Mark 1:1

The Historical Moment

Mark 1:1 – The Preamble

The text began evocatively:

The beginning of the good news about Jesus, Christ, Son of God.

The succinct introduction summed up what Mark believed about Jesus. It was a confident statement of his faith. He claimed four things about Jesus:

  • that he was the Christ,
  • that he was Son of God,
  • that his impact on the world was good news,
  • and that that impact continued across time.

The Greek word Christ translated the Hebrew term Messiah.  It was a technical term that literally meant an “anointed” person.  In Jewish tradition, kings and priests had been anointed when they assumed their respective roles, as were some prophets.  Elijah, for example, was directed by God to anoint two men as kings and Elisha as prophet:

Then the Lord said to him,
“Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus;
when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.
Also you shall anoint Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel;
and you shall anoint Elisha son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah as prophet in your place.” (1 Kings 19:15-16)

Prophets were generally seen as metaphorically anointed by the Spirit of God.

In Jesus’ time, a time of political oppression and religious upheaval, there seemed to have been, at least in some quarters, an expectation of a new Messiah/Christ who would restore the ancient political and religious integrity of Israel. Scholars think that there was no single view on the nature of this hoped for Messiah, nor did everyone share the expectation.

Mark emphasised the reluctance of Jesus to accept the title for himself, probably because of the danger that people would misinterpret the role and be distracted from his real message.

By the time he wrote his text, Mark could proudly use Christ as a title of Jesus because, in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection, there was no longer danger of such misunderstanding or misuse.

By seeing him as the Christ, Mark also situated Jesus squarely within the historical process begun in Israel, calling people ever more faithfully into the mind and the heart of God. He saw Jesus as the one urging people to deeper and deeper conversion and putting into practice the consequences of what Israel had understood God to be.

In claiming Jesus to be Son of God, Mark was not making any clear statement of Trinitarian theology. The title was not uncommon in the Roman world (The Emperor Augustus was given the title Son of God [Cf. Mark 12:13-17]). In Jewish tradition it could refer to anyone especially chosen by God and devoted to God. The Hebrew tradition was fiercely insistent that God was one. Though clearer insight into the nature of Jesus was slowly deepening, there were no suitably developed thought patterns available to spell out with theological nicety the relationship of Jesus to the one God. It may be more helpful to understand Mark wanting, by his calling Jesus Son of God, to speak of his unique and undefined closeness to God.

Mark saw his text as the good news or Gospel of Jesus (the two terms mean the same thing). There seemed to be an air of confident defiance in Mark’s use of the term. Already the term had an accepted meaning. It was used regularly to refer to what the Roman establishment saw as a significant political event, such as the birth of a son to the emperor, or a military victory. Mark turned the conventional use on its head in claiming that a man degradingly crucified by Roman military power as a political threat to the social and political stability of the empire was the bearer of true good news for humanity.

What Mark set out to recount was the beginning of the good news of Jesus. It would have been stating the obvious if he meant simply that his first sentence was where the story began. It is more likely that Mark intended his readers to see the life and death of Jesus as the beginning of a process that had been carried on in the life of the Christian communities as they continued Jesus’ mission in their own time and place, in the “Galilees” to where he had gone before them.

Twenty centuries later, the good news continues to be preached and exemplified in the daily lives of his modern disciples, and the end of the adventure is still nowhere in sight.

Next >> Mark 1:2-3