Mark and the Baptist Tradition

In taking an overview of Mark's gospel, in order to assess the presence of Baptist ideas in the earliest strata of material, we did a word search for "repent" and "repentance" in Mark. Astonishingly, the terms were almost wholly absent! The impact of this fact caused a reassessment of the degree to which Mark represented something new and different for his time. Walter Wink, in his book on the Baptist, tells how Matthew further conditions one example of the mention of repentance from Mark in his account of the baptism:

...The distinction between Jesus and John which he finds in his sources is made even sharper. Precisely because of their extensive assimilation the need arises to maintain necessary boundaries. Only Jesus is Messiah! The Baptist must not be allowed to jeopardize the unique place of Jesus.

Therefore the power to mediate the forgiveness of sin is denied John's baptism. Only the blood of Christ brings about forgiveness (26:28--'this is the blood of the covenant, which is poured out...for the forgiveness of sins'). John's is only a "Baptizo...eis metanoian" (3:11a); Mark's reference to the forgiveness of sins is deleted. (p. 36) JOHN THE BAPTIST in the GOSPEL TRADITION

Mark, unlike the fourth evangelist, separates the ministries of John and Jesus with a sharp temporal sequence; one follows the other without overlap. But this also shows that the ministry of the call to repentance is not a major part of Jesus' ministry as Mark portrays it, but is reserved for the preparatory ministry of the Baptist.

Seen from the perspective of the Baptist role in the development of the New Testament faith, the gospel of Mark takes on a new significance. Indeed, one could say that if all questions raised by this gospel were answered there would be a revolution in our understanding of the period. Q, by consistently representing teachings, with only a single example of a mighty act, aligns with this picture contrasting John and Jesus. The allows for speculation that these teachings may theoretically have been originally Baptist, only later appropriated as common to the wilderness preachings of both John and Jesus. But why does it fall the Matthew and Luke to implement this scheme? And was it something in Mark that unlocked the door?

We begin with two working premises which have good consensus: the primacy of Mark in the two-source hypothesis and the consistent portrayal of Jesus as the wonder-worker and healer over against John, who is the prophet and wilderness proclaimer.

The additional premise which may illuminate the situation regards the Gentile issue. Mark announces the "divine man" and gradually reveals the transfigured and resurrected son of God. He does not forbid the Gentiles salvation or insight into this revealed truth. But he does deny the twelve the prestige they must have commanded at the outset of their role in the tradition. They now are blunderers. This would be understandable if the Gentile mission of the Baptists had preceeded that of the Christians, and was firmly established while the Christian tradition, including the tradition of the twelve, stood firmly against extending to the Gentiles. It might also correspond with the time of the fall of Jerusalem, which strengthened the Gentile position by default.

The above paragraphs pose the issue in a way addressed with startling focus by the essayists of Werner Kelber's collection, THE PASSION IN MARK. The effort is made to reconcile disparate Christologies by positing a subtle strategy. Mark deliberately sets up a rival, triumphalist divine man view (held by the discredited twelve) against his own "suffering righteous one"...vindicated in the passion narrative as correct. This approach has the appeal of explaining two thorny problems. First, it addresses the paradox of the bungling disciples. Secondly it provides a possible resolution to the relationship of the titles Son of Man and Messiah.

But to accept this solution, one will have obstacles to overcome. The expanded "apparitionist" accounts of the triumphalist point of view appear in Matthew and Luke, clearly later than Mark according to the venerable two-document thesis. If Mark's Christology is a corrective to this, it must be seen as other words, earlier versions of the Matthew/Luke apparitions must have existed against which Mark is issuing his corrective. This puts the redaction process in reverse! Less problematic are the bungling disciples. How the primary inheritors and therefore conveyors of the faith could come so soon to the role of foil for the truth is disturbing. But there is no mistaking that this is central and pervasive in Mark. With his "inner circle" of Peter, James and John, a definitive "twelve" is modified, but these are not spared portrayal as misguided in many instances. Mark is not hesistant to present an account in which he as writer is privy to knowledge which eluded Jesus' own disciples and friends! Here we must be coming close to the original novelty of the Markan thesis. The appeal of a "corrective" Mark is great. It would stand as a bulwark against an unending stream of pretenders who could claim "a word from the Lord." The relationship to Pauline tradition immediately comes to mind. But perhaps it is not the triumphalist view, but the Baptist view which is being revised. Their "suffering righteous one" is superceded by Mark's "suffering righteous one." This also is why the disciples, insofar as they represent the Baptist point of view, are misguided.

We have been conditioned to regard Mark as the "oldest of the old," and closest to the origins among the gospels. It is therefore difficult to visualize what it was in Mark that struck his readers as the "newest of the new," the stellar innovations which empowered and encouraged the authors of Luke and Matthew to emply him with such high regard. There was surely something new in Mark which obscures to us what went before, but now appears to us as long-held convention.

It is morally distasteful to reckon with those gospel passages which have fallen to the purposes of antisemitism. It is therefore not appealing to expand this kind of abivalence further, but one might consider the typology of "the twelve" as referring simply to the religion of the Jews, resistant to Christianity. The parallelism with the twelve tribes makes this a natural association. Jesus and his followers are all Jews; but it is to the Gentiles that the mantle falls in Mark. The Centurian witnesses "the Son of God." The promise is to "go before you unto Galilee" (of the Gentiles). The central role played by the women in Mark also suggest a perspective at odds with cultic Judaism. It is interesting to trace the word "gentile" as it appears in Mark. It appears only twice, and both in a negative context! But far from refuting the role of Gentiles in Mark, it serves to heighten the degree of sensitivity to this issue. It is a scandalous situation.

Another theme which may have galvanized the first readers of Mark was the destruction of the Temple. In two footnotes, Kelber makes a cogent case: "Mark is the first Christian theologian known to us who reflects on the relationship between the two principal traumas suffered by first century Christians: the death of Jesus and the destruction of the Temple." and "Both Markan and Pauline Christology are distinguished by an iconoclastic quality: the Markan Jesus puts and end to the Temple much like the Pauline Christ puts an end to the Law." (p. 171) And perhaps both put an end to Baptist piety of an earlier variety.

A Prophet and More