John or Jesus?

Baptism-Jesus2 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way. 3 A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’”

We often interpret vv. 2-3 in light of Matthew and Luke where they clearly refer to John the Baptist. John is presented before the OT quotes are given. However, in Mark, the only person who has been named prior to the quotes is Jesus. Note also, for those who have difficulty memorizing scripture, Mark’s quote is a hybrid: v. 2 seems to come from Ex 23:20 (LXX) and Mal 3:1 (MT) and v. 3 from Isaiah 40:3, but not quoted exactly.

Some scholars do some interesting investigation based on the phrase “As it is written” (kathos gegraptai) that begins v.2. They note that such a phrase is never used at the start of a new sentence in the Septuagint (LXX) or the New Testament. But that when it is used, the phrase is an introductory formula, bridging what has preceded and the quotation that follows. The only preceding person is Jesus. Grammatically, this means that vv. 2-3 should be connected Jesus rather than John the Baptist. While that is all well and good, ones must be aware the Luke spends a lot of effort fixing Mark’s grammar when he seems to take over Mark’s narrative.

Perhaps a better perspective comes from understanding that the proper context for understanding the gospel is the promise of future salvation found in the latter half of Isaiah. The citation in vv.2-3 is a composite quotation from Ex. 23:20; Mal. 3:1 and Isa. 40:3. It evokes the image of the forerunner Elijah. In the exegetical tradition of the rabbis these texts had already been combined, in the conviction that the “messenger of the covenant” (Ex. 23:20) is Elijah (Mal. 3:1; 4:5).

Mark’s first statement is from the Law, and agrees verbatim with the text of Ex. 23:20 in the Septuagint. It is enriched by a formulation originating in the Hebrew text of Mal. 3:1, although the first person has been altered to the second in the interest of the messianic interpretation of the passage. It is important to note that all three OT passages, blended in this fashion, are all related to the wilderness tradition and have a significant function in the prologue itself. Ex. 23:20 contains God’s promise to send his messenger before the people on a first exodus through the wilderness to Canaan. In Isa. 40:3 the messenger announces the second exodus through the wilderness to the final deliverance prepared for God’s people. In both the citation from “the Law and the Prophets” the theme of an exodus through the wilderness is dominant and appropriate to Mark’s purpose. The blended citation functions to draw attention to three factors which are significant to the evangelist in the prologue: the herald, the Lord and the wilderness. In the verses which immediately follow, the significance of each of these elements is emphasized by Mark who sees in the coming of John and Jesus to the wilderness the fulfillment of the promised salvation of which the prophet Isaiah had spoken. In stressing the element of fulfillment at the beginning of his account Mark conforms the narrative to the apostolic preaching, in which the theme of fulfillment was of strategic importance.

Notes

Mark 1:2 the prophet Isaiah. The passage names Isaiah in the introductory formula and cites wording from Exod 23:20, Mal 3:1, and Isa 40:3. Malachi 3 speaks of a prophet to come like Elijah (also 4:5–6), while Exod 23 points to a messenger (lit., “angel”) who leads the way. After the citation, Mark comments only on the portion from Isaiah that describes activity “in the wilderness,” which explains his introductory formula. This is the only OT citation made by the narrator in this Gospel (the other OT citations in this Gospel are made by Jesus).

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