Mark begins his writing with a statement by the narrator: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ (the Son of God).” For the people in Mark’s narrative the realization of who Jesus is will come only in starts and stops. As readers of this gospel, right from the beginning, we are given the answer to the question, “Who is he?” We already know this is narrative is good news for us; news about what will happen to us and for us. Yet even as the opening answers big questions, we are left with other important questions, ones that will help us to plumb the depth of this good news.
Question 1: What is the “beginning of the gospel”? Is the beginning just the prologue (vv. 1-13 or vv. 1-15 where the word euaggelion forms “bookends”)? Is the entire book the beginning of the Gospel? There are approximately 10 different scholarly positions on this simple phrase. For my own part, given Mark’s pattern of moving the narrative along with little gloss, enhancement, or embellishment, I think Mark’s intention seems best seen by reading vv. 1–4 as follows: the good news concerns Jesus the Christ, but it begins with the wilderness prophet John. The word “beginning” (archē ) has biblical suggestion which lend an grand ring to the opening phrase – just as John the Evangelist opens with “In the beginning…” Each usage serves to recall that it is God who initiates redemption and salvation. Mark might begin with John the Baptist and his wilderness prophetic role, but it only serves to point to the activity of God in providing salvation for all people. The prophetic testimony cited in vv. 2–3 finds its fulfillment both in the ministry of John and in the coming of Jesus into the wilderness. The emphasis thus falls upon the unity of God’s action in its historical unfolding; the whole complex of events from the appearance of John to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry is a single movement, the beginning of the gospel.
Question 2: What is the “gospel” (good news) of Jesus Christ? R.T. France (The Gospel of Mark, NIGTC, 53) writes about the grammar: “The genitive [Jesus Christ] may, in theory, be read either as subjective (‘the gospel proclaimed by Jesus Christ’) or objective (‘the gospel about Jesus Christ’). Some commentators take up positions on one side or the other, but most prefer to have it both ways” . While France thinks it is more natural to read the genitive as objective and notes that it is the more normal usage in the rest of the NT, he also notes that vv. 14-15 make clear that the good news is also preached by Jesus.
Schweizer (The Good News According to Mark) states: “The Greek word euaggelion denotes ‘good news,’ primarily of a victory in battle. This term figures prominently in stories of the lives of the Roman emperors who were honored as gods” (p. 30). James Edwards (The Gospel According to Mark, 24) expands on Schweizer’s comments:
In 9 B.C., within a decade of Jesus’ birth, the birthday of Caesar Augustus (63 B.C. – A.D. 14) was hailed as euangelion (pl.). Since he was hailed as a god, Augustus’ “birthday signaled the beginning of Good News for the world.” In the Greco-Roman world the word always appears in the plural, meaning one good tiding among others; but in the NT euangelion appears only in the singular: the good news of God in Jesus Christ, beside which there is no other. The concept of “good news” was not limited to military and political victories, however. In the prophet Isaiah “good news” is transferred to the inbreaking of God’s final saving act when peace, good news, and release from oppression will be showered on God’s people (Isa 52:7; 61:1-3). For Mark, the advent of Jesus is the beginning of the fulfillment of the “good news” heralded by Isaiah.”
Robert Fowler’s Let the Reader Understand: Reader-Response Criticism and the Gospel of Mark stresses that first century rhetoric was meant to do something to the hearers. He offers this comparison:
At the most superficial level, the aims of the joke and of the Gospel of Mark are similar: both seek to do something to the hearer or reader. In particular, both stories use covert means to induce an understanding or a belief in the reader or hearer. What they then do with the belief they have elicited differs immensely. The joke induces a belief to deceive the hearer only momentarily, until the deception is dropped and the belief exploded in an instant of comic revelation. The Gospel of Mark is also designed to elicit belief, but a belief that bids to have a profound and lasting significance for the reader’s life and to persist long after the initial encounter with the story. In other words, both stories use the rhetorical resources of narrative to affect the reader, but the aim of Mark’s Gospel is more difficult to achieve. The joke is designed to seduce us temporarily; the Gospel is designed to seduce us permanently [p. 10]
Brian Stoffregen writes:
I think that euaggelion is word that evokes a response. It is like shouting, “We won!” or “Victory is ours.” When game show contestants are told that they’ve won, there is shouting and jumping and waving of arms. The words are more than just information. They are an event that engulfs the hearers.
What if these opening words were paraphrased: “The beginning of the victory of Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God”? How might that color our reading/hearing of the rest of the story? I think that, among other things, we might be better able to see the many ironies in this story of Jesus – the many times when the victor appears much more like a victim.
Perhaps Mark’s already anticipates how many times the disciples will not understand the terms “Christ” and “Son of God” and this purposely used euaggelion at the beginning to remind them all that happens is “good news.”
[Question Three in tomorrow’s post….]
Mark 1:1 The beginning: The Greek archē (beginning) always signifies ‘primacy’ whether a) of time: beginning (origin), b) of place: point of origin or departure, or c) of rank: power, dominion, kingdom, office. Where it is used in the temporal sense of the point at which something begins, this point can be thought of as included in the temporal process or as prior, external to, and as the source and origin.