The Gospel of Mark’s unrecognized “birth” narrative of Jesus Christ

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by Neil Godfrey

Brian who was unwillingly made the Christ in Monty Python’s Life of Brian

I wish I could recall where I read it now, but someone somewhere has written that Mark’s baptism scene is indeed his “birth” narrative of the Christ. Matthew and Luke might be seen as supplementing Mark’s gospel with a more “natural” birth, or at least one that had a flesh and blood Jesus come through the waters of the womb rather than the Jordan.

I found the idea interesting because it sits with the other Christological suggestions in this gospel — that Jesus was either adopted by God at baptism (adoptionism), or that the Son of God entered Jesus at baptism and from that moment there were two beings in one (separationism).

The Amplified Bible’s Mark 1:9-13

9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

10And when He came up out of the water, at once he [John] saw the heavens torn open and the [Holy] Spirit like a dove coming down [to enter] into Him.

11And there came a voice out from within heaven, You are My Beloved Son; in You I am well pleased.

12Immediately the [Holy] Spirit [from within] drove Him out into the wilderness (desert),

13And He stayed in the wilderness (desert) forty days, being tempted [all the while] by Satan; and He was with the wild beasts, and the angels ministered to Him [continually].

Jesus has no background. He is just a name. One might almost picture a Brian coming along one day to get baptized like everyone else was doing, and on emerging from the water he looked up to see the Ptolemaic sky being torn apart and a single spirit like dove (not two, as Aeneas was granted from heaven) swooping down and whooshing right into his very body. Thus possessed, Jesus next hears God speaking and pronouncing him to be his Son. Before Brian knows what’s happened he is driven off (like Azazel?) into the wilderness. The focus is on heaven as the active agency and the man baptized is a passive recipient of voice, vision and possession.

Could this be something of a metaphorical “new birth” story? The waters of baptism are a variation on a trope that can be found as far back as the Exodus and Red Sea event, or even (as Thompson suggests) with the parting of the waters by Elijah and Elisha in preparation for a new phase of ministry, the new world order that was ushered in by Noah’s Flood, and the very beginnings of life with the parting of the waters in the Genesis creation.

Was it to displace Mark’s image that suggested such a “birth” that was occasioned only at the moment of baptism that Matthew and Luke added their nativity scenes? (Or was Mark reacting against the nativity scenes and depicting something more to the liking of his own Christology? — just in case one day Markan priority is found not to be so cut and dried as it seems today.)

John does not need a nativity scene either, of course. His Word of God “became” flesh, but really had no birth, since he had been sitting or floating with God from the very beginning of everything.

Just thoughts, here. Sometimes nativity scenes are treated as evidence of the evolution of a Jesus biography. But it’s just as possible, I think, that their exclusion from Mark and John (as much as their inclusion in Matthew and Luke) has more to do with theology than with a simple adding of details to a tale over time.

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Neil Godfrey

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24 thoughts on “The Gospel of Mark’s unrecognized “birth” narrative of Jesus Christ”

  1. I doubt even Mark recognised the birth narrative there. I doubt the birth stories written up by Matthew and Luke had even been conceived. His account of a baptism by John is probably the earliest Jesus tradition he received, an event which apparently inspired Jesus to take up his mission to ‘bring back’ (origin of repentence). Jews to God. The account could have included an account of a vision, visionary culture inspired such things. And baptism, is perfectly in line with the act of cleansing and purification in Jewish tradition, of Jews ‘on their way back’ to obeying the law of God etc etc.

    I hope I don’t regret this. I was just taking a break before dinner… I don’t think they are Christological suggestions either, but interpretations imposed on the gospel. The docetic one, descending as an adult – all later interpretations a bit ahead of Mark’s time and experience.

    1. I know of no evidence that the baptism by John episode was a tradition picked up by Mark. This is an assumption based on another assumption that there was such an historical event. The evidence that we have is literary: Mark’s scene demonstrably draws on images and themes from Jewish scriptures. So the explanation that requires the fewer assumptions and hypotheses to maintain is that it was a literary creation of Mark — not a tradition.

      I don’t know of any interpretation that says Mark’s Jesus came down from heaven as an adult. The adoptionist or separationist christology is based on the unique features of Mark’s text itself — the spirit entering “into” (not “upon”) Jesus at the time he was declared Son of God; the spirit possessing and casting him out into the wilderness, and a few other things, as per http://vridar.wordpress.com/2009/11/27/when-a-nobody-jesus-became-spirit-possessed/

      These details are not there when the narrative has the Son of God enter through Mary’s conception — it is a different person/Son.

      1. there has been much ink spilled on reason why the text as it is in Mark would not have been made up by Christians, how it fits a Jewish context, how it has an Aramaic background, etc etc but you really need the literature and the languages to have a discussion.

        and yeah yeah the christ descending on him at baptism as an adult – just my quick oversimplification of it.

      2. The strength of arguments are not determined by the volume of ink used to describe them. All the ink in the world and all the discussion of hypothetical Aramaic texts and all the literature and languages do not amount to a fly-weight against the simple concrete fact that was even acknowledged by Albert Schweitzer, that in the absence of external controls the self-witness of a narrative is not evidence of historicity of the narrative.

        It is simple logic — as Hobsbawm himself says when he repeats the same basic logic as Albert Schweitzer and others I have cited.

        It is this simple fact that not even James Crossley refutes — he does not even wish to discuss the quotations of Schweitzer and Schwartz that I use to express this simple point of fact and logic. And he apparently cannot even see the applicability of Hobsbawm’s sentence expressing the very same point.

        I see two texts, A and B, with strikingly similar wording. I can assume either:

        (a) the author of B copied from A,

        or I can assume that

        (b) X happened, and that later a Y movement resulted from that X, and that later Z copied B and fitted it into a narrative about X, and then later B incorporated this narrative into his own text A.

        The former assumption is ridiculed as simplistic and ignorant. The second assumption has the strength of being the model of historicists that has been inherited from many centuries of cultural conditioning.

        All the studies of Aramaic and languages and literature are used to flesh out the details of this model, or to reshape it a little here and there.

        But to question the model itself now is like someone in the Middle Ages trying to deny the world is flat or stands still with the sun orbiting it.

  2. Ehrman’s position is that the earliest Christians were adoptionists. I think that we can see a progression there, starting from Paul.

    Paul sees Jesus as being adopted at the Resurrection:

    “[Christ Jesus. . .] who came from the seed of David according to the flesh, who was appointed Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom 1:3-4)”

    In Mark, Jesus is adopted as “Son” by God at his baptism by John the Baptist:

    “Jesus(S) came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And when he came up out of the water, immediately he(T) saw(U) the heavens being torn open(V) and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11And(W) a voice came from heaven,(X) “You are my beloved Son;[d] with you I am well pleased. (Mark 1:9-11)”

    Similarly in Matthew and Luke, though those Gospels also show how Jesus was also actually born as “Son of God”. In John, Jesus has progressed to the Word who has always dwelt with God.

    I think that the birth narratives by early Christians encountering the cult of Augustus, and were the result of “Son of God” — in the Jewish sense — being understood as “Son of God” in the Greco-Roman sense. So a birth narrative was created, to show that God was somehow involved in the actual birth. John’s take — Jesus was the Logos, first begotten by God — was influenced by Platonic concepts that were popular at the end of the First Century, as demonstrated by Plutarch and Philo.

    As for no background in Mark: Jesus is said to come from Nazareth in Galilee; he is “Son of David”; he was a carpenter; he had a mother called Mary; he had sisters, and brothers James, Joses, Judah and Simon. But Mark’s Jesus doesn’t appear to be that divine, so perhaps no need to provide a birth narrative to show God being involved in the process.

    1. I see differences among the texts of Paul, Mark and other gospels, but is there any reason to think that these differences reveal “progressions” of thought?

      Jesus is introduced in Mark without any background details. He is just a name. The details that emerge later in the narrative are explained the most directly as rewrites of themes in the Jewish scriptures that one was to expect of any prophet or man of God or Messiah.

      My point about a “birth narrative” in Mark is that the baptism is itself a type of “birth” — the birth moment of the Son of God. Others preferred a birth narrative that showed the Christ was Christ from the beginning of his human appearance on earth.

  3. I second GakuseiDon’s citation of Ehrman. Bishop Spong also said the same thing in his book Born of a Woman, which is itself a popularization of Raymond Brown’s ideas. And there was this mini-debate between Vinny and Nick Norelli on Mark’s “exaltational christology”.

  4. STEPH
    His account of a baptism by John is probably the earliest Jesus tradition he received….

    How could that possibly be? Even on the historicist view, Mark is alleged to have known a tradition about an earlier part of Jesus life – namely that he grew up in Nazareth.

    If Mark was writing 30 years after real events, Christians would have made up stories about their miracle workers amazing life prior to his baptism.

    Hagiography abhors a vacuum. And a 30 year long vacuum of tradition about Jesus before the baptism would have been filled in, just like ‘Matthew’ and ‘Luke’ filled in details about Jesus prior to the baptism.

    But all the invention and spin about the life of Jesus can be traced only as far back as Mark’s Gospel.

    Paul sees Jesus as being adopted at the Resurrection:

    How? When the baptism was such an overwhelming historical fact that Mark had to include it despite its embarrassment?

    How could there have been a baptism tradition , known as fact to such a degree that the Gospels had to include it and spin away its implications, if Paul had already sidestepped it decades before Mark wrote?

  5. Mark does not repeat any traditions from Nazareth – only that he apparently came from there. Your comments are all assumptions of invention and your late date of Mark is also an assumption. If it wasn’t so politically incorrect to deny the holocaust you might just refute that too. Others do it, and then a French historian denied the historicity of the Gulf war. But then your grudge is against Christianity, not history.

  6. Late date of Mark? 63 AD? 3 decades after the alleged crucifixion? Is that really an absurd assumption that only a mythicist would make?

    And Mark has an ‘Aramaic’ background…. Yes, and the Hitler Diaries were written in German, so they must be authentic. After all, Hitler spoke German. The Hitler Diaries were in German, therefore they stem from Hitler,

    Is this really the best Biblical historians can do? If something has an Aramaic background, it is likely to be authentic, because Jesus spoke Aramaic? This logic is simply astonishing in its vacuity.

    I just cannot believe the standards of scholarship in Sheffield. Can anybody think of one other field of history where a document is thought to be genuine because it has a ‘background’ of the same language as the country it purports to be about?

  7. So Steph just cannot defend her logic against a rank amateur , even though she devotes her life to the subject.

    How come evolutionists can wipe the floor with creationists when Steph cannot even defend her claim that something is authentic if it has an Aramaic background?

    Not even against somebody like me…..

  8. why would I bother stevie? not only are you a ‘rank amateur’ (your words), but you constantly contradict and misinterpret everything I say. It’s very funny but not much else. I have never claimed claim that something is authentic if it has an Aramaic background. There’s a rumour going round you might be Geoff Hudson… I doubt it. He reads Josephus, only in English, better than you.

  9. sorry didn’t get further than schweitzer. He wrote over a century ago before proper work had been done on josephus, before lots of things had been discovered – scholarship has moved on. external controls, right that’s for proof. and of course for mythers any that are are forgeries fiction and the like. You give no argument for things being made up, just contradictions., shame so many jews became christian.

    Ink spilled – you really think that was an argument of weight? or just pointing out that there has is alot of detailed discussion elsewhere.

    1. Scholarship has moved on – code for the quests for the Historical Jesus have crashed and burned.

      ‘You give no argument for things being made up…’

      Yes, Steph has yet to see any arguments for anything in the Gospels being made up….

      Surely even Steph knows that the Gospellers made things up?

      Why does she simply produce the evidence for the existence of Judas, Thomas,Joseph of Arimathea,Lazarus, Nicodemus, Mary Magdalene, Barabbas, Simon of Cyrene, Bartimaeus, Jairus or the other cast of characters in the Novels?

      Because she has no evidence , just Casey’s belief that he can translate the Greek into Aramaic, which proves it is all authentic because Jesus spoke Aramaic.

  10. STEPH
    ..texts are not authentic because they might have an aramaic background. Not even casey says so.


    Poor Maurice Casey.

    As a side-effect of Steph’s need to contradict everything I say, she takes out Maurice’s lifetime work in a clinical burst of friendly fire.

  11. I see I am 5 years late commenting on this, but here’s trying. The following from Tertullian (160CE-207CE) Book 1, Chapter 19 of “Against Marcion” seems relevant:

    “In the fifteenth year of Tiberius, Christ Jesus vouchsafed to come down from heaven, as the spirit of saving health.”

    Sounds just a bit like the dove coming down at the Baptism, which Luke dates to the fifteenth year of Tiberius? Did Tertullian’s copy of Luke have the first two chapters missing?

  12. Hi Neil,

    I suggest you the reading of this interesting book about Mark:

    The Gospel of Mark: A Liturgical Reading
    of Charles A. Bobertz

    Very full of symbolisms already partially identified by Vridar.

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