So here’s the plan: each week that the gospels are covered in Sunday School, I will post one question from my book along with a brief discussion of the issues that it raises.
The Question: Notice that Mark first introduces Jesus at his baptism. In what ways does this create a different impression of Jesus than Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels, which introduce Jesus as an infant? Why didn’t Mark include a nativity story?
(adapted from Search, Ponder, and Pray: A Guide to the Gospels)
So I’ve raised this issue in previous lessons: taking the New Testament seriously means taking seriously the fact that we have not one but rather four accounts of Jesus’ life and, while sharing broad themes and events, they also differ substantially in details and emphases.
This lesson covers the ministry of John the Baptist, Jesus’ baptism, and Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness. It is also precisely the point at which Mark’s Gospel begins.
Now, some scholars over-read a bit, I think, to conclude that Mark either didn’t know about or was actively denying the idea of a virgin birth (and wise men, angels appearing to shepherds, etc.). But that’s an argument from silence. It’s possible, but it is also possible that Mark simply chose not to mention these things because they didn’t contribute to the story that he wanted to tell.
What story was he trying to tell? Well, there is general agreement that a big (if not the biggest) theme in Mark is discipleship. And thus it makes perfect sense to begin not with a baby (who can’t be a disciple) but rather with John and a baptism and a temptation. This is what discipleship looks like: it looks like John’s ministry, it looks like getting baptized, it looks like getting tempted. This is an important point: the way Mark tells it, the inevitable and immediate result of Jesus’ baptism is that Jesus is thrust out into the wilderness so that he can be tempted. Choosing baptism means choosing temptation. Being baptized means being tempted. Temptation is, to borrow a phrase from the geek world, not a bug but a feature.
Note that in Mark, there are not three temptations. Jesus is just tempted. I think this is important because I worry that “the three temptations” makes people think that after this event, Jesus was no longer tempted. But I think that’s a misreading, at least for Mark, who will use the same word for “tempted” three other times in Jesus’ life. In other words, the scene in the wilderness after Jesus’ baptism in Mark is not “The Temptation of Jesus” but rather “The First [Narrated] Temptations of Jesus.” Jesus was tempted throughout his mortal life; we can expect no less. And we are no more sinning when we are tempted than he was. This is just what discipleship looks like.
And one more thing: this post and the article it cites push back against what the manual has to say about Zacharias. (That said, in general, I do not advocate contradicting the manual; I would probably just avoid this topic–it isn’t really germane to the main thrust of the lesson in any case.)