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Keep One Eye on the Old Testament: Mark 1:2-13 & Ancient Reference

sponge small“I’m a New Testament Christian!” A common boast by those little interested in the Old Testament… I mean… Doesn’t that just sound defunct… OLD… Good old things get the label antique, which is cool, but other old things just get OLD… rhymes with MOLD and with good reason.  Why bother with something old when you can have something new?

When it comes to Scripture, however, we are faced with two problems in this OLD vs. NEW thing. 1. The NEW Testament is 2000 years OLD. 2. The NEW Testament is absolutely dependent on the OLD testament for proper interpretation. Thus, those NEW Testament Christians who are weak in the OLD Testament are, whether they know it or not, made all the weaker in the NEW Testament for the want of it. Frankly, if the New Testament was a sponge and you squeezed it, the Old Testament would come gushing out.

Let me begin my series of posts on Mark 1:2-13 by using it to illustrate what I’m talking about. These 12 little verses are hiding many quotes and references to Old Testament passages. The exact number of references is hard to determine, but I’ll run quite a list.

Mark 1:2-3 works off 3 major passages in a genius display of creative quoting. Those resting on the surface are from Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3… which describe the coming of God into the world from different angles. Dark and threatening to unrepentant sinners and glorious and uplifting for the faithful among his People. They, as with all Old Testament references should be read in their larger contexts. These are being fulfilled in the coming of John to preach in the wilderness. There is, however, something odd about the way these are quoted. The pronouns are adapted to fit another passage, one which Malichi 3:1 was originally intended to reflect—Exodus 23:20, which describes the coming of the Angel of the Lord to guide his people into the Promised Land. A thinking soul might easily imagine how important these passages, as understood in their original contexts, might be, given that John’s arrival and preaching are interpreted in their light.

Mark 1:6 breaks from a discussion of John’s preaching and its impact to describe John in terms drawn from 2 Kings 1:8… which just so happens to be an identifying description of Elijah… whose last days return is prophesied in the Malachi context already referenced.

Mark 1:8 makes a general reference to Baptism in the Holy Spirit. This statement must mean something to the pre-Christian community, drawn no doubt, from various Old Testament passages. We might only speculate at the exact number that rise to the original hearers’ consciousness, but five rise immediately to my mind. Isaiah 32:14ff; Isaiah 44:2ff; Isaiah 59:20ff; Ezekiel 37:12ff; Joel 2:28ff.

Mark 1:10 draws upon the prophetic cry of Isaiah 64:1ff in which the prophet begs for God to rend the heavens and come down to men, to break his silence, and forgive their sin. Here, the heavens are rent, the spirit descends in the form of a dove, and a voice from heaven speaks. One may wonder at the imagery conjured by the dove. Does Mark intend to cast Jesus in the frame of a Noah figure, whose own righteousness became a covering for 7 others as they passed through the waters of death into the new creation? One might also consider the connection between Baptism, here, as a covenant initiation rite & symbolic death ordeal, and the many uses of watery death imagery throughout the Old Testament. (et al)

In Mark 1:11 the voice combines three different Old Testament passages of grand significance for identifying this Jesus come from Nazareth. The first comes from the great coronation Psalm for the Sons of David, Psalm 2:7, declaring each reigning son of David the adopted son of Yahweh. The 3rd comes from the 1st of the 4 Servant Songs of Isaiah, Isaiah 42:1. To intone a single Servant Song, however, sends them all buzzing in the minds of those familiar with these prophecies. Isaiah 42:1ff; Isaiah 49:1ff; Isaiah 50:4ff; and the granddaddy of them all, Isaiah 52:13-53:12. This binds two of the great eschatological figures together in the person of Jesus. The 2nd Old Testament reference is found in the addition of the term “beloved” as in This is my beloved son… in Greek, being σὺ εἶ ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἀγαπητός You are the son my the beloved. In the absence of a single identifiable Old Testament reading of Psalm 2:7 that includes “the beloved” I am convinced that this is drawn from the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22:2 where Abraham is told to sacrifice his son. It reads τὸν υἱόν σου τὸν ἀγαπητόν the son your the beloved. Jewish pictures of Isaac in terms of a sacrificial figure were common, then and now.

The final two verses, Mark 1:12-13, while failing to directly reference a large enough passage to be deemed quotes, still casts many images from the Old Testament onto Jesus. Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness cannot help but be read in terms of Moses’ 40 days fasts and Israel’s 40 years of wilderness wandering.  His temptation by Satan cannot help but call Job to mind, and his suffering in the presence of animals and ministering angels stirs vision of Daniel in the Lions’ den.

I intend to discuss each of these in greater depth in later posts, but an initial perusal of the sheer richness of Old Testament reference should not be missed. This is not merely Jesus coming to be baptized by John to kick off his ministry. This is Jesus in dazzling Old Testament splendor embodying the greatest Old Testament figures and Prophetic hopes of Israel.

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