The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 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”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you withwater; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’
Translation: The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, son of God. Just as it was written in Isaiah the prophet, "Behold, I am sending my messenger to your face who will prepare your way, a sound crying out in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight his paths." John, the one baptizing, happened in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the release of sins." And all of the region of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. And the John was clothed in camel hair, and leaven leather around his hip and eating locusts and wild honey. And he proclaimed saying, 'The one mightier than me is coming after me. I am surely not fit to stoop down and loose the strap of his sandals. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you in a holy spirit.'"
Background and situation: The first statement of the book of Mark--"the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, son of God"--should be taken as the title of the entire work. The book of Mark--the entire book--is the "beginning."
That's why Mark ends as it does. The women are at the tomb of the resurrected Jesus. They are told to follow his brothers into Galilee, but the women were afraid and didn't tell anybody anything (16:8). The book even ends with a preposition! It ends so abruptly that some have supposed that the real ending was lost. In the second century, at least two additional endings were added to try to make Mark come out better.
Mark knew exactly what he was doing and the ending he gave us is the ending he intended. The book ends up in the air because this whole dramatic story is only the "beginning." The rest of the Christian story is being written in the lives of those who "follow the way."
Put another way: The written book is the "beginning," the overture, the prelude. The on-going story is lived in the New Community.
In the world of the first century, "gospel" was generally understood to be an oral proclamation. In fact, before Jesus, the most common use of the word "gospel" was to announce Roman military victories: "Good news! Caesar is victorious in Gaul!"
Mark's use of "gospel" is the first known use of the word "gospel" as a title for a written composition. New thoughts and a new way of life call for a new literary genre! Note as well that the content of this "gospel" is not sayings or philosophy, but rather the story of a person.
Mark's opening statement: Mark introduces Jesus as "Christ, son of God." That sets the stage for a story in which the title of "son of God" will not be used again, without qualification or controversy, until chapter 15. Only at the death of Jesus on the cross is the statement of the centurion--"Truly, this man was God's son" (15:39)--allowed to stand as stated.
The reason is because, in Mark's theology, the Son of God paradoxically reigns from the cross. Only until we see and experience the death of Jesus on the cross are we able to call Jesus "son of God". For Mark, we cannot use that title until we know fully and precisely what it means.
With that brief but potent introduction, Mark moves immediately to Isaiah the prophet. In doing so, he links his new "beginning" with the ancient scriptural tradition. The quotation itself, though attributed only to Isaiah, is really a conflation of Exodus 23: 20, Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3.
In addition to linking Jesus with the scriptural tradition, and especially the prophetic tradition, Isaiah's language about a messenger is also a means of introducing a major character--John the baptizer, the "messenger"--and the concept of "the way."
"Behold, I am sending my messenger to your face who will prepare your way, a sound crying out in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight his paths."
Note that "the way" is mentioned twice. First, the messenger will prepare our way which is an exhortation to prepare the Lord's way. "The way," as we shall see as we move through Mark's gospel, means following Jesus, which means acting like Jesus.
Mark changes a word. In the Septuagint, neither Isaiah nor Malachi use the word kataskeuasei, though Mark does. It means "prepare fully" or "make ready" or "construct." The word includes the concept of equipping with everything necessary. As Ched Myers notes, this is the first indication that "the way" is "no mere path; a new way of life is being built in the shell of the old world." (p. 124)
John the Baptist "happened" in the wilderness. The word is egeneto, which means "came into existence." (NRSV has "appeared.")
Mark describes John's appearance in words reminiscent of the prophet Elijah (2 Kgs 1:8). The next to last verse of the Old Testament (Mal 4:5) enjoins readers to look for the prophet Elijah before the day of the Lord comes. That he eats locusts and wild honey is to say that he eats food without preparation. His food is supplied directly by God.
Not only does John look like Elijah, he agitated like Elijah. Prophets--the true ones--generally were a pain-in-the-neck to the political powers. Elijah had urged rebellion against the house of Ahab. Like Elijah, John the Baptist was regarded as a subversive threat by the government of Herod Antipas.
"All" of Judea and "all" of Jerusalem went out to John in the wilderness. Right off the bat in Mark's gospel, we see a massive rejection of the Temple. The people did not go to the Temple--the center of Judaism--which was right in their own city. No, they went out to the wilderness to hear the agitator John. The Temple had its own mechanisms for dealing with sin, but people preferred to go to John and his "baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins."
John and Jesus were both alike and different. They both were preachers, both had an association with the wilderness, both advocated repentance, both forgave sins, both died a violent death.
The differences, however, are more striking. John was an ascetic, Jesus was not. John observed meal rituals, Jesus did not. John worked in Judea, Jesus mainly in Galilee. People came to John, Jesus came to people.
As in all the gospels, John is presented as an important figure, but a subordinate one to Jesus. The "one mightier" will follow John. Where John baptizes with water, Jesus will baptize "in a holy spirit." As we proceed through Mark's gospel, it will become clear that baptism "in a holy spirit" means confrontation with the political powers.
Image: St. Mark, contemporary