Friday, March 5, 2010

Mark 1:12-15

The text:


Mark 1:12-13: The Temptation

In the tradition of Moses (Exodus 24:18 / 34:28) and Elijah (I Kings 19:8) Jesus finds himself driven into the wilderness for 40 days1. Mark says that Jesus here was "tempted" by Satan, but goes into no further detail (we'll have to wait for Matthew and Luke for more specific accounts). But for now, it bears touching upon who exactly this "Satan" is.

The name "Satan" doubtless inspires a cacophany of vivid imagery, drawn from a long and fecund Christian tradition, but in the interest of approaching the New Testament objectively, it's probably best to dispense with all of it. The Satan of orthodox Christian theology (a kind of subterranean "anti-god": a freely-acting being of great power and even greater evil) hadn't been fully developed by the time Mark's gospel was penned. The ha-satan (הַשָׂטָן) of Old Testament Judaism (and therefore, most likely, of early Christianity as well) simply means - to translate the term literally - "the accuser" or "the opposer". This is a being who operates within God's divine court, often depicted as playing the role (if you'll excuse the pun) of devil's advocate. This is made especially clear in the book of Job, where Satan is essentially cast as the prosection attorney to God's own judge and jury. This role, by the way, is performed under the auspices of God, with (we can only assume) his implicit support.

What, then, are we to make of Satan tempting Jesus? Was this a case of God using Satan to demonstrate or test the loyalty of Jesus (a la Job), or was Satan - as later Christian theology would have it - acting of his own accord, stirring up chaos for the sake of chaos? I'll leave the issue here for now, but it shall be returned to.

Mark 1:15: "The Kingdom of God has come near."

A full exposition of the term "Kingdom of God" may have to wait for another post, but a brief treatment of this phrase here is probably in order.

The expression "Kingdom of God" is not merely used in the NT as a poetic way of referencing heaven, it is - as best I can discern - an expectation of a future in which Yahweh2 will establish his quite literal kingdom3 here on earth. It deserves to be noted that this is our very first introduction to the topic of "eschatology" on this blog (that is, the expectation of some radically altered future state of the world, usually consequent to some form of divine intervention4). Although it's a subject that modern theologians are not wont to dwell on, the belief in some future eschaton appears to have been integral to the philosophy of Jesus and his early followers.

Secondly, the term "come near" (ἤγγικεν / ēngiken) gives us the indication that this coming eschaton is not set at some indefinite point in the future, but is rather extremely close to - or even in the process of - manifesting itself. This theme of immediacy, of breathless urgency, is a common motif throughout Mark's gospel.5 For Mark (and probably Jesus as well) there is an impending eschatology, where history will not merely end, it will end in this generation (see Mk. 9:1, 13:30). This passage, then, suitably sets the eschatological tone for Mark's portrayal of Jesus' ministry: God is gonna get here soon, so best get your act together in a hurry!


1 - Again, take note of how Jesus is portrayed gMark. Is he being cast in the role of divine saviour or OT prophet?

2 - "Yahweh" (or "YHWH") is the name given to God in the Old Testament.

3 - Yahweh is frequently portrayed in OT literature as a literal king, complete with throne: e.g. Ps. 47.

4 - "Eschaton" (ἔσχατοv) literally means "the last". Most eschatologies carry the assumption that history as we know it will end at the point of the eschaton, but that's not quite the same as saying that the world itself will be destroyed in the kind of fiery vision that contemporary Christian imagery so often associates with the end of times. Best to think of eschatology in terms of a "coming of a new age" rather than the destruction of the world proper.

5 - Some of it is lost in the English translation, but Mark uses lots of "ands" and "thens" to link his pericopes together. Not particularly great grammar, but it does succeed (deliberately or otherwise) in giving the gospel a real sense of urgency.

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