Rikki Watts presents a very thorough argument in Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark (1997) that the major themes, structure, and narrative details in the Gospel of Mark were drawn directly from the Book of Isaiah, and in particular from the last chapters of Isaiah that speak of a New Exodus for Israel from captivity to various nations and back to Jerusalem.
Watts would surely disapprove of my saying so, but I do believe his argument so cogently explains the life and teachings of Jesus in this gospel that one must surely question whether introducing hypothetical sources pointing to an historical Jesus would only create difficulties and add nothing to the gospel. But that is a secondary question. Let’s stick with the outline of Watt’s argument. (It is too detailed to consider anything other than a broad outline in a single post.)
Isaiah Part 2
The second half of Isaiah opens with “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” calling upon God’s people to prepare the way for their coming Lord, God himself. The coming of the Lord will be through a tearing apart of the heavens; he will come as an overpowering warrior to destroy the rulers and idols of the nation; and he will also come as a Shepherd who heals his people, cares for them, and leads them back to a land of rest and true worship. Within these chapters we also read of a mysterious “Suffering Servant” whose suffering is somehow related to the salvation of all Israel. Many Jews have interpreted this figure as an ideal Israel.
When God comes he overthrows the nations who held his people in captivity. This is the beginning of Israel’s second Exodus. He then leads his people — even though they are blind — into the place where he will rule them from Jerusalem. Along the way he must content with the stubborn “wise” and rulers of his people who refuse to submit to his grace and knowledge. The final scenario even appears to include gentiles among God’s people, worshiping in his temple and keeping his laws.
The Gospel of Mark
The Gospel of Mark opens with a passage that is drawn partly from Isaiah, and partly from Exodus itself — or if from Malachi, then the Malachi passage (3:1) is itself drawn from Exodus 23:20 —
‘Lo, I am sending a messenger before thee to keep thee in the way, and to bring thee in unto the place which I have prepared (Young’s Literal Translation)
This, combined with the next line from Isaiah — The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight — sets the theme for the narrative to come.
The tearing of the heavens and the descent of the Spirit into Israel
When Jesus emerges from the waters of baptism the heavens tear apart and the Spirit of God falls down and into (not “upon”) him.
Such a scene was first depicted by Isaiah to portray the arrival of God himself. I will quote from the translations and chapter/verse divisions of the Hebrew text but keep in mind that the author of the gospel was predominantly reliant upon the Greek version (Septuagint). Isaiah 64:1 speaks of the heavens being torn apart like a gate opening to allow God to appear; Isaiah 63:10-11 stress the way God came to his people — “into” them — as a Spirit. Not only so, but this is said to happen at the moment that Israel, God’s son, emerges from the waters through the first Exodus.
Many commentators have interpreted the image of Jesus coming through the waters of baptism and then rushing into the wilderness to be tested by Satan for forty days as an “ideal Israel”. In Isaiah itself there is frequent ambiguity between Israel, as God’s son, being saved from bondage and a Suffering Servant, who may be interpreted as Israel or as a discrete saving figure. Some exegetes have related this Servant to a Son of God and/or Son of Man in Daniel. Jesus throughout the gospel can well be understood as all four: Son of God; Son of Man and Suffering Servant — and an Ideal Israel. (Unfortunately I must leave the details of the arguments for another post.)
Jesus as Yahweh-Warrior and Shepherd Deliverer
When Jesus emerges from the wilderness he performs the mighty works of Isaiah’s Warrior-Yahweh. He casts out the spirit rulers (the demons) who held his people in bondage and restores them to health. This message is highlighted when the wise from Jerusalem (“the scribes”) come down to confront Jesus over his undoing of the power of Beelzebul. Jesus is the mighty strong man who binds and casts out the evil spirits. These demons cringe in torment and fear, knowing their fate. People wonder in awe over who this new strong man is.
Jesus then acts out the role of God in quelling the Chaos of the storm with a word; and later even by walking upon the seas. Those closest to him tremble in fear, unable to comprehend who such a One could be. The “obvious” answer — that he is God (or at least the Son of God) — is too unimaginable to comprehend.
Jesus tries a gentler approach to reveal his identity. He shows he is also the Shepherd-Provider who feeds his people in the wilderness. But the disciples do not even comprehend his identity yet. (That explains why, when the disciples were afraid seeing Jesus walking on the water, that the reason for their fear and lack of comprehension was that they had not understood the miracles of the loaves. Those miracles were demonstrations of the identity of Jesus as the Son of God, the one who feeds his people in the wilderness.)
Isaiah speaks of miraculous healings of the deaf, the dumb, the lame, the blind, as metaphors of spiritual healing. They are used the same way in the Gospel of Mark.
The structure of the Gospel: Galilee and surrounds
How do we explain the structure of the Gospel? The Gospel opens in Galilee, but Jesus is not confined to Galilee. He sometimes goes to the Decapolis and to Tyre. It is common to interpret these visits as Jesus opening the gospel to the gentiles, but if so, we have the curiosity of no specific mention that this is what is happening. The people who encounter Jesus are not said to be gentiles. When in Tyre, Jesus says that he has only been sent to Israel, not the gentiles. That’s an odd thing to say if he was only days earlier casting a Legion of demons out of a gentile and commanding him to spread the gospel to his own people.
Rikki Watts finds an answer in Isaiah: Mark is following the theme of bringing in the Jews/Israelites from among the nations/gentiles — even if this does allow a few gentiles to be converted along the way.
After Jesus performs his mighty warrior miracles (all these great miracles are in the first part of the gospel) he then embarks on a journey “along the way” to Jerusalem. He is leading and teaching his disciples on this journey.
The structure of the Gospel: The Way to Jerusalem
And his disciples continuously fail to understand. They remain blind. (This way section is bracketed by two miracles of healing the blind, as if to underscore this point.) It is no coincidence, Watts argues, that in Isaiah God is leading his people, though blind, along the way. Isaiah 42:16
I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth. These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them. (NIV)
And along that way there are prophecies that Jesus, the servant, must be “handed over” to suffer, including being slapped and spat upon. The Suffering Servant passages in Isaiah are the most likely sources.
So the three “Way” predictions of the suffering of Jesus in Mark:
Mark 8:31 And he began to teach them, that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.
Mark 9:31 “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.”
Mark 10:33-34 Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be delivered unto the chief priests, and unto the scribes; and they shall condemn him to death, and shall deliver him to the Gentiles: And they shall mock him, and shall scourge him, and shall spit upon him, and shall kill him: and the third day he shall rise again.
And the various Suffering Servant passages in Isaiah likewise speak of beating and spitting, and being delivered up or given over to death.
Isaiah 50:6 I gave my cheeks to the smiters . . . I hid not my face from shame and spitting . . .
Isaiah 53:6, 12 (LXX) All we as sheep have gone astray; every one has gone astray in his way; and the Lord gave him up for our sins. . . . his soul was delivered to death. . .
But notice another striking synchronicity:
Mark 10:45 “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Isaiah 53:11 (LXX) The Lord also is pleased to take away from the travail of his soul, to shew him light, and to form [him] with understanding; to justify the just one who serves many well; and he shall bear their sins.
Of course, we know of other points of contact, such as Jesus’ silence before Pilate, being slain among transgressors, the grave with the rich, etc.
The structure of the Gospel: Temple, Mount, Covenant . . .
Why does Jesus seem to restrict his “temple cleansing” to “the outer court” or “court of the gentiles”? Note that Jesus declared at this moment that he expected the Temple to be a place of prayer for all nations, and that same passage comes from Isaiah — 56:7
for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.
Is Mark here declaring a proleptic fulfilment of the Isaianic prophecies that even gentiles will be able to worship in the House of God and even serve as priests? The outer court will become as holy as the inner court if that were to happen.
Jesus’ related message about the importance of prayer that brackets this episode likewise has many resonances with Isaiah. The faith or power to move mountains relates to the symbolism in Isaiah where the removal of mountains is both a sign of God’s power but also a symbol of the power of prayer to overcome all obstacles.
The unacceptable Messiah
God declares the Persian king Cyrus to be his messiah (anointed one) sent to deliver his people Israel from their Babylonian captivity. Not all of Israel accepted him as their messiah. Jesus, likewise, was not accepted by all.
I promised this would be just a quick overview so I had better leave off here before I check the book again to refresh my memory of more details. There are 70 pages of bibliography and scriptural indexes and 388 pages where Watts surely seems to discuss each and every one of these references. So it is a detailed book. But that’s okay, even good. It’s also thought-provoking.