Category Archives: Mark

Tidying Up 4: The Opening of Mark’s Gospel

Early in this blog’s life, I wrote a long series of posts on the opening of the Gospel of Mark.  The list below attempts to list them in some kind of coherent order – not chronological but thematic.  These posts work through the first few verses, up to and including Jesus’ baptism by John.  The discussion was at times rather laboured, and looking back at these posts I have rather mixed reactions – but here they are.  At some point, I hope to carry on.




  • Wordplay. My wordplay: In which I play with the connections of the word ‘arche’ – and then reflect about what I’m doing.
  • More wordplay. Does much the same with the word ‘euangelion’.
  • Yet more wordplay. The author’s wordplay: in which I think about what an author’s chosen words bring with them and make possible that the author can’t control.


  • Interrogative field. Reading the first line of Mark sets up an interrogative field for continued reading. A central question is about what it means for this to be news….
  • News. …news about Jesus.


Prophets and forerunners




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.

The Law and the Prophets

Even scriptures that are adhered to by the most rigid of conservatives do not fully dictate their own application. There is always an ‘excess’ in application: decisions made on grounds other than unyielding continuity – pragmatic grounds, aesthetic grounds. That is not simply a failure of continuity, though, or a force that fights against continuity: this possibility of excess is also what makes faithfulness to a text possible in history.

(It is, by the way, easy to slip between talking about texts and talking about power-structures in this context, even though they are not quite the same thing. But what I have said about scriptures is true of ‘power-structures’: they are perpetuated, but always perpetuated differently. Power always evolves – though not necessarily in ways you’d like…)

The relationship between law and prophecy in the Hebrew scriptures is, perhaps, analogous on to this relationship between continuity and excess. Prophecy is the arrival of the word of God at the edges of our current obedience, showing where our obedience is no such thing and calling us to change. You could see it as the excess which makes continuity possible – which calls to new construals of the existing text, a new grasp (pragmatic, aesthetic) of what is central and what peripheral, that is needed in order to carry on. It is not that without prophecy, continued application of the text would involve no excess. No, it would still necessarily evolve over time and space. But prophecy, as it were, authorises evolution in a particular direction – or calls readers back from the direction they thought was the way forward and sets them on another. Prophecy makes obedience to the law possible as obedience – precisely at the same time as, in fact precisely because, it attacks existing obedience to the law, existing construals of the law. Without prophecy there is no faithfulness, only arbitrariness.

And, yes, to those looking back, the claimed ‘authorisation’ will in part be judged by what it made possible – by what happened, or can happen, next.

When John the Baptist is described, he is wrapped in the words of the Hebrew Bible. He is presented as a continuation, a form of faithfulness to the text. But that means (whether we think about John the actual human being, standing in the desert, or “John” the character in the gospel texts) that John will be a new way of reading the text: he will of necessity be excessive – and this is necessarily true before we have noticed the explicit liminality that marks his portrait. But when we go on to look at the details – the desert setting, the raw food, the strange clothing, the asceticism – we can see that John stands explicity for divinely authorised liminality: for that prophetic call to faithfulness which disrupts present obedience. He stands for, announces, represents a call to continuity that explicitly recognises that continuity must be excessive, and therefore must involve us in decision and repsonsibility – and precisely in doing this he stands in the prophetic tradition that has always announced this message, but of necessity stands in it differently (as all the prophets do).

So, yes, John’s liminality is the form that ‘as it is written’ takes.

And, no, I don’t know what to make of the leather belt.

Named and caught

In the comments to the last post, Rachel wrote:

Though at the same time John fits into certain patterns and expectations – patterns of what an ascetic/world-renouncing lifestyle should look like. I suppose he couldn’t do otherwise, as soon as he’s described.

and I then speculated that

the liminal position occupied by John [might be]… a socially functional necessity: one of the safety valves that allows the functioning of ‘ordinary life’ … John would then be an ‘interruption’ that, as it were, ordinary life used to perpetuate itself – a ruse of power, perhaps.

I went on to say something about how we might say that John escapes this suspicious reading:

The claim that something else, something other, was becoming visible even in this process by which the ordinary self-perpetuates, is fragile…

But thinking about Rachel’s point makes me realise that my response is facile. John, after all, performs his function in the Gospels in part because he ‘fits into certain patterns and expectations’, because he can be ‘described’ (‘as it is written’…). And yet clearly John is not in any straightforward sense simply the expression of that which is written: he exceeds it, simply by virtue of having concrete existence. I have that itch on the back of my neck that you get when creeping through a deserted mine, realising that one should have bought some decent social theory with you… The contrast between the activity of ‘describing in existing categories’ which perpetuates the existing symbolic order, and the eruption of the decisively new that re-makes that order, is clearly too blunt: ‘existing symbolic orders’ are always changing, always being deployed in new ways, always being inhabited differently. The contrast between the ‘process by which the ordinary self-perpetuates’ and ‘something else, something other…becoming visible’ is a childish one – all too closely related to other contrasts between inwardness and externality that I’ve been taught to eschew. I’m on the wrong track. Ho hum.

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.

Baptised at the beginning

κηρύσσων βάπτισμα μετανοίας εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν

Mark 1:4

Perhaps one reason why Jesus’ baptism by John stands at the beginning here (one reason why it was found fitting for a Gospel to begin like this; one reason why the idea of Jesus’ ministry starting with his baptism took such strong hold) is that baptism was the beginning for Mark’s community as well. Baptism was what had happened when they heard the voice crying in the wilderness: it was their making-straight, their crossing of the Jordan. It was where they repented, confessed their sins – and were drawn into the orbit of Jesus, the coming of YHWH. That this stands here establishes (wittingly or unwittingly) a connection between the readers/hearers and what they are reading/hearing: the baptized reading the story of one baptized – those who have repented, and prepared themselves for the coming of God, reading/hearing of the form taken by the coming of God. One way of summarising the import of this whole text, therefore, could be: This is what you have let yourself in for.

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.

Abducting John III

Just one quick post to finish this line of thought off for now. There is a dialectic between interpreting John and registering John’s resistance to interpretation – you might say, a dialectic between theological interpretation and historical-critical interpretation. And this dialectic can be seen as a way of paying homage to the two sides of the idea that John’s true identity is ‘hid with Christ in God’ – the theological interpretation witnessing to the ‘in Christ with God’ side, the historical-critical to the ‘hid’.

I think I want to say slightly more than that, though. On the one hand, I can say that John’s true identity is hid with Christ in God only because I trust that the God who addresses the world (and John) in Christ has no ‘interests’ – that this God is not bending John to some personal need, and distorting him in the process. It is only in relation to such a God that there is any freedom, any true identity – only such a God can tell us who we are without distortion. On the other hand, I hesitate to say that John’s true identity is hid with Christ in God because I know that the Christians who say this certainly do have interests, in fact are never free of interests, and are quite capable of bending John to some personal need.

To the dialectic of interpretation and registering resistance, then, I want to add a third element: such a hermeneutical trajectory can only be pursued with integrity in the context of interpreters, interpreting communities, that are pursuing the purification of their interests – that are pursuing holiness. It can only be pursued with integrity by individuals and communities that are discovering their true identities, hid with Christ in God.

When we’re talking about John the Baptist, that point may sound somewhat abstract – or, worse, like a bit of rather demonstrative breast-beating. If we start thinking about the topic that’s been (not very far) in the background through this discussion: interpretation of the Hebrew Bible – well; I think the point becomes rather more urgent and important. To read the Hebrew Bible as Old Testament – that seems to me to involve a dialectic between theological interpretation, and registering the resistance of the text to theological interpretation (by means of historical criticism, certainly, but also I think by reading alongside Jewish readers) – and can only be done with integrity by individuals and community in pursuit of holiness – and that must include especially holiness in dealings with the people of this book.

Hmmm. I’m not sure I’ve quite convinced myself with all this – but it will do for now.