Essay / Theology

How Mark Begins His Gospel

Where does the story of Jesus begin? Mark opens with “the beginning of the gospel,” as written in Isaiah. Not with a genealogy going back to Abraham (as Matthew), not with an author’s preface, the conception of John the Baptist, or a genealogy going back to Adam (as Luke), and not with high-flown theological dicta about what happened In the Beginning (as John). Mark’s 13th word is a quoted prophetic word. His good news is good news “as written in Isaiah the prophet.”

That prophetic voice speaks a complex word: It actually seems to be put together from Exodus 23:20, Malachi 3:1, and Isaiah 40:3. Perhaps the kernel is Isaiah 40 (thus Mark attributes the whole saying to Isaiah), but the development of this kernel plays on “the way” of the Lord. And to prepare that way, God “apostles his angel” (to cognatize the Greek) before the face of… of who?

“I send my messenger before your face.” God is speaking, and he sends a messenger to prepare a way for the Lord. What we are hearing at the 13th word of Mark is the voice of God the Father speaking to God the Son. In Isaiah, by the inspiration of the Spirit, the Father is telling the Son that he is making a way for him and straightening his path. And when the Son comes into the world, he says to the Father, “A body thou hast prepared for me, and I have come (in the roll of the book it is written of me) to do thy will, O God” (as Hebrews 10 renders Psalm 40:6-8).

“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus,” for Mark, is the Father describing the economy of salvation to the Son in the prophetic Spirit.

Putting it this way may be too explicitly trinitarian, for characteristically Mark leaves much unsaid. Can we really treat an Old Testament citation as inner-trinitarian discourse, the Father addressing the Son while we overhear their speaking?

Yes, for three reasons.

1. It is written: “I send before you.” God speaks to the Lord. It is simply a matter of tidying up our referents to clarify who “God” is and who “the Lord” is, using Mark’s own ideas. “God” is the one who sends Jesus (that is, the Father), and “the Lord” is the one whose coming is prepared by the message of John the Baptist (that is, the Son).

2. Elsewhere in Mark (12:34-37), Jesus interprets an Old Testament passage as conversation between YHWH and the messiah: He takes Psalm 110 to be David saying that YHWH told David’s master, the Messiah, to sit YHWH’s right hand. Other New Testament authors presuppose that certain passages of the OT are to be read as inner-trinitarian discourse. Hebrews 10 is the boldest, but “prosopological exegesis” is an important mode of interpretation throughout the NT, pioneered by Jesus who provoked the pharisees with the question about Psalm 110 (“The LORD said to my lord…”).

3. Within a few verses, the Father speaks to the Son directly: “Thou art my beloved Son, in thee I am well-pleased.” Though this time it is a voice from heaven, it is again the words of the Old Testament. And the Spirit is near at hand when this inner-trinitarian dialogue is spoken aloud for us to overhear (note: not the third-person “this is my Son,” as in Matthew, but the second-person “thou art my Son,” in agreement with Luke and in line with the second-person address of the Isaiah quotation of verse 2).

This is the beginning of the gospel, which concerns “Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (verse 1). The title “Son of God” is lacking in some manuscripts. If it is authentic (as the ESV takes it to be), it sets the context and provides, in advance, the key for knowing who God is speaking to in verse 2. If it is a later interpolation, it was a genuine insight into the trinitarian dynamics of Mark’s opening gambit.

Studying the words of Holy Scripture, may we hear the voice of the Father telling the good news of salvation to his beloved Son, who comes to baptize in the Spirit (1:7) and to preach the gospel of God the Father (1:14).

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