2013-07-29

The Gospel of Mark As a Fulfilment of Isaiah’s New Exodus

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by Neil Godfrey

new-exodusRikki 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

English: "Beelzebub and them that are wit...

English: “Beelzebub and them that are with him shoot arrows.” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Etc.

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.

 

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11 Comments

  • 2013-07-29 13:39:18 UTC - 13:39 | Permalink

    (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.)

    First, Dr. Godfrey, I apologize if I’m intruding too often these pages, but I have little to say because I am only interested in search of the myth of the Gospels and the last two threads are particularly suitable to a my speech of mythical character. The opportunities to introduce mythical exegesis are very few.

    To which quest is Rikki Watts referring?
    This is what I assume with the fouth quest, pure mithology and allegory:

    The disciples, who see Jesus walking on water, cry, “he is a ghost!” because Jesus-sun died the night before and now at dawn he reappears. Here’s my exegesis in solar key (in parentheses the possible interpretation).
    Mk 6,45-49:
    “And straightway he constrained his disciples to get into the ship, and to go to the other side before unto Bethsaida, while he sent away the people (Bethsaida was on the eastern shore of the lake of Tiberias),
    And when he had sent them away (of course a narrative pretext as there are no logical reasons why he was left alone on the other side of the lake).
    he departed into a mountain to pray (the sun sets in the West).
    And when even was come, the ship was in the midst of the sea, and he alone on the land (the sun being gone was down in the land).
    And he saw them toiling in rowing; for the wind was contrary unto them: and about the fourth watch of the night (the fourth watch of the night corresponds before dawn),
    he cometh unto them, walking upon the sea (the sun rises in the East),
    and would have passed by them (and rising seemed to overcome them).
    But when they saw him walking upon the sea (seeing the reflection of the sun on the sea),
    they supposed it had been a spirit, and cried out.

    The miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes, described by Mark, finds a suggestion in 2Kings 4,42-44 but the author of the Gospel story uses it to present another stellar reference. The episode is repeated twice almost identically (Mk 6,38-44 and 8,5-9) except for small variations in the numbers of persons, breads available and baskets remaining. No mathematical correlation is possible between these numbers for which the only possible meaning is to be found in the number of baskets remaining: twelve in the first case, seven in the second miracle.
    Mk 8,19-21: “When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?” “Twelve,” they replied. “And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?” They answered, “Seven.” He said to them, “Do you still not understand?”.
    The purpose of the double narrative was just this: to highlight the two sacred numbers of the myth, the twelve constellations of the zodiac and the seven heavenly bodies that roam between them and which are the subject of both the ancient astrologies that of the modern.

  • Mark Erickson
    2013-07-29 17:08:18 UTC - 17:08 | Permalink

    Whew! I was getting worried there. Thanks to Tim for filling the gap too.

    OT for this post, but right on target for the blog – Steven Pinker tweeted a link to this recent paper reviewing Donald Brown’s 1988 book, Hierarchy, History, and Human Nature: The Social Origins of Historical Consciousness. The opening sentence of the review says this book “ought to be assigned in every course dealing with historiography for undergraduates and graduate students in history and read by all professional historians.” How’s that for high praise! The reviewer claims that post-modernism crowded out its message. But maybe you’ve read it already?

    • Neil Godfrey
      2013-07-29 22:31:21 UTC - 22:31 | Permalink

      I haven’t read it, but it does look interesting. Your comment led me to another article that I also find most interesting: http://www.scribd.com/doc/54234472/Human-Nature-and-History-Donald-e-Brown In principle, I sometimes wonder if human history should be very different in the way it works itself out than are the happenings among other social animals. (In the case of Christian origins there does appear to me to be a large dose of romanticism at heart of most explanations, whether those of theologians or atheists. Brown seems to have something to say that could shed light on that.)

  • Mark Erickson
    2013-07-29 18:30:42 UTC - 18:30 | Permalink

    Another question – what is the first evidence of Mark’s Gospel being attested to in an extant source? That is, what is the last plausible date that Mark must have been written by and why?

    • Neil Godfrey
      2013-07-29 23:32:01 UTC - 23:32 | Permalink

      Ah, this is one of my favourite mysteries. How reliable or authentic are all the details in the texts by Irenaeus? Can we reliably infer that Basilides (himself or a later generation of followers) knew the Gospel of Mark?

      Polycarp (who or whatever that name represents) has been cited as containing the earliest quotation from Mark. See http://web.archive.org/web/20150402190728/http://www.ntcanon.org/table.shtml — The phrase, “servant of all”, is used pejoratively in Mark by Jesus but as an honorable expression in Polycarp. Did both Polycarp and Mark draw it from the LXX of Isaiah 53:11?

      The reference in the same table to Valentians, i.e. Marcus, once again teasingly avoids explicit identification of Mark.

      Justin Martyr is usually said to be the first to have certain knowledge of the gospel. This is based on Justin’s knowledge of Jesus being said to change the names of Simon to Peter and James and John to the sons of Boanerges. Couple this with references found nearby and elsewhere in Justin to “Memoirs of the Apostles” — a title similar to Xenophon’s Memorabilia which consists of four books — that are usually assumed to be a reference to the four gospels. There has been some doubt raised about the integrity of these latter references in Justin’s dialogue. The Patristic writings were not immune from subsequent “redactions”.

      If this passage about the name-changing is an indication of Justin’s knowledge of Mark and the other canonical gospels, it seems odd that the same passage adds details about the Magi not found in Matthew (elsewhere Justin appears to be drawing upon a story of the Magi that has nothing to do with Matthew), and other details that are at odds with what we read in the gospels, including Mark (e.g. at the baptism of Jesus the Jordan flared up in flame.)

      I think the evidence of Justin ought to be regarded as inconclusive (there is room for Mark having been composed in the wake of the Bar Kochba rebellion — mid 130s — in the life-time of Justin) but most others see Justin’s testimony as decisive that it was in existence before then. By the time of Irenaeus, though, there is surely no doubt about the existence of the gospel.

      (If I ignore Papias it is because we have no idea who or what — a pseudonym for whom? — Papias was. We only have Eusebius talking about something written by this name. And what he quotes does not gell with what we know of the Gospel itself. The Peter tradition is, for several other reasons, clearly (to me) an ideological, not historical, “tradition”. There is no literary warrant for it in Mark itself.)

      • 2013-07-30 09:44:20 UTC - 09:44 | Permalink

        Justin Martyr mentions the province of Syrophoenicia, which was created in 193, so if it was not written in the third century, it was at least redacted then. That would weaken its usefulness in dating the Gospels.

        • Neil Godfrey
          2013-07-30 20:31:26 UTC - 20:31 | Permalink

          Yes. I do not recall the author or publisher of the article off hand, but I do recall reading one scholarly contribution some years ago presenting a methodical argument that the passages in Justin that speak of the “Memoirs of the Apostles” were later interpolations/”redactions”. That would, I think, include the supposedly explicit reference to the Gospel of Mark — the renaming of the three lead disciples.

    • Anonymous
      2013-07-30 13:20:35 UTC - 13:20 | Permalink

      Ah, who wrote what where and when – probably the hardest question to answer in Christian history.
      I like Carrier’s complaint about the difficulties in finding safe base points to anchor subsequent thoughts.
      http://richardcarrier.blogspot.com.au/2008/09/ignatian-vexation.html

      • Neil Godfrey
        2013-07-30 20:47:02 UTC - 20:47 | Permalink

        If I may reply with three of my favourite quotations. I copy here from an earlier post, 3 unquestioned assumptions of historical Jesus studies, with the favourite of my favourites in colour:

        Historical Jesus scholars are still operating at the same level as Albrightian scholars once were in relation to King David and the history of the united Kingdom of Israel:

        So far, historical research by biblical scholars has taken a … circular route …. The assumption that the literary construct is an historical one is made to confirm itself. Historical criticism (so-called) of the inferred sources and traditions seeks to locate these in that literary-cum-historical construct. (Philip R. Davies: In Search of ‘Ancient Israel’, pp.35-37)

        It hasn’t helped that those who are interested in the development of historical research in this region have avoided the implications of the mythical and literary overtones that are a constant of all the Bible’s stories. They have chosen rather a rhetoric that supports the assumption of historicity. For example, even when speaking of stories filled with literary fantasy, they speak of a ‘biblical record’ and of the Bible’s ‘account of the past’. This rhetoric of archaeology avoids the useful scepticism that historians usually have ready at hand whenever iron is reported to float on water.

        and

        It is a fundamental error of method to ask first after an historical David or Solomon, as biblical archaeologists and historians often have done. We need first to attend to the David and Solomon we know: the protagonists of Bible story and legend. The Bible does not hesitate to tell these stories as tall tales. (Pages 38 and 45 from T.L.Thompson’s The Mythic Past.)

        A hundred years ago New Testament scholars issued the same warnings that have gone unheeded:

        This warning about the need for New Testament scholars to understand the nature and provenance of their sources was issued over a century ago by E. Schwartz in a discussion about the evidence (still) used to support the claims of Papias about gospel traditions — and which applies equally to the unsupported assumptions underlying Gospel historical studies:

        With regard to the recurrent inclination to pass off Papias’s remarks about the first two Synoptists as “ancient information” and to utilize them in some fashion or other, a somewhat more general observation may not be out of place. The history of classical literature has gradually learned to work with the notions of the literary-historical legend, novella, or fabrication; after untold attempts at establishing the factuality of statements made it has discovered that only in special cases does there exist a tradition about a given literary production independent of the self-witness of the literary production itself; and that the person who utilizes a literary-historical tradition must always first demonstrate its character as a historical document. General grounds of probability cannot take the place of this demonstration. It is no different with Christian authors. In his literary history Eusebius has taken reasonable pains; as he says in the preface he had no other material at his disposal than the self-witness of the books at hand. Not once was he able to say anything about the external history of the works of Origen, in which he was genuinely interested, apart from what he found in or among them. And if in the case of authors who as individuals and sometimes as well-known personalities stood in the glare of publicity there is so little information about their production, how much more is this not the situation in the case of the Gospels, whose authors intentionally or unintentionally adhered to the obscurity of the Church, since they neither would nor could be anything other than preachers of the one message, a message that was independent of their humanity? . . . . General grounds of probability cannot take the place of this demonstration. It is no different with Christian authors. In his literary history Eusebius has taken reasonable pains; as he says in the preface he had no other material at his disposal than the self-witness of the books at hand . . . . (the underlined portion is Abramowski’s emphasis)

        This is from an academic paper delivered in 1904 by E. Schwartz: “Uber den Tod der Sohne Zebedaei. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Johannesevangeliums” (= Gesammelte Schriften V, 1963,48-123). It is cited in a 1991 chapter by Luise Abramowski titled “The ‘Memoirs of the Apostles’ in Justin” pp.331-332 published in “The Gospel and the Gospels” ed. Peter Stuhlmacher.

        And more recently Albert Schweitzer had enough understanding of historical methodology to write:

        In reality, however, these writers are faced with the enormous problem that strictly speaking absolutely nothing can be proved by evidence from the past, but can only be shown to be more or less probable. Moreover, in the case of Jesus, the theoretical reservations are even greater because all the reports about him go back to the one source of tradition, early Christianity itself, and there are no data available in Jewish or Gentile secular history which could be used as controls. Thus the degree of certainty cannot even by raised so high as positive probability. (From page 401 of The Quest of the Historical Jesus, 2001, by Albert Schweitzer.)

        Schweitzer was by no means a proponent of a mythical Jesus argument, of course. This quotation comes from a book in which he critiques arguments for a mythical Jesus in his own day. (He did so in a strangely civil and knowledgeable manner quite foreign to how we see academics tackle the arguments today.)

        But he did at least recognize the methodological problem of relying on documents without external controls to support the historicity of their narratives. This point appears to be lost on modern historical Jesus scholars. McGrath and Sanders and others simply assume that history is to be found simply by analysing the plot and narratives of the Gospels.

  • yohanna
    2013-08-20 12:50:32 UTC - 12:50 | Permalink

    Isaiah 53 and Jews:-

    Jews say that the servant is Jewish people, but if we read verse 3, we find that the text says, He was despised and forsaken of men, a man of pains, we find here two words (men) and (man) in the original Hebrew word men came (eshim) and the word man came (esh) The formula (im) is the plural form, which means that the first word is a plural of the second word. So this servant is a single person punished from a group of men, The same verse says we esteemed him not, the original Hebrew says (Hashbanhow), which means we accounted him not , Depending on the verse 4 “Surely our diseases he did bear” shows that who meant in them in saying (we) are the Jewish people, So Isaiah says that the Jewish people despised and did not account this servant, so how this servant is the Jewish people?, And verse 6 and 7 say he did not open his mouth and verse 9 says he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth, and these descriptions never apply to an entire people component of both ages and both genders,This servant carries the sins of others, the book says that no one carries the guilt of the other Ezekiel Chapter 18, which carries the guilt of others only a sin offering.

    Isaiah since he said that the arm of the Lord will appear in chapters 51 and 52, Isaiah 53: 1 is achieving for coming this arm, Isaiah 51: 4-5 is intended here coming King Messiah as the judge arm of the peoples, eternal salvation and righteousness, the isles waiting for him, Isaiah 51: 9 – 11: arm will hold a miracles as Moses see Deuteronomy 18: 15-18, Deuteronomy 34: 10 – 12, the prophet (Messiah) alone who would resemble Moses in miracles, Isaiah 51: 11 moved literally from Isaiah 35: 10, and this indicates to the same idea, Isaiah 35 speaks of the miracles of Jesus the way (Highway), Isaiah 52 begins to talk about how to return the people of Babylon, but from Isaiah 52: 7 – 10 starts prophet talking about another time, a time of good news which means Gospel, then they see God eye to eye as face-to-face, which means the incarnation of God, Isaiah 52: 10, came in Psalm 98: 1 – 2 which occurs when the Nations glorify God and this is when the Messiah comes see Isaiah 55: 3 – 5. So the arm of the lord in Isaiah 53: 1 is talking about what will happen to the arm that Isaiah predicted about it in chapters 51 and 52 when it came, And its the messiah.

    Jewish sayings in verse 8 “a plague befell them” and verse 9 ” with his kinds of death” or “his deaths”:-

    Verse 8: a plague befell them came in Hebrew “Nega lamo”, Nega: stroke – Adjective, Lamo: to them ,for them , It came like this in the Masoretic text which between 6 century – 10 century AD, And we can understand the text that the servant was cut off from the land of the living because of the transgressions of the people of Isaiah a stroke for them, Which means that the servant is a stroke for Isaiah’s people, But if we read the old texts Qumran and Septuagint we find that the word nega was noga which means (he was stricken), Lamo came in Qumran as (lamo) which means for them. So Qumran says he was stricken for them, Lamo came in Septuagint as (lamot) which means to death, So Septuagint says he was stricken to death.

    Verse 9: with his kinds of death or his deaths came in Hebrew “Bemotao”: his deaths, The same problem that the text came like this in Masoretic text which between 6 century – 10 century AD as plural form, But if we read the old texts Qumran and Septuagint we find it bemoto which means his death singular form.

    Text origins don’t help what Jews say.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2013-08-20 21:33:22 UTC - 21:33 | Permalink

      In short, you are arguing that Isaiah contains genuine prophecies of the Jesus Christ of the Gospels and the Jews don’t know how to read their own scriptures? Only believing Christians do?

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