Friday, August 21, 2009

Mark 1: A Little Love for John the Baptizer

Though I begin this post committed to writing more on the New Testament, I’m still not quite ready to take on its megastar, Jesus. Hence, reading my last few entries might begin to feel like going to see a sweet concert with too many openers—you really want to see Bob Dylan, but first you have to watch Kenny Loggins and the mustachioed member of Hall and Oates.

Playing the role of Kenny Loggins tonight, then, is John “the baptizer,” the man assigned the thankless job of pumping up the crowd for Christ in the Gospel of Mark. However, every time I read Mark, I get the feeling that John isn’t the most eager opening act. He demands a bigger cheese tray backstage, grumbles through his 28-minute set, doesn’t play any of his hits, and wisecracks when the crowd’s attention wanders.

In fact, I’m pretty sure that if Mark’s “baptizer” had his way, he’d be headlining his own show … and dishing to the press after about how Jesus hasn’t been able to carry a tune since Blood on the Tracks.

But before we get to Mark’s first chapters, we need to note how this gospel doesn’t begin—with Jesus’s birth. In Mark, there’s no immaculate conception, no angel choirs, no manger, no swaddling clothes, no nothing. Actually, the gospel doesn’t only not begin with the nativity—Mark doesn’t even refer to it.

But I can go further still: fully half of the Bible’s gospels (Mark and John) make no mention of Jesus’s hay-bound delivery—a fact which makes contemporary Christianity’s focus on Christmas seem a little misplaced. We also know from ancient documents that other traditions about Jesus’s birth circulated through the ancient world.

For instance, Justin Martyr—another early Christian-ish writer—writes that Jesus was born in a cave. And the Persian author Archipodel champions the claim that Jesus fell to earth in a meteor and was subsequently adopted by a sentient car named Kit who helped him solve mysteries. (Guess which one of those is true.)

But I digress. Back to our baptizer.

It is likely a testament to John the Baptist’s substantial influence that he is the first to step on stage in Mark. And other gospels stress that John has a big following in the lead-up to the beginning of Jesus's ministry.

The Mark author introduces John by telling us a little about his message: “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (1:4) Catchy tune, right? But doesn’t it sound familiar? Indeed, to Christians the world over it does, because repentance and forgiveness will become common themes in the preaching of Jesus. And maybe it’s not going too far to say that Christ “borrows” some of John’s chord progressions when he starts his set.

But I don’t mean to start out so cynically, or with charges of divine plagiarism. John initially seems very ready to prepare the way for Jesus and accept his superiority: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals” (1:7). Now, this is the kind of respect we’ve been waiting for, right?

Well, not quite, because when Jesus strolls down to get baptized by John just a few verses later, John doesn’t seem to recognize him. We may expect the Baptist to acknowledge Jesus as divine, or to untie his sandals, or to say, “Hey, you’re that guy I was just talking about. Thong guy.” But he does none of these things. In fact, the text gives us no reason to believe that Jesus isn’t a faceless member of the crowd.

Perhaps to remedy this situation, the the author of the Gospel of John—written by a different, pseudonymous "John" at least four decades after Mark—makes it clear in his version of events that the baptizer verbally acknowledges Jesus as the “Lamb of God” when he comes to the river. But is the later evangelist’s clarification a response to the baptizer’s lack of enthusiasm in Mark?

Further, while the Mark author reports that the heavens open when Jesus is baptized, John never certifies the miracle. If this were a true torch-handing ceremony, wouldn’t we expect him to fall on his face and cry Jesus as his holy successor? On the contrary, even after God speaks, John says absolutely nothing. Not even “Holy shit.” And then the whole episode abruptly ends when the "Spirit" "immediately" drives Jesus out into the wilderness without another word from either party. What a truly odd juxtaposition.

We don’t hear much more about John in Mark. Jesus’s baptism seems to mark their only direct encounter, and it’s possible that the whole affair is underwhelming—or maybe even galling—for John.

All of which suggests that Mark’s John might be a little less than eager to pass the mike over to Jesus, because the man believes he can still rock. So today, let’s give John the baptizer his due. Play “Footloose” one more time.

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