Mark 1:4-15

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The introduction to his gospel complete, Mark introduces us to the figure of John in verses 4-6. There is some debate as to John’s full name in Mark. The text of NA27 is “Ιωαννης [ο] βαπτιζων’. If we take the definite article as being in the text, this translates to “John the baptiser” which is rather a strange reading because a participle is being used. In Matthew (whom most scholars believed used Mark or a proto-Mark), it is written “Ιωαννης ο βαπτιστης” (Mt 3:1) which is the correct way in Greek. Mark could have used the participle to make his description of John seem more active or vivid to the readers. If, however we say that the definite article is not in the text (which several strong manuscript traditions support), the participle becomes a description of what John was doing and the translation would be “John came, baptising”. However, it seems that Mark probably did intend to use the participle as part of John’s name for later on in the gospel we see “Ιωαννου του βαπτιζοντος” (6:24, cf 6:25, however 8:28 does read “Ιωαννην τον βαπτιστην”).

Verse 6 gives us a surprisingly vivid description of John, compared to the quantity of information which Mark gives us of his teaching, ministry or disciples (especially when compared to the amount in the other gospels). John is described as being “clothed with camels hair and a un-tanned leather belt around his waste and eating locusts and wild honey”. This is a standard Bedouin outfit, which is used up to the present day. The surprising thing about this description, according to Maclear, is that the belt was an item of great richness, usually made of finest linen (Jer 13:1) or fine cotton and gold (eg Dan 10:5). This points us to the fact that John was living a very poor life style, perhaps even lower than that of a hermit. Many have drawn links with the prophet Elijah in 2 Kings. Whilst in the other gospels, John is portrayed as being Elijah, this link with Mark is not allowed, according to Guelich, because 2 Kings 1:8 talks of Elijah as being a “man with thick hair” as opposed to the common mistranslation of “having a garment of thick hair”. However, being “clothed with camels hair” does imply prophetic status as Zech 13:4 states that a prophet who is prophesying wears a hairy garment. The diet of locusts and wild honey was allowed by Levitical law. Indeed, Guelich says that locusts were often eaten amongst the poor as a substitute for meat, and honeywater as a substitute for wine. This is supported by the later synoptic tradition which states that John ate no meat and drank no wine (Lk 7:33/Mt 11:18).

Mark uses the εγενετο at the beginning of verse 4 to link back to the prophecy that he quotes from Isaiah 40:3. It gives the sense that this person John, whom he is now informing the reader about, is the fulfilment of the prophecy that he just quoted. It would give any person familiar with the OT a sense of expectancy as what they have heard read and exegised in the synagogue many times is now given a new interpretation.

It is written in verse 4 that John was in the desert or wilderness (ε?ημα) and it is also recorded in verse 5 that he was baptising people in the river Jordan. According to Maclear this area was called Jeshimon (1Sam 23:19) which in Hebrew means “horror” or “the appalling desolation”. However, Hooker argues that it would not normally be referred to as wilderness and must therefore be a theological redaction to fit the quote. In addition to this, it is stated in verse 12 that “the spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness” from the Jordan where he was baptised, implying that this area was not as wild as Mark describes here. Also, Guelich argues that because of the lack of specification of the location at which the events take case, the ideas which this location entails are primarily theological. There are many possible understandings of these theological ideas. One of the most obvious allusions is that of the first Exodus, when Moses took the people into the desert and they then crossed the river Jordan. Many Jewish prophets looked back to these times of wandering in the desert as being a good period in Israel’s history (Jer 2:2, 31:2; Hos 2:14, 9:10; Amos 5:24). In addition to this, we know that when the Qumran community split from the mainstream Jewish community and discontinued use of the Jerusalem temple, they withdrew into the desert. It is also known that in the first century AD several self-styled Messiah or prophetic figures appeared, the closest to John is recorded in Josephus and also in Acts 5:36. A man named Theudas “persuaded a great part of the people to take their effects with them, and follow him to the river Jordan” (Ant. 20.5:1) where he claimed that he was a prophet and would divide the waters of the Jordan. Both of these examples show a group of people detaching from ethnic Israel to form a new “true” community of believers. Therefore, we should conclude that Mark is portraying John as drawing to himself a community of the true Israel. However, when we couple that with the quotation from Isaiah which implies that John is only a messenger (αγγελλος) of God, it seems that John is preparing a community of true followers of God to cleanse and prepare themselves for the person whom he is preparing the road for.

This process of preparation for God’s anointed one is described by Mark at the end of verse 5. This literally translated says many people came and “were baptised by him [John] in the river Jordan confessing their sins”. The word translated “were baptised” is the Greek imperfect indicative εβαπτιζοντο which implies each person was baptised by John once, one after another. This could be taken as either a middle (“baptised themselves under John’s supervision”) or a passive (“were baptised by John”). It is much more likely we adopt the passive reading as in verse 8, John states “I baptised with water”, and also his name is “John the Baptiser”. We also see that it was a full-immersion baptism in 1:10 by the use of the participle αναβαινων (coming up). The order in the text is that of confession of sins followed by baptism and appears to be reversed from the formula practised by Christians ever since. Perhaps this order is because John emphasised that the confessing of sins was a continual process as indicated by the present participle εξομολογουμενοι whereas the rite of baptism is only performed once.

Although other examples of this rite of full-submersion, once-only baptism are unknown to us, we can attempt to trace how it evolved. We can see the metaphorical usage of water in Old Testament texts such as “wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Ps 51:1) and the commandment of God to “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean / remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes” (Is 1:16). We also see in the story of Naaman in 2 Kings 5:14 that he was commanded to wash himself in the Jordan (the LXX uses εβαπτισατο to describe this process). We know that in Jesus’ time, the washing with water was an important ritual amongst certain strands of Judaism (eg “stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification” (John 2:6)). In addition to this, we know that proselytes entering into Judaism had to undergo a (self-administered) immersion for cleansing before their circumcision and sacrifice. This was especially important for women who could not undergo the circumcision ritual. We also know that repeated cleansing by water played a great part in the Qumran community (as a partial replacement for sacrifices), although it can only be hypothesised as to whether people entering the community would have to be baptised. In conclusion, there is no parallel to John’s baptism known in Judaism of the period so we should assume that this form of baptism was initiated by him.

We will now turn to look at the other aspect of John’s ministry; namely that of preaching. Before we do this however, we should trace the meaning of the verb κη?υσσω (“to preach”), first used as a participle in 1:4 and then used in verse 7 to describe the message which John preached. The word is used in the LXX exclusively to proclaim a fast (eg 2 Chron 23:3, Jonah 3:5). In the New Testament, it is used almost exclusively in terms of the proclamation of the gospel.

John’s message is in two parts, the first of which is in verse 4 namely βαπτισμα μετανοιας εις αφεσιν αμα?τιων (“a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”). The word μετανοια is used only once in the LXX in Proverbs 14:15 (in the context of turning around) and 24 times in the NT. Its meaning is that of changing both ones’ mind and ones’ life. The word αφεσιν (from αφιημι) means “forgiveness” and is used in the LXX for the forgiveness of debt in the year of jubilee and also for the letting go of the sacrificial dove or scape-goat on the day of atonement. In these four words are summarised the hopes of the prophets. However, John does not claim to be able to deliver this promise but awaits someone greater than himself to do this.

We come now to the second part of John’s message, recorded in verses 7 and 8. Although this is so much shorter than in the other gospels (notably Luke and John), we should not assume that Mark did not have access to the material, rather that he cut out everything but that which was essential to his message. Thus, on the lips of John we see the proclamation “After me is coming someone who is stronger than me, the straps of his sandals I am not worthy to untie. I baptised with water but he will baptise you in the Holy Spirit”. The word οπισω (“after”) means a temporal sense, but can also mean in a discipleship sense leading some to suggest that Jesus for a time was one of John’s disciples. Mark seems to have modified this text from the Q tradition; in Matthew and Luke the saying starts with John’s baptism and then the statement that one stronger than John is coming, and finally talks about Jesus’ baptism. This leads us to believe that Mark broke this chaistic structure for his own purposes; namely to contrast John’s baptism with Jesus’ in a more obvious manner. He also increases this contrast by using the pronouns “εγω … Αυτος δε …” (“I … But he …”). What is the contrast between the two types of baptism? Whereas John only baptises with water, Jesus baptises with the Holy Spirit. In the OT, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is the sign of the eschatological age (eg Joel 2:28; Is 44:3; Ez 39:29). This is the first of the signs in this passage that John recognises Jesus is the Messiah. The second of these signs is that even though John is a prophet, and hence one of the most senior figures around, yet he declared that he was not worthy to serve Jesus in even the most menial of tasks. As Hooker notes, there is a saying in the Talmud which states that a disciple must do exactly the same as a slave would for his master, with the exception of the untying of his sandals (B. Kethuboth 96a).

The second use of εγενετο is in verse 9, to introduce Jesus to us. Εν εκειναις ταις ημε?αις is a Hebraism which means “in those days”. It is used as an introductory phrase in the OT, for example Judges 19:1 or 1 Samuel 28:1. These two phrases together hint at the fulfilment of John’s message as just described by Mark. Jesus is “from Nazareth in Galilee”. Nazareth was not mentioned in the Old Testament, so not many people would have known where it was (in addition, Mark seems to have been written for people who didn’t have a particularly good knowledge of Israeli geography, eg “river Jordan” (1:5)). It is worth noting that the verb is εβαπτισθη which is in the passive, implying that Jesus was baptised by John, rather than actively baptised himself.

Verse 10 introduces us to one of Mark’s favourite words, ευθος (immediately). Mark uses this throughout the gospel to give the narrative a sense of speed, and in this case “immediately coming out of the water he saw the heavens torn apart and the spirit descend as a dove upon him”. In contrast with the other gospels, Mark does not claim anyone other than Jesus saw this event take place. Also in contrast with the Q tradition, Mark uses the uncommon participle σχιζομενους (splitting apart) which many suggest is to link to Isaiah 64:1 where Isaiah asks God to “rend the heavens and come down”. This verb is also used in the synoptic tradition to refer to the breaking of the veil in the temple, so Mark could be linking these two events to show that they are both God’s initiative. Elsewhere in the Jewish and Christian writings, the breaking open of the heavens and the use of the word “seeing” is sometimes used to mark the beginning of a prophet’s visionary experience, for example Acts 7:56, Rev 19:11, Apoc. Bar. 22:1. As mentioned above, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit has an OT background of the ushering in of the eschatological age and also links back to John’s message in verse 8 showing beyond doubt that Jesus is the fulfilment of it. This visionary experience is also the hallmark of a prophet being commissioned by God.

That the Holy Spirit descends “as” or “like” a dove could be taken in several ways. It could be used to denote the nature of the descent, or more theologically it could be used to symbolise the nation of Israel. As well as this, in the Babylonian Talmud’s comment on Genesis 1:2, the spirit is linked with a dove (B. Hagiga 15a), and also in the Targum to Song of Solomon 2:12 a similar link is made. This is perhaps an early hint in Mark that Jesus is the embodiment of the nation of Israel. The Spirit falls “upon” (εις) Jesus. This proposition should be translated “into”, however Mark often uses it for a much wider semantic range than in other Greek writings, and the writers of the other gospels use the word επι (upon) in their recordings of this story.

Many suggestions have been made about how to understand the nature of the “voice from the heavens” in verse 11. In the several hundred years that it was believed the Spirit had left Israel, the term “daughter of the voice” was used to denote God hinting to his people but not in the same way as when the Spirit was present amongst them. This theory does not seem correct that this is a mistranslation because the event is obviously very significant for Mark.

The content of the message is very interesting to study, “you are my beloved son, I am happy with you”. The word ‘beloved” (αγαπητος) is only used of Jesus in the gospels, and then only when he is recognised as the Son of God. Maclear shows that this word generally denoted an only son and uses an example from Homer’s Odysee to illustrate this point. There has been much debate as to whether it was at this point Jesus was adopted or enthroned as God’s son, however, it seems to me that the words “you are” merely serve as a confirmation of the divine sonship of Jesus. There are obvious allusions in this verse to Psalm 2:7 (‘The Lord said to me, “You are my Son; …”‘) and also to Isaiah 42:1 (“Behold my servant, whom I uphold, / my chosen, in whom my soul delights; / I have put my Spirit upon him; / he will bring forth justice to the nations”). In the Old Testament, no individual is ever described as being God’s son; in fact this is the charge for which Jesus is eventually executed. In Psalm 2, the king is described as being adopted as God’s son, but by far the most common reference in the OT is to the nation of Israel as being God’s son. Again, this is Mark hinting that the nation of Israel (or at least the “true” Israel) is being encapsulated or represented by the person of Jesus.

There is more than just this in the message, as Wright shows. This linking of the realisation of the Messiahship of Jesus is a key theme in Mark. We see in 8:29, Peter confesses “You are the Christ”; in 9:7 during the transfiguration, the voice from the heavens again says “this one is my beloved son, listen to him!”. When Jesus is on trial, the high priest says “You are the Christ, the son of the Blessed?”. Finally, as Jesus gives up his life on the cross the gentile who has been in charge of his execution exclaims “Truly he was the son of God!” (15:39). Wright uses these quotations to argue for an apocalyptic reading of Mark – the breaking in of the kingdom of God by the work of Jesus.

“Immediately” after the baptism, the Spirit drives Jesus out into the “desert” or “wilderness” for 40 days of “testing” (πει?αζομενος – imperfect implies continuation for the whole time). John came to prepare a road in the wilderness for Jesus to walk along; in fact the whole of Jesus’ journey later in the gospel is him journeying a spiritual desert, being ravaged by the wild animals of the opposition until eventually they put him to death. However, this time of testing in the physical desert is one where he appears to live in harmony with the wild animals (θη?ιων). In fact, this is the key to understanding this section as it is very much a Markan redaction. It is used to emphasise the loneliness of the desert and increase the temptation which Jesus faces. The μετα before this word, and the use of the genitive signifies that Jesus was however living peaceably with the animals which is a return to Adam living in the Garden of Eden, and introduces a theme in Mark’s gospel of Jesus ushering in the new age of restoration as the new Adam; a theme which Paul also expands upon in Romans 5. Peaceably living with the wild beasts was a definite eschatological expectation in Judaism, for example Isaiah 65:25 “The wolf and lamb shall lie down together / the lion shall eat straw like the ox / and dust shall be the serpent’s food. / They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain”.

As many people have noted, εκβαλλω (“drive out”) is a very strong verb in classical Greek, and even though it is slightly weaker in koine Greek, it is still the verb of choice for things such as the driving out of demons. However, this is the word which is used when someone is transported between two places by the power of the Holy Spirit (1 kings 18:12, 2 kings 2:16, Ez 8:3, Acts 8:39). The forty days is also something of a mystery. It has been variously suggested that it represents the 40 years in which the Israelites spent wandering in the desert, the 40 days which Moses spent up Sainai receiving the commandments, or the 40 days which Elijah spent travelling to Horeb (1 kings 19:8). However, in the latter two cases the people went to meet God rather than Satan (in the other synoptics διαβολος (the devil) – perhaps this reflects Mark as being a bit more semitic than the others). The only connection that could be found is that of fasting, which in any case we must be careful not to read into this passage as it is only recorded that Jesus fasted for 40 days in the Q passage. It could however be the case that Jesus was fasting and Mark redacted this piece of information from his sources; he does record that “the angles served him” (1:13) and the word translated “served” (διηκονουν) has connotations of a servant bringing food to the table.

Some people have seen this time of doing battle with Satan (the accuser/tempter) in the desert as the key to unlock the book of Mark; it is here that he defeats Satan’s power and the rest of the book is the “mopping-up” operation. However, this view is wrong because Mark spends so little time focusing on this aspect, especially when compared to the other synoptics. The struggle with Satan and his legions is portrayed as ongoing throughout the book of Mark and only comes to its climax at the cross, where paradoxically Satan’s power is destroyed by Jesus’ death.

The three paragraphs from verses 7 to 13 have all been linked by reference to the Holy Spirit, implying that this is a very important feature of Jesus’ ministry (cf blasphemy in 3:22-30). The final paragraph of the introduction to Mark’s gospel is a brief description and summary statement of Jesus’ ministry before the main core of the book where Mark introduces us to specific examples of healing and teaching. Whilst the end of verse 13 could be considered to be the end of the introduction it seems that verse 15 has a higher claim as it causes the whole section to be encapsulated in a chaistic structure “Α?χη του ευαγγελιου Ιησου Χ?ιστου … Μετανοειτε και πιστευετε εν τω ευαγγελιω” (1:1,15 “Beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ … Repent and believe in the Good News”). This call of Jesus in verse 15 is not just a summary statement of Jesus’ teaching but also a call upon the readers or hearers of Mark’s gospel. It is interesting to note that if this whole section is a chaistic structure as I propose, then the focal point is verse 7 in which John, the prophet sent by God compares himself with Jesus. This causes the reader to feel even more humble in the presence of Jesus because they know that they are not even worthy to untie the straps of John’s sandals!

The two verses to which we now turn start being written in the perfect indicative but then move into the imperative. The phrase “After John had been put in prison” is probably more a theological statement than a temporal one, especially when it is considered that John 3:22-30 shows their ministries overlapping, and there are hints of this later in Mark as well. The verb “had been put in prison” (πα?αδοθηναι) is in the passive voice, which is probably a divine passive indicating that his ministry had been completed and it was now time for the one for whom he had prepared the road. The same word is used later in the passion narrative in reference to Jesus’ arrest. It is a hint to the reader that God is behind all of this.

The statement that “Jesus went into Galilee” is certainly to be understood geographically rather than theologically; Jesus lived there as did his disciples. This is used to show that after John had been arrested, Jesus did not shy away from a similar fate but continued a public ministry in the semi-pagan area. Mark then records that Jesus was “preaching the Good News of God”. The term “Good News” (or “gospel” as it has come down to us from the Saxons) is the Greek word ευαγγελιον. This was used in the plural for the good news which was sent to the whole empire about the emperor, for example “Good News: The emperor has recovered from his illness” or “Good News: A new emperor has come to power”. However, there is no recorded usage of this word in the singular prior to the New Testament. The early Christians evidently thought that this word in the singular reflected the only good news that somebody needed to know: the once only death of Jesus for the sins of the world. Its use in the singular also implies that this good news is greater than any other. The Good News which Jesus is proclaiming in Galilee is either the “Good News of God” or “Good News from God”. There is no way to tell which of these genitive forms should be read, however the former is perhaps slightly preferable given the similar use of the genitive in verse 15 with regards the “kingdom of God”.

Mark’s summary of Jesus’ message is “The time has come to fulfilment and the kingdom of God has come near: repent and believe in the Good News!”. The phrase πεπλη?ωται ο και?ος (“The time has come to fulfilment”) is a dramatic statement that this is a significant point in time, one pointed to by the prophets (eg Dan 7:22, 12:4, 9). The use of the perfect shows that this time which was predicted by the prophets is now reaching its fulfilment in Jesus.

There has been much debate on the next part of Jesus’ proclamation namely ηγγικεν η βασιλεια του θεου (“The kingdom of heaven has come near”). Based on a detailed study of the LXX, Dodd argues that εγγιζειν means “to arrive”, whereas it is usually translated “to come near” (stemming from εγγυς, “near”). The way that Mark expands on this in the rest of his gospel is by showing that Jesus is ushering in the kingdom of God. Whilst the true end times have not come with Jesus, he exhibits some of the signs for example being able to cast out the demons and heal the sick. Jesus is showing that the kingdom of God is drawing near to the world of flesh and blood and is gradually breaking in. Jesus’ death ushers in a new age whereby the kingdom of God is closer than ever before to the kingdom of the earth and as a result the Spirit is poured out on all flesh and blood in fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy (Joel 2:28ff).

In a great climactic statement to the introduction, Mark shows Jesus commanding people (the imperative) “repent and believe [in] the Good News!”. These two phrases are found together elsewhere in the NT (Acts 11:17,18;20:21; Hebrews 6:1) suggesting that this is a pre-Markan formula. It is the response which Jesus commands people to give to his message.


Guelich, Robert A.; Word Biblical Commentary 34a, Mark 1-8:26; 1989, Word Books Inc.
Hooker, Morna D.; The Gospel according to St. Mark; 1991 A&C Black [Black’s New Testament Commentaries]
Maclear, G. F.; Cambridge Greek Testament – St. Mark; 1887, CUP
Wright, N. T.; The New Testament and the People of God; 1992, SPCK

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