Earlier this week this blog turned one year old. I have enjoyed this first year of blogging, though there are a couple of things I would like to alter as it moves forward. First, some will have noticed that my posts tend to be about somewhat scattered topics, often focusing on what fiction I am reading or what has caught my eye online. While reading widely is important for students of early Christianity and for human beings generally, what I have to say about such topics is at best only marginally of interest. With that in mind, I would like to narrow my focus to matters related to the New Testament and early Christian history.
Second, a quick glance at a list of the posts will indicate that the posts slowed considerably after nine months. Though one reason for the decrease has to do with an uptick in other things in life, two of the more significant reasons is a lack of regularly scheduled posts and (again) a lack of focus in topics. Keeping these things in mind, I am hoping to post a couple of times per week, using one post to explore the weekly lectionary gospel reading and another to look at some element of an early Christian text (probably Origen and earlier). Although this still leaves considerable room for development, I hope it will assist me in writing more regularly with content that may be of assistance to other readers.
With this prolegomena out of the way, I thought it might be useful to look at today’s gospel reading. The Anglican churches that I come from in the US used the 1979 BCP when I was attending them (and at least one of them still does), so I will be looking at Mark 1.7–11, the gospel reading for the First Sunday after Epiphany from Year B.
The theme of the first Sunday after Epiphany within many Anglican churches is the baptism of the Lord. Thus today’s reading includes the Markan baptismal account (1.9–11). Likely because Mark’s account is so brief, the lectionary adds 1.7–8 to the baptismal reading. (The longer Matthean account occurs on its own in Year A, but the Lukan account adds the parallel to Mark 1.7–8 while omitting some of the Lukan additions in Year C).
As a whole the Markan story moves very quickly, and this is well-illustrated in the opening few verses. Where Matthew and Luke contain narratives about Jesus’ birth and John has an 18 verse prologue that reaches back to creation, Mark begins his story with a declaration (or a title?) that this is “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1.1). He then describes John as the precursor to Jesus in 1.2–8. After locating John’s place with respect to the prophets (1.2–3) along with a description of John’s appearance and popularity (1.4–6), Mark reports a summary of John’s preaching in the opening of today’s reading.
The declaration that someone who is stronger than John is coming after him indicates John’s self-recognition of his proper role in relation to Jesus. At once, he emphasizes both Jesus’ superiority (one who is stronger) and his relative inferiority (whose sandal he is not worthy to untie). While Jesus is not named in John’s speech, Mark’s introduction in 1.1 makes it clear that he is in view. In 1.8 a clearer reason is given for precisely why Jesus is superior: Jesus’ superiority in relation to John lies in the nature of their respective baptisms. John baptizes with water, but Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit. John (through Mark) does not give the contemporary reader much help in figuring out exactly what it means to baptize with the Holy Spirit. But perhaps Mark gives a hint as to what it means for Jesus to baptize with the Spirit in his account of Jesus’ baptism.
Jesus physically appears in the narrative for the first time in 1.9 after being mentioned by the narrator in 1.1, and the narrative succinctly reports that Mark is baptized by John in the Jordan River. Upon coming out of the water, Jesus sees the Spirit descending in the form of a dove from a parted sky (1.10). Subsequently he hears a voice calling out from the sky and confirming his role as the beloved Son (cf. Ps 2.7; Isa 42.1). There are a number of angles to come at the text, and I am intrigued by the role of Jesus as both messiah and Israel’s representative. However, today I think it is worth noting simply that the Spirit settles on Jesus. Whatever it means that Jesus baptizes with the Holy Spirit in Mark, a description of such a baptism must begin with this story. Jesus is able to baptize with the Spirit because the Spirit has come down on him, thereby confirming Jesus as God’s Son along with the voice that explicitly states this. When Jesus baptizes with the Spirit, the Spirit comes down on the one who is baptized just as it came down on Jesus in this account.
The question for a good reader of Mark then becomes, to what action does this baptism refer? This is made particularly difficult by the fact that Jesus does not baptize much in Mark, though he discusses baptism in the context of his death and suffering in Mark 10.38–39. In light of this, it is possible that John’s reference to Jesus’ baptism with the Spirit may not refer to a physical act of baptism. Any further comments on the subject would require a good deal more reading, thinking, and position-taking than I am ready to do today.
From the 1979 BCP:
Almighty God, who didst give such grace to thine apostle Andrew that he readily obeyed the call of thy Son Jesus Christ, and brought his brother with him: Give unto us, who are called by thy Word, grace to follow him without delay, and to bring those near to us into his gracious presence; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
From the 1979 BCP:
Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
From the 1979 BCP:
Lord, we pray thee that thy grace may always precede and follow us, and make us continually to be given to all good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
As a student, I read a lot of footnotes. In the course of attempting to mark out various research trajectories, I am pondering the possibility of becoming a footnote connoisseur. I love footnotes, and I particularly love footnotes in my literature. So I was pleased to find that Jorge Luis Borges employs footnotes four times in his marvelously enjoyable short story “La biblioteca de Babel” (The Library of Babel). The following is from the edition of his Ficciones published by Bristol Classical Press in 1999 (p. 52). The English translation is by Anthony Kerrigan in the edition of Ficciones published in Grove Press in Everyman’s Library 166 (p. 64).
Lo repito: basta que un libro sea posible para que exista. Sólo está excluido lo imposible. Por ejemplo: ningún libro es también una escalera, aunque sin duda hay libros que discuten y niegan y demuestran esa posibilidad y otros cuya estructura corresponde a la de una escalera.
Then Kerrigan’s translation:
I repeat: it is enough that a book be possible for it to exist. Only the impossible is excluded. For example: no book is also a stairway, though doubtless there are books that discuss and deny and demonstrate this possibility and others whose structure corresponds to that of a stairway.
Having just written that he has not found anything of which he counts himself guilty but that he is not thereby innocent, Paul deepens the quest to apply his analysis of the cross to his own ministry as an example for the Corinthians in 1 Cor 4.6–13. He writes that he has applied what he has written to himself and to Apollo on account of the Corinthians. However, Paul does not simply state that this is a finished project or that he and Apollo have thus “arrived” as apostles. This would run counter to what he had just written in the previous verses. The precise meaning of μετεσχημάτισα (ESV: I have applied) has proved to be difficult to pin down precisely in the history of interpretation. Paul seems to say that he has applied what he has written but that he has not done this in a final way. This recognition may substantiate Thiselton’s translation, “I have allusively applied.”
The significance of “not beyond what has been written” is another difficult phrase to pin down. Perhaps this should be understood in light of all the talk of Corinthian knowledge or against an Old Testament background. However, in positive terms the phrase may also be understood as a reference to the cross in light of what follows in 4.8–13. Whatever precisely τὸ μὴ ὑπὲρ ἃ γέγραπται refers to, what Paul has said throughout 1.10–4.5 and will continue to say through at least 4.21 should lead readers to recognize that what does not puff us up with pride is the cross. The Corinthians have received everything that they have as a gift (4.7).
In light of this, Paul writes somewhat extensively about his place as an apostle. Where the Corinthians are already wealthy kings and queens (sarcasm?), Paul thinks that God has appointed his apostles to the lowest rungs of society. Where the Corinthians are wise and strong,the apostles are dishonored and weak fools. Paul has thus been hungry, thirsty, naked, and generally treated as the scum of the world. Of course, this is not the only time that Paul mentions his difficulties. In a later letter to the Corinthians, Paul speaks in more detail about his beatings and prison terms (2 Cor 11.24ff). In an even later letter to the church at Corinth, the Roman church knows of Paul’s difficulties as well (1 Clem. 5.5–7).
One of the unifying problems which each of these letters addresses is that of division. Suffering and humiliation assists in unity by discouraging the assertion of oneself over the other. This is not to say that suffering brings unity, just that it can help. Yet Paul is not arguing that the Corinthians should look to be imprisoned and beaten. Rather, they are to follow Jesus’ example on the cross. This brings us to the fittingness of Thiselton’s subtitle for this section: The Cross as Critique of Triumphalism and of Present Eschatological Glorying. Jesus inaugurated God’s eschatological rule on the cross, but the very way in which he inaugurated this challenges the church to remain patient in its work of being the body of Christ.