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Exploring the Christian Way of Life: The Identity of Jesus Part 2

This is part two of a paper on the identity of Jesus. For part 1, click here.

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ (Mark 1:9-11 NRSV)

Much ink has been spilled over why Jesus was baptized. For the task at hand, I think that question can be sidestepped. What happened during the baptism is far more important than trying to ascertain why Jesus would have undergone a baptism of repentance. At any rate, Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan. During the baptism, Jesus had a remarkable experience, an apocalyptic experience. Marcus does an excellent job of detailing the apocalyptic elements of the text.[1]  Before we get into those elements we need to explore the Old Testament background. There are at least three key allusions, Ps. 2:7, Is. 42:1, and Is. 63:11-64:1.

Psalm 2 is a royal Psalm. As has been suggested by Grogan, among others, it may have been used in the coronation of the king, as part of the enthronement ritual.[2]  Kraus provides some helpful background to the Psalm. ‘In Babylon and Assyria the king is most often understood to be a servant called, installed, and empowered through a “statement” by the gods.’[3]  It’s a declarative act by God[4]  where he grants someone the status of king and gives them the charge of ruling his people in accordance with the God’s will. The king is adopted by God and fully subordinate to him. As his reward he is given an inheritance, the same inheritance as Abraham: the nations. Additionally, the Psalm legitimates the king by claiming a special relationship with God himself.

The first portion of Psalm 2:7 is on the lips of the heavenly voice. What’s important is both what is said and what isn't. Jesus is called God’s son, just as the king was. Jesus’ public ministry is about to be launched and we are to understand it as the ministry of a king.[5]  Did Jesus get a new status during his baptism? As France notes, the voice is describing who Jesus is, not who he is becoming. The voice omits 2:7c, ‘today I have begotten you.’ It seems as if there is no new status for Jesus.[6]  As Marcus notes, it is the past choice of Jesus that is being ratified at the baptism.[7]  Mark is telling us of Jesus special relationship with God. As argued by Keener in his commentary on the Johanine parallel, it is a proleptic enthronement scene, anticipating the enthronement that will come at the resurrection.[8]

Kingship is a major theme in the Psalms. Psalm 2 is the first royal Psalm, introducing the theme. According to Kraus, the final redactor of the Psalter had messianic expectation, which I think permits us to believe that a messianic reading of this psalm would have been perfectly natural in the first century. We have evidence from Qumran that at least some first century Jews did read it that way.[9]

The voice also claims that Jesus is his beloved and that he is well pleased with Jesus. This echoes Is. 42:1, which opens the first of the so-called servant songs. Interestingly, according to Goldingay and Payne, the activity seen here is royal, indicative of the way the ideal king would rule and the ideal nation would act. A royal motif is being applied to the servant, to Israel as a whole.[10] The servant has the role of ruling with justice, of reordering of social life.[11] This tells us what kind of rule we should expect from Jesus. He is to be the kingly leader of a revolution that will turn the social structures of the world upside down instituting God’s justice, both for Israel and for the nations at large, again in keeping with the Abrahamic covenant.

The eschatological expectation of the rule of Israel and the inclusion of the Gentiles within the people of God was central to some strands of Jewish eschatology and to Christians as well.[12] Isaiah, which makes this case repeatedly, is central for Mark. The gospel opens with a citation of Isaiah and he quotes it again here in 1:10. 1:14 may also be an allusion to Isaiah. Marcus also points out, following Buse, that there are echoes of Is. 63:11-64:1, a proto-apocalyptic section describing a coming up from the water, reception of the Holy Spirit, a tearing of the heavens, and a divine descent.[13] This tie to an apocalyptic text, along with certain strong apocalyptic elements in the baptism story, adds to the likelihood that Jesus is being portrayed here by Mark as the Messianic king. The baptism marks the start of his public ministry, the start of his rule. He is filled with the Spirit, enabling him to carry out the task of ruling rightly, of bringing proper social order.

Collins also suggests that there may be links with Isaiah 61:1-2, especially with its emphasis on the Spirit.[14] While I’m not inclined to think Mark was alluding to Isaiah 61:1-2, it may explain why Luke chose to open Jesus teaching ministry with his exposition of this text. There Jesus explains what his kingship and kingdom is all about, serving the weak, the poor, the marginalized, and the outcast; of making God’s family maximally big.

This text, as elsewhere in the New Testament, seems to make a collage from various threads of Jewish messianic expectation.[15] There was no ubiquitous image of the coming Messiah; many Jews did not seem to have any expectation.[16] And among those who were expecting a messiah, there wasn’t even agreement on how many. In the Damascus Document, for example, we have clear references to two concurrent Messiahs, a priestly and a royal messiah.[17] To risk oversimplifying things, the royal expectations centered on a Davidic figure who, as God’s agent and with God’s help, would defeat the foreign powers and place Judea at the place of prominence. The Gentiles would recognize the legitimacy of the Messiah and would flock to Jerusalem in fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. Right order would ensue and the people would live in peace and holiness. The messianic period would be a bridge to the new creation.[18]

In addition, a few texts, primarily at Qumran, suggest the presence of a prophetic messiah. This figure was concerned with teaching the people in the way of justice. His teaching was accompanied by great wonderworking, modeled after the ministry of Elijah.

There are many other elements and variants of Jewish messianic expectation, but this brief discussion provides us with the background we need to proceed in our analysis of Jesus’ baptism. As Collins has noted,[19] by meshing Psalm 2 and the Isaiah texts together, we have a combination of both a kingly and prophetic messianic figure. It extends beyond establishing justice but also to a ministry of teaching or exhortation. This is a bit curious – why merge the two roles? It does reflect the reality of Jesus’ earthly ministry as presented in the synoptic gospels, but if Jesus was a Davidic Messiah, why was so much time spent teaching and healing? Understanding this will give us added precision in our apocalyptic framework. The baptism narrative points us in the direction we should search for the identity of Jesus. He is the eschatological king and prophet who brings justice to earth and makes the inclusion of the Gentiles into God’s people possible. Through him God worked victory, and when that victory is completed, the eschatological age and the resurrection will come and Christ will hand over the kingdom to God.[20] What is made clear from the baptism text is that Jesus’ roll is bringing right order to earth and inaugurating the kingdom of God. It is both through the victory that God will win through him and through his teaching that Jesus would, does, and will change the world. The need for the prophetic role shows that things aren't automatically going to correct themselves because the Messiah is ruling. We will get more into this later, but evil has ruled for too long and has left too indelible of a mark on God’s people that they need to be challenged and even criticized when living on this side of the last day. He needs to rule and make his will known with utmost clarity so that Jews and Gentiles alike can live in peace under him.

[1] Marcus 1999 ad loc.

[2] Grogan 2008 ad loc. See also Kraus 1988 ad loc. 

[3] Kraus 1988 ad loc.

[4] Goldingay 2006 ad loc.

[5] More on what exactly that kingly ministry looks like later.

[6] France 2002 ad loc.

[7] Marcus 1999 ad loc.

[8] Keener 2003, ad loc. Commenting on John 1:32. This also accords with Allison’s conviction that, prior to his death, the historical Jesus saw himself as the Messiah in waiting. See Allison 2010 pp. 279-93, esp. p. 290.

[9] Marcus 1999 p. 166.

[11] Brueggemann 1998 ad loc.

[12] We see this, e.g., in Romans 4 and Isaiah 66.

[13] Marcus 1999 ad loc.

[14] Collins 2007 ad loc.

[15] A good starting point for further research is the article in DEJ by Pomykala.

[16] As is well known, neither Sirach nor Josephus, among others, present themselves as looking for a messiah. In the case of the former we need to be careful how much we press that piece of information, as we only have one writing from Ben Sira, though it does indeed give us no hint of any messianic expectation. In the case of Josephus it is very clear that he was not looking for a Jewish messiah.

[17] E.g., CD 19:33-20:1

[18] A point particularly made at Qumran. See Collins 2009. Unfortunately I have returned the book and did not write down a page number.

[20] This seems to be the clear point of 1 Cor. 15:24-28, showing that at least one early follower of Jesus understood him this way.

For Further Reading
"Messianism" by Kenneth Pomykala in The Eerdmanns Dictionary of Early Judaism


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