Notes From The Balcony

Progressive Reflections on Post-Modern Living in a Multifaith Age

Mark #5 – John’s Baptism of Jesus 1(4, 9)

John’s Baptism of Jesus – Mark 1 (4,9)


John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins…… In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

This week, we are still reflecting on Mark’s preface and we focus on the report of the baptism of Jesus by John. But first let me follow up on Bob Robbin’s request for clarity (see his response to my previous commentary). His post is appreciated and clearly worth ongoing discussion.

For now, I am approaching Mark as if this text were the only one we have. Such an approach often leaves us surprised – both by what we discover and moreover by what we do not find. While I make occasional reference to another gospel, it is mainly for comparative purposes. At least for the moment, I am studiously trying to avoid using something beyond Mark to clarify Mark.

Methodologically, I lean toward a “narrative critical” approach where Mark’s text is read much like any other story and analyzed by looking at the elements of plot, character development, rhetoric and style, and standards of judgment. The conversation concerning this approach has intensified in the last several years, especially in the Mark study group of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL). Let me recommend David Rhoad’s recent study, Reading Mark – Engaging the Gospel (Fortress, Minneapolis 2004) for a more complete explanation of how this hermeneutical strategy works. His extended bibliography is well worth the price of the book.

Narrative Criticism is marked by a shift from the fragmentation of the text (i.e. dividing a text into discreet pericopes as both Textual Criticism and Redaction Criticism are prone to do) toward a new appreciation of the stand alone unity of the story. Such a shift is accompanied by a move from interest in the historical aspects of the text to perceiving the text as fiction, perhaps an unfortunate choice of words. By fiction, Rhoads does not imply that Mark did not use historical resources, but that Mark as he wrote created a coherent narrative to convey his point of view.  Used this way, the term, fiction has a specialized meaning. Brother Robbins writes:

There is one point of your post that I wish you would clarify.  You said that Jesus accepted John’s invitation to repent.  Jesus never did anything to repent of.  He was born, lived, and died sinless.  Otherwise he could not have been the virgin born Son of God – the Holy One of Israel – alluded to so often by prophets such as Isaiah.  If Jesus was born with sin, he would not have been able to pay for our sins on the Cross, and we would all be hopeless in our sins. Also, John did not invite Jesus to be baptised; Jesus broached the subject to John, and John was reluctant to do so because he felt unworthy in the presence of the Lamb of GoIn fact, as I read Mark as Mark – I find no report of embarrassment by John at the prospect of baptizing Jesus. As Mark tells it, while John does anticipate the coming of the anointed one, it is not clear in our received text that John even recognizes Jesus apart from the crowds that line up by the Jordan River to be immersed. Now to be fair, the details in Mark’s account are painfully sparse and one can certainly argue that the absence of John’s expression of reluctance (clearly found in Matthew’s account) does not eliminate it.

Nevertheless, biblical theological premises evolve as contexts and audiences change. A particularly helpful model outlining one example of this dynamic of change can be found in Thomas Sheehan’s book, The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity (Vintage books, New York 1986) In the third part of his book, How Jesus Became God. Sheehan traces changes in Christological assumptions both as time passes and as the geographic center of the Jesus movement expands. Paul first speaks of Jesus’ messianic crowning as part and parcel of the moment of resurrection. In Mark, we find Jesus declared Son of God in the events following his baptism. For Luke and Matthew, Christ becomes divine in the events associated with his birth,  and, of course, in John, Jesus as Christ is the incarnation of the pre-existent logos that emerged at the very beginnings of creation. Theologically, these images evolve as the community evolves from an apocalyptic Jewish sect located in Palestine to a predominately Gentile Hellenistic cult dispersed throughout the Mediterranean basin. Sheehan’s model is heuristically helpful, even though other scholars more recently point to a widely existing original pluralism. In this context, then it is not surprising that as this movement sought to make sense of Jesus’ crucifixion, some theologians began to interpret the meaning of this meaningless death in terms of the Jewish sacrificial system. It would then follow that as most (but not all) sacrifices generally required an animal without blemish, Jesus could begin to be thought of analogically as one who was “sinless.”  I hope we can continue to return to these sorts of issues as our discussions continue.

Some of the early work of Sallie McFague on the metaphorical nature of religious language is helpful to me in this regard, particularly her insight that our reflections must take account of both the adequacy of our formulations to our Christian context and the appropriateness of our images to the existential realities of our present day to day life.  As such, we will need to not only examine how particular interpretive versions of the meaning of Jesus’ death such as atonement emerged over time, but whether they speak powerfully in our times.

Now, let me see if I can set an appropriate context for understanding John’s rite of baptism. A couple of times a year, I like to dine at a local restaurant here in Atlanta called the Broadway Café. The food is good, prices are fair and the service is friendly and helpful. The décor and menu themes highlight the genre of musical comedy (an abiding interest of mine) and some of the wonderfully talented stars who have performed these memorable songs over the years. However, there is one feature found on the north wall of the main dining room that bears notice. It is a large industrial sink. Without a lot of fuss, as the staff brings food to the tables, most customers will rise and walk quietly to the sink and wash their hands before they start to eat.

If one carefully studies the menu, while there is fish served, one can’t get lobster or crab. Cheeseburgers are not available. The only Bar-B-Q is chicken and beef. The Broadway Café is kosher.

My mother always stressed that I should wash my hands before a meal – her concern was with the spread of germs and proper sanitation. For most of my Jewish colleagues dining at Broadway washing their hands is a religious ritual and their concern is with righteousness and purity.

There are two distinct but finally not separate axes that frame righteousness in the Jewish religious tradition as it is centered in the ongoing community life associated in First Century Judaism with the temple. The first moves between purity and corruption, cleanliness and defilement, holiness and the profane. These terms are generally seen as morally neutral and have to do primarily with the ability to approach Yahweh. While some might be dedicated (as a Nazirite) to maintaining relative constant sanctity, all persons simply by living their daily life become unclean and in order to participate in worship must seek purification. As we proceed in our text, Mark will confront us with the ethical challenge that some persons might be seen as permanently unclean and therefore severely restricted from participating in the religious life of the community. At that point purity becomes an ethical issue as well.

Ritual purification was a commonplace part of Jewish life. Archeologists have pointed out that the land of Israel is “pockmarked” with shallow pools reserved for these important ritual practices. There were several wading pools to be found on the Temple mount in Jerusalem and it is understood by scholars that pilgrims regularly immersed themselves as they approached the inner courts where God’s presence was manifest.

Paula Fredriksen’s book, Jesus of Nazareth – King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity (Vintage Books, New York 2000) describes in detail these dynamics. She spins the following tale about Jesus in her Prelude 2: The Temple –

The boy stood by his father very quietly, knowing how important this moment was. His father’s hand rested on the ram’s knobby head; his voice murmured something – the boy couldn’t quite catch what – to the serious young priest who stood before them, on the other side of the low stone wall.

Was his mother watching? He turned, looking up and over his shoulder, at the rim of women and small children who leaned on the edge of the raised gallery that marked off the Women’s Court.

Once when he was younger, he remembered, God had made him so angry. What seemed like the whole village had left, just before the month of Nissan, to begin their walk down from the Galilean hill country…..But Grandfather’s illness had grown worse and worse, and finally when the other families were completing their preparations for the trip, he had died. The other families in the village had helped his mother and father. They buried Grandfather and then came by with food and consolation. The boy had basked in the extra attention he’d received. But he had not expected his father’s announcement that the family would remain in Nazareth that Pesach, and he wept in frustration.

Having washed the body prior to burial, they were all unclean, tamech. Because of the inopportune timing of his Grandfather’s passing; the prescribed period of morning and the requirement to fulfill to seven days of purification; the family would have to forego Passover for this year. They could not enter the Temple precincts nor could they eat the ritual meal.

The ethical axis in Jewish life moves between obedience to Yahweh and open rebellion and defiance of his sovereignty. Seeking distributive justice for ones neighbor is contrasted with arrogant self-aggrandizement. Love of God and neighbor summarizes the context and purpose of the Torah. While defilement requires purification, disobedience requires repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Sacrificial acts of repentance function as a sort of fine, over and above the expected gestures of reparation. Repentance is never once and for all, but an ongoing set of ritual actions and attitudes that take note of both explicit and unknown violations of relationships.

Josephus, who writes more about John than Jesus, explains that John’s baptism rite as a public symbol of one’s act of repentance. In my tradition it served as an “outward sign” of an already accomplished “inward” process. Having just participated in the graduation of my son from college, the diploma (and for some the Master’s hoods) function as outward signs of the inward completion of a four-year process of test taking, classes scheduled much too early in the day, assigned readings and a lot of all-nighters.

What makes John’s offer of a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” unique is the fact that John himself performs the ritual “dipping.” Traditionally, rituals of purification were performed by the penitent themselves – they involved a self-cleansing, a washing in preparation for approaching holy space.

There may be some precedent for John’s actions in his Essene connections by the Dead Sea, but the most provocative possibility lies with an appropriation of the entry rites for pagan converts (so-called God Fearers) to Judaism. This practice advocated especially by Pharisees was later revived by Christian Jews as a rite of initiation for new converts, not to Christianity, but to their version of Judaism. Could it be that as a mark of the rethinking of loyalties required in light of the coming Kingdom of God, in an age where the original pledge for John was so corrupted, that he crafted a symbolic chance for repentant Jews to be baptized by him, acting as if they were converting gentiles newly joining in a renewed covenant to be the people of God. In our story, Jesus is baptized by John.

Next week, we will turn to the events that followed Jesus’ participating in John’s revolutionary religious gesture. And, God directly speaks for the first time in our story.

Grace and peace,



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