Mark, the earliest of our canonical gospels, does not simply omit the details about Jesus before his baptism, but indirectly informs readers that nothing like the birth and boyhood stories we read in the gospels of Matthew and Luke could possibly have happened. Mark is clear: Jesus was a nobody until the day he was baptized by John.
He did not spend is youth travelling to the British Isles. He did not astonish his family or neighbours by turning clay birds into living sparrows or miraculously extending timber beams to help his father’s carpentry business. His birth was not marked by angelic visits to shepherds in the countryside or rich foreign elites paying his parents a visit. No one knew about angels or pious elderly folk at the Temple making public pronouncements about his destiny. He at no time as a boy demonstrated to the learned men of the cloth any astonishing wisdom. He was just an ordinary bloke like everyone else.
That’s why Mark says his mother and family thought he needed to be taken off and given a good lie down after he started becoming a bit of a public spectacle. Mark 3:21, 31-32
And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself. . . .
There came then his brethren and his mother, and, standing without, sent unto him, calling him. And the multitude sat about him, and they said unto him, Behold, thy mother and thy brethren without seek for thee.
Mark 3:21, 31-32
And it’s why all those who had lived with him and known him all his life thought it a bit over the top that he should start talking and acting as if he was somehow any different from them:
And he went out from thence, and came into his own country; . . . .
And when the sabbath day was come, he began to teach in the synagogue: and many hearing him were astonished, saying, From whence hath this man these things? and what wisdom is this which is given unto him, that even such mighty works are wrought by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us?
And they were offended at him.
And it is also why no-one seems to have bothered to collect “traditions” or details about anything remarkable in his pre-baptism life from former neighbours and relatives. (The birth narratives in Matthew and Luke are clearly imaginative adaptions of pre-existing biblical and extra-biblical stories.)
So Who Is This Really?
But of course this raises another question about the nature of Jesus in the gospels, or at least in the earliest gospel. The question of “Who Is This?” permeates Mark’s gospel.
Jesus’ is introduced in Mark’s gospel in a secret scene known only to God and the readers. No other characters in the story know anything about the Holy Spirit falling into Jesus (not “upon” him, as in Matthew) and driving him into the wilderness, and certainly none hears the voice from heaven pronouncing his identity. The only characters in Mark’s gospel who know who Jesus really is are God and the demons. Only Jesus (and the reader) sees the heavens parting and only Jesus hears the voice (Mark 1:9-11).
His public entrance comes only after the curtain falls on John’s opening act. From then on people begin to ask, Who and what is this? People begin to talk about him far and wide.
And they were all amazed, insomuch that they questioned among themselves, saying, What thing is this? what new doctrine is this? for with authority commandeth he even the unclean spirits, and they do obey him. And immediately his fame spread abroad throughout all the region round about Galilee.
And ditto throughout chapters 2, 3, 5, 6 . . . .
Some say he his Elijah, and some John the Baptist. Following a chapter by Norman R. Petersen in Randal Argall’s For a later generation : the transformation of tradition in Israel, early Judaism, and early Christianity, “Elijah, the Son of God, and Jesus: Some Issues in the Anthropology of Characterization in Mark“, anyone familiar with the popular literature and mythical memes of the day would be reminded here of divine beings coming down to act among mortals by appearing in the bodies of known people.
But I am not completely comfortable with many of the examples Petersen brings in to testify in support of his argument. It is not always clear that pagan gods and goddesses actually inhabited the persons of existing humans or simply assumed their form and appeared ‘as’ those people, leaving the readers to wonder if the real persons were off on an extended visit to a distant relative throughout the narrative. Admittedly there are times, no doubt, when the portrayal of a divinity as a known human is so extended that a reader is compelled to at least play with the idea that the deity is actually inhabiting the body of the physical person. Such a case is when an audience needs regular reminding that the friend of Odysseus and guardian of his son Telemachus, Mentor, is in fact the goddess Athena. (For a complete list of actions Athena enacted as these mortals see http://messagenetcommresearch.com/myths/bios/athene.html and search for “Mentes” and “Mentor”.)
Petersen also cites Zeus and Hermes (Jupiter and Mercury) appearing in human form to the pious Philemon and Baucus, the apparent model for the belief that Barnabas and Paul were the human forms of these gods (Acts 14:8-19).
(Both these tales are of interest to anyone familiar with the biblical narratives where Jesus instructs his disciples to trust in divine guidance when they speak before notables, the visit of the two angels to Lot in Sodom and subsequent destruction of the city and rescuing of the godly, and the miracles of food supply (wine or oil or other) not running out when poured. These sorts of anecdotes appear in the pagan narratives as well as the biblical.)
Think also of the popular Jewish story of Tobit when the angel Raphael comes down and inhabits Azarias, a member of Tobit’s extended family. But again it is not clear to me from Tobit whether Azarias was real physical person inhabited by Raphael, or if Raphael simply pretended he was and lied to Tobit to get away with the well-intentioned trick.
Note also, says Petersen, the many later Jewish legends of Elijah inhabiting a range of known persons on earth, such as Rabbi Hayyah. But the same doubts continue with this example, too. The story strongly suggests to me that Elijah took the form of the rabbi when the real rabbi was off-stage taking a nap or whatever.
Back to Mark.
Elijah, angelic possessor of John or conceptual fulfilment of texts?
Mark makes it clear that Elijah came in John the Baptist. When Jesus says that
Elias is indeed come, and they have done unto him whatsoever they listed, as it is written of him. (Mark 9:13)
sophisticated modern readers like to interpret that as meaning John fulfilled the prophecies about Elijah. But that is not necessarily how Mark’s original first century Mediterranean audience understood it.
When modern readers note Mark’s description of John wearing a hairy garment they readily take this as the author’s way of hinting with a nudge nudge, wink wink that John was acting out the role of Elijah.
But as Petersen points out, this interpretation ignores the fact that Elijah has an independent separate existence in the gospel, quite apart from John. After John is dead Elijah appears in his own right at the transfiguration of Jesus. It is then, after narrative characters and audience are introduced to the “real Elijah” come down from heaven to talk with Jesus. In Mark this is not an ethereal vision. That hallucinatory idea is only introduced by Matthew who was re-rewriting much of Mark’s views of the nature of Jesus and character of the disciples. In Mark, the disciples saw Elijah talking with Jesus at a moment when God attempted to reveal the true identity of “Who Is This” to them. Jesus then tells them that the Elijah they had just seen had already appeared to them in the form or person of John the Baptist.
Had Elijah in fact been literally sent, as promised in Malachi and as reaffirmed in Mark 1:1 (“Behold, I send my messenger before your face who will prepare your way before you.”), to prepare the way ahead of the Son of God? The word for “messenger” here is generally taken to be one of the rare exceptions where the word that normally at this time indicated an “angel” switches over to refer to a human messenger. But every other place where Mark uses this word (albeit in the plural – 1:13, 8:38, 12:25, 13:27, 13:32) he clearly means a heavenly angel. Not a human like John.
The original passage from which Mark quoted, Malachi 3:1, directly explains that this messenger is to be the literal Elijah (4:5) who had been translated to heaven to live as an angelic type many years earlier.
Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me, . . . . Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet . . .
Maybe an original reader would have seen in John’s hairy clothing and wilderness dwelling some literary artifice to make him think, “Ah ha, what is the author trying to convey here?” but rather, would he be likely to see mysterious signs that indicated the very real presence of Elijah in this person?
If so, the literal appearance of Elijah in his own right coming after John’s demise significantly reinforces the message that he had delivered through John — that one should see in Jesus another, none other than the Son of God.
Spirit possession is spirit possession, whether Holy or Unclean
Think of Jesus’ reply when he is accused of casting out demons by the prince of demons. He is accused of being possessed by Beelzebul just as the exorcised had been possessed by demons. But Mark tells us that it is not the Evil Spirit that has possessed him, but the Holy Spirit.
The significant point here is that the Evil/Holy Spirit is said to be possessing or inhabiting Jesus in the same sense as the demons are possessing their hapless victims.
They said, He is out of his mind. And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, He has Beelzebub, and By the ruler of the demons he casts out demons. So He called them to him and said . . . He who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness. . . because they said, He has an unclean spirit. (Mark 3:21-30)
This meaning (that the Holy Spirit is what possesses Jesus, not the Unclean Spirit) is supported by Jesus’ verbal exchanges with demons in possession of humans. When Jesus talks to them as inhabitants/possessors of people’s bodies, the same demons reply as if in kind to identify who is really talking to them — it is not Jesus, but the Son of God. Not the Son of Man, but the Son of God. Not the visible human Jesus, but the being or spirit that possessed him at baptism and drove the mortal Jesus into the wilderness (Mark 1:9-12).
And immediately, coming up from the water, he saw the heavens parting and the Spirit descending into [= eis: not epi (upon) as in Matthew] him like a dove. Then a voice came from heaven, You [The Spirit that has just fallen from heaven and entered and become one with Jesus?] are my beloved Son . . . And immediately the Spirit drove him into the wilderness. (Mark 1:9-12)
The fact that the spirit “drives” Jesus into the wilderness supports the image of the Spirit from God entering “into” and possessing Jesus just as demons could enter people and possess them.
With this narrative of Jesus being possessed by a Spirit from heaven, something interesting happens when we read about the exorcisms.
A mysterious conversation happens when Jesus meets people possessed by demons. Bystanders see a human possessed. Jesus is seen (only by the narrator and reader?) talking directly to the demon inside the person. The demon replies that it knows who is talking to it — the Son of God. See Mark 1:21-25. Jesus then tells the demon to be quiet and leave the body it is inhabiting.
It is as if we are reading about some sort of power struggle between two spirit beings who are half-hidden by the flesh they each inhabit.
They saw only Jesus with themselves
The famous transfiguration scene has Jesus taking Peter, James and John up to a high mountain. There these three disciples are kept on the outer as they see Jesus socializing with the angelic Elijah and Moses. God comes down to join this elite and booms out to the disciples that the one who has been accompanying them has been none other than his very own Son.
But then when the cloud lifts and Elijah and Moses disappear, Mark, poignant with irony or the theme of misidentification once again, says that the disciples
looked around, [and] they saw no one any more, but only Jesus with themselves. (Mark 8:8)
No-one here any more. Only Jesus is left here with us.
I don’t know how much this interpretation depends upon the nuances of the English translation. So I’m not staking a case on it. But it does appear an interesting possibility. This is another possible case where the disciples can only see “the son of man”. Not the Son of God who is actually possessing that particular “son of man”.
Son of God fuses with the Son of Man
But when on trial Jesus was asked, Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed? (14:61) Son of Blessed is a Jewish circumlocution for Son of God. Jesus replied, I am. And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power . . .”
This surely is a scene where the Son of God inhabiting Jesus is talking to the high priest just as formerly this Son spoke to demons. “I am the Son of the Blessed”, he says. “And you will see the Son of Man” — third person — he says.
Jesus had earlier informed his disciples that the transfiguration bore some relationship to the resurrection, a notion incomprehensible to the disciples at the time. The transfiguration was the appearance of the Son of God who was in Jesus. This was not to be proclaimed till after the resurrection (Mark 9:9).
Elijah left John when Herod had his head chopped off. Elijah appeared in his own original form after John’s demise.
The Son of Man will in the future be revealed as the physical form of the Son of God who inhabited Jesus at his baptism. Until the resurrection, this was only demonstrated to the disciples at his transfiguration, an event they could not at the time comprehend.
If there was an original longer ending of Mark, was it removed early by the “proto-orthodox” because it clarified this very unorthodox idea of the originally two separate natures of the man Jesus and the Spirit Son too directly?