In the previous episode, I provided a rough breakdown of the gospel of Mark.
From the breakdown, we can see that the story seems to focus on the failure of the people of Judea to accept Jesus as the Christ and to follow him.
The scribes and priests concerned with Jewish laws were doomed from the start by this author. But even those chosen by Jesus to be apostles – such as Simon Peter, John, and James – ultimately proved unfaithful, and betrayed or abandoned their messiah. Though some Gentiles and a few Jews showed true faith in Christ, the story ends with three frightened women failing to tell anyone about Jesus’ resurrection, because they were bewildered and afraid.
And that’s it.
That’s the end.
Talk about bleak!
Why is the story written this way?
What kind of argument is the author trying to make for readers of this gospel?
And what’s with the author’s obsession with secrecy, and with the notion of special knowledge reserved for a small elect? Is this important? Would those elected people understand all of the cryptic details peppered throughout the story that are left unexplained, such as the the significance of the number of baskets used for the miraculous feedings, the withered fig tree, the mention of the prophet Elijah, and the children’s crumbs falling to the dogs?
What gives, anonymous gospel author??
Well now that we’ve had our superficial run-through of the story, let’s work through the beginning of the gospel with a finer-toothed comb and see if we can pick up on something revealing. Sound good?
Let’s begin. The gospel of Mark opens thusly:
“The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”—
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”
So, the author of the gospel opens his story with some quotes from older scripture. Is he simply going for some literary pomp and circumstance here, to establish to readers that Jesus is in fact the Son of God?
Well, that’s probably part of it.
Certainly the other gospel authors do this a lot in their stories. But this opening from Mark is attached to larger scriptural passages that are worth some further examination.
As written, the opening looks like one quote, all attributed to Isaiah the Prophet. But in fact, the line about “my messenger” comes from the book of Malachi (which is Hebrew for “messenger”), while the second part comes from the book of Isaiah.
First, let’s tackle the Malachi quote.
The book of Malachi is the final book of the Christian Old Testament, and is considered one of the last authentic works of prophecy according to Pharisaic Jewish tradition. In short, it’s about God being angered by the Israelites, and promising punishment. It ends with the following passage:
“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes.
He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction”Malachi 4: 5-6
The “messenger” that the Malachi prophecy is named after is in fact, Elijah, the ancient prophet whose great works are detailed in the two biblical books of Kings. According to the Malachi prophecy, the Lord will send Elijah back to Israel for one last chance, and if the people fail him, God will strike them down.
Then there’s the Isaiah quote.
The quoted line comes right before a passage in Isaiah that is also focused on punishment, this time on the city of Jerusalem. Here is where the quoted line is found:
“Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
A voice of one calling:Isaiah 40: 1-3
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God…”
So, both of these lines were taken from larger prophetic passages focused on God’s punishment of the Israelites for their wickedness and disobedience. These were used as the opening lines for the gospel story that’s notable for its rather dark tone. A story in which the people of Judea are depicted as unfaithful, selfish, concerned with earthly matters, or obsessed with misguided laws and traditions.
Okay, probably not important. Moving on!
The story proper opens with John the Baptist preparing the way:
“And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him.
Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.
John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.
And this was his message:
“After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”Mark 1: 4-8
Wait, what was it he was wearing?
Camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. Interesting. You know who else was known to wear clothing like that?
“They replied, “He had a garment of hair and had a leather belt around his waist.”
The king said, “That was Elijah the Tishbite.”2 Kings 1: 8
So, the author of Mark seems to want to tie John the Baptist together with Elijah, to establish John as the “messenger” of the Malachi prophecy, the one preparing the way, the one last test before Israel is judged.
And here’s the thing: the author made such a connection not via an overt explanation, but subtly, through the use of literary allusions. Note that the “messenger” quote that’s included in the gospel does not mention Elijah; nor does the detail about John’s clothes of hair and leather. That’s an inference that readers must make themselves for both passages. Elijah is mentioned here and there throughout the rest of the gospel story, but without their connection to the Malachi prophecy in mind, those mentions tend to puzzle readers with their seeming pointlessness.
Notably, when the other gospel authors reference earlier scriptures, they openly cite them as prophecies fulfilled.
This author, however, was apparently relying on certain sharp readers to pick up on his embedded details themselves, to know the larger passages of scripture they’re associated with, and to make connections across the various scriptural references, all without needing an explanation from the author.
And people dismiss this gospel as simple and unsophisticated??
This is esoteric writing at its best!
But being esoteric, its brilliance hides in plain sight, like that humble holy grail in The Last Crusade, just resting in the corner amidst all the glittering competitors.
Just waiting for a person of pure heart (like Indiana Jones!) to see past the facade and reach for truth.
Next time, we’ll skip around across the more interesting allusions and symbols of the Mark gospel story, to try to piece together what it is the author was trying to convey.
Let’s say it one more time:
“He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”
… to be continued…
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