2007-06-03

Baptism: Another Markan trap? Or, The Gospel of Perfection

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by Neil Godfrey


“I think the whole story of Jesus is a parable, an allegory. If you insist on making it literal you destroy it.” — Vridar’s thoughts in Vardis Fisher’s Orphans in Gethsemane (Vol.1, For Passion, For Heaven)


Why does Mark leave readers hanging right through to the end of his gospel and never show the fulfilment of John’s proclamation that Jesus would baptize with the holy spirit?

I indeed baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the holy spirit (Mk.1.8)

Or is this another one of those “Markisms” where he sets up the reader (and characters in his gospel) to expect one thing while he really means the words in a different sense? There are many examples: the kingdom of God, blindness and seeing, washing and purification, the temple, doors and houses, mountain, lake and wilderness, the rock and tomb, the Son of David, family, etc. John Carroll (The Existential Jesus) says that the Gospel of Mark is the most cryptic of all pivotal Western literature. (See the recent Lingua Franca post and link in this blog.)

Literal baptism?

Do readers fall into another trap by reading “Jesus will baptize you with the holy spirit” literally when Mark has a different, nonliteral, sense for it, one that only his initiate reader understands, and one that that reader will see played out throughout the gospel narrative? Did the author of Acts fail to understand what Mark originally meant, or reject Mark’s esoteric meaning, by giving us the literal image of loud spirit wind whooshing down on the heads of the disciples, and has that image misled us in our reading of Mark?

Are Two figures baptized in Mark 1?

It has suddenly hit me that Mark possibly is narrating the immersions or baptisms of two different figures in chapter 1:

Jesus came . . . and was baptized by John in (into/eis) the Jordan.

And immediately, coming up from the water, he saw the heavens parting and the spirit descending (into/eis) him like a dove. (Mk.1.9-10)

At the same time that Jesus is coming up from the waters, from the heavens the spirit is coming down. The two meet and, contrary to later gospels, Jesus is not immersed by the spirit, but the the spirit is immersed (baptized by) Jesus.

The Greek usage of the word for baptism conveyed the image of lowering a small container into a larger one to draw out water or wine.

There is no suggestion of waters parting in Mark in a way that the heavens part. The mirror images are rather of the rising Jesus and the descending dove. John is standing there at the Jordan like the angel of Yahweh and proclaiming the coming of God (1.3); while a voice at the heavens, presumably God’s, proclaims himself as having come in his son.

It is the dove-shaped spirit that is lowered (baptized) into Jesus and draws him out and casts him into the wilderness.

And immediately the spirit drove him into the wilderness (Mk.1.12)

Not ethics, but perfection!

John Carroll stresses that Jesus is not an ethical teacher in Mark’s gospel, and that is true to an extent, but I think can be a little misleading. One might do more justice to Mark’s intent by saying that ethics, righteousness, is simply assumed in Mark. It is the elementary basics from which the initiate readers are to move on. It shares the thought expressed in Hebrews 6:1-2

“Therefore leaving the . . . elementary principles . . . let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works . . . “

This is clearest in Jesus’ encounter with the rich man. He was told to keep the commandments as a matter of first principles, but that was clearly not enough. He had to sell all that he had to be perfect. When Jesus lamented afterwards how hard it was for a rich man to enter the “sacred order” (Carroll’s term) he may as well have said, How hard it is for one who keeps merely the elementary principles of the law to enter the kingdom of God. One needs to lose everything, meaning to lose one’s life, to die (on the cross in Jesus’ case), to gain life and true riches. This is what John (perhaps he was in some ways Mark’s “great interpreter” as John Carroll suggests) meant when he said:

I have come that they may have life and that they may have it more abundantly (John 10:10)

Prosperity type Christians today grossly take this to mean the opposite of what it is really saying — that Jesus is promising rich life to those who go through him as the door, who go through his death and loss of all. It has nothing to do with being blessed financially today. That was what the rich man in Mark wanted to believe.

So Mark’s Jesus is not an ethical teacher, but only in the sense that ethics are the elementary principles from which one ought, by the time one is reading his gospel, have moved on. Readers of the gospel are now ready to understand perfection.

The acts of the baptized spirit

But there is something different about the baptism of the spirit into Jesus that Jesus’ baptism does not replicate. Jesus comes out of the Jordan. The spirit does not come out of Jesus, at least not yet. But it does cast Jesus out into the wilderness.

And having been cast out into the wilderness, the wild beasts cannot harm him.

He speaks an order to four fisherman, and they instantly obey. It is as if God said, Let there be light, and there was light. Jesus said, Follow me, and they followed.

He speaks to a demon, and it obeys.

He touches a fevered elderly woman and she is healed.

He touches a leper, and he is healed too.

The paralytic metaphors

Then Mark explains, at least to the initiate, what is going on here by elaborating on the healing of the paralytic. John Carroll observes that here the critics of Jesus interpret his words at one level, but the narrative demonstrates that Jesus means them at another. So what is going on?

Jesus is accused of blasphemy by taking to himself the divine prerogative to spiritually forgive sins. But Jesus is possessed by the dove, still immersed in him, and declared to be the very nature of God. (Son of God is comparable to Son of Belial — it means one who “is” such a person. Jesus is also Son of Man. He is as much God himself as he is Man himself.)

Jesus is not talking about forgiveness of sins at all in the way the blind scribes take his words. He is talking about “setting free” (a likely meaning of the word for ‘forgive’) the deformed one before him, making him whole. The proof of this interpretation? He tells him to get up and walk, and he does!

Most exegetes since have mis-read Mark by interpreting Jesus’ words with the same misunderstanding as the scribes demonstrated! And all too many as a consequence have brought so much misery on countless persons with their hideous teaching that physical illness is the consequence of spiritual sin!

Spiritual forgiveness has to do with the elementary principles of righteousness. With the commandments. With the washing with water to purify oneself.

That is not what Jesus is about at all! He is about perfection! And we will learn from the story of the rich man that that has nothing to do anymore with commandment keeping or living righteously by laws and precepts. That is all about dying to enter life. The Jesus character of Mark is no more interested in physical paralysis than he is in physical blindness. His story is about spiritual insight, and spiritual perfection.

But what does the paralytic healing have to do with finding perfection through losing one’s life? Everything. Look back at that bizarre scene where a massive crowd at the door prevents the paralytic reaching Jesus, so that he finds Jesus only be being lowered through a dug out roof.

Compare the rock-hewn tomb that was the grave of Jesus. The dug out roof and the dug out rock represent tombs. Jesus found life through death. So does the paralytic. He finds perfection, he finds Jesus, by dying, being “dying with Jesus”.

And he laid him in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock . . . (Mk.15.46)

Mark’s noted observation that the tomb was dug out of a rock is deliberate. It is borrowed from Isaiah 22:16 where the hewn rock tomb refers to Jerusalem:

You have hewn a sepulchre here , as he who hews himself a sepulchre on high, who carves a tomb for himself in a rock. . .

Four men, like pall bearers, dig out the roof and lower their immobile friend down into the house where Jesus is. There, with Jesus, he is made perfect. His deformity is set loose. He is made whole, perfect. But the scribes could only interpret the words Jesus used at their superficial level “forgiveness of sins”. Mark, through the metaphor of the physical healing, is teaching about being freed and unhinged so as to be perfect. And the proof? Just as Jesus could not be stopped by a massive stone at the entrance of his tomb, nor could this man, now perfected having died with Christ, be blocked by a massive crowd that prevented anyone else entering that door.

Understaning the miracle of the loaves?

So to come back to the question, What is going on here?

The spirit force has immersed itself in Jesus, and everything Jesus touches or speaks to finds itself empowered, released and made perfect.

Look at the loaves. Mark says the disciples were fearful when they saw Jesus walking on the water “because they did not understand the miracle of the loaves” (Mk 6.52). Kermode had to admit that this is a mystery to modern readers. The key to its explanation, to the connection between the walking on the water and feeding 5000 men with 5 loaves was understood by Mark’s original initiates but is lost to us today.

Perhaps it is. But I would at least like the idea of exploring another possibility.

Jesus has baptized the spirit but everything he touches or speaks to is made whole now. It is as if the power of the spirit is washing (baptizing?) everything it touches. Like anything holy in the Law of Moses set aside whatever it touched as holy to God.

Jesus spoke of washing, of being defiled by unwashed things, or at least the Pharisees reminded him that was the law (Mk.7). But all Jesus touches and all he commands seem to be made whole instantly. Power goes out from him. He can even feel or otherwise sense it going out from him to perform its perfecting mission (Mk.5.30).

Is this what Mark meant when he narrated that Jesus would baptize all with the holy spirit? The spirit has entered Jesus and now it works through Jesus, making him go where it wills, touching and perfecting all it chooses.

There is little subtlety in Mark’s narration of the healings of the blind. They are juxtaposed with the blindness of the disciples. But we need to see all the miracles with the same metaphorical intent. The miracles not only represent perfect understanding but perfection and wholeness itself. What a travesty that so many millions have suffered so much as a consequence of reading Mark literally!

But I’m digressing again. Back to understanding the miracle of the loaves.

The loaves have the power to fill 5000 men and still offer leftovers. They have been touched by Jesus, just as the ill have been touched. They are then made complete, or whole, or perfect for feeding 5000. Just like people touched are made perfect or whole.

What does that demonstrate? Does it not show that Jesus, having baptized the spirit, is the very power of God. Everything he touches is now being made perfect by his touch. He is the vehicle of the spirit. The spirit is using Jesus to do its work through him.

Can we even say that the spirit is, through Jesus, cleansing, washing, making whole, “baptizing” all it touches or commands?

So when Jesus walks on water in the face of an ill wind, Jesus is filled with the divine pneuma or windlike spirit, and the spirit that cast him into the wilderness and heals all it touches through him, now propels him to walk on the water. The spirit that touched and made the loaves perfect for the occasion, now walks beside the disciples.

Would the disciples have been capable of fearing that Jesus might have been a ghost had they understood the miracle of the loaves in this way?

Ongoing metaphor

And at the last supper Jesus touches and shares another loaf with his disciples. But only the perfected will understand. The disciples don’t. Mark surely expects his reader initiates to believe they will be sharing the perfecting power of Jesus by eating.

The completion of the times of baptism

So when does the spirit ever come up out of the body in which it has been “baptized”?

On the cross Jesus breathes his last and his body is entombed. He has suffered his final baptism. The spirit no longer had a body with which to work, in effect. This was the hour of darkness, the “end of the cosmic order”. But when we look again, the body itself has simply vanished. Has the spirit then reactivated it and taken it as its own in a new life on the other side of death? Presumably.

And presumably the spirit continues to wash, cleanse, perfect whomever it wills from wherever it is now.

The letter kills

That, I suspect, may be closer to the meaning of the Gospel of Mark than any literalist reading. In this case in particular, the letter surely does kill, when it was the spirit that was intended in the mind of the author to give life.

To read Mark’s narrative of Jesus literally is to interpret Jesus in the way the narrative’s scribes and Pharisees interpreted Jesus. They could not understand that the healings were metaphors of being perfected by the spirit through Jesus. So they accused him of breaking the law. Or making himself equal with God. Literalists today do not deny those charges, although they excuse them with a different spin. And that later ending of the gospel (16:9-20) that promised literal healings was obviously added by someone who likewise failed to understand the original message of the gospel.

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5 thoughts on “Baptism: Another Markan trap? Or, The Gospel of Perfection”

  1. has anyone thought that the deciples didnt understand the mirical off the loves because as the people passed the bread and fish they were multiplied threw the faith of the people the deciples didnt understand how these people could do such a thing just like the the town were he could do no great miricals but the 1 because peoples disbeliefe

  2. Mark’s noted observation that the tomb was dug out of a rock is deliberate. It is borrowed from Isaiah 22:16 where the hewn rock tomb refers to Jerusalem:

    -Not evidently. Directly, it refers to Shebna, Steward of Hezekiah.

    1. Interested readers should follow up Karel Hanhart’s discussions from an old Crosstalk discussion group series of exchanges.

      I quote from just a few here but leave links for others that in some cases explore the question in much more depth.

      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk2/message/13881

      However, his precise reference to lxx Isa 22,16; 33,16 and lxx Gn 29,2.3 was
      a guarded pointer to his Christian colleagues how they might pursue their
      exegesis along a different track than the literal meaning , taking
      especially the above passsages into consideration; in other words to pursue
      the route of midrash. The ultimate question is what mesagge the author
      wanted to convey when he wrote this miraculous story? Did he give factual
      information because he believed Jesus’ grave was literally discovered empty?
      Or was he an author, familiar with Judean midrash to interpret Scripture, as
      were the persons about whom he wrote? Montefiore was right in pointing
      guardedly to Mark’s reference to Holy Writ, because midrash was a Judean
      manner to interpret Scripture in their present day context.

      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk2/message/13584

      We do have Luke’s
      cryptic note that Peter went to another TOPOS, and the tradition has it
      that Luke meant Rome (Acts 12,17). This is likely, because TOPOS in
      scripture often stands for the Hb MAQOM, the HOLY PLACE or Mt Zion where
      the temple once stood. When Mark, Matthew and Luke wrote their Gospel the
      temple was no more. Based on Mark’s clear reference to lxx Isa 22,16,
      the open tomb story is a midrash on that passage, which according to
      good authority makes reference to the doomed temple. As I’ve stated
      before, the term “the monumental tomb hewn from the rock” refers to
      the doomed temple ( lxx Isa 22,16). So also in Mark’s final midrash
      in the epilogue. Although in ‘story time’ the women see the stone rolled
      away from a literal grave, Mark intended a deeper message.
      The women look on high (anablepsasai) and receive a vision of the
      destruction of the temple forty years after the crucifixion.
      It is a VATICINIUM EX EVENTU.(cmp ‘vision’ in Isa 22.1)
      The same is true of women in lxx 32,9ff in a passage written
      in a context of an attack on Jerusalem. Mark makes this clear to his
      adult, educated readers. For the angel does not say IDETE (PLURAL)
      TON TOPON (ACCUSATIVE) which grammatically should have
      been the proper wording in case of a literal discovery. Rather, he says
      IDE – HO TOPOS! Behold, the “holy place”. It is a semitism, a literal
      translation of Hb RE’EH HA-MAQOM. I.o.w. the women receive a
      frightening vision of the future destruction of the temple. Therefore, they
      are terrified, flee in fear from the scene and say nothing to nobody.
      Mark leaves no doubt that he sees a relationship between the crucifixion
      (with the temple curtain torn in two and a confessing centurion) and the
      temple’s destruction 40 years later.
      In short Luke, in the above mentioned passage on Peter’s
      ‘going to another place’ (Acts 12,17) refers cryptically to Simon’s Peter
      eventual arrival in Rome to lead the Christian Judean movement there.
      Mt 16,18.19 confirms this exegesis of Mark’s epilogue.

      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk2/message/13549

      3. The only source references, which Nestle omits in the margin, are
      precisely the ones concerning the ‘monumental tomb’ of Jesus [mnemeion].
      These references are lxx Isa 22.16; lxx Isa 33,16; lxx Gn 29,3 (Montefiore).
      They constitute a midrash. The ‘grave hewn from the rock’ (lxx Isa 22,16),
      cited by Mark, is a metaphor for the doomed temple (Rashi, van der Kooij).
      It is.a hapax in Tenach.

      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk2/message/12943

      1) Mark evidently refers to LXX Isa 22,16
      with his “monumental grave hewn out of the the rock” in 15,46 eventhough the critical
      editions of the Greek New Testament fail to mention the parallel
      expression.

      2) What the women [metaphorically] “saw”, provides the framework of
      Mark’s epilogue ( 15,40.46; 16,4). Mark uses three different words for
      their “seeing” : THEOREIN, ORAN and BLEPEIN.

      3) Mark makes clear that their seeing is visionary, just as in LXX Isa 22,1ff and 32,9.
      If they had literally seen that the stone had been removed (by a
      supernatural power) the women would have looked ahead of them in order to observe this
      phenomenon. Instead, they look ‘up’ ( ANABLEPSSASAI ), just as Jesus looked ‘up’ before
      he multiplied the bread (6,41 ANABLEPSAS). This looking up evidently
      establishes a contact with heavenly realities.

      4) If they had literally seen the removal of the stone, the angel should
      have said in Greek IDETE (plural – there were three women-) TON TOPON (accusative
      as the object of their seeing). In stead the angel speaks with a Hebraism
      IDE – HO TOPOS – ra’eh ha-maqom = behold – the (holy) place.
      In LXX Isa 22,16 the monumental tomb represents the doomed temple in the
      days of Isaiah.

      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk2/message/12507

      My main argument is that John Mark (of the epistles
      and Acts) was a first century Christian Jew (better: Judean), known as
      the interpreter of Peter in Rome. After the trauma of 70 he revised a pre-70
      Passover narrative that thus far had been used in the ecclesia. This radical
      rewriting was necessary in view of the radical change brought about by
      the Fall of Jerusalem. Mark 15:40 – 16,8 is the new epilogue of this
      revision, a midrasj on LXX Isa 22,16; 33,16 and LXX Gn 29,2.3 as Montefiore
      suggested. The citation of Isa 22 refers back to the destruction of the
      first Temple.

      The term ‘mnemeion’ – the ‘monumental tomb hewn from the rock’ –
      is a metaphor for that first Temple soon to be destroyed. Sebna is a priest
      whom the prophet condemns as he bore responsibility for the coming disaster.
      In my book I pursue every word and expression in that light: the very large
      stone before the door of the tomb, the time indicators (f.i. the third day versus
      after three days; + the forty hours between Jesus’ death and the vision of
      the women which symbolically represent the forty years between Jesus’ death and the
      the destruction of the temple; the possible identity of the youth
      in Gethsemane and in the tomb, the meaning of the Place, (the Maqom, in
      “behold the Place”, which in the Hebrew Bible often refers to Mount Moriah or Zion).
      In Mark’s ending the women see in a “vision” (anablepsasai) to their
      horror the destrction of the Temple. Hence their fear and their flight and their
      silence!

      But in that heavenly vision of the future they are reassured that the risen
      Jesus will go ahead of his own into exile, the Galil ha-Goyim. The soma-ptoma
      wordplay (Joseph demands Jesus’ “body”, but {Pilate cynically offers him
      but a “corpse”) is taken from Paul’s notions of (a) the ecclesia being
      the living body (!) of Christ of which he is the head and
      (b) his teaching of baptism as a “being buried (!) with Christ in order
      to rise with him”. The young man wears a white baptismal stola. In the
      vision he is literally buried in the tomb).

      All this is much too short. However, I am convinced that all words and
      expressions used by Mark for his midrasj should function snugly as bricks for a new
      house of meaning. If they donot fit firmly, the house will collapse.

      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk2/message/13549
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk2/message/13385
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk2/message/13362

      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk2/message/12379
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk2/message/10575
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk2/message/10437
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk2/message/9537
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk2/message/9481
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk2/message/9332
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk2/message/9182
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk2/message/9181
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk2/message/9180
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk2/message/9050
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk2/message/9049
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk2/message/18752
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk2/message/18570
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk2/message/17277
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk2/message/14210
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/crosstalk2/message/13936

    2. As far as I am aware it was Karel Hanhart (his book, The Open Tomb, A New Approach, Mark’s Passover Haggadah, can be purchased new for over $1000 or second hand for a mere $146) who first made this observation about the “midrashic” application of Isaiah 22:16. The original passage has its own location as does Isaiah 7:14 and the prophecy of the birth to a young woman of a son who would still be young when Israel’s enemies would be destroyed, and as do probably most other passages that have been interpreted allegorically to apply to the Jesus event and the foundations of the new community of God.

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