It was in those days that Jesus arrived from the Galilean village of Nazareth and was baptized by John in the Jordan. All at once, as he came up out of the water, he saw the heavens split open, and the Spirit coming down upon him like a dove. A voice came out of Heaven, saying, “You are my dearly-beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased! Mark 1:9-11
Faced with such writings almost 2000 years old, biblical interpretation today requires a bit more work than simply reading the stories. It is important to know that most of these biblical stories are not scientific history, but it is needful to do a bit of scientific history to find what these stories meant to their authors. But such history is only the beginning. Here are my four steps for interpreting a passage of biblical writing.
1. Scientific History: What do we know about when and where this text was written, who wrote it, and what probable meanings were being given to the specific words used by this time-bound story teller?
2. Literary Analysis: Was this a poem, a teaching, a fictional story, a historical legend, a theological myth, etc.?
3. Metaphorical Translation: Interpreting any transcendent, two-layer, story-talk with our contemporary, existential, one-layer, transparency language.
4. “Word-of-God” Suggestions: What might this passage be saying to us today about the living of our authentic lives and about the power of these Christian symbols for our own depth living?
1. Scientific History
So when was the above baptismal story written and by whom, and what do some of the words in this story mean? The Gospel of Mark was written about 70 CE by the first of the four Gospel writers we find in our New Testament. Mark was the name of one of Paul’s followers, but this Mark may be some other man or women. Whoever Mark may have been, this person was putting together stories that were perhaps three decades old. John the Baptist had built a significant movement by the time Jesus was in this late 20s, and Jesus apparently joined the Baptist movement rather than the Zealots, Essenes, Pharisees, Sadducees, or some other movement of that time. The Christ-way movement that Jesus and Mark represent was a parallel movement with the John the Baptist movement that was still part of the public memory, and was perhaps still going on when Mark wrote this gospel. The ritual of baptism, in a slightly altered form, was part of Mark’s movement. It was important to Mark to both affirm the John-the-Baptist movement and to distinguish the Christ-Jesus movement from it.
What we know about the meaning of John’s baptizing is important for understanding the Jesus movement and the above passage from Mark’s gospel. John saw himself as part of a religious culture that was deeply sick, deeply estranged from its religious foundations, doomed in fact to be utterly destroyed along with that whole Imperial era in which it was tragically embedded. The Sadducees were thoroughly compromised with the curse of the Roman rule, the Zealots were trapped in serious anger and even military revolt against this unbeatable foe. The Pharisees were reducing the whole crisis to a set of superficial moralities, and the Essenes were escaping to a mystical dream land. These are my words, but I am attempting to picture how thoroughgoing John the Baptist was with his critique. He was washing people of their whole era of corruption. He was calling for a thoroughgoing repentance from the entire state of that religious people. Things were so bad in John’s view that he expected the Final Realty of cosmic history to clean house soon, to wash the world with a wrath only rarely experienced in the story of this religious people.
Jesus joined this movement. He came to John to be washed of his entire era. When John the Baptist was beheaded, Jesus picked up where John left off with his own style of response to these grim times. Jesus announced a dawning of a positive alternative; the Kingdom of God, he said, was arriving in the very ministry he was conducting. John was a forerunner of his work, but Jesus and his disciples viewed John as a fabulous forerunner. The washing of baptism remained as a ritual that Mark’s Christ-way movement was still performing. A washing of this entire evil era was still seen as the first step in the journey of spirit that Jesus was leading.
2. Literary Analysis
This passage is part of the opening pages of a new literary form—the gospel. Mark, we might say, invented the gospel. This writing is not a scientific history. It is not a fictitious novel. It is not a historical novel. It is a piece of theologizing put in the form of highly symbolic and artistically constructed narrative. This is a religious work with all sorts of fancy symbols: “up out of the water;” “the heavens split open;” “the Spirit coming down upon him like a dove;” “A voice came out of Heaven, saying, ‘You are my dearly-beloved Son.‘ “ These story elements are meant to get our attention, and to provoke us to ask this primary question: “Who is this guy, reality?”
3. Metaphorical Translation
Almost every phrase that Mark includes has some sort of secret meanings. “Up out the water” can pass unnoticed if we do not associate this immersion with dying to the evil era. If we do see the allusion to dying, then “up out of the water” is an allusion to resurrection. In this story Jesus is becoming the resurrected one.
“The heavens split open” is an even more cryptic piece of poetry to a modern person who does not know what to make of the word “heaven” and certainly finds it very odd to speak of seeing “the heavens split open.” Translating that phrase from its transcendence metaphorical imagination to an existential transparency type of poetry takes a bit of thoughtfulness. “Heaven” means the realm of Absolute Mystery, and Mark is picturing that dynamic as right above our heads. There is a sort of big punch bowl with stars on it and if that bowl were to split open we would see right into the Eternal heaven. I believe that Mark is thinking more metaphorically and less literally than that may sound; seeing into the Eternal is the meaning of the text. As Jesus comes up out of the watery tomb in which John has dunked him, the punch bowl of Awesome Absolute Mystery splits open. What a story!
Next, this profound-eyed person Mark sees another signal of profoundness: “the Spirit coming down upon him like a dove.” Spirit, for Mark, is the Absolute Mystery itself manifesting as a state of our whole life sometimes called “Wonder” or “Awe.” And for anyone who has the courage for a dreadful, fascinating state of Awe, this happening is a gentle thing, like a dove settling on your head or shoulder.
Finally, Mark gives us one more symbol for how this baptism was an outstanding event: “A voice came out of Heaven, saying, ‘You are my dearly-beloved Son.‘ “ We need not believe that a tape recorder would have heard this voice. Mark included this bit of poetic flair to complete his view of the significance of this baptism for this simple roof-repair man’s son from the nowhere of Nazareth. And what does “Son” mean here? It means that Jesus is having a new birth, not of a father in Nazareth, but of a Spirit from Eternity. This is Mark’s “virgin birth” narrative. Mark is implying a virgin birth for Jesus, a birth sired from heaven that was now taking over his whole life from his biological birth in Nazareth.
The Awed One (Jesus) is filled with Awe (Spirit) sourced from the Awesome (Eternal Mystery.) This whole secret Trinity of Divinity is happening among us, to us, to humanity in these opening pages of Mark’s story. For the rest of Mark’s strange narrative, Jesus is the washed one, the resurrected one, a beloved of Reality one who is born among us to lead us into our own profound humanness. For the rest of Mark’s gospel we will see what a person of resurrected humanity looks like—walking, talking, calling, teaching, healing, feeding, eating, celebrating, living, suffering, dying. Women coming to honor him in his tomb find nothing there but their own resurrection.
4. Word-of-God” Suggestions
So, what might this passage be saying to us today about the living of our own authentic lives and about the power of these Christian symbols for our own depth living? Perhaps we might give Christian symbols a second look. Perhaps we might view these long-preserved stories as being clues to our own most profound matters of living. Perhaps we might ask of Mark and other resurrected witnesses, what must we do to inherit this life abundant. Perhaps we are drawn to read further in Mark’s story to see where our own particular healing is required to be washed of our own grim era—washed in order for us to enter here and now into this communion of the saints, this Kingdom of God, this Reign of Reality, this commonwealth of profound realism. Perhaps such an enigmatic interior baptism is the first step for each of us in beginning a walk with Jesus for the rest of our own life story. Who knows what our next steps will be?
I am in the process of rewriting a detailed commentary of the Gospel of Mark. I have completed the last three chapters on crucifixion and resurrection. Here is the downloading code for those pages.