Mark’s gospel makes little sense if read as literal history, but it packs a powerful punch when read with a mind swept clean of all the other gospel accounts.
The punch the Gospel of Mark hit me with recently was its sentence noting John the Baptist’s baptism of Jesus. It’s bizarre if we try to read it as biography or history. But it makes for a great symbolic message about the identity and function of Jesus.
The Gospel begins with John declaring that one far greater than he is to come from God and cover his followers not with water but with the holy spirit. The preamble has informed readers that this coming one is to be the one of whom the Prophets said is the Lord himself. Everyone came out repenting and being baptized.
Then Jesus came along and John baptized him too.
And that’s it. Mark gives not the slightest hint that John baulked and said, Hey, you’re the one! Nope. It’s as if Jesus was the last in line and John routinely baptized him like all the rest.
Then up from the water came Jesus and “he” (only) saw the spirit descending to him like a dove. No one else saw this or the heavens splitting apart, and no-one but Jesus heard the voice from heaven declaring him to be God’s son.
This is strange. It is especially strange if, as many modern interpreters like to think, Jesus was originally a follower of John the Baptist.
No, what Mark is doing here is entirely at a literary level. His text has no thought for historical or biographical realities. He has written an introduction with John the Baptist standing as a clear representative of the Prophets — he is introduced by citations from Isaiah and Malachi and is dressed and lives like Elijah — and wants the readers to see Jesus emerge from out of him. Like the way the earth and life emerged out of the waters at creation, and the way Noah emerged out of the Flood to start the new world, and the way Israel emerged out of the Red Sea to be born as God’s people, and so on through Joshua, Elijah and Elisha — in the same way Jesus emerged out of the Prophets of old.
Mark is depicting Jesus as coming out of the Prophets and into Israel. John and the baptism are entirely symbolic. Once the baptism is done then John’s symbolic and theological function is done.
There is no dialogue between John and Jesus as they bumble over who should baptize whom. No. John is the representative of the Prophets that spoke of Jesus. So Jesus as it were submits to baptism to be born out of the Prophets in order to embark on his prophesied mission in Israel. Dialogue and touches of realism would distract from the whole point. It’s not about realism. It’s about symbol.
Mark has John arrested and put in prison. Those who like to see Paul’s influence in Mark might recognize the place of the Law and the Prophets here from Galatians. I don’t know if that’s necessary, but it is an interesting possibility.
 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God;
 As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee.
 The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
 John did baptize in the wilderness, and preach the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins.
 And there went out unto him all the land of Judaea, and they of Jerusalem, and were all baptized of him in the river of Jordan, confessing their sins.
 And John was clothed with camel’s hair, and with a girdle of a skin about his loins; and he did eat locusts and wild honey;
 And preached, saying, There cometh one mightier than I after me, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose.
 I indeed have baptized you with water: but he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost.
 And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan.
 And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him:
 And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
 And immediately the Spirit driveth him into the wilderness.
Matthew, it would seem, has read Mark’s account and lifted it out of the entirely literary-symbolic level and added a bit of historical plausibility to it. He has John say, No no Jesus, you’re the greater one so you baptize me, to which Jesus replies with an appropriately theological rationalization.
 Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him.
 But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me?
 And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness. Then he suffered him.
Luke didn’t play that sort of fleshing-out game, but he did miss Mark’s point when he did mention the baptism of Jesus without any reaction from or dialogue with John. He removed the reference from the baptism entirely from the what had for Mark symbolized the Prophets:
 And many other things in his exhortation preached he unto the people.
 But Herod the tetrarch, being reproved by him for Herodias his brother Philip’s wife, and for all the evils which Herod had done,
 Added yet this above all, that he shut up John in prison.
 Now when all the people were baptized, it came to pass, that Jesus also being baptized, and praying, the heaven was opened, . . .
That’s not mere lack of awareness on John’s part. It’s dissociation of Jesus’ baptism from John, tagging the mention of the baptism on as a necessary afterthought. Maybe Luke really did understand what Mark was doing and changed it so his Jesus would himself be like Elijah, and not “from” Elijah and the Prophets. He embodies rather than supplants the Prophets. (See the recent post on Spong’s explanation of Luke’s Gospel for the details.)
The Gospel of John does not even say John baptized Jesus, but does have John tell everyone what he saw — and that he recognized Jesus:
 The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.
 This is he of whom I said, After me cometh a man which is preferred before me: for he was before me.
 And I knew him not: but that he should be made manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water.
 And John bare record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him.
 And I knew him not: but he that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on him, the same is he which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost.
Should we wonder about this last Gospel’s repetition of John the Baptist’s insistence that he did not know Jesus? Was this author rewriting Mark, acknowledging what Mark’s gospel appears on the surface to indicate — that the Baptist did not know who he was baptizing when he baptized Jesus — but inverting the spiritual happenings to Jesus from a private party to a public function? Mark is the Gospel of secrecy, with its Jesus unknown to the characters in the gospel, while John’s Jesus is the public and open one who is constantly declaring his identity to everyone.
I can’t prove any of this was in the minds of the authors. But it makes an interesting possibility.
But what I do think is worth making the fuss over is the character of Mark’s baptism scene. This is just one of many anecdotes throughout the Gospel that looks so odd and raises so many questions if read literally.
Maybe Mark would have been thinking: If you have to ask a silly question that pertains to the flesh, to this world and this life, then you are no better than the blind disciples who can’t think past the things of men. When he described the disciples worrying about how they were going to eat with only one loaf of bread among them, he explained it was because they did not understand the miracle of the loaves and fishes. That is, they did not understand that the loaves and fish were not grain and aquatic vertebrates, but something spiritual, eternal, life-giving.
Readers who fail to see the same with the baptism, Mark may have thought, are just like the disciples who simply don’t understand what he portrayed Jesus as doing.
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