The Programmatic Opening of Jesus’ Biography as a Reflection of Contemporaneous Jewish Messianic Ideas

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In this study Professor Ruzer suggests that there was a broader first-century Jewish context behind the narrative strategies employed in Mark’s prologue to Jesus’ messianic biography. On the other hand, he also demonstrates that Mark 1:9-11 can be used to recover an early phase of a pattern of messianic belief, seemingly shared by wider Judaism, that continued into the rabbinic period. In other words, New Testament evidence can be an important witness to broader trajectories in early Jewish messianic beliefs.

This article develops the discussion started in Serge Ruzer, “‘The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ’—In Search of the Jewish Literary Backdrop to Mark 1:1-11: Between The Rule of the Community and Rabbinic Sources,” in The Gospels in First-Century Judaea (ed. R. Steven Notley and Jeffrey P. García; Leiden: Brill, 2015), 76-87.

That Mark’s Gospel was designed first and foremost as Jesus’ messianic biography is clear from its opening line: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus the Messiah (Christ)” (Mark 1:1). In light of this, I am inclined to view Mark 1:1-11 as a programmatic opening to Jesus’ messianic biography. that aimed to convincingly present Jesus as the Anointed One. It stands to reason, therefore, that Mark’s introduction would relate to Jewish messianic beliefs that circulated broadly within the various currents of Second Temple Judaism. Let me quote in full the passage in question:

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus the Messiah (Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ), the son of God (υἱοῦ θεοῦ). 2 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way; 3 the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight—” 4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching an immersion of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (βάπτισμα μετανοίας εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν). 5 And there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, and had a leather girdle around his waist, and ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit (ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ).” 9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove (ὡς περιστερὰν); 11 and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved son (ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἀγαπητός); with thee I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:1-11; adapted from RSV)

Mark’s programmatic opening of the Gospel narrative also appears in a slightly reworked and expanded form in Matthew 3:1-17 and Luke 3:2-22.

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  1. Pingback: JP Welcomes New Author—Professor Serge Ruzer | JerusalemPerspective.com Online

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Serge Ruzer

Serge Ruzer

Serge Ruzer is a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he teaches in the Department of Comparative Religion. He has authored numerous articles and books on the Jewish background of the New Testament. Among the most important of these is Mapping the New…
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