Commentary: Mark 1:4-11part 2
Mark 1:4-11 contains the earliest surviving written account of Jesus' baptism, assuming the priority of Mark and its use as a source for Matthew and Luke as most scholars do today. The Matthean and Lucan accounts thus derive from Mark, and the Johannine account shows itself secondary even at the literary level, for in the fourth gospel we read no direct account of Jesus' baptism, only John the Baptist's latest testimony about that event.
The passage opens with the appearance of John the Baptist (v. 4a). The NRSV and RSV both call him "John the Baptizer," reflecting the textual choice to include the article ho and eliminate the awkward "and" that does however seem to belong in the text. His appearance in the wilderness seems abrupt in this gospel, where we find no account of his conception and birth as we do in the third gospel.
Did John have some connection with Qumran? Many have thought so, based on several parallels. Both John and the people of Qumran withdrew to the wilderness. Both held apocalyptic notions. Both lived ascetic lives, and both practiced ritual washings. The similarities appear superficial, however John's life outside the mainstream of Judean society—perhaps connected with the tradition that he was a Nazirite (Luke 1:15, 7:33)—looks quite different from the communal monasticism of Qumran. Moreover, the water rituals at Qumran, frequently repeated, have no apparent connection with John's presumably onetime baptism. Naturally we cannot rule out the possibility that John had contact with Qumran, but any close parallels between the two remain speculative at present.
The text describes John's mission in compact terms (vv. 4b-5). The phrase "baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" does not explain much except that John called for repentance and people underwent baptism in response to the proclamation, expecting to have their sins forgiven. Specifically, the phrase "for the forgiveness of sins" might apply to the act of baptism, to the repentance or, most likely, to the whole process. The large number of Judeans and people of Jerusalem who submitted to his baptism shows John's success.
John's dress and diet illustrate his self-denying lifestyle (v. 6). A garment of "camel's hair" may refer to woven cloth, or perhaps camel hide. Some connect this garment with Elijah's distinctive prophetic dress (2 Kgs 1:8, 2:8, 13-14). A diet of "locusts and wild honey" shows that John ate what he could forage in the wilderness instead of "eating bread or drinking wine" (Luke 7:33) like people who lived settled lives.
Besides repentance and baptism, John's message included the proclamation of a coming savior (vv. 78). "More powerful" than John, the savior would rank so high that John felt unworthy to perform even the most menial task for him.
John baptized people "with" or "in" water (v. 9). The Greek preposition en gives no help in the discussion of the mode of baptism, for it could describe either the instrument ("with") or the location ("in") of the baptism. Other New Testament references (e.g. Rom 64), and the derivation baptizō itself, point to immersion as the earliest mode of baptism, which gives point to John's comparison. As John has plunged people into the waters of baptism, so God will immerse his people in the Holy Spirit.
This baptism in the Holy Spirit serves as one of several biblical metaphors for God's action in sharing his supernatural life with his people. The Spirit also appears as a "gift" (Acts 2:38), something "poured out" (Joel 2:29, Acts 2:17, 33), something that "fell upon" people (Acts 10:44), and even something believers "drink" (1 Cor 12:13). John contrasts the natural, water baptism with the supernatural, spiritual event.
Jesus' baptism comes at the start of the second gospel (v. 9), suggesting that the writer saw it as the inaugurating event of Jesus' ministry. Unlike the gospel of John, which includes an early Judean ministry, the gospel of Mark describes only Jesus' journey from Galilee to John's location, and his baptism, before removing the scene to Galilee. Mark also does not contain the Matthean tradition of John's hesitancy to baptize Jesus. In various ways the other gospel writers go out of their way to show Jesus superior to John (Mt 3:14-15, 11:1-19 par. Luke 7:18-35, John 1:19-36; 3:25-30, 5:36, 10:41). Mark, however, says little, moving John off stage quickly by recording his arrest as soon as he baptizes Jesus (1:14) and then telling of John's death only in flashback (6:14-29).
The descent of the Spirit onto Jesus (v. 10) marks him as the one who will "baptize with the Holy Spirit" (v. 8). The voice of God from heaven (v. 11) marks Jesus as God's beloved Son and expresses God's pleasure in Jesus' obedience. The stage is set for Jesus' ministry, for by his obedience and anointing with God's spirit he has demonstrated his nature as son of God and prepared himself for his role as savior.
Carl B. Bridges