Mark 1:1, 11 – “The Son of God”
Throughout the New Testament, we will find a number of titles attached to Jesus including "messiah", "Lord", "Christ" and – in this case – "Son of God". While all these titles run together in modern Christianity and are often taken as different ways of describing the same idea – say, that of Jesus' divinity and / or his soteriological power - modern Biblical scholarship proffers the idea that each of these titles once had their own distinct meaning, likely a reflection of confusion within the early Christian communities as to who exactly Jesus was.1 The study of such titles, and how Jesus was perceived by his earliest followers, is known as "Christology".
Our understanding of the phrase "son of god" is unfortunately clouded by its rather literal use in gMatthew and gLuke2, where Jesus' mother is impregnated by the Holy Spirit (Mt. 1:18, Lk. 1:26-35) making Jesus quite literally "God's son". However, this understanding of the phrase "son of god" occurs nowhere else in the New Testament and so we should not assume that the phrase means the same thing for Mark as it does for Matthew and Luke. Indeed, although the phrase "son of god" is often used in the New Testament as a unique title for Jesus (i.e. "the Son of God") it is a phrase with a long history and a wide variety of meanings.
In the original Hebrew of the Old Testament3, for instance, the expression "sons of god" can be used to describe angels (or "heavenly beings" as it is rendered in many English translations - see Gen. 6:1-4 and Job 1:6) or holy men blessed by god (i.e. priests and kings, especially of the Davidic line – e.g. II Sam 7:14, Ps. 2:7; 89:26). The Jewish author Philo, writing in the same century as Jesus, used the expression "sons of God" in a very general way to refer to the entire Jewish people. And the expression doesn't only have a history within the Jewish faith: the Roman emperor Augustus (who was almost certainly emperor during Jesus' lifetime), for instance, was also given the title "Son of God" (from divi filius4 in Latin) during his long reign.
For Mark’s understanding of the phrase, we’ll ignore the titular reference in the first verse (a later redaction, absent from many of the earliest manuscripts) and focus instead on verse 11, where God declares of Jesus: "You are my son". How are we to interpret this?
If we relieve ourselves of our preconceptions about Jesus and allow the text to speak for itself, we are forced to make certain observations that may not sit comfortably with contemporary Christian theology. For instance, the text appears to imply that Jesus receives the Holy Spirit only at the moment of his baptism (v. 10) and only then does God proclaim him as His son (v. 11). This needn’t imply a strict adoptionist attitude on Mark’s behalf (that is, that Jesus was not God’s son until he was "adopted" at this precise moment), but this episode was doubtless considered by Mark to be a singularly important moment in the context of Jesus' ministry and implies strongly that – for Mark – Jesus’ sonship and his divine spirit are strongly – perhaps inextricably - connected to the moment of his baptism at the hands of John the Baptist (henceforth JtB).
In other words, in contrast with orthodox Christian theology, there is no indication in Mark that Jesus was either born "the Son of God" (gMatthew, gLuke), nor that he was "the Son of God" from the beginning of time, sharing heaven with God as a pre-existent heavenly being (gJohn). The evidence – such that it is – seems to suggest that Mark places Jesus more in the role of the traditional, divinely-ordained prophet of the OT (albeit, a uniquely important one) rather than in an especial divine class of his own.
Anyway, we'll leave the Christological discussion there for the moment (it's one we'll return to time and time again as we progress through the New Testament) and focus next on JtB’s role in the gospel of Mark.
Mark 1:4-9 - John the Baptist:
John the Baptist is an enigmatic figure, one we know little about outside of the gospels and a short passage penned about him by the Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities XVIII 5:2). So far as we can tell, he was a prominent preacher and religious leader in the 20s and 30s who used baptism as a purification rite. His historical relationship to Jesus is largely unclear from the gospels alone, but his prominence (his story appears in all four gospels at some length) probably indicates that he was a figure of some importance in Jesus' early ministry.
For Mark, JtB’s primary role appears to have been that of forerunner of Jesus; he was sent as "messenger" (v. 2) to "prepare the way of the lord" (v. 4). This verse (and the two preceding) are taken from Malachi 3:1 (not Isaiah, as Mark suggests) and this book appears to have furnished Mark’s understanding of JtB's role. Later in that book (Mal. 4:5-6) we get the following:
Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.
Mark seems to be quite overtly casting JtB in the role of the resurrected Elijah5. Even John’s dress ("clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist") appears to be a direct allusion to the clothing worn by Elijah (II Kings 1:8). Later, when Jesus is asked about the need of Elijah to "come first" (i.e. before Jesus’ own ministry), Mark has him reply: "I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him what they pleased…" (Mk. 9:13).
This role (of prophetic forerunner) is preserved down the gospel tradition (although in gJohn, JtB explicitly denies being Elijah – Jn. 1:21) but a separate aspect of Mark’s portrayal inspired some backtracking among the later gospel authors. Mark suggests that JtB was "proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins", so why, later Christians may have been moved to ask, was Jesus (who they held to be sinless) baptised? The later gospel authors deal with this problem in different ways (which I will address as we get to them), but this offers another little clue that at the time of gMark - the earliest surviving gospel - Christianity was still in the process of defining itself and Jesus was not yet considered the perfect divine figure of the last gospel (gJohn) and subsequent Christian theology.
We will see plenty more evidence for this as we make our way through the gospel.
1 - One important thing to remember is that at the time the books of the New Testament were being written, there was still no “official” theology of Christianity. These books represent the effort to define the tenets of the faith, both within the context of – and yet, increasingly distinct from – the traditions of Judaism. As a consequence, we should expect to find disagreements and inconsistencies between the authors, as each had their own unique view on who Jesus was and what it meant to be his follower. We must try – so far as it is possible – to resist the temptation to read the New Testament through the lens of 2000 years of Christian theology (which invariably attempts to gloss over these disagreements by anachronistically imposing a unified theology upon them) and allow the texts – including the original views and intentions of the authors - to speak for themselves.
2 - The lower case “g” in Biblical scholarship simply denotes “gospel of”.
3 - The OT was familiar to most of the NT authors only in its Greek form, known as the Septuagint. As a consequence some of the literal meanings of the original Hebrew phrases – including this one – were lost in the translation, hence the need to distinguish between the Hebrew OT and the Greek OT.
4 - It’s true that divi filius is more literally translated as "son of the divine one" rather than "son of god" (which would be dei filius in Latin), but it bears pointing out that the distinction is completely lost when translated into the Greek (where both expressions become θεοῦ υἱὸς / theou huios) that our New Testament authors would be familiar with. See The First Paul, pp. 101-102.
5 - Elijah was an OT prophet accredited with performing a slew of incredible deeds, including raising people from the dead and raining fire from the sky. His real claim to fame, though, was his ascension into heaven on a chariot (II Kings 2:11), making him one of only two OT characters (the other being Enoch) to be raised to heaven without dying.