Reconsider Jesus – A fresh look at Jesus from the Gospel of Mark
A devotional commentary by Michael Spencer
Compiled and Edited by: Michael Bell
Table of Contents
The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God… Mark 1:1 – NIV
Every world religion has something to say about Jesus. To Islam he is a prophet. To Buddhism he is another enlightened one. To Judaism he is a good man but a false messiah. To Hinduism he is an avatar. To the New Age he is an example of Christ consciousness. Every political movement, cultural movement and effort to improve self or society borrows and reinvents Jesus. Even the hardened atheist must compare Jesus to other great historical figures to come to terms with him. How can we really come to terms with the question of truth if we haven’t made an effort to hear and understand Jesus for ourselves? How can we read and hear what others say about him if we haven’t sought him out in the pages of the first Gospel? The person who tires of hearing Christians go on and on about Jesus has no better response than to check out the primary sources and see just how the Jesus of modern Christianity harmonizes with the Christ of the first century.
The intent of the author of Mark was to introduce Jesus to a world that did not know him and already misunderstood him. That purpose still works today for anyone who is willing to invest the time. There is a timelessness to this Gospel that works for every reader. Whether you are coming to Mark as a devoted Christian, or a sincere Atheist, this short Gospel still communicates with clarity and vivid reality.
As a teacher, I suggest to my students that they do five readings of the Gospel, at least three in a familiar translation and the other two from something fresher and daring.2 Multiple readings allow for increasing familiarity, while different translations have the opportunity to surprise us with meanings. As you read, listen for the character and voice of Jesus as Mark presents him. At the same time, listen for the purposes and voice of Mark. He is inviting you into his story and you must be willing to go inside of the Gospel and not simply stand outside. This is a story of conflict and intense feelings. Dispassionate observation is impossible here. You will have to choose sides and be willing to be carried along to the ending.
Mark’s concern to identify Jesus will be seen throughout our study, but it is significant that he tells us that we begin to understand the story of Jesus not from the point of supposed neutrality, but from the point of faith. In the words of Augustine,3 “we believe in order that we may understand.” Mark begins his story with the ending already in hand. The reader of this Gospel is told up front and in loud tones that this is the story of the Son of God, Jesus the Messiah. He is inviting us to see for ourselves what this confession of faith means. Like a well-crafted sermon or speech, Mark starts with his “big idea” and then follows with the evidence to support his thesis. In contrast to this he also tells us that Jesus himself initially discourages some from announcing this truth.
So what is this Gospel, this good news that Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God? The first title Mark uses is the easiest to understand. “Messiah”, or its Greek equivalent “Christ”, means anointed one. The Jews of that historical time period were looking for God’s anointed one who would lead them in overthrowing the Romans and would restore his people. Jesus was certainly not the only candidate for Messiah in his time, but Mark says he is the real one, just not in the way that his fellow countrymen were expecting, as we will explore in greater detail later.
The title Son of God is more difficult for modern minds to understand. Son of God is not a term strictly of relation that applies to everyone, i.e. we are all God’s children. Neither is it a New Age idea of Jesus being a special avatar or appearance of divine consciousness. It is, first of all, an expression of the core fact observed about Jesus: He considered God to be his father in the most literal sense. He spoke of God as Abba or “daddy.”4 He prayed to the Father rather than to the many-titled God of the Judaism of his day. His teachings were premised upon this relationship.5 It was such a clear and unique affirmation that it was the basis for his trial.6 He experienced God as Father throughout his life in a way that was observable to others.
Son of God is also part of the Christian understanding of God as Trinity. This is revealed in scripture, rather than explained. In the baptism of Jesus,7 God is present as Father who speaks, Spirit who anoints and Son who is present with human beings. This is the Christian conception of God as revealed by Jesus. God is the Father/Creator, he is the Spirit who we experience and he is the person, Jesus, whom we see and hear. One God revealed in three persons. The beginning is about the Gospel of Jesus, not just the story of Jesus. Mark’s story puts the story of Jesus into a larger story which begins in Genesis and continues into the history of Mark’s own time. It is a story that continues in the lives of Mark’s first century readers, who are facing abundant bad news. And it is a story that intersects in the lives of those of us who read Mark today. As we discover that the Kingdom of God includes us and that faith lets us in, we find the “Good News” for ourselves.
 When teaching, Michael Spencer used the English Standard Version (ESV). In his writing he tended to use the New Living Translation (NLT) and in earlier years the New International Version (NIV). He would also quote from the Revised Standard Version (RSV) and New American Standard Bible (NASB). He recommended Phillips and The Message as alternatives. He also noted that he grew up with the King James Version and that it is the favorite translation of many of the churches in his area of Kentucky.
 Bishop Augustine of Hippo (A.D. 354-430) was an influential theologian and philosopher from North Africa.
 Mark 14:36
 Mark 11:25
 Mark 14:61 and following
 Mark 1:9-13
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34 thoughts on “Reconsider Jesus – The Beginning (Mark 1:1)”
You and *I*
If you go to Bible Gateway you can get a feel for the number of translations there are (though not all are present). There are now plenty in French. One of the ones you won’t see on there is the Chouraqui translation. Very interesting, but a hard read, it is as close to literal-but-comprehensible the translator could get. More useful for having familiar passages shock you back into attention than for devotional reading!
He seems a little contradictory in his video because he also says that a koine speaking Greek couldn’t order souvlaki.
Arianism and trinitism were, as I understand it, two sides of the same coin. All agreed that Jesus was the pre-existing divine Word incarnate on earth, but exactly how that worked was unclear. I have seen pre-Nicaea analogies where e.g. Jesus and the Holy Spirit were the “two hands” of God acting in the world, as an attempt to make sense of this, and this idea of Jesus as an active part of God, or a manifestation of God, or God but “sort of God and from God but not completely Him” seems to have been a very common view.
The problem was that when Christians sat down to do some serious theologising, they did so within the context of the dominant neoplatonist philosophy of the day. Neoplatonism distinguished between “the many” – the multitude of everything that exists (which included, the neoplatonists being pagans, the gods themselves) and “the One”, also called the “source of being” or “being itself”, which they conceived of a single, unitary force or origin or principle which was the source from which and out of which came everything else. For the neoplatonists this was essentially impersonal: it did not “exist” in the sense that created things existed, and was essentially immutable, unitary, universal and could have no parts or features or changes, but was what caused and drove everything else, and was what everything else revolved around.
Christians immediately identified the Jewish One God not as a divine being along the line of the polytheistic gods, but instead with the One origin of being / being itself. The problem is that in the overreaching neoplatonist mindset there is an absolute and complete qualitative distinction in kind between the One origin of being and anything and everything that is created by and derives from it. The One can have no parts or features or appendages, and nothing can be sort of it, or partly it, or be a feature or offshoot of it:: anything which is not the One wholly and completely is not the One at all.
This meant that it was eventually not possible to fudge the issue with analogies about Jesus being the hand of, or part of, or some feature of God – either Jesus was to be identified as wholly and completely God – albeit with a lot of theological gymnastics (trinitarianism) or was to be given the designation and honourifics of God because he was the first created being and at one will with God, and through him God created everything else, but in truth effectively a sort of superior kind of angel rather than God himself (Arianism).
Both were essentially innovations, but it was trinitarianism that eventually won.
The notion that modern Greeks can’t understand the Greek NT has been disproven by Pastor Steven Anderson of Faithful Word Baptist Church in Tempe, Arizona:
I gotta say that I firmly believe that some, maybe all heresies contain a fair amount of truth. The only reason they are called heresies is that they ran afoul of the thinking of the leadership of the church. So much of theology is a myriad of logic applied to a mystery. Well, if you get the mystery or the starting point wrong, your logic is wasted.
I am very excited about following along in this adventure and look forward to a book to purchase and read!
Oh boy you’re going to make me dig out my books. Perhaps this is worth a separate post? From memory – There were regions as late as the 7th century where Arianism dominated. Constantine’s son and successor Constantius II was an Arian. Eusebius, church Father and councilor to both Constantine and Constantius was an Arian. Odd if the Council of Nicaea settled the issue. Valens, a later emperor was an Arian. The churches in Alexander were dominated by Arians and because of their influence the view was dominant in the Eastern Mediterranean. Valens actually carried on an active attempt to spread Arianism westwards. The pagans in Spain, France and Italy (of course that wasn’t what they were called then) converted in the fourth and fifth centuries were converted by Arians.
My larger point is that the doctrines of the Church, including Trinitarianism, developed over time. Subordinationism, the idea that Jesus was divine but not coequal to the Father, had a long and distinguished pedigree. it was the view of the writers of the New Testament* and the early Church Fathers. I would simply ask that those who doubt this to read these ancient sources in their own context without Trinitarian biases.
*Even the view of the gospel of John, the most exalted Christology in the NT, is not Nicaean Trinitarianism.
When did the OSB come to include the OT? It only had the NT back in the day. Lots of unhappiness with its gloss on justification too, as I recall from a bible study down at St. Elias about 25 years ago…
And thanks for the details on the Spanish, Portuguese, and Greek translations, Burro.
And then there is Thomas near the end of John’s Gospel saying to Jesus, “My Lord and my God.”
Hello Mike Bell,
I agree with you, that Stephen’s understanding is different from what I have come to believe also. I would like to see Stephen’s resources also.
For a while, subordinationism became the rage among some evangelicals who insisted on believing in the ESS heresy (Eternal Subordination of the Son);
but after a while, the consensus of those who were respected among the evangelicals rejected the ESS movement as the resurrection of an ancient Christian heresy, one that the early Councils of the Church dealt with when they focused on ‘Who Christ Was’ and ‘The Doctrine of the Holy Trinity’.
Perhaps Stephen has found some of the early heretical teachings and thought that they were more widely accepted by the consensus of the whole Church,
but if so, I think he has missed some other information that might have changed his perspective. I cannot know this, but I suspect it may be the case.
BTW, that recent emergence of the ESS teaching was done to shore up some extreme portions of the fundamentalist doctrine of ‘the subordination of women to their husbands’. It didn’t work in the end, no.
“An interesting aside is that the Greeks despise the Masoretic Text, and stick to the LXX.”
For the uninformed, the LXX, more commonly known as the Septuagint, is a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament that was undertook some time in the third century BCE. The Masoretic text in a standardized form of the Hebrew Old Testament completed roughly 1500 years later. The question for scholars has been when “when you have differences between the two which do you trust more. The older Greek translation of the Hebrew or the newer Hebrew manuscript.” This is where the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls comes in, because they now gave you Hebrew manuscripts that were 1000 years older than what was previously known! A classic example of this would be the height of Goliath. The Septuagint had him at 6′ 9″. The Masoretic Text had him at 9′ 9″. The Dead Sea Scrolls end up as the tie breaker and have him at 6′ 9″.
This would be an example of a Hebrew text that originally had him at the shorter height when translated into Greek, and then the Hebrew text got corrupted over time.
Got it. Thanks.
Spanish, Portuguese, and Greek moderated.
Spanish has several very good translations. The ‘KJV’ is the Reformation-era version by Cassiodoro de Reina and Cipriano de Valera, now known as the Reina-Valera translation. It is translated into glorious Spanish, the Spanish of Lope de Vega and Cervantes. The best Catholic version is the Nacar-Colunga Bible, published in 1944, called ‘the Castilian Vulgate’, which should give you some idea of the esteem in which it is held. Other Protestant translations, such as the ‘Nueva Version Internacional’ (NIV wannabe) and ‘La Biblia de las Americas’ (NASB wannabe) haven’t gained much traction. You don’t tamper with perfection. Thus, Spanish evangelicals have a de facto standard for Church readings.
Among Portuguese speaking Evangelicals, the Bible of Joao de Ferreira e Almeida, also a Reformation-era translation, is completely universal. It exists in a continental Portuguese and a Brazilian Portuguese edition. The United Bible Society’s ‘A Biblia de Hoje’ (Good News wannabe) is popular. I never met a Brazilian Catholic who owned a Bible. If you think American Evangelicals are crazy and fascistic…
Every so often the Greeks play around with updating the Byzantine text they use with a modern translation. I am told that the Koine is practically gibberish to the Greek on the street, and the proponents of modernization claim that it would remove a barrier to church going among the increasingly secular, European-minded Greeks, but a trial run back in the 60s or 70s in a few parishes around Thessalonike didn’t go well, or so I am told. The Greek ‘nones-and-dones’ have bigger problems than just language. The maybe 300 Evangelicals in Greece use a UBS translation. I’m not sure what it is.
An interesting aside is that the Greeks despise the Masoretic Text, and stick to the LXX. The problem is that the Old testament of the Orthodox Study Bible, which translates the LXX into English, is kind of an insipid and wooden rendering. The Greek Archdiocese is sponsoring another translation of their text. Maybe it will better. I’m sure the Greeks will claim it is better.
You and me both, Mike!
“Trinitarianism, by the admission of its supporters, was the minority view in Christendom even after Nicaea.”
I would be interested in knowing if you have a source for this as it is different from what I have come to believe.
I want to say thanks for all the grammar lessons! I am doing lots of learning here!
What my Grandfather ended up doing was taking the original translation (whose understanding of the Greek and Hebrew was excellent) and compared it to the RSV (which in his mind was the best English translation available to him at the time) and married those two with his own knowledge of Bemba which was excellent. The reason for 6 revisions, is that the Bible went out to the various regions where various dialects of Bemba were spoken, and he would often have to find words that were common to all the dialects.
“the understanding of the Greek and Hebrew was excellent, but whose understanding of Bemba was horrible”
This is because the translator was on the wrong side. This is typical, and largely unavoidable with missionary translations. You generally are better off translating from a second language to your first one. That way you can puzzle through the language of the original, figure out what the author is saying, then convert it into your first language, whose idiom is ingrained in you. Go the other direction and you are likely to get the meaning spot on, but in a way that reads as stilted or just plain weird.
That said, here’s an example of where it reads fine just as is, no quote marks, no italics…
“The reader of this Gospel is told up front and in loud tones that this is the story of the Son of God, Jesus the Messiah.”
I agree with Stephen on the use of quotation marks in many, if not all, of the instances of “Son of God” in this portion of writing. You’re using “Son of God” as a term here, not as a book title or for emphasis.
1. It’s not that the Arians did not believe in the divinity of Jesus. They did. But they held onto the older view, the view of Paul and the view of the Church Fathers, what’s called Subordinationism. Jesus was divine but not coequal to God the Father. Trinitarianism, by the admission of its supporters, was the minority view in Christendom even after Nicaea. Trinitarianism won the day but it was long time before it was the dominant view.
2. I’m fascinated by problems of cultural translation. I remember the infamous story about the early missionary to one of the southeast Asian countries who was trying to translate the New Testament into the particular language of the people. The problem was that they had no idea what a sheep was so the concept of Jesus as the “Lamb” of God made absolutely no sense to them. Their animal was the pig. So the missionary quite practically translated the phrase as “Swine of God”. This caused no end of consternation among the missionary’s co-religionists but it got the point across well enough. Some concepts simply can’t be translated from one language to another. I often wonder what ideas we simply can’t fully grasp because we read in translation.
Thanks for the fuller explanation. OK, I understand your point now, and will look to make that change.
Ok here’s my thinking about titles. When you use them in the abstract sense, as a concept, then you use quote marks as you yourself did here-
The first title Mark uses is the easiest to understand. “Messiah”, or its Greek equivalent “Christ”, means anointed one.
If you wrote concretely – Jesus is the Messiah, or, Jesus is the Christ, then no quotes.
Here is an example where I would use the quote marks.
“Son of God” is also part of the Christian understanding of God as Trinity.
It is being used in the abstract conceptual sense. If you wrote – Jesus is the Son of God, then no quotes.
No problem is you don’t agree but that’s my thinking.
Hi Trevis, I update my comment, and properly linked it to your question. If you want to re-reply to my response with this comment to fix the chain, I could then delete this one.
Regarding your 2…
Oh, I totally grasp how fortunate I am to be in a world where we have zillions of translations, all available pretty much instantly over that Internet-thingy. And I personally never have had an issue with a Bible study devolving over translation discussions. As Michael Spencer suggests, that’s how “surprise” occurs.
Hi Trevis, thanks for the questions.
1. I can’t claim to know Michael Spencer’s mind on this. As for myself, the Deity of Christ has been of particular study interest of mine. (I even wrote a non published 30 day devotional on the topic.) There is a mistaken belief out there (and I am not saying that you have this belief) that the Deity of Christ was a later formulation of the church. But while there were groups like the Arians who did not hold that position, if you read the Ante-Nicean fathers (the writings from the first 300 years of Christianity) you find the Deity of Christ presented clearly over and over again. So to answer your question, I am not sure what Michael thought. In my mind Messiah and Son of God are very strong terms to be using and get you at least part way to that conclusion. I think the Gospel of John with it’s “I AM” statements in chapter eight, get you the rest of the way. “Unless you believe that ‘I AM’ you will die in your sins.” “Before Abraham was, I AM.”
2. My Grandfather was a Bible translator. He translated the Bible into Chibemba (or Bemba as it is more commonly known) the main trade language of Zambia. With the various revisions he typed through the Bible 7 times on a manual typewriter. There had been a prior translation, where the understanding of the Greek and Hebrew was excellent, but whose understanding of Bemba was horrible. There has since been a third translation that leaned on my Grandfather’s work. I am told that my Grandfather’s version is still in popular use over there. I agree with you though that we don’t appreciate how good we have it with all our Bible translations. If you were a Bemba speaker you didn’t have a very readable translation until my Grandfather finished his work in the 1950s.
–> “As a teacher, I suggest to my students that they do five readings of the Gospel, at least three in a familiar translation and the other two from something fresher and daring. Multiple readings allow for increasing familiarity, while different translations have the opportunity to surprise us with meanings.”
This is such good wisdom. Not only the re-reading multiple times, but doing so with different translations.
Familiarity – yes!
Surprise – yes!
For instance, I’ve discovered for myself that I like the way The Message translates certain chunks of scripture (its take on Matthew 11:28-30 is my favorite chunk of any scripture, any translation), while I don’t like it for other chunks. Overall, I much prefer NASB to any other translation because of its poetic feel (at least, that’s how I perceive it), but I find it falls short every now and then. NIV is a good “beginner” translation. King James… yeah, enough bashing of King James to go around because of how some people hold it as THE VERSION UBER ALLES, but even it has its moments of “greatness.”
And one would never discover these rooted only in one translation.
Yes, I agree that, Arianism’s popularity notwithstanding, most of the Christological and Trinitarian credal efforts were “mopping up operations.” There had to be some settled understanding at a practical level for there to even be such in-the-weeds theologizing going on at Nicea, after all, and this understanding surely went back well into the first century.
John does probably provide the “rest of the way” to full deity, so it may be asking too much of Mark on my part to see it there .. the down side of being such an early work, I suppose.
I am still very intersted in how the early church “moved the goalposts” in (re-)defining Messiahship. Modern Christians have to be reminded (typically at Christmas) that Jesus is the Messiah and that “Christ” isn’t His surname – so much has the deity of Christ subsumed the more particular role of Messiah.
I’ll keep on reading.
In my book version non-English words are italicized. This got missed when copying over to the blog. I will take better care on future posts. Thanks.
I don’t think I agree with you on the quotation marks around titles. To me that conveys a disagreement with the application of the title. I.E. He called himself the “Son of God”. Maybe others could weigh in on this.
When you’re referring to “Son of God” as a title you should probably put it in quote marks.
When you’re using a word from a foreign language like ‘Abba’ you should italicize it. That’s the convention anyway.
First of all, thank you so much for this labor (labour?) of love that you are undertaking. It is certainly both a love and a labor!
A couple questions come to mind as I read Spencer’s words.
1) Do you think the author understood Mark as conveying the idea of Jesus as divine explicitly, from Day One? Or do you think that Michael felt that the church, as it grew, came to _eventually_ understand Mark’s words as conferring divine status on Jesus, as later creeds said in so many words (and long after the church had come to that consensus).
2) Michael’s recommendation of looking at multiple translations is a good one. That said, do you think that most of us in the Anglosphere fail to grasp just how unique our situations is, with oodles and oodles of translations available? We have all had the experience of being at a Bible study which devolves into a round robin of “My translation says,…” Can any Francophone or Spanish speakers weigh in? (I assume that less common languages would have even fewer such resources than French, etc.)
I’ll ponder the post some more and probably post another question or two later.