Ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ υἱοῦ θεοῦ: Mark’s Gospel as the Beginning of The Exodus? Some Thoughts on the Wilderness Motifs in Mark

Mark’s Gospel continues to be my favorite of the Synoptics. I find myself returning to its message time and again, always encouraged by the way Mark is able to get to the point of the message quickly and powerfully. This week I found myself back at the beginning of Mark. In the past I would normally read at a relatively steady pace, moving from to one scene to the next. This time, after reading Beale’s work on New Testament Theology I decided to slow the pace and listen for echoes that may be in the text. This is something that I should do far more often!

Mark begins his writing with a brief introduction (or title): Ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ υἱοῦ θεοῦ (1:1). Unlike John’s Gospel, where the presence of ἀρχὴ is meant to point back to the beginning of creation (cf. Gen 1:1, Ἐν ἀρχῇ ἐποίησεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν οὐρανὸν καὶ τὴν γῆν), the ἀρχὴ in Mark is τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ υἱοῦ θεοῦ. The comparative καθὼς, along with the citation formula γέγραπται ἐν τῷ Ἠσαΐᾳ τῷ προφήτῃ (1:2a) locate the ἀρχὴ …τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ υἱοῦ θεοῦ in the OT message of Isaiah. For Mark, the Gospel message has its roots in the prophet Isaiah and his message to Israel.

In Mk 1:2b-3 three passages of scripture are included in Mark’s citation formula of 1:2a, which Mark apparently conflates into Ἠσαΐᾳ τῷ προφήτῃ[1] : Ex 23:20; Mal 3:1; and Isa 40:3. The following tables are a visual layout of these OT citations:

1:2

Ex 23:20

הִנֵּ֨ה אָנֹכִ֜י שֹׁלֵ֤חַ מַלְאָךְ֙ לְפָנֶ֔יךָ לִשְׁמָרְךָ֖ בַּדָּ֑רֶךְ וְלַהֲבִ֣יאֲךָ֔ אֶל־הַמָּק֖וֹם אֲשֶׁ֥ר הֲכִנֹֽתִי Καὶ ἰδοὺ ἐγὼ ἀποστέλλω τὸν ἄγγελόν μου πρὸ προσώπου σου, ἵνα φυλάξῃ σε ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ, ὅπως εἰσαγάγῃ σε εἰς τὴν γῆν, ἣν ἡτοίμασά σοι Behold, I am sending my angel before you to guard you on the way and thus bring you into the land which I promised you

Mal 3:1

הִנְנִ֤י שֹׁלֵחַ֙ מַלְאָכִ֔י וּפִנָּה־דֶ֖רֶךְ לְפָנָ֑י ἰδοὺ ἐγὼ ἐξαποστέλλω τὸν ἄγγελόν μου, καὶ ἐπιβλέψεται ὁδὸν πρὸ προσώπου μου Behold, I am sending my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me

1:3

Isa 40:3

      ק֣וֹל קוֹרֵ֔א בַּמִּדְבָּ֕ר פַּנּ֖וּ דֶּ֣רֶךְ יְהוָ֑ה יַשְּׁרוּ֙ בָּעֲרָבָ֔ה מְסִלָּ֖ה לֵאלֹהֵֽינוּ φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ Ἑτοιμάσατε τὴν ὁδὸν κυρίου, εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους τοῦ θεοῦ ἡμῶν A voice crying: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight the way of our God

The Context Mark’s OT Citations

As seen in the citations above, each make reference to a number of key terms: messenger, way and preparation. Also noted in Isa 40 is the word wilderness, which we will see plays a role in framing the opening of Mark’s Gospel.

In Ex 23, YHWH declares that he is going to send his messenger (מַלְאָךְ, ἄγγελος) with Israel into the promised land to guard them on the way (לִשְׁמָרְךָ֖ בַּדָּ֑רֶךְ, φυλάξῃ σε ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ). Mark’s use of Ex 23.20 has a prophetic ring to it, pointing to John the Baptist’s role as the forerunner (ἄγγελος) of the Lord’s entry into the land.

Malachi 3:1 is a prophecy of the coming of YHWH’s messenger as a forerunner to the Lord’s sudden appearance in his temple (3:1). According to Malachi, YHWH will send his messenger to clear the way for him, which will result in the sudden appearance of YHWH in his temple. Unlike Ex 23:20 where YHWH’s messenger prepares the way for Israel, the messenger of Mal 3:1 will prepare the way for Lord himself.[2]

Isaiah 40 is the beginning of a lager section (40-55), containing echoes back to Israel’s exodus from Egypt. The writer of Isaiah writes of a grand coming of the Lord. Isa 40:1-2 proclaims an end to warfare and the removal of iniquity. Isa 40:3-4 describes the preparation that is to take place for the YHWH’s coming, with 40:5 revealing how YWHW will come: “Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, And all flesh will see it together.”

Each of the three citations have a context of exodus/exile, which plays a role in Mark’s immediate context as we shall see.

Wilderness Motif in Mark

According to Mark, the beginning of the gospel message, as indicated in  the OT citations, is in the proclamation of John the Baptist. According to Mark, John the Baptist is the one that is spoken of in Isa 40:3 as the voice crying out in the wilderness: ἐγένετο Ἰωάννης [ὁ] βαπτίζων ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ καὶ κηρύσσων βάπτισμα μετανοίας εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν (1:4). It is here—in the wilderness (ἔρημος)—where John performs his ministry of baptism. All of Judea and Jerusalem (πᾶσα ἡ Ἰουδαία χώρα καὶ οἱ Ἱεροσολυμῖται πάντες) go out to him to be baptized in the Jordan (1:5). Further, it is in the wilderness where Jesus comes to be baptized by John (1:9-13). It is no coincidence, in light of the OT citations, that Mark begins his Gospel not with a genealogy like Mathew or even Luke, or with a beginning similar to John’s. Rather, Mark’s beginning is the beginning of the final exodus, which has been inaugurated by the coming of the Messiah.

Unlike the first exodus, in which Israel left the bondage of Egypt for the land flowing with milk and honey, this exodus called for a coming out of the promised land (καὶ ἐξεπορεύετο πρὸς αὐτὸν πᾶσα ἡ Ἰουδαία χώρα καὶ οἱ Ἱεροσολυμῖται πάντες) to the wilderness. It is from the wilderness that we find Jesus returning to Galilee and proclaiming that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel [πεπλήρωται ὁ καιρὸς καὶ ἤγγικεν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ· μετανοεῖτε καὶ πιστεύετε ἐν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ]” (1:14-15). Whereas in the first exodus, Joshua leads Israel in a battle to rid the land of foreign nations. In this final exodus, Jesus rids the land of unbelief and the power of Satan.

Footnotes

1. While I will not enter into the discussion on the conflation of the of Ex 23:20 and Mal 3:1, this is nevertheless a serious textual matter. Markan scholar Rikki Watts has recently written a post at the Gospel Coalition Blog answering this very question. See also his contribution on Mark’s use of the OT in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, edited by Carson and Beale. 

2. Rikki Watts, “Mark” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament. Ed. by Carson and Beale, 118. Watts notes that Malachi’s use of Ex 23:20 and Isa 40:3 “suggests that Malachi sees the delayed second exodus as an ironic recapitulation of the first. Whereas in the first exodus Yahweh sent his messenger to prepare Israel’s way by destroying the idolatrous nations, now the messenger prepares Yahweh’s way, and it is faithless Israel who, having become like those nations, is under threat.”

5 thoughts on “Ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ υἱοῦ θεοῦ: Mark’s Gospel as the Beginning of The Exodus? Some Thoughts on the Wilderness Motifs in Mark

  1. Watts’ book is one of my favorites. Two comments. First, the Markan New Exodus isn’t inaugurated by the Messiah but by YHWH. If John is Malachi’s Elijah, then Jesus is none other than YHWH. Second, if that is so, then this is quite possibly the highest Christology within the NT. It quite unambiguously states that the forerunner of Jesus was the long-promised forerunner of YHWH.

    • Agreed. And thanks for the correction on YHWH not the Messiah inaugurating the exodus. That is what I meant, but I forgot to add YHWH.

      Also, check you email. I am sending you a request for something cool!

  2. For a minority view, the so-called new exodus theme is over-hyped. Though there may be some of this in Isaiah, despite it’s popularity, it’s been pressed too far in NT studies (Mark in particular). It would be worth a look at Neal Cushman’s diss (2012) on the subject. He teaches at Northland Intl Univ (ni.edu) and you could find contact info there.

  3. Your reflection is very interesting in the context of the literary structure of this passage:

    Mark 1:1-15
    A) The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
    B) 2 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way,
    C) 3 the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”
    D) 4-6
    E) 7-8
    D’) 9-10
    C’) 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
    B’) 12 The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him. 14
    A’) Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

    Summary

    AA’ / Gospel (inclusion)
    BB’ / Angels = messenger (gr. aggelos)
    CC’ / The voice (+ OT quotation)
    DD’ / John / Jordan / baptize – Jesus / Jordan / baptize
    E / baptize you with the water / baptize you with the Holy Spirit.

    The quotes of the Old Testament introduce theology of exodus. In the Old Testament two characteristic and technical elements of this theology are: the water (passage through the Jordan) and desert (40 years in the wilderness). This sequence of two symbols appear in the prophets and in the Writings when authors of the Bible actualize the theology of the exodus (cf. Is 48.21; Ps 106.9). And the same sequence occurs in the Mc 1,1-15: desert (B – implicitly, the context of the quotation / B ‘), water (= Jordan – DD’). Themes create the literary symmetry.

    Experience of the new passage through the water (Jordan) and of the new desert is now not only of the people, but of Christ himself too.

    What do you think about it?

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