The Pumpernickel Gospel of Mark

Week of Sunday December 4 - Advent 2
Gospel: Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight” ’ 

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem (everyone, that is) were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He 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. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’

Back in the late seventies a bloke called Jim Punton appeared out of the desert at Ernabella, and came to our bible study one night. I'd never heard of him, and have no idea how he arrived there, 300 miles from the nearest town. Jim was “on a roll” that evening, and delighted us with a list of earthy bits of scripture sanitised by our translators. “Perhaps your God has gone to the toilet,” teased Elijah on Mt. Carmel (in broad Scottish, to boot!)

Jim also said that he verses in Mark 1:2-3 do not refer to John the Baptist. The grammar and the style of the time, imply that the phrase “As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,” refers back to these words: Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The Isaiah 40 prophecy (which actually is quilted together with Exodus 23:20 and Malachi 3:1 to make its own image) refers not to John the Baptist, but to Jesus.

This is Jesus, not John:

See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.”

Being in love with biblical intricacies, I was thrilled with this discovery, until I re-read Matthew and Luke. It is absolutely clear in those gospels that the reference to the messenger is about John the Baptist. So, I concluded,  Jim Punton was wrong.

Here is the point of this reminiscence.

What is in Mark has nothing to do with Matthew and Luke. They didn’t exist when Mark was written. They copy, and reinterpret, and add to Mark. Sometimes they may even get Mark wrong; that is, they may even misunderstand what he meant, or decide that he needs correction.

Mark was first. Everything we do today diminishes this fact. We list it as the second gospel. We call this year, Year B, which if we have any awareness of current scholarship, is strange. And we will be tempted to consult Matthew and Luke time and again, to check Mark. Not only will we be tempted; we will do it, just as I did. And we will risk hiding what Mark may be saying to us. We will remove the priority of Mark.

Those two gospels may help us understand Mark, or highlight something of Mark for us, but they cannot, and must not, be used to check, or limit, or correct Mark. Mark came first.

And that fact means, that at the very beginning, Mark leaves us with an untidy gospel. It does not fit the dominant picture of John the Baptist and Jesus that we have inherited from the tradition. And at the end, Mark is also untidy; there is no resurrection appearance, or maybe the end was torn off the scroll.

It seems to me that rather than tidy things up, using Matthew or Luke, we might discover more from Mark if we give his text its own priority, and live with all the questions its dense, terse text raises for us.

Jim’s exaggerated Scottish burr entertained us that night, at the expense of The Living Bible, with the wonderful story of King Saul climbing the hill to the cave, in order to go into the bathroom. (For American readers, I should say that the incongruities of this image are much greater in Australia, where bathrooms and toilets are traditionally two different rooms of a house. We don’t go to the bathroom.)

Such play with a word or two at a time is not nit picking. In Mark the text is dense, jam packed with allusions and layers of meaning. Toilet jokes may not seem appropriate in bible study, but the texts of scripture are, in fact, common language. They are not pious and polite. From memory, The Jerusalem Bible translates Galatians 5:12 as Tell them I hope the knife slips...It always strikes me that this communicates much more than a nice, pious rendition such as, Oh that those who are disturbing you would mutilate themselves!

As we begin Mark this year; his introduction is masterfully dense and short, unlike mine, Let’s hold onto the common language when we find it, and let’s give him his rightful priority. Can we imagine how we would read him if there were no Matthew or Luke to compare?


The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, as it is written in the Prophet Isaiah.

He could have written: This is the story of Jesus.

It is the essence of the sentence that makes up verse one.  We could even write, The Story of Jesus, and have it as a heading. Mark has jammed it full of nuance; in fact, in its context, there is a lot of unsubtle and un-nuanced content.

Back in our Ernabella days, my wife used to make pumpernickel for my bush trips. This heavy, dense rye bread seems to get richer and moister the longer you hold onto it. It gets better as the days pass. Mark is like pumpernickel if we care to savour it, rather than hurry through. Nibbling at this week we might remember that...

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. (Genesis 1:1)  The same word ἀρχ which was translated as beginning in the Septuagint Greek translation of New Testament times  is used in both Mark and John.  It is no accident. The choice is deliberate; an allusion to the idea of a new beginning.  There is a hint here that Mark considers his “good news” to be on a par with Genesis.

That term good news has become so familiar to us that we are blind to the richness and challenge it must have held for the earliest readers. It had a long history in the mother’s-milk-scriptural-environment of Israel; for example, How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, your God reigns. (Isa 52:7) In the Septuagint, the Greek word for good news is the same word Mark uses.

It also had a contemporary political use.

In 9 B.C., within a decade of Jesus' birth, the birthday of Caesar Augustus (63 B.C. - A.D. 14) was hailed as euangelion (pl.). Since he was hailed as a god, Augustins's "birthday signaled the beginning of Good News for the world." In the Greco-Roman world the word always appears in the plural, meaning one good tiding among others; but in the NT euangelion appears only in the singular: the good news of God in Jesus Christ, beside which there is no other. ...

The author who Brian Stoffregen is quoting here concludes that for “Mark, the advent of Jesus is the beginning of the fulfillment of the "good news" heralded by Isaiah." That is not the only thing people would have seen. The sentence continues: Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.

At this point the heavies of the local synagogues, and the Frumentarii, or their predecessors, have all sat up and begun to read carefully. Jesus is not the Messiah, say the Jews, we are still waiting. The Emperor is the Son of God, say the Romans. His birthday is the good news, as are his victories at war.

In this one short first line, Mark has laid down the gauntlet.  This challenge to the authority of Rome, and the Temple and its successors, and all they stand for, will be developed and constantly emphasised throughout the gospel.

And just in case you didn’t quite understand this...

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”

Can you imagine a synagogue official pointing this out to a Roman agent, “See what he’s written here? He’s saying that this Jesus is a new Emperor Cyrus coming to set Israel free from the Empire (of Babylon.) This guy is a trouble maker, (not like our synagogue.) You need to deal with him, or we’ll have another war on our hands.”

That synagogue official was not it making it up. He was correct about Isaiah 40, which Mark specifically identifies as the source of his quotation. It is a promise that God will restore Israel from exile.  In addition, by chapter 41 the method is clear; the military victory of Cyrus over the empire of Babylon will restore Israel.  Cyrus was the “victor from the east.” (41:2)

Emperors, and their generals and spies, are in no doubt about what such writings mean! Neither are Gospel writers ignorant of the paranoia of power. No one writes this stuff by accident, or without careful thought. While Matthew takes every opportunity to quote the Jewish scriptures like this, Mark does it far less often; he is making a strong, deliberate, not-to-be-overlooked, point.

Now that we understand what is going to happen, we can begin the story: John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, the place of the prophets, the place where God meets the people and leads them, the place where God rescues them in their distress. This motif is like a wash over a watercolour. It forms the background of the scriptures, whether the meeting be in the Exodus, or in Elijah hearing the still small voice and being fed by the ravens, or soon, with Jesus as he arises from the water of the Jordan, the place of Entry to the Promised Land.

(Jim Punton, by the way, suggested the ravens were actually desert Bedouins, and that the Masoretes who put the pointing into the original Hebrew Text, made a mistake. Prophets in the desert are full of wild ideas!)

This John the Baptist had the wild idea that people needed to repent; even the people of Israel. And Mark says they agreed. People from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem knew they were missing something. But John made it clear he was only the beginning, not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of [the] sandals of the one coming after him.

The one who is coming, who is preparing our way, preparing the way of the Lord, will baptise us with the Holy Spirit. There is a whole different order of magnitude in this other prophet who is the Son of God.

In Mark’s mind, John is already an elevated prophet. Loader says “John, himself, plunged [people] beneath the water and earned for that the nickname, the baptiser or Baptist...” This seems unremarkable to us, but “water rites, including immersion, were usually self administered. Submitting to John symbolised submitting to God, the God who freely cleanses away sin.” Being baptised is to place ourselves in a position of complete vulnerability.

In one of those serendipitous moments of the computer age, my word processor is anxiously telling me I should correct the text; surely I mean water rights! But the Chosen People of God were giving up their rights in this rite of John. In him they saw a potent pathway to God. He was not an echo of the past, or some caricature of a prophet. He was not the weird hippy leader of a few strange greenies; “people from the whole Judean countryside, and all the people of Jerusalem, were going out to him.”

But this was nothing, said John. ‘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 with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’,

This is only the beginning of the Good News!

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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