitrary power), or it reads back into John a kind of apophatic theology which, while theologically much more attractive, seems to me to be historically implausible.

I could claim that this problem arises simply because I am seeking answers at too abstract a level of inquiry. Only if we ask more closely about what obedience to YHWH, preparation for YHWH, could mean in John’s time, and what we can tell of John’s take on such obedience, and what it means to claim Jesus as the fulfilment of such obedience, could we hope to make this line of argument stick… or so I might argue. Only that looks like turning into the kind of full-blown historical-critical investigation for which I have neither time nor competence.

And, in any case, this kind of discussion seems to show that (even when I have not acknowledged it) ‘saving’ Mark from accusations of violence has been my agenda – indeed, showing that Mark’s descriptions are (in some deep way) faithful to historical reality. I turn out to be wanting to out-historical-criticise the historical critics! And that’s not what I had originally set out to do: I think my rather different concerns have got dragged off path by the gravitational pull of some heavy apologetic questions lying off to one side. Time for a bit of a rethink.

John the interruption

John was liminal, uncivilized. When people went to him, they went out: ἐξεπορεύετο . He eats wild, raw food; he is dressed as if fresh from Eden. Cooking, weaving, urban habitation – all the trappings of someone who is part of the world of ordinary, civilized, organized life are missing. John is a surd; he defies categorization. He is a disruptive element, and is to be found in the only place he could belong: in the desert. He is an interruption.

This interruption is what the continuity, the ongoing stability suggested by Mark’s “as it is written” looks like.

John, the voice in the wilderness

καθὼς γέγραπται ἐν τῷ Ἠσαΐᾳ τῷ προφήτῃ

ἰδοὺ ἀποστέλλω τὸν ἄγγελόν μου πρὸ προσώπου σου
ὃς κατασκευάσει τὴν ὁδόν σου
φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ
ἑτοιμάσατε τὴν ὁδὸν κυρίου
εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους αὐτοῦ

ἐγένετο Ἰωάννης βαπτίζων ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ καὶ κηρύσσων βάπτισμα μετανοίας εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν

Mark 1:2-4

In what sense is John the ‘voice crying in the wilderness’? In what sense is he YHWH’s messenger? At first sight, the connection between John and the prophecy appears to have been made with uncritical literalism by early followers of John and then of Jesus – followers who found a verse about one proclaiming in the wilderness, and grabbed it to speak about this Jordan-based preacher, and who had to change the syntax of the verse from Isaiah in the process (to attach ‘wilderness’ to the ‘voice’ rather than to the ‘making straight’).

I suspect, however that this is a secondary, accidental and in its way playful connection dependent upon a deeper connection that had already been found: John’s ministry of repentance was, I suspect, a ministry that self-consciously performed a preparation for the coming of YHWH as already understood in ways shaped by verses like these from Isaiah. John prepares for the coming of the Lord – and when the Lord comes in ways unexpected even by John, John’s ministry of repentance does not cease to be a preparation for it.

“Proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”: Proclaiming a washing, a purification, a rite of passage, a way through the Jordan, a return to the true Israel – for or into the forgiveness of sins: into a renewed Israel, an Israel whose sins have been taken away, an Israel made straight, levelled for the coming King. If John proclaims (consciously? despite himself?) Jesus, he does so only by proclaiming the renewal of Israel.

Believing in providence

Mark makes the claim that what happened with Jesus took place ‘just as it was written’. What has happened in Jesus has enabled Jesus’ followers, they think, to see the truth of the scriptural texts. The texts were, as it were, set up beforehand with Jesus in mind. I don’t think we can get away from the fact that some such claim is being made in Mark’s text.

When reflecting on this a couple of years ago, I wrote the following:

I don’t really believe in such a providential ordering, not at the level of my deepest sensibility, not at the level of my basic stance towards the world – not in my gut. I’m reading (because it has been lent to us) Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry trilogy, and have found it so packed with portent, each incident foreshadowed and wrapped with prophesied inevitability, that I cannot stomach it. καθὼς γέγραπται is not in my blood.

I find it difficult to sort out my options here. If I say that using these Old Testament texts Christologically is, in some sense, the right thing to do – what am I committing myself to?

Quoting the prophets 2

Time to return to Mark 1:2-3. In an earlier post, I gave a speculative reconstruction of the process by which these quotes from the prophets might have been included here. I now want to take that further, moving away from the game of speculative reconstruction, and towards the use of this text by a believing community.

(1) As should be clear from my speculative reconstruction, and my comments on authorial intention, I’m not sure there’s any way we can clearly establish quite how much Mark meant by the inclusion of these texts. Of course, I’m not denying that the process which led to this inclusion involved connections being made between the nature of Jesus’ mission and interpretations of these (and other) OT texts. But quite what connections, and quite what interpretations, is very much more difficult to say – and the answer might be considerably more limited than we would like.

(2) If, however, we ask what this inclusion makes possible, things look rather different. The inclusion of these texts allows for the continuation of (and marks the existence of) a process of ongoing interpretation: exploring OT prophecy and other texts to do with the coming of God, and asking whether and to what extent they enable us to make sense of Jesus? The inclusion of these texts here is one of the ways in which Christians are provided with a canon.

(3) We need to be wary here of too simplistic a fact-interpretation disjunction. Jesus emerges against a background of such texts as this, a background of uses of such texts; who he is and what he does is in part constituted by his relation to such texts and uses – by what he does with this background, how it is reshaped in him. The difference he makes is similarly in part constituted by these texts and their uses. In asking what is ‘made possible’ for a believing community, we are asking about how a community forms around the impact of this text-ridden Jesus, how a community struggles to find ways of living appropriately in the text-wrapped space he has opened up. The community so struggling is given these prophetic texts, given the already running process of interpretation, of sense-making, right from the start.

(4) I suppose it is possible to imagine a community being formed in such a way as to regard this interpretive question as closed. One could imagine a Saviour, perhaps, who attempted to bequeathe a fixed and final interpertation of the prophetic texts. “This is that, this means that; end of story.” This does not seem to be the case with the Jesus movement, which seems to be from the beginning involved in a fluid, unfinished, exploratory reading of the Hebrew Scriptures. (And my earlier speculative reconstruction was intended to suggest concrete ways in which the interpretation of these particular texts might have been ‘in progress’ at the time of the writing of Mark.)

(5) Christian identity (the identity of the community struggling to make appropriate sense of Jesus) is therefore in part constituted by the attempt to make sense of Jesus in the light of the Hebrew Scriptures, and vice versa. Christians are, as I have already said, hereby given a canon. Yet being given a canon like this means being given worries about the misappropriation of this canon (and note the misattribution, and the misquotation, already involved in these brief quotations) . Accepting this canon is a dangerous strategy, because it means accepting a source that to some extent stands over against one – a source of potential challenge to one’s interpretation. And that means that Christian identity is marked in two ways:
(i) As I’ve stressed already, this means that Christian identity is going to be inherently dialogical and argumentative – simply because there is (and can be) no single, univocal way of making sense like this.
(ii) This also means that Christian identity is inherently bound up with dialogue/argument with Judaism (if by ‘Judaism’ we mean those strands of first-Century Judaism who make sense of themselves by making sense of the same Hebrew Scriptures, but who do not feel captivated by the possibility of making this sense in the light of Jesus of Nazareth).

(6) And all this means that I could not possibly hope to set down anything like a complete interpretation of these two verses in this blog. I can’t step in and say, “Here is what is meant by the inclusion of these prophetic texts.” I can only hope to dip into the ongoing stream of interpretation – give one particular view of how to make sense of Jesus by making sense of these texts.

I know I’m labouring this like crazy. I’m simply trying to get my thoughts clear, and can only do that by trying to set them out in some kind of ordered way. Apologies to anyone who is still reading…

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?

The coming King

καθὼς γέγραπται ἐν τῷ Ἠσαΐᾳ τῷ προφήτῃ ἰδοὺ ἀποστέλλω τὸν ἄγγελόν μου πρὸ προσώπου σου ὃς κατασκευάσει τὴν ὁδόν σου φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ ἑτοιμάσατε τὴν ὁδὸν κυρίου εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους αὐτοῦ
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” ’
(Mark 1:2)

ἰδοὺ ἐγὼ ἐξαποστέλλω τὸν ἄγγελόν μου καὶ ἐπιβλέψεται ὁδὸν πρὸ προσώπου μου καὶ ἐξαίφνης ἥξει εἰς τὸν ναὸν ἑαυτοῦ κύριος ὃν ὑμεῖς ζητεῖτε καὶ ἄγγελος τῆς διαθήκης ὃν ὑμεῖς θέλετε ἰδοὺ ἔρχεται λέγει κύριος παντοκράτωρ καὶ τίς ὑπομενεῖ ἡμέραν εἰσόδου αὐτοῦ τίς ὑποστήσεται ἐν τῇ ὀπτασίᾳ αὐτοῦ διότι αὐτὸς εἰσπορεύεται ὡς πῦρ χωνευτηρίου καὶ ὡς πόα πλυνόντων καὶ καθιεῖται χωνεύων καὶ καθαρίζων ὡς τὸ ἀργύριον καὶ ὡς τὸ χρυσίον καὶ καθαρίσει τοὺς υἱοὺς Λευι καὶ χεεῖ αὐτοὺς ὡς τὸ χρυσίον καὶ ὡς τὸ ἀργύριον καὶ ἔσονται τῷ κυρίῳ προσάγοντες θυσίαν ἐν δικαιοσύνῃ
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight – indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness.
(Malachi 3:1-3)

φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ ἑτοιμάσατε τὴν ὁδὸν κυρίου εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους τοῦ θεοῦ ἡμῶν πᾶσα φάραγξ πληρωθήσεται καὶ πᾶν ὄρος καὶ βουνὸς ταπεινωθήσεται καὶ ἔσται πάντα τὰ σκολιὰ εἰς εὐθεῖαν καὶ τραχεῖα εἰς πεδία καὶ ὀφθήσεται δόξα κυρίου καὶ ὄψεται πᾶσα σὰρξ τὸ σωτήριον τοῦ θεοῦ ὅτι κύριος ἐλάλησεν
A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.’
(Isaiah 40:3-5)

Malachi pictures an approaching potentate whose retinue precedes and announces him – the LORD of hosts coming to re-establish the covenant, to sit in the temple, to purify the people. Isaiah speaks of the return of the LORD to a broken people, and of the vast efforts to be expended on making ready for him, preparing for him. Both speak of the return of the King in splendour, and the re-establishment of the rule of law: a terror to the transgressors and a comfort to the oppressed.

As it is written

καθὼς γέγραπται
As it is written

Mark, or the Markan community, or the early Christians in general: what are they doing here? Something (someone) strange, radical, unsettling has happened in their midst – something that to some extent jarred against its surroundings – but they have wrapped it in terms drawn from the Scriptures which are so deeply embedded in those surroundings (or, better, have always already seen it in terms of those Scriptures). This has enabled them to make sense of this thing that has happened, certainly – but it has also made new sense of those Scriptures. I don’t think we should underestimate the complexity of the processes by which this dual ‘making sense’ takes place.

In the particular case we see here, however, things get even more complex, because we are also dealing with the appropriation by Mark, the markan community, or early Christians in general, of John the Baptist. He is being ‘made sense of’ as forerunner of Jesus, and Jesus being ‘made sense of’ as the one to whom he points – and this dual making sense is itself made possible by the fact that their relationship is made sense of by drawing on certain Scriptures, and those Scriptures made sense of by being applied to this relationship. And again, I don’t think we should underestimate the complexity of the process by which all these ways of ‘making sense’ take place.