how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Some notes on Mark 1:2-3 in response to Rikk Watts

Rikk Watts has kindly responded to my reflections on his argument about the high christology of Mark 1:2-3. I’m not trying to pick a fight here—and I say, as before, that this is an argument for the kingdom narrative rather than against a high christology. But the issue is an important one, and for my own benefit, if nothing else, I want to look closely at Rikk’s careful feedback. I should also point out that he refers to a couple of his publications (details below), which I haven’t read, and there are a few points which he doesn’t develop—so there is obviously more to his analysis than meets the eye. His comments on the previous post are set out in bold face. In the end, I’m still not persuaded that we go from Jesus is YHWH in Mark 1:2-3 to Jesus is servant of YHWH in 1:11, for reasons that are summarised in the final chapter.

a) It is of course Malachi who first takes up Exod 23:20, but alas not quite word for word; there’s a critical change to a key verb (from Exod’s “guard” to “prepare”) which is the verb Mark uses. This, along with Mark’s following emphases on John as Elijah (notably 9:13), suggests that Mark’s interest is Malachi not Exod. If that’s so, it’s difficult to see how one can get “the messenger preparing for Jesus as Israel” out of Malachi. Both Isaiah and Malachi are looking for the return of Yahweh to his temple.

I think there are problems with this argument. Mark’s text is closer to Exodus 23:20 than to Malachi 3:1 in two respects: i) Mark has “before your face” rather than “before my face”; and ii) he puts the phrase where Exodus 23:20 has it, directly after “I send my messenger/angel” rather than after the clause about preparing or constructing a way. It can’t be argued that “your face” refers to Jesus as YHWH because it is YHWH who speaks here.

Also Mark does not have the same verb for “prepare” as Malachi. Malachi’s messenger/angel will “oversee” (epiblepsetai) a way, which looks like a plausible synonym for “guard” (phulaxēi) in Exodus 23:20. Mark’s messenger “constructs” (kataskeuasei) the way, which is closer to Isaiah’s “prepare” (hetoimasate). Exodus 23:20 uses hētoimasa for the land that has been “prepared” for Israel. Here are the texts:

And behold I send my messenger/angel before your face in order to guard (phulaxēi) you on the way, so that he may bring you into the land that I prepared (hētoimasa) for you. (Ex. 23:20 LXX)

A voice of one crying in the wilder: “Prepare (hetoimasate) the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of our God…. (Is. 40:3)

Behold, I send out my messenger/angel, and he will oversee (epiblepsetai) a way before my face, and the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to his temple, and the messenger/angel of the covenant whom you wish—behold, he is coming, says the Lord almighty…. (Mal. 3:1 LXX)

Behold, I send my messenger/angel before your face, who will construct (kataskeuasei) your way…. (Mk. 1:2)

So I’m not sure we can say that Mark had no interest in the Exodus narrative, though since he attributes the combined quotation to Isaiah the prophet, it’s probably fair to suppose that the sense of verse 2 is controlled by narrative of Isaiah 40:3. 

b) It might be worth paying a bit more attention to the contexts of Mark’s use of Ps 110 and the crowd’s acclamation in Mt 9. The former I discuss in more detail in Beale and Carson, and re the latter, I’m not sure that one reference to the largely uncomprehending crowds is our best guide to Matthew’s Christology.

Unfortunately, I don’t have access to the book, so that will have to wait. As for the “uncomprehending crowds”, Matthew says that “they were afraid, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to men” (Matt. 9:8). That sounds like a rather positive statement. Matthew is here contrasting the testimony of the crowds with the disbelief of the scribes, so there is every reason to take their understanding of what has happened seriously. Mark’s crowds say nothing about authority being given to men, but they glorify God and there is no suspicion that they have somehow got hold of the wrong end of the stick (Mk. 2:12). If Matthew’s onlookers had mistakenly inferred that God had given the authority to forgive to Jesus, then we must also conclude that he has reinterpreted their praise.

It also needs to be noted that even in Mark’s version: i) Jesus does not say “I forgive your sins”—the divine passive refers to someone else; and most importantly ii) he identifies himself with the “Son of Man”, and in Daniel’s narrative the son of man figure is given  “authority” and kingdom (Mk. 2:1-12; Dan. 7:14, 27 LXX).

c) It might also be worth doing some work on who, in Israel’s Scriptures, is characteristically described as the “Mighty One” (especially in Isaiah, given Mark’s opening attribution) and who alone (of course) in Israel’s tradition pours out his Spirit. The implications of the comparative (“strongER”) are also worth pursuing—in the kind context we find re Mark/John Baptist, this only ever describes Yahweh. If John is Elijah it might be worth noting that Elijah is first and foremost associated not with the coming of the Messiah but Yahweh himself. This being so, could not the Acts citation, where Jesus does what only Yahweh can do, instead be argued to include Jesus in Israel’s conception of Yahweh? (See e.g. Paul’s inclusion of Jesus in the Shema (1 Cor 8:6).

“Strong” (ischuros) is not especially associated with God in the New Testament, and not at all in the Gospels. Paul says that the “weakness of God is stronger than men”, and asks whether we are “stronger than he” (1 Cor. 1:25; 10:22); and in Revelation we have some “strong” angels (5:2; 10:1; 18:21). Only in Revelation is the Lord who will judge Rome said to be “strong”, which appears to be an allusion to Jeremiah 27:34 LXX (= 50:34 MT).

God is often described as ischuros in the Septuagint (though not in Isaiah), but why on earth would Mark have John the Baptist say that Jesus is “stronger” than him if he thought that he was somehow speaking about God? You would expect an absolute rather than relative contrast: “Who is strong (ischuros) except the Lord? And who will be a creator except our God? It was the Strong One (ho ischuros) who strengthened me with power and shook my way blameless…” (2 Sam. 22:32–33). In context the starting point must be that Jesus would be a greater prophet-leader for the reasons given: he would baptise not with water but with the Holy Spirit.

The argument about Elijah preceding YHWH rather than the Messiah doesn’t get us very far. The Old Testament texts cited in Mark 1:2-3 refer to YHWH but it is Jesus who immediately appears. He is the “Lord” for whom John constructs or prepares a way. The question is whether this is to be understood in terms of identification (Jesus shares in the identity of the God of Israel) or deputation (Jesus has been authorised and empowered by the God of Israel to act on his behalf).

Significantly, what happens next is precisely an anointing and authorisation of Jesus. The account of Jesus’ baptism depicts him as the servant of YHWH: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him…” (Is 42:1), with some input perhaps from Psalm 2:7: “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.” This still looks to me much more like an explanation of Mark 1:2-3 than a counter-statement.

I wonder also at this point about the claim that “Elijah is first and foremost associated not with the coming of the Messiah but Yahweh himself”. The “Lord” who “will suddenly come to his temple” (Mal. 3:1) is kyrios in Greek but ʾāḏôn in Hebrew, which adds a complication to the argument for identification. This reminds us of Mark 12:35-36, where Jesus identifies the “Christ” with the ʾāḏôn to whom YHWH speaks (cf. Ps. 110:1).

Is it as clear as we might think that the Lord who comes to his temple is God? The “Lord (ʾāḏôn) whom you seek” is coming; the “messenger of the covenant in whom you delight” is coming. YHWH appears to make these statements about a third person. Are they parallel references to the same messenger/angel? Is it then the coming of this third person which will be so intolerable for the priests.

By the way, the covenant in view here is the “covenant with Levi”, which makes it harder to identify the “messenger/angel” of 3:1 with the prophet Elijah, who will be sent, it is noted in an afterthought, “before the great and awesome day of YHWH” (Mal. 4:5).

d) Can I suggest that appealing to the baptism is, sorry to be so blunt, a red herring? The question is not whether Jesus was human (Davidic Messiah etc.)—which in my thesis and other publications I strongly affirm—but whether he is also Yahweh. To appeal as you do to the baptism is to beg the question. I.e. to affirm the positive (that Jesus is son) simply does not establish the negative (he cannot be Yahweh). I think there’s a basic confusion here of two grammars that Israel’s Scriptures keep quite separate : i.e. language ABOUT Yahweh (Isa 40; Mal 3; mighty one, baptizer in the Spirit, forgiver of sins, Israel’s bridegroom, ruler of the stormy seas, etc. etc.) is quite distinct from language that Yahweh USES OF Israel, David, and his servant (son, beloved, begotten, firstborn, etc.)….

This goes back to the point I made earlier. We agree that the story of Jesus’ baptism affirms his humanity—he is cast as God’s servant or son, as obedient Israel or as Israel’s king. As Rikk says, this in itself does not rule out the possibility that implicit in Mark 1:2-3 is the idea that Jesus participated in the identity of YHWH.

But it I don’t think that this makes appealing to the baptism of Jesus a red herring. As I said earlier, the issue is how does the narrative get from the opening quotation of “Isaiah” to the voice from heaven. The “prophecy” about the preparation of the way of the “Lord” can be understood in one of two ways: Jesus will do what we would normally expect YHWH to do either because he is YHWH or because he will be authorised to act on YHWH’s behalf.

To my mind, still, the narrative strongly suggests the latter, for these reasons: i) in the conjoined Old Testament quotations YHWH addresses Jesus (“before your face”) as an other; ii) John speaks of Jesus as “stronger”, not as absolutely “strong”; iii) the nature of that superiority lies in the fact that Jesus will be baptized with the Spirit, which he will first receive from YHWH; iv) the voice from heaven (again YHWH addresses Jesus as an other) speaks of him precisely as the son/servant who has been anointed and authorised to act on God’s behalf; and when the charge of blasphemy is first levelled against Jesus, he speaks of himself as the Son of Man—a figure to whom authority is given.


Could Mark be using Isaiah 40:3(and Isaiah’s whole new exodus narrative) not to say that Jesus is YHWH, but to say that Jesus is the new tabernacle of YHWH’s glory/spirit as in Exodus 40:25? YHWH now travels within the person of Jesus through the wilderness and beyond?

Is there any reason to think that the tabernacle was part of Isaiah’s new exodus narrative?