OT Referents Early on in Mark: Studies in Mark, Pt. 8

The more I read Mark’s Gospel account, the more I notice all of the Old Testament echoes in the text. These referents have led me to think that, especially in the opening chapters of his Gospel account, Mark wants to portray Jesus as a type of mixed figure—an Elijah plus Moses-like figure but much greater. This has also led me to ask whether or not the transfiguration scene is key or central to understanding what Mark is trying to say? That question, I’m still working out; any insight would be appreciated.

Back to the lecture at hand. Look, for instance, at the opening chapters in Mark’s narrative. Already in verse 1, the first word, “arche” is used, which means “beginning.” Thus, there is an echo back to Genesis. Next, the term “Messiah” is used—this is clearly a Jewish referent. Just as well, two prophets, Isaiah and Malachi are quoted here. There are definitely links to the Hebrew Scriptures here. In verse 6, it is John who is portrayed as one in the likeness of Elijah, here too, then, is another link to the prophets and the Hebrew text.

Now, before I go on, I should point out that I think the forerunner and baptism scenes have much more taking place than immediately meets the eye. Here’s my thinking: Mark is subverting the Roman Empire with this story. What Mark does is replace Caesar with Jesus and Caesar’s forerunners with John the Baptist. In 1.14 He replaces Caesar’s “Good News” (in 1.1) with God’s “Good News” and Caesar’s kingdom with God’s kingdom.

Here’s the thing, though, the forerunner story “must” be connected to the baptism scenes. I say “scenes” in the plural because there are two major scenes: 1) the people coming from all over to be baptized and, 2) Jesus getting baptized. As with everything else, Mark connects these stories on purpose and for a reason. Also, when one reads these verses, they must keep the Empire in mind; that is the social context of the narrative.

I would argue that Mark is showing these crowds coming out to repent and be baptized as a sign of social subversion of the Empire. In other words, these people are leaving the Empire behind. For too long they have participated in its corruption and now they, as good Jewish people (the crowds are mostly Jewish given the locations they are arriving from), are coming out to be forgiven and cleansed. (Note: Jesus is explicit about the sinfulness of the people and their buying into the Empire in 4.18-19 among other places.) The scene, then, is of persons paying heed to Jesus’s forerunner, repenting of their allegiance to Empire (over God), passing through the cleansing waters of baptism and then following Jesus.

What is this but an echo of the Moses story? It was Moses who led the Israelites out from under the oppression of a corrupt Egyptian government, through the waters of baptism (Ex. 14; 1 Cor. 11) to follow God and set up a new kingdom. A socio-religio-political understanding of the context of these verses gives them an incredibly fresh meaning. Thus, what we have here is, as I said, an echo of the Moses story—another link to the Hebrew Scriptures.

Still, there are more links in the baptism of Jesus scene. Notice the reference to the sky being torn open or more correctly, “separated.” Is this another echo of Genesis 1? What about the Spirit hovering over Jesus and the waters? Another echo of Genesis 1? What about Jesus being sent out among the animals? Could we have a reference to Adam in Genesis 2 and 3 here? I think these are all possible. Let’s not stop there though. In this same story, we find the term “forty days” linked with the term “wilderness.” One would be hard-pressed to say this is mere coincidence! Is Jesus being cast in the mould of a new Adam and a new Moses? What about when Jesus calls the disciples to follow Him? Could we see a tint of the Elijah / Elisha story here?

Following this, we see Jesus dubbed as a “new teacher with authority”—is this another Marcan hint of a Moses-like Jesus? Later we have Jesus saying that He is greater than David (2.25)! After that, we see what might be an echo of the story where Moses sticks his withered hand in the cloak and then it is healed (of course, the hand here is not Jesus’s but that need not matter; it is a corresponding image; 3.1-6). The image of the man stretching out his hand (as one of the more well known Moses stories attests) might also be a connection here. Following this, Jesus, like Moses, goes up onto a mountain—what story do you think this takes us back to? The Decalogue episode!

In 6.14ff, it cannot be on accident that Mark tells his audience that people are saying Jesus is John the Baptist, Elijah, and other prophets. If the people back then were thinking this, it only makes sense that Mark would clarify, especially if he cloaked his story in such imagery? Perhaps we have just missed the many echoes that an early follower of Jesus, especially of Jewish descent, would have picked up on. As I continue to study Mark, I see more and more of these echoes and referents and I’m sure I’ll find more.

One thing that this reminds me of is that in New Testament studies in particular, we have to strive to find the balance between the Jewish and Greco-Roman worlds. For sure, they are both there—sometimes indistinguishably. We must take note of both! One or the other is not enough. Though most of the writers were grounded in the Jewish faith and Hebrew texts and practices, they lived in a Greco-Roman world; thus, the two are in many cases and in many ways, inseparable (though, at some points they are clearly separable).

This also reminds me that Jesus was much more than a prophet; He was a prophet but He was much greater than Moses or Elijah or anyone else. The claim that He was simply a good teacher or a great prophet is not enough. As Mark shows—and I think this is the main point of Mark’s account—Jesus is God!


  1. Interesting thoughts - the Elijah motif certainly come through strongly in Luke - but it is certainly possible the other gospel writers had similar ideas. Lots of good stuff Michael.

  2. Thanks Brian.
    Yeah, about the Elijah motif, I am thinking a lot lately about just how "key" it might be in Mark's account. This leads me to ask if the Transfiguration might be a climactic point in the Gospel. At present though, I am not sure; I have to work through the rest of the story. There is just so much in the first 5 chapters to talk about.

  3. "In other words, these people are leaving the Empire behind."

    I like your "challenge to the empire" thinking. I think the context supports it.

    Further, I think that is a common theme throughout the Bible - leaving the empire behind, forging on to a better kingdom.

    Abraham leaving Ur, the Israelis leaving Egypt, the Israelis in captivity leaving Babylon, Jesus teaching about a new kingdom, etc, etc.

    Good stuff...

  4. Dan,

    I think the socio-political background gets overlooked way too much, way too often in Mark. These things need to be brought to bear on the meaning of what we read. No doubt, Jesus was viewed as an OT-like figure leading His people out from under sin and oppression.

  5. Clearly, although the Romans are portrayed as not especially wanting to crucify Jesus, they simply could not and would not (I think) have tried to get away with it if Jesus was merely a nice guy that healed people and told us to love each other.

    Gov't's - even oppressive gov't's - don't tend to put to death people for those reasons. No, I think the evidence shows that Jesus appeared to be enough of a threat and/or bother that Rome felt she had to put him away.