The Relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus in the Gospel of Mark

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The Relationship between John the Baptist and Jesus in the Gospel of Mark:

A Postcolonial Interpretation from a Chinese Malaysian Context

Menghun Goh

Vanderbilt University

In this paper, I will show how the representation of John the Baptist (called John from now on) changes over time in an honor-and-shame1 Jewish culture, especially in the broader context of power struggles in the Roman Empire.2 I will focus my cross-cultural reading on Mark 1:9-11 and 2:18-22 which deal with John’s relationship with Jesus. The language of power relation is important in my postcolonial interpretation as the issue of center versus periphery is a very sensitive concern in Malaysian (a multi-religious and multi-racial3 Islamic nation) Chinese honor-and-shame society. My main inquiry in this paper is that if, as I will argue, Mark does not present John as recognizing Jesus’ mission and as testifying for him, why do we have such a high regard for John in Christian traditions?4 This is an important question for us, Malaysian Chinese Christians who read Mark in this way. To what extent do Malaysian Chinese Christians simply accept and incorporate Western Christian traditions and interpretations of John into their own understanding of John in Mark? Is our portrayal of John colored by the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John? If so, are we projecting upon Mark our readings of the Gospels? Also, to what degree did the notion that Mark was an abbreviation of Matthew influence our interpretation of Mark? If the answers to these questions are positive, at least before the scrutiny of modern biblical criticism, then are we not sidelining Mark and refuse to let Mark be Mark? In other words, are we not marginalizing Mark? What are we missing by refusing to let Mark be Mark? By ignoring the ambiguous and ambivalent portrayal of John’s relationship with Jesus in Mark, and adopting a “normalized” image of John, while Mark seems to be telling us a much more complicated picture of John, we are missing a teaching that is potentially most significant for us, in our Malaysian Chinese context still framed and marked by (neo)colonialism.5

What is a postcolonial interpretation?

At the risk of oversimplification, a postcolonial interpretation concerns with how the center is established at the expense of the other.6 It is an effort that seeks to decenter the center so that there can be either no one fixed center or, more realistically, many centers coexisting simultaneously. Hence, in my interpretation of John, I am not arguing for a more accurate portrayal of John within a collective honor-and-shame culture but I am offering another potential image of John from my Chinese Malaysian interpretation.

The critique against the center is important because it can prevent the normalization of certain sociopolitical structure and culture that demand everything else to be defined and operated in relation to the center.7 Once a center is established, not only will all differing and dissident voices be systematically considered as rebellious, illegal, and abnormal, they will also be forced to express their complaints and protests through the voice and system created by the center. Consequently, the center becomes the indisputable rightful center without feeling the needs to justify its seemingly innate status and privileges. A postcolonial interpretation, however, does not aim to just deconstruct and expose the unjust principle and relationship between the center and the margin/periphery. It also seeks to end this kind of inhumane relationship and to empower both the oppressed and the oppressor to move towards a more wholesome relationship in respecting each other’s differences and letting the other be the other.8

The reflection of postcolonial interpretation in Mark

For the purpose of my interpretation of John in Mark, I will first look at the representation of power relations in the text. If the Gospel does allude to the language of domination, resistance and liberation,9 which I argue that it does, then how does Mark portray John’s prominent religio-sociopolitical status10 in light of his own oppressed and persecuted community11? In postcolonial language, does Mark display a sense of attraction and yet alienation with the John movement? Because while Mark accepts John’s authority (1:2-8; 11:27-33), he remains silent about John’s recognition of Jesus’ mission and even suggests dispute between John’s disciples and the Jesus group (2:18).

Indeed, the complexity of power relations is reflected throughout the Gospel. Simon Samuel, for instance, argues that Mark 1:1 – “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ (Son of God)”12 – could have appealed to both Jewish and non-Jewish audience, as words like “the beginning,” “good news,” “Christ” and “Son of God” had both Jewish eschatological and Roman imperialistic connotation related to the inauguration of a new era by a new king. According to Samuel, this verse is an indication of “a pro or anti-colonial response to Rome or as an ambivalent affiliative-disruptive postcolonial response to both the Roman colonial and the native Jewish nationalistic and collaborative discourses of power.”13 With so many aspects of power relations show in the beginning of the Gospel,14 Mark tries to present an alternative community centering on “Jesus Christ, the Son of God” to an audience, which was familiar with both Jewish and Roman sociopolitical ideologies, or at least with one of the two. At the same time, Mark’s text is also ambivalent with this tactic; the Gospel can, thus, be read as both an affiliative and disruptive discourse vis-à-vis the powerful.

This form of resistance to the dominant group is also made explicit in Stephen Moore’s analysis of Jesus exorcising the demon-possessed man in Gerasenes (Mark 5:1-5). Moore argues that the name of the demon “Legion” in 5:9 is a “hermeneutical key” in the text to underline Roman’s colonial occupation of Palestine as a demonic possession that Jesus cast out.15 Jesus’ pronouncement in Mark, “the things of Caesar give to Caesar and the things of God give to God” (12:17), is another challenge to the Empire because “in according with Israelite tradition and theology, everything belongs to God, nothing is due to Caesar.”16 This type of anti-colonial discourse (6:14-28; 10:35-45; 12:13-17; 13:9; 15:1-26) is, however, subtle, compared to the harsh antagonism against local Jewish leaders and elites who were associated with the temple (Mark 13). This invective language against local ruling class (3:22-30; 7:5-13; 11:15-17; 12:9-12; 12:38-40; 13:1-31) is perhaps Mark’s attempt to blame the Empire’s less powerful agents for social oppression, as they were a less threatening target to aim at.17

By employing the symbolic imagery of the withered fig tree and the collapse of the heavenly bodies in Mark 1318 and by portraying Jesus as “the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and honor” (13:26) who sends his angels/messengers to gather “his chosen out of the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of heaven” (13:27), Mark is then creating an alternative community to both the one offered by the Jewish local elites and the Empire. The problem is, however, the power structure of this community seems to mimic the one that it tries to overthrow. According to Moore, by depicting Jesus as the divine authority, Mark mirrors “Roman imperial ideology, deftly switching Jesus for Caesar,”19 an imitation displaying the colonized’s reaction of “simultaneous attraction and repulsion” toward the Empire.20 In short, as Mark tried to talk back to the Empire, he replicated the Empire language and structure in presenting the Jesus group as the new Empire, an (unfortunate?) tactic Tat-siong Benny Liew also underlies from his diasporic interpretation of Mark.21

Reading Mark from an apocalyptic setting, Liew argues that with Jesus being described as the Son of God, the Gospel is saying that no political or religious power can claim authority over the Jesus group. In fact, while Jesus is presented as an authority against his opponents when it comes to interpreting the Hebrew Bible, Jesus “as God’s beloved Son and heir”22 is not “subjected to the authority of Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus becomes his own authority to give pronouncements that ask for decision without discussion.”23 Hence, although Mark deconstructed Roman and Jewish leadership, he created another “hierarchical community structure… [with Jesus] at the pinnacle of the hierarchy of his household, just as the Gentile or Roman rulers are at the pinnacle of their hierarchy of power, ‘lording over’ and ‘exercising authority over’ (10:42) those who rank below them.”24 In his critique of Mark’s imitation of Rome’s ideology, Liew therefore comments that,

Authority is (over)powering. It demands the submission of everybody, and thus also the annihilation of those who do not submit. In other words, vindication must become vindictive. The problem is that by defeating power with more power, Mark is, in the final analysis, no different from the ‘might-is-right’ ideology that has led to colonialism, imperialism and various forms of suffering and oppression. Mark’s Jesus may have replaced the ‘wicked’ Jewish-Roman power, but the tyrannical, exclusionary and coercive politics goes on.25
While the Gospel may have imitated the power language of the Empire, we also need to consider the misunderstanding, questioning, and even rejection of Jesus’ authority by his family (3:20-21), disciples (8:33), and others (1:45; 5:17; 6:3). Mark does not present a univocal (re)presentation. Therefore, Liew made it clear that his interpretation comes from his “commitments and investments [that] are characterized by a diasporic sensibility that ‘make[s] room for reciprocal critique and multiple commitments.’”26 It seems, as Liew is aware, that his reading may offend others, especially ordinary readers who treat the Bible as the Holy Scripture.

As sociologist Peter Berger has argued, not only our society “structures, distributes, and co-ordinates [our] world-building activities,”27 it also guards the “order and meaning not only objectively, in its institutional structures, but subjectively as well, in its structuring of individual consciousness.”28 In other words, “individual is socialized to be a designated person and to inhabit a designated world.”29 Thus, if “individual becomes that which he is addressed as by others,”30 can we be too critical in criticizing the mimicry of power language adopted by Mark? Even if Markan Jesus may have the ultimate authority in the parousia, his authority is still understood within the context of suffering and cross. In fact, it seems that as Mark mimics the power language employed by the Empire, he also exposes and, moreover, transforms the connotation of such power language. To some degree, to demand the Gospel to address all issues without using the language of its time can also be a colonizing move. At the same time, however, I also appreciate Liew’s concern and critique because “colonial mimicry” – the replacement of one power structure with another of similar nature – will only extend the existing problem that marginalizes the other who is different from the center.

Given this power struggle language in Mark, we can say that the Gospel as a postcolonial writing was responding and reflecting its tactics to deal with the imperial-colonial power. This postcolonial interpretation, however, is often sidelined in traditional North-Atlantic scholarship. For to be aware of the oppressive power relations, ones have to, at least, feel or experience the pain, torn and suffering felt by the victims of marginalization caused by the center’s domination. But as Liew suggested, “because of the West’s conventional identification with Rome, its habitual antagonism against Jewish cultures and its grandiloquent separation of politics and religion, Markan studies tend to focus on either first-century religious conflicts between Jews and Christians or other contemporary questions of ‘faith.’”31 But are politics and religion always separated? In ancient Mediterranean, religion “was an overarching system of meaning that unified political and kinship systems (including their economic aspects) into an ideological whole. It served to legitimate and articulate (or delegitimate and criticize) the patterns of both politics and family.”32 Moreover, as the term “religion” is a modern Western sociopolitical construct,33 can we then spiritualize the power relation in Mark and neglect the economic and sociopolitical conflicts between the center and the margin?34

Spiritualization, however, is the popular interpretation of John’s relationship with Jesus among many Malaysian Chinese Christians. John is always portrayed as a very pious and self-denial forerunner and even a martyr in the line of duty preparing the path for Jesus. John might have doubted Jesus’ mission in Matthew, but his doubt was for the benefits of his disciples so that Jesus could tell them that he was the Messiah. John might continue to have his own group of disciples working next to Jesus’, especially in the Fourth Gospel, but there was no conflict between John and Jesus movements, albeit we wonder why the two were not combined as one. John’s priestly family might be related to Jesus’ poor family in Luke, and that in an honor-and-shame communal society, the former should be of great help to the latter, but the absence of communication and relationship between the two families in an honor-and-shame communal society did not arouse much curiosity among Malaysian Chinese Christians, who also live in an honor-and-shame communal society. It appears that John and Jesus were treated as independent individuals apart from their community. This kind of interpretation focusing on individuals is not uncommon in Western Christian traditions and North-Atlantic scholarship. Do Malaysian Chinese Christians also receive, internalize and make such interpretations their own interpretations, despite their own cultural and sociopolitical contexts that demand different kinds of interpretations?

John’s relationship with Jesus in Mark: a postcolonial interpretation?35

A quick glance at the representation of John’s relationship with Jesus in North-Atlantic scholarship will show that scholars are mostly concerned with the historical Sitz im Leben and hence the original meaning(s) of the biblical texts. To some degree, this search for a scientific, critical and objective interpretation of the texts reveals the uneasy, if not combative, relationship between the Church and the State as well as between Christianity and non-European cultures and “religions,” a tension that we know became prominent since European’s Enlightenment. But interpreting Mark from a communal-interpersonal relationship within an honor-and-shame culture where one’s success is tied to one’s close relationship with each other, not just the ingroup, I find that such search and construction of an autonomous identity and self in Western cultures, an identity sometimes deliberately independent of Church, a bit foreign to my context.

For instance, influenced by European Enlightenment that focused on scientific reasoning and natural laws, Reimarus argued that John and Jesus were two cousins planning a political scheme to establish an earthly reign of God. At Jesus’ baptism, John “act[ed] as though he only became aware of his [i.e., Jesus] existence through divine revelation.”36 So, while John prepared people to accept Jesus’ Messiahship, Jesus in turn praised John highly and validated his divine mission.37 Reading through the suspicious lens about the authoritative role of Church in society, Remairus thus interpreted John and Jesus as two collaborators trying to validate the legitimacy of each other.38 While this indictment may be a bit too harsh, later scholars did point out that Jesus was initially part of the John’s movement. Carl Kraeling, for example, argues that as John’s disciple, Jesus accepted his proclamation of “the imminence of the divine judgment and the need for decision, repentance and Abrahamic piety.”39 Different from John, however, Jesus believed that “God’s saving will was already in action.”40 In fact, instead of a fiery judgment as preached by John, Jesus was proclaiming God’s mercy in God’s judgment.41 This sharp difference in understanding God’s judgment seems to suggest that John did not really recognize and acknowledge the messiahship of Jesus.42 In spite of this different theology, Jesus still respected John (Mark 11:27-33). Here, we can see that scholars try to maintain a still-good relationship between John and Jesus, despite their separation. However, in a communal society, what does a separation between two groups connote? Maurice Goguel, therefore, suggests an ugly split between the two. As Jesus considered “the message of John the Baptist was incomplete and therefore ineffective,”43 John saw Jesus as “an unfaithful disciple and almost a renegade.”44 The two may go their own ways, but what about their disciples? How would the society view the groups?

Across the aisle of scholars who assert that Jesus was initially a disciple of John, Gunther Bornkamm and Joan Taylor argue otherwise. Bornkamm wrote, Jesus “did not begin his work as a disciple of John and did not directly continue John’s work… he never oppose him. He acknowledged John and related his own vocation with that of the Baptist.”45 In fact, John played an important part in Jesus movement despite the difference between them in eschatological timeline was “like that between the eleventh and the twelfth hours”46 – John as the crucial link between “the time of preparation for the end and Jesus the bringer of the time of rejoicing.”47 Likewise, Joan Taylor thinks that although “Jesus was without a doubt deeply impressed by John and sought to follow his example and his teaching, bringing the same message of the coming of the kingdom of God and urgency of repentance,”48 “it cannot be argued that Jesus simply continued John’s message as a disciple; Jesus was a ‘prophet’ in his own right, legitimated by God (in his own experience) at his immersion by John.”49 Hence, Jesus seems to “believe that he and John were acting in union as agents of God.”50

Whether Jesus was a disciple of John and whether the split between John and Jesus was not hostile, we cannot treat John and Jesus apart of their communities. If John and Jesus were in good terms with each other, the two groups should be in good terms as well. After all, John was a very honorable teacher or prophet in the society; otherwise Mark would not have begun his Gospel with him,51 let alone to have Jesus recognized his mission and accepted his baptism. Yet, the existing tension between the movements of John and Jesus is not negligible.

In Mark, John’s role, in comparison with other canonical Gospels, was relatively short and was curtailed rather early (1:14). John functions more like a symbolic figure with ephemeral stage appearance. Even when John the forerunner was said to have testified for Jesus (1:7-8), Mark does not indicate that he recognized Jesus as “the one stronger than me [John] comes after me” (Mark 1:7). The spiritual vision and voice in Mark 1:10-11 were addressed to Jesus alone, personally. The good news may begin with John and hence indicates his tremendous importance as the herald of the good news,52 but John did not know that Jesus was the Messiah.53 So, what was Mark trying to say about John, as it seems rather ambiguous, and at times ambivalent?54 Focusing on Mark 2:18-22, I wonder whether the Gospel, within an honor-and-shame culture, was trying to, albeit suggestively (and perhaps reflecting a particular historical situation), group John’s disciples and the Pharisees together as a foil to the Jesus movement.

A postcolonial contextual interpretation of John55

I emphasize the values of honor and shame in my postcolonial interpretation because the place of honor, and hence the public or divine recognition of one’s status, plays a huge role in the construction and maintenance of center versus margin. To observe this power relation in Mark, we need to consider the role of honor in the Gospel. First of all, the fact that John had his own disciples signifies that John and Jesus groups were not working together; if there were, there would be only one group of disciples, called either John’s or Jesus’ disciples. I referred to Peter Berger’s work earlier. It is useful to note his emphasis on the fact that if “individual becomes that which he [or she] is addressed as by others,”56 then he/she is “always in relation with and connected to at least one other social unit, usually a group.”57 In other words, people “define themselves rather exclusively in terms of the groups in which they [are] embedded; their total self-awareness emphatically depends upon such group embeddedness.”58 Hence, individuals are identified and understood in terms of the groups to which they belong or not belong to. Members within the same group “owe loyalty, respect, and obedience of a kind which commits their individual honor without limit and without compromise.”59 It is, therefore, interesting to read that, in the Fourth Gospel, John’s two disciples followed Jesus only after John’s testimony of Jesus (John 1:35-36; cf. 3:22-26); in this way, the integrity and honor of both the John and Jesus movement could be preserved.

Once we understand how ingroups and outgroups function in a communal society, then the term “disciple” in Mark 2:18, as Robert Bratcher pointed out, “should be taken not to use a word that means only ‘students’ or ‘learners,’ as though they were students in school. ‘Followers’ or ‘helpers’ or even ‘apprentices’ would be preferable.”60 In fact, the word “disciple” (maqhth,j) shows the intimate relationship and loyalty between the teacher and student of the group. Joan Taylor argues that in the New Testament, maqhth,j “always implies the existence of a personal attachment which shapes the whole life of the one described as maqhth,j and which in its particularity leaves no doubt as to who is deploying the formative power.”61 Therefore, “the control of the maqhta,i by the man to whom they have committed themselves extends in the NT to the inner life.”62 This picture of the disciples closely related and influenced by their teacher also corresponds to my understanding of an honor-and-shame society. In a Confucian saying, “even if someone is your teacher for only a day, you should always regard him as your father for the rest of your life.” Given this understanding of honor, we can then examine whether Mark was trying have John testified for Jesus or make John part of the Jesus movement or subjugate John movement under Jesus movement.

Was John part of the Jesus movement?

While the academy is generally neutral in its assessment of John, Christianity at the popular level is never ambiguous about its veneration of John. John’s fate is even said to forecast Jesus’ fate in which the passion of John is described as the model for the passion of Jesus.63 In his literary study of the characters in Mark, Jack Kingsbury wrote,

In Mark’s story, then, John is the “forerunner” of Jesus who readies Israel for Jesus’ coming. As forerunner, however, John is more than merely the temporal predecessor of Jesus. Indeed, in his own person and fate he foreshadows the person and fate of Jesus. To illustrate, both John and Jesus are sent by God in fulfillment of OT prophecy (1:2-3). As end-time agents of God, both discharge their ministries in the time of the gospel. Both proclaim a message summoning Israel to repentance. Both gather disciples. Both attract huge throngs of people (1:5; 3:7-8). Both utter words of prophecy (1:7-8). Both are repudiated by the religious authorities of Israel. Both are delivered up to their enemies. And both die unjustly and disgracefully at the hands of rulers who permit themselves to be manipulated by others. To know of John is to know in advance of Jesus.64
From the point of view of literary analysis, John may serve as a forecast to what will happen to Jesus. But seen through a postcolonial lens, such an interpretation can be problematic. It seems to suggest that Jesus’ life and death were already pre-scripted. The deaths of John and Jesus were inevitable. Such interpretation among the oppressed may condone, if not support, the inevitability of suffering. Also, such interpretation seems to suggest that John’s life and death were nothing but a script pointing to those of Jesus’.

From a cultural reading, I interpret that such association of Jesus’ life with that of John reflects Mark’s attempt to connect or juxtapose the unknown life of Jesus with that of the better-known life of John so that the brutal and shameful crucifixion of Jesus could be explained in a positive light like that of the beheading of John, a death considered by many as resulted from his righteousness, according to Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities 18.5.2 § 116-119. Thus, our interpretation differs from literary analysis, which can be traced back to Marxsen’s argument that “the entire Gospel of Mark is to be understood from the end backward.”65 Mark could be portraying a different John. A John possibly not part of the Jesus movement. A John not necessarily used as an exemplar for preparing the path of Jesus. This re-reading of John seems to be more fitting; otherwise the fact that John also had his disciples would not make sense in a collective honor and shame culture.

We may argue that the inclusion of John’s disciples is to show to John’s disciples that they should follow John to be part of the Jesus movement, but this argument does not consider honor and shame values. If we say that John was part of the Jesus movement and that his disciples were not, we are suggesting that John was a “lousy” teacher who had no honor and authority; otherwise his disciples would have followed his instructions and not questioned Jesus’ teaching. But if John was portrayed as such an incapable figure, then why would Mark want to put him right at the beginning of the Gospel? Hence, the most we can be sure of is that John, a popular and respected religious figure, was depicted in the Gospel as related to the Jesus movement.

Given the high social and religious status of John,66 it is not odd for the Gospel to have someone like John’s stature to baptize Jesus, regardless he recognized Jesus’ mission or not. Linking Jesus movement with John could be of itself gain some standing for Mark’s oppressed community. This association with John’s authority in the society is also seen in Jesus’ rhetorical retort to the chief priests, scribes and elders when they questioned his authority (11:27-32). Mark tells us that the religious leaders were hesitant to answer Jesus’ question about John’s authority for baptizing. If they denied John’s authority, they would be rejecting his honor, which according to the public, came from God. To do so in public would only bring shame to themselves as incapable to recognize something so basic that everyone knew (11:32). John’s authority was, thus, affirmed.

In light of collective honor and shame values, we can then say that, in Mark, John was not part of the Jesus movement. Just as Jesus had his own disciples, so did John. John, at best, was only loosely related to the Jesus movement. This imagery, however, changes tremendously in other canonical Gospels.

Tensions reflected in the redaction of Mark 1:9-11 in other canonical Gospels

Mark may not be concerned with the implication of Jesus’ baptism; other Gospels and early church Fathers’ writings certainly mind! This gradual change of stance towards John’s relationship with Jesus seems to mark the power struggle in early Church trying to ensure Jesus’ superiority to John, which we do not find in Mark. Mark 1:9-11 simply says that John baptized Jesus and that the heavenly voice was only addressed to Jesus, “You (singular) are my son the beloved, in you (singular) I have taken delight” (1:11). By portraying Jesus as the “Christ, the Son of God” in the beginning of Jesus’ gospel (1:1) and having the heavenly voice further reinforcing Jesus’ identity, Mark shows that John’s baptism was also divinely commissioned; otherwise Jesus “Christ, the Son of God” would not be baptized by him. In other words, Mark indicates that John’s repentant baptism into the forgiveness of sins was also part of the Jesus’ gospel. John was, thus, linked to the gospel of Jesus.

Matthew, however, has to make sure that the heavenly voice was addressed to John and the public as well (Matthew 3:17). The contrast between John baptizing people in water for repentance (3:11) and the one more powerful than him (i.e., Jesus) baptizing in the Holy Spirit and fire suggests that the nature of these two baptisms was different. Hence, when according to Matthew, John prevented Jesus from being baptized,67 even though this act rightly shows his acknowledgement of Jesus as the more powerful one than him, John was mistaken about the nature of Jesus’ baptism and authority. If the baptism was related to bearing the fruits, which Jesus must have had more than enough, how could John have stopped Jesus! No wonder Jesus had to teach John and nudged him, “permit so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (3:15) as the time has already changed and the kingdom of heaven is really here (3:2). John’s authority is subsumed under Jesus’ as Jesus appears to know much better about his mission than John himself does.

In Luke, the differences can be striking when we consider the immediate passage before Luke 3:21-22. At 3:20, Herod the tetrarch put John in prison. At verse 21, “As all the people were baptized, and as Jesus was baptized (baptisthenthos)) and praying (proseuchoemnou) the heaven was opened.” Compared to Mark and Matthew, the baptism scene in Luke was rather fast. Luke pays little attention to the baptism; the focus was on Jesus, prayer and the Holy Spirit. As Darrell Bock points out, the contrast between the temporal order of the aorist participle of baptism (baptisthenthos) and the present participle of prayer (proseuchoemnou) at verse 21 indicates that “Luke makes no point about why Jesus should get baptized.”68

In the Fourth Gospel (John 1:29-34), the difference is even more noticeable. We do not have Jesus’ baptism. At verse 29, the Gospel, without telling us the addressee of John, has John testifying for Jesus at 1:29-31,

Behold, the lamb of God, who lifts up the sin of the world. This is the man of whom I said, ‘after me comes a man who was ahead of me because he was before me. I did not know him, but for this reason I came baptizing with water so that he may be revealed to Israel.

After hearing John’s confession, we may expect John to baptize Jesus, but such was not the case! John went on to testify for Jesus in 1:32-34,

I have seen the spirit coming down like a dove from the heaven and it remained upon him. And I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize in water said to me, ‘upon whom you see the spirit coming down and stay upon him, he is the one baptizing in holy spirit. And I have seen and I have testified that he is the son of God.

Without Jesus’ baptism, how could John recognize Jesus as the one who will baptize in holy spirit? Jesus’ baptism was, therefore, only implied. Note also the exact repetition of “I did not know him” in verses 31 and 33 as if the Gospel tried to stress the impartiality and validity of John’s witnessing. Was such a solemn disclaimer related to John’s emphatic denial of his Elijah identity, which flatly contradicted Jesus’ assertion of John being Elijah in the other Gospels? The fact that the Gospel, unlike the Synoptics, has John narrated the theophany is also incredible! But what transpired between Mark and the other Gospels that made them so insecure about Jesus’ baptism by John?

This uneasiness is even more visible in the non-canonical gospels, such as the Gospel of the Nazoreans, the Gospel of the Hebrews, the Gospel of the Ebionites, and the Infancy Gospel of James.69 For instance, in the Gospel of the Nazoreans, when Jesus was invited by his mother and brothers to be baptized by John, he replied, “What sin have I committed that I should and be baptized by him? Unless what I have said is a matter of ignorance.” Early Church Fathers, such as Ignatius of Antioch; Justin Martyr; Clement of Alexandria; Melito of Sardis; Cyril of Alexander; Origen; Tertullian; Gregory of Nazianzen; Hippolytus; Jerome; Augustine; and etc., also tried to rationalize Jesus’ baptism to show that he is without sin and that he is not inferior to John.70 Justin in Dialogue with Trypho 88, for example, said that Jesus’ baptism was “for the sake of the human race, each having sinned individually;” Ignatius of Antioch and Gregory of Nazianzen justified the baptism as to hallow the water; Jerome said that it was “for a future remission, which was to follow through the sanctification of Christ;”71 Hippolytus reasoned that the baptism was for our sake, otherwise the heavens would have been shut;72 and Augustine argued that “no baptism was necessary for Christ, but he freely received the baptism of a servant (John) to draw us toward his baptism.”73

Given these responses, it is really remarkable that Mark was not concerned with the implications of Jesus’ baptism. On top of that, Mark did not feel the need to have John recognize Jesus’ mission either. Since Mark already states that Jesus was “Christ, Son of God” and that the Gospel was Jesus’ good news (1:1), Mark seems content to connect as many people as possible with his Gospel, as long as they are not against it. This tendency is also visible in 2:18-22. While Mark is ambiguous about the antagonists’ identity, Matthew simply spells it out that they were John’s disciples and others.

Interpreting Mark 2:18-22 in light of Mark 1:9-11

Mark 2:18-22 is the only place in Mark that shows the potential dispute between John’s disciples and the Jesus group. The ambiguous identity of the antagonist, however, was made explicit in Matthew. This Matthean move was similar to Matthean treatment of Jesus’ baptism. At Mark 2:18, “And the disciples of John and the Pharisees were fasting. And they came and said to him, ‘why the disciples of John and the disciples of Pharisees are fasting, but your disciples are not fasting?” Notice that in Greek, the subject of e;rcontai kai. le,gousin auvtw/| is not indicated. It can mean “some people” as most English translations offer.74 In Matthew 9:14, however, the text clearly says that it was John’s disciples who questioned Jesus about his disciples’ not-fasting behavior. At Matthew 9:14, “Then the disciples of John came to him saying, ‘why we and Pharisees fast much, but your disciples do not fast?” From an honor-and-shame culture, when one questioned the disciples’ behaviors, one also questioned the teacher’s teaching ability and authority. Hence, Matthew makes it clear that it was John’s disciples challenging Jesus’ authority. Furthermore, Davies and Allison suggest that by not putting John’s disciples and the Pharisees together, as we have in Mark, Matthew tried to make John’s disciples “the third story in a row in which a different religious group has shown itself to be at cross purposes with Jesus – the scribes in 9:1-8, the Pharisees in 9:9-13, the disciples of John the Baptist in 9:14-17.”75 In short, John’s disciples were challenging the piety and devotion of the Jesus movement.

While the account in Luke is similar to Mark in not indicating who questioned Jesus,76 it makes a sharper distinction between John and Jesus groups, as the questioning happened right in the middle of a great banquet (Luke 5:29). In fact, the question was, “the disciples of John are fasting frequently and making prayers, so are the [disciples] of Pharisees, but your [disciples] are eating and drinking” (5:33). The irony and contrast could not be more obvious! In other words, Jesus movement, unlike John’s group and the Pharisees, did not act like a pious movement focusing on God. Moreover, in the parable of new-old garment, Lukan language is sharper than that of Matthew and Mark. At verse 36, Luke added the tearing the new description:

no one after tearing a piece away from the new garment puts it upon the old garment; if he does, he will tear the new and the piece from the new will not match the old.

The focus is clearly on not tearing the new. The emphasis is on taking care of the new. Verse 39 further makes this concern explicit: “And no one after drinking old wine wants the new for he says, ‘the old is good.’” Luke then underlies “the strong tendency to prefer the old” among the scribes and Pharisees.77 But the point is that the new should, in the first place, not be mixed with the old, lest it gets adulterated and affected.

Given this short comparison, it seems that the ambiguous identity of the antagonists in Mark 2:18-22 was not insignificant. By putting the disciples of John and the disciples of Pharisees together (2:18), even if Mark may be criticizing John’s disciples in a roundabout way – given that Pharisees were portrayed negatively in the Gospel78 – he only did so subtly. In fact, the parables of the new-old garment and wine-and-wineskin do not seem to criticize John’s group. Hence, the leaving out of the antagonists’ identity may not be accidental if, according to Joanna Dewey, Mark 2:1-3:6 was a “well-worked-out deliberate constructed chiastic structure”79 with the center at Mark 2:18-22 (our pericope) which centers at Mark 2:20, “but the days will come when the bridegroom is snatched away from them, and then they will fast on that day.”80

If the theme of suffering is also the focus for the entire Gospel, which Martin Kähler famously describes Mark as “a passion narrative with an extended introduction,”81 and if the passion of John is set to forecast the passion of Jesus, according to literary criticism, then why is this potential conflict between John’s disciples and the Jesus group be put together in Mark 2:18-22, where the center is about Jesus’ death?

Concerning John’s death in Mark 6:14-29, while the account seems to cut off the flow of the twelve disciples’ successful missionary work (6:7-13 and 6:30) to suggest that “violent death may [also] result from missionary activity,”82 John’s death was also related to Jesus’ reputation. Instead of reading John’s death as pointing towards Jesus’, interpreting from an honor-and-shame culture, I interpret the mention of John’s death here in Mark as an attempt to explain Jesus’ dishonorable treatment in his hometown (6:1-6). In other words, Jesus’ suffering and rejection by people were not unlike that of John. If the more famous John could die of such a shameful death, then Jesus’ shameful crucifixion was not too shocking. Again, this attempt to link the less famous, and perhaps suspicious, movement of the Jesus group with that of John was Mark’s endeavor to tell his community that they were equally honorable, if not more!

Interpreting from the margin: self-preservation and growth

What Mark did with Jesus’ baptism and potential dispute between John’s disciples and the Jesus movement can be seen as a survival tactic. This survival tactic is not opportunistic. Rather, it helps to clarify unfounded rumors so that people would not reject and even persecute Mark’s community outright simply because of the hearsay that they might have heard. In other words, if John is related to the Jesus movement, how terrible could the Jesus movement be?

With Mark being the earliest written Gospel,83 and hence perhaps the least developed community compared to the ones of other canonical Gospels, it would be wise for Mark’s oppressed community to garner as much support as possible, at least sympathy, from various groups. As is readily recognizable in my context, it would be a dangerous move to fix and draw clear boundaries from other groups and isolate oneself from them. As long as Mark did not need to compromise too much of its core identity, Mark would try to work with as many groups as possible. Jesus’ comment “Whoever is not against us is for us” (9:40) is a case in point. Hence, even if there might be tensions and differences between John and Jesus movements, there was no need to spell out the differences, especially if the groups are not too different from Mark’s community. Such compromise and negotiation are visible is characterized by ambiguity and sometimes ambivalence. Thus, even though John did not recognize Jesus, Markan Jesus still respected John’s divine mission (11:27-32). As Jesus’ parable says, new wine for new wineskin and old wine for old wineskin (2:22). Let the new be new; let the old be old. From my contextual perspective this is a most significant feature of the text.84

Another most significant feature of the text is Jesus’ retort to the scribes-Pharisees. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners” (2:17). In other words, Mark’s community proclaimed and identified itself with the oppressed. Mark was not only a Gospel for instructing Christians, it was also for recruiting people (13:9-11). Given the pervasiveness of imperial cultic practices, it might be difficult for a minority group to maintain its own identity in the midst of all these threats. But, if the interventionist preaching of the gospel was a “pocket of resistance” to shatter boundaries of systemic oppression in the Markan community, as Brian Blount argues,85 then Mark could rally much support and rapport among the oppressed who were tired, disillusioned and disaffected by the oppressive authority. Indeed, throughout Mark, we have stories of “exorcisms, healings, unusual authority, and hyperbole of people flocking in from everywhere represent the crossing of boundaries that oppress the readers in Mark community.”86 By associating the Jesus group with the oppressed, which most likely constituted the majority of the population,87 Mark spoke to the hearts of the many. With the Jesus group seen as supportive of the oppressed, then Mark could, at least, gain credibility and moral supports from various groups that were oppressed in the society.

From what we have seen about the ambiguous relationship between John and Jesus, I want to argue that this ambiguity is tactical to Mark in an honor-and-shame communal society because groups that are related tend to help each other as much as possible. In trying to create a breathing space among dominant forces, Mark perhaps also tried to show the divine authority of the Jesus group by placing John at the beginning of his Gospel. And as we have seen earlier, most scholars agree that John was a significant figure in the society. Josephus’ account on John in his Jewish Antiquities 18.5.2 §116-119 shows that John was so highly regarded “in the eyes of the people that they explained the defeated of Herod’s army as a vindication of John’s goodness, virtue, and righteousness.” For Mark, it appears that whether John recognized Jesus as the Son of God was not as important. An implied association and relatedness between the John and Jesus groups was good enough to incorporate John into the gospel of Jesus.

As a threatened minority group, Mark probably was not concerned with polemics against other groups that might be of possible help to his cause. In fact, it would not be wise for the Markan community to pick fight with many groups and hence further alienated itself from the society at large. For its survival and cultivation of good relationships with other groups, Mark’s community would need to be strategic in picking its fight. As Liew puts it, “since ancient Jewish apocalyptic writers, in the interest of self-preservation, tend to level their attacks at a more benign target than the Roman imperialists themselves, it is possible that Mark’s verbal assault on the Jewish authorities is a similar tactic of ‘scapegoating.’”88 Furthermore, I want to argue that among Jewish authorities, Mark tries to ally itself with people-popular and respected groups, among which John group was one of them, so that it does not antagonize anyone unnecessarily.89

Examining how different Gospels redact Mark 2:18-22 and Mark 1:9-11, we see how the representation of John changes over time in an honor-and-shame Jewish culture, especially in the context of power struggles in the Roman Empire. This interpretation of John shows how negotiation is made in culling support and how collaboration is formed in carving out breathing space in the midst of dominant forces. Given my Chinese Malaysian cultural background, I show that this tactic is not a stranger to a minority group striving to maintain its identity while trying to keep up a good relationship with other groups as much as possible. This postcolonial interpretation of John in the Gospel of Mark is, then, also my contextual interpretation of John because in a multi-racial and multi-religious nation like Malaysia, such tactics are not uncommon in forming alliances with as many other groups as possible. In fact, in a recent general election in March 2008, collaborations were even formed among traditionally less friendly groups, by setting aside party-lined differences, so that a more unified front could be achieved as a viable alternative to the government. Within this collaboration, a new major party was formed to integrate the Malays, Chinese, Indians and others into key positions within the organization, and hence, presenting a new possibility that a party of all races can indeed be created! In many ways, this party is providing an alternative vision to the current government which is formed by different parties according to races. As a result of this tactic, the opposition parties managed to prevent the government from acquiring the majority ruling in the parliament.90 The problem, however, is that once these parties, which were not friendly with each other, gained more power and status, they may again define more clearly their party-lined philosophies. Hence, the tenuous collaboration that was formed before and after the general election can be very unstable and ambiguous.91

For the Gospel of Mark, even though the collaboration is tied to survival, it is not opportunistic; it is about preaching and spreading the gospel. It is not about making anyone or any group John just so that we can gain benefit from such association with John! A certain compromise can be made but it cannot jeopardize one’s core identity. If ambiguity and ambivalence are merely for self-preservation then Mark would not have forewarned his community to be bold by bracing themselves against brutal persecutions. Mark would not have encouraged his community to endure till the end in doing God’s will (3:35). In fact, Mark would not have stressed that honor comes not from people but from God (8:33-38). This honor, in Mark, is about the cross and suffering, “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and let him follow/obey me” (8:34). Indeed, in the midst of suffering, Markan community is still asked to do the two most important commandments: to love God wholly and to love one another as one will love oneself (12:29-31). This tactic of survival is clearly more than self-preservation. It is about expanding the boundary and horizon of one’s heart, one’s worldview, one’s group, etc. While it teaches us to not undertake unnecessary suffering, it emboldens us to take upon our own crosses when our core identity in loving God and loving others are adulterated by dishonorable tactics.

For Malaysian Chinese Christians, what is our core identity? We are Christians but we are also Malaysian Chinese. We may feel that our hybrid identity causes us to form as many allies as possible so that our voices can be heard. As Christians, we may feel that our interpretation of the Bible is inferior to Western interpretations. But as Christians, our honor comes not from people but from God. As this honor is tied to loving God wholly and loving each other, how can we love if we cannot be honest to God, to our culture, and to our curiosities and questions about the Bible?92 A postcolonial contextual interpretation of John’s relationship with Jesus then teaches us, Malaysian Chinese Christians, not to discredit our contextual interpretations outright. And it teaches us not to discredit Western and other interpretations either. Rather, it teaches us to respect, as Jesus respected John’s divine mission even if John might not have recognized his. Indeed, it teaches us to seek God’s honor by being honest to God, to ourselves and to others in our search for a better understanding of the biblical texts, ourselves and others.

1 According to social scientific criticism, honor and shame are two main social cultural values that shape and determine one’s interaction with another within a communal society. Bruce J. Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology (Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), 33-38. This definition, however, should not be used as a fixed guideline. It is rather a vague concept whose meaning is not only tacit but also changes according to different intersections of sociopolitical and economic factors under certain circumstances. For a critique on the static understanding of honor and shame that tends to relate honor with male and shame with female, see Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, “The First Letter of Peter,” in A Postcolonial Commentary on the New Testament Writings, eds. Fernando F. Segovia and R. S. Sugirtharajah (London: T&T Clark, 2007), 393-402. Louise Lawrence also challenges the monolithic understanding of honor as “an agonistic and competitive value” because the honor mentioned in the Christian Bible contains both “honor precedence” – as emphasized by Malina and others – and “honor virtue,” in which one’s honor depends on God’s recognition as one strives to be obedient and faithful to God. Louise Joy Lawrence, “‘For truly, I tell you, they have received their reward’ (Matt 6:2): Investigating Honor Precedence and Honor Virtue,” CBQ 64 (2002): 687-702.

2 Passages related to John in the Gospel of Mark are: 1:2-8 (John’s baptism and prophecy); 1:9-11 (Jesus’ baptism by John); 1:14 (Jesus’ going to Galilee after John’s incarceration); 2:18-22 (John’s disciples and Pharisees questioning Jesus about his disciples’ not-fasting behaviors); 6:14-29 (the beheading of John); 8:27-30 (Is Jesus John?); 9:1-13 (Is John Elijah(?) although Mark does not spell it out as Matthew does ); and 11:27-33 (the authority of John’s baptism).

3 According to his research on the understanding of “race” and “ethnicity” in Malaysia, Steve Fenton finds that “in an English-language Malaysian discourse the word ‘race’ is the one most frequently used to denote these large group definitions – Malay, Chinese and Indians.” Steve Fenton, Ethnicity (Cambridge, UK; Malden, Massachusetts: Polity Press, 2003), 42. Also, it should be noted that the terms “race” and “ethnicity” do not contain primordial meaning; they are sociological, religious, cultural, political constructs identify the other in forming the insider and outsider groups. This is especially so given the multiple terms, such as “bangsa,” “kaum,” and “orang,” used in Malay language to denote the concept of “race.”

4 This tremendous respect for John is visible in Christian liturgical calendar, especially in Eastern Orthodox Church, six feast days are associated with John: (1) the Commemoration of the Holy Prophet Zacharias and the Holy and Righteous Elizabeth, the Parents of the Honorable Forerunner John the Baptist on September 5th; (2) the Commemoration of the Conception of the Honorable and Glorious Prophet, Forerunner and Baptist John on September 23rd; (3) the Synaxis of the Holy, Glorious Prophet, Forerunner John the Baptist on January 7th; (4) the Commemoration of the First and Second Findings of the Precious Head of the Forerunner on February 24th; (5) the Commemoration of the Nativity of the Honorable and Glorious Prophet and Forerunner John the Baptist on June 24th; and (6) the Commemoration of the Beheading of John, the Honored and Glorious Prophet, Forerunner and Baptizer of the Lord on August 29th. For details, see The Menaion of the Orthodox Church, vol. 1-11; trans. Isaac E. Lambertsen (Liberty, Tennessee: The St. John Kronstadt Press, 1999. Besides these feast days, the icon of John is also very prominent. “In larger [Orthodox] churches, the first row of icons almost always includes the icon of St. John the Forerunner and Baptist, placed immediately next to Christ’s.” Constantine Cavarnos, Orthodox Iconography (Belmont, MA: The Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 1992), 23.

5 As Brian Blount explains and argues, one’s own contextual or cross-cultural reading of the text does not mean that one’s interpretation of the text is, therefore, guided by one’s context and hence uncritical. As one’s context interacts with the text, the text also interacts with the context. In other words, our search for what the text may have meant for us today in our context must also be grounded in what the text might have meant back then. In this search for meaning from the text, out of the range of multidimensional meaning potentials in the text, we need to acknowledge our presuppositions and context as Bultmann has reminded us decades ago that there is no exegesis without presuppositions. Presuppositions are not necessarily bad, however, as Gadamer argued, as long as the interpreters engage themselves in the continual hermeneutical circle between the text and context. Brian K. Blount, Cultural Interpretation: Reorienting New Testament Criticism (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995). Rudolf Bultmann, “Is Exegesis without Presuppositions Possible?” in New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writing (selected, edited, and translated by Schubert M. Ogden; Phil.: Fortress, 1984). Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2d rev. ed. (trans., Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall; New York: Continuum, 1997).

6 In his article, Fernando Segovia provides a comprehensive study on various scholars’ different understandings of postcolonialism and its range of applications. Fernando F. Segovia, “Mapping the Postcolonial Optic in Biblical Criticism: Meaning and Scope,” in Postcolonial Biblical Criticism: Interdisciplinary Intersections, eds. Stephen D. Moore and Fernando F. Segovia (London; New York: T&T Clark International, 2005), 23-78.

7 This kind of strategic othering the other in the image and likeness of the center for the benefits of the center is prevalent in both politics and scholarship as Edward Said showed us in his Orientalism. “How does one represent other cultures? What is another culture? Is the notion of a distinct culture (or race, or religion, or civilization) a useful one, or does it always get involved either in self-congratulation (when one discusses one’s own) or hostility and aggression (when one discusses the “other”)? Do cultural, religious, and racial differences matter more than socio-economic categories, or politicohistorical ones? How do ideas acquire authority, “normality,” and even the s status of “natural” truth? What is the role of the intellectual? Is he there to validate the culture and state of which he is a part? What importance must he give to an independent critical consciousness, an oppositional critical consciousness?” Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979). Emphasis original.

8 Leela Gandhi, Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), 122-40.

9 Richard Horsley, for example, argues that if the crowd’s shouting of “Hosanna!” at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (Mark 11:9) was part of the “Hallel psalms (113-18) sung at Passover time,” then this “Hosanna” is linked to the famous liberation story in Exodus and can serve as a subversive language against the empire. Richard A. Horsley, Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 109-10. Also, we can find the echoes of the dawn of the new age and liberation in the quotations at the beginning of Mark. Joel Marcus, The Way of the Lord: Christological Exegesis of the Old Testament in the Gospel of Mark (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992).

10 For instance, Mark’s portrayal of John as related to Elijah (1:5-6), the fear of chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders toward the crowd who thought John was a prophet (11:32). Many scholars also agree that John’s high reputation and political role recorded in Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities 18.5.2 § 116-119 is historically authentic. John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, 3 vols., vol. 2: Mentor, Message, and Miracles (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 19-20.

11 As a minority group in the Roman Empire, Mark’s community must have undergone tremendous stress from both the Empire (e.g., the propaganda and civic/religious practices of the imperial cult) and Jewish sects to declare their allegiance. James A. Wilde, A Social Description of the Community Reflected in the Gospel of Mark. Ph.D. dissertation at Drew University, 1974. Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2006). Besieged by these threats, Mark was aggressive in his criticism against the Temple and urgent in his need to recruit members to sustain and expand the growth of his community. These external threats were further compounded by internal threats of heresy and the “false messiahs and false prophets” in the community. In the Gospel, Jesus’ repeated warnings to the community to “watch out” (13:2, 5, 6, 9, 23) show Mark’s urgency to safeguard his community from being led astray into wrong ideology about Jesus’ parousia, especially if the community was called to proclaim the good news to all peoples and nations (13:10). In other words, clear discernment must be made to Mark’s community so that in the process of interacting with different groups of people and preaching the good news, they would not be confused or tempted by wrong ideologies.

12 All Bible quotations are my translations, unless indicated otherwise.

13 Simon Samuel, “The Beginnings of Mark: A Colonial/Postcolonial Conundrum” Biblical Interpretation 10, 4 (2002), 405.

14 For various disguised forms and ways of the subordinate group to cope with, speak against, condition and limit the influence and power of the dominant group and vice versa, see James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1990).

15 Stephen D. Moore, “Mark and Empire: “Zealot” and “Postcolonial” Readings” in The Postcolonial Biblical Reader, ed. R. S. Sugirtharajah (Malden, MA; Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 194. Emphasis original.

16 Ibid., 198.

17 Benny Liew also comments that “Since ancient Jewish apocalyptic writers, in the interest of self-preservation, tend to level their attacks at a more benign target than the Roman imperialists themselves, it is possible that Mark’s verbal assault on the Jewish authorities is a similar tactic or ‘scapegoating.’” Tat-siong Benny Liew, “The Gospel of Mark,” in A Postcolonial Commentary on the New Testament Writings, eds. Fernando F. Segovia and R. S. Sugirtharajah (London: T&T Clark, 2007, )110.

18 In regard to the apocalyptic language in Mark 13, Clinton Morrison notes that “Astrology’s emphasis upon correspondence between heaven and earth served to draw the State into an integrated universe… Again we see that the State not only existed in the Cosmos, but played a decisive part in understanding the character of the universe… The Myth of the Empire comprehended the whole of history, in history and in humanity, in heaven and on earth… as the history of the Empire.” Clinton D. Morrison, The Powers That Be (London: SCM Press, 1960), 82, note 3. William Herzog also argues that “Roman religion was an orchestrated syncretism including astrology, temple cults, augurs, oracles, and legends whose common purpose was to demonstrate the consent of the gods, the stars and planets, and the principalities and powers, to Roman rule. When we encounter Jesus’ apocalyptic sayings depicting stars falling from heaven, the sun (associated almost always with the Emperor) refusing to shine, the moon turning to blood, he is assaulting the cosmic imagery (and undermining the symbolic universe) involved to legitimate Roman rule. Similarly plagues, famines, and earthquakes meant that the earth no longer consented to the “peace of Rome” which had been fortified by appeals to the fruitfulness of the earth and the security of its peoples.” William R. Herzog, “The Quest of the Historical Jesus and the Discovery of the Apocalyptic Jesus,” Pacific Theological Review, vol. 19 no. 1 (Fall 1985): 33.

19 Stephen Moore, “Mark and Empire,” 200.

20 Ibid., 198.

21 Different from Samuel’s reading of Mark that assumes Mark’s intention, Liew states very clearly that “no one can offer a positivist account of Mark’s meaning. We perceive certain ‘truths’ of an ancient text through the lens of our personal commitments and current investments.” Tat-siong Benny Liew, “The Gospel of Mark,” 105.

22 Ibid., 113.

23 Idem.

24 Ibid., 114.

25 Ibid., 117.

26 Ibid., 105. Liew is quoting from King-kok Cheung, “Re-viewing Asian American Literary Studies,” in An Interethnic Companion to Asian American Literature, ed. King-kok Cheung (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 10. Liew went on to say, “I refuse to idealize anything or any book, including the Gospel of Mark… I believe that literary texts do more than simply reflect history and culture; they also create them.” Benny Liew, “The Gospel of Mark,” 105.

27 Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Doubleday, 1967), 3, 7.

28 Ibid., 21.

29 Ibid., 16. Emphasis original.

30 Idem.

31 Benny Liew, “The Gospel of Mark,” 106.

32 Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 257.

33 Richard King, Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India and ‘The Mystic East’ (London; New York: Routledge, 1999), 35-61.

34 While different methodologies may yield different readings of Mark, Liew categories these interpretations into (1) “Mark’s non-apocalyptic, colonial politics;” (2) “Mark’s non-colonial apocalyptic;” and (3) Mark’s apocalyptic, colonial politics which can be further divided into “apocalyptic as a product of colonial politics” and “apocalyptic as a production of colonial politics.” Tat-siong Benny Liew, Politics of Parousia: Reading Mark Inter(con)textually (Leiden; Boston; Köln: Brill, 1999), 46-63.

35 Our sources on John the Baptist come from the Four Gospels (including Acts), Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities 18.5.2 § 116-119, the Clementine Recognitions and Homilies, the Mandaen Literature, and the Slavonic version of Josephus’ Jewish War. Scholars, however, generally agree that the representation of the historical John in the New Testament and Jewish Antiquities are more credible than in the other sources. Scholars argue that the Mandaen literature on John “did not arise out of the movement of John the Baptist” and cannot tell us much about the historical Baptist. See Charles H. H. Scobie, John the Baptist (England: SCM Press, 1964), 31. In fact, the literature is a product of the medieval period. The Slavonic version of the Jewish War, written in a dialect of Old Russian, also offers us “no value as an historical source for the study of John the Baptist.” Ibid., 22. Similar observation can be said about the Clementine Recognitions and Homilies, which were probably “produced in Syria in the early third century AD, itself being a compilation of earlier works… [representing] a type of Jewish Christianity though they are differences and inconsistencies in doctrine.” See M. R. P. McGuire, “Clementine Literature,” in Encyclopedia Britannica (London, 1959), 797-800. Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities, however, can give us a historical credible depiction of John the Baptist, even though his works at time certainly contain ideological biases, as many scholars have pointed out. See Irving M. Zeitlin, Jesus and the Judaism of His Time (England: Polity Press, 1988), 3-37.

36 Since most scholarly work on John is tied to the quest for the historical Jesus, I will start with Reimarus’ Fragments as most scholars identify as marking the beginning of critical biblical scholarship on the quest of the historical Jesus. Charles H. Talbert, ed., Reimarus: Fragments, trans. Ralph S. Fraser (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970), 138.

37 Ibid., 139-44.

38 David Strauss, however, objected that if John had known about Jesus’ mission, he would not have asked whether he was the Messiah in Matthew 11:3. John’s recognition of Jesus’ Messiahship was, therefore, added by the Gospel. David Friedrich Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined, trans. George Eliot (New York: Macmillan & Co., 1892), 222-27. Strauss also argued that Jesus “attracted by the fame of the Baptist, put himself under the tuition of that preacher… after the imprisonment of John, carried on… the same work, never ceasing even when he had far surpassed his predecessor, to rend him due homage.” (Ibid., 233).

39 Carl H. Kraeling, John the Baptist (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1951), 136.

40 Ibid., 153.

41 John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, 9. According to Robert Webb’s socio-historical reading, John was a “leadership popular prophet” who had a group of disciples around him, including Jesus. While John proclaimed the imminent judgment and restoration by the expected figure, he was not anticipating the end of the world. Robert L. Webb, “John the Baptist and His Relationship to Jesus,” in Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluation of the State of Current Research, 179-229. Eds., Bruce Chilton and Craig A. Evans (New York: E.J. Brill, 1994), 223.

42 John Meier, 21. This argument was also made by Charles H. H. Scobie, John the Baptist (England: SCM Press, 1964), 213.

43 Maurice Goguel, Jesus and the Origin of Christianity, 2 vols., trans. Olive Wyon, vol. 2 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960), 275-76.

44 Ibid., 276.

45 Gunther Bornkamm, Jesus of Nazareth, trans. Irene and Fraser McLuskey with James M. Robinson from the third edition (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1960), 49-50.

46 Ibid., 45.

47 Ibid., 50.

48 Joan E. Taylor, The Immerser: John the Baptist within Second Temple Judaism (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), 50.

49 Ibid., 12.

50 Ibid., 293.

51 Walter Wink argues that although “the Baptist traditions are entirely subservient to the Jesus traditions,” (Walter Wink, John the Baptist in the Gospel Tradition (England: Cambridge University Press, 1968), 2), “the entire Gospel of Mark is [however] an extended kergyma. Resurrection, death, suffering, ministry all lead back to the forerunner, and through John even the Old Testament prophecies become a part of the ‘beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ’” (5). In fact, we do not have any “evidence of polemic against the disciples of John elsewhere in Mark’s Gospel” (11). As Jesus was “at first more or less a disciple of John” (Ibid., 9), the questioning of Jesus by John’s disciples in Mark 2:18-19 simply shows that “Jesus and his disciples have been considered a part of John’s movement” (12).

52 Concerning the series of quotations from the Hebrew Bible (i.e., Exodus 23:20, Malachi 3:1, and Isaiah 40:3) being compressed into Mark 1:2-3, Morna Hooker remarks that such usage of the Hebrew Bible is incredible given that in Mark “nowhere does he [the evangelist] stand back and say, ‘This happened as it was written in scripture.’” Morna D. Hooker, Beginnings: Keys that Open the Gospels (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997), 10.

53 Concerning the issues surrounding the identity and understanding of the Lord as quoted by Mark from Malachi 3, see Dennis E. Nineham, The Gospel of St. Mark (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1963), 46.

54 The next time that John is mentioned again, it was about John’s disciples questioning Jesus about his disciples’ devotional behavior (2:18-22). After this controversy, John was mentioned three more times in the Gospel. One was his brutal death (6:14-29) sandwiched between Jesus’ sending the disciples preaching for repentance, exorcizing demons, anointing and healing the sick (6:7-13) and Jesus’ feeding of the five thousands (6:30-42). The second time was when Jesus was wrongly identified as John, Elijah, etc. (8:28) and the last time was when Jesus referred to John’s authority (11:27-33).

55 Interpreting Mark within my Chinese Malaysia culture, I pay more attention to the ingroup and outgroup tension in the society, which is embedded in honor-and-shame cultural values. For illustration, let me give a very brief history on Malaysia. Malaysia gained its independence from the Great Britain in 1957. But as a result of British colonial policy in maximizing its profits from Malaysia’s natural resources, the three main races (i.e., Malays, Chinese, and Indians) were not integrated as one nation of people but were assigned to different political and economic roles in the society. Given this sociopolitical and economic stratification along racial line, no one group can dominate the other easily but must work together for the greater benefit of all. Among Chinese, at least until the 1990s, there are also many affiliations depending on which Chinese dialect one speaks. Born and raised in this kind of multicultural and multireligious environment, I naturally become sensitive to the diversity around me. I also become keenly aware of which group I belong to.

56 Peter Berger, 16.

57 Bruce J. Malina, The Social World of Jesus and the Gospels (New York: Routledge, 1996), 38.

58 Ibid., 41.

59 Bruce J. Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology, 45.

60 Robert G. Bratcher, A Translator’s Guide to the Gospel of Mark (London; New York; Stuttgart: United Bible Societies, 1981), 26.

61 Joan Taylor, 441-442.

62 Ibid., 442.

63 Morna D. Hooker, Not Ashamed of the Gospel: New Testament Interpretations of the Death of Christ (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), 47-52.

64 Jack Dean Kingsbury, Conflict in Mark: Jesus, Authorities, Disciples (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989), 33. Emphasis added.

65 Walter Wink, 1.

66 As most scholars treat Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities 18.5.2 § 116-119 on John as historically reliable. See n. 49.

67 As Davies and Allison pointed out, scholars have spilled much ink over this redaction of Matthew from Mark and have offered a wide range of theories and explanations. W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Gospel According to Matthew, 3 vols., vol. 1: Introduction and Commentary on Matthew 1-VII (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988), 321-23.

68 Darrell L. Bock, Luke: Volume 1:1:1-9:50. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1994), 336.

69 W. Barnes Tatum, John the Baptist and Jesus, 88-92.

70 Kilian McDonnell, The Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan: The Trinitarian and Cosmic Order of Salvation (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1996), 19-28.

71 Thomas C. Oden and Christopher A. Hall, eds., Mark: Ancient Christian Commentary on Scriptures (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 11.

72 Idem.

73 Idem.

74 Adela Yabro Collins argue that the subject “is not the disciples of John or the Pharisees, but is indefinite. This conclusion is supported by the formulation of the question, which refers to those groups without identifying the speakers with either of them.” Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary. Hermeneia. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 197.

75 W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, 3 vols., vol. 2: Commentary on Matthew VIII-XVIII (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1991), 108.

76 Given the setting in Luke, which in Mark the setting is unidentified, the questioning seems to still take place in the banquet, and hence the question was probably asked by the Pharisees and the scribes. Robert C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation, 2 vols., vo1. 1: The Gospel according to Luke (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), 173-74.

77 Ibid., 174.

78 Joan Taylor argues that if the goal of John, as a well-respected and influential immerser and teacher of righteousness, was to teach Jewish people to obey Torah, then the Pharisees would hardly be hostile toward John; the Pharisees “may well have accepted that John was a ‘good man,’ as Josephus did at the end of the first century.” Joan Taylor, 211. “Certainly, if John called for those who had strayed from the Law to repent; asked for good deeds, righteousness, and obedience to the Law in preparation for the coming end; and offered the necessary purificatory immersion, it is hard to imagine that the Pharisees could possibly have objected to him.” Idem. For details on her analysis, 198-211.

79 Joanna Dewey, “The Literary Structure of the Controversy Stories in Mark 2:1-3:6,” in The Interpretation of Mark, ed., William Telford (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, London: SPCK, 1985), 112.

80 By “using formal, linguistic, and content criteria,” (109) Dewey showed that 2:1-12 (A), 2:13-17 (B), 2:18-22 (C), 2:23-28 (B’), and 3:1-6 (A’) represent Mark’s favorite “sandwich” literary device to highlight 2:18-22. According to Dewey, 2:1-12 (A) (healing of the paralytic) corresponds to 3:1-6 (A’) (healing of a man with the withered hand on Sabbath) for the following reasons:

(1) Both are healing stories with the restoration theme.

(2) Both “begin with virtually identical introductions: A: kai eisēlthon palin eis, “and having entered again into (2:1) and A’: kai eisēlthen palin eis, “and he entered again into (3:1). Both occur indoors: in one case a house, in the other a synagogue” (110).

(3) Both are “imbedded into the miracle and set off from it by means of the repetition of Jesus’ address to the man being healed: legei tōi paralytikōi in mark 2:5 and 10; legei tōi anthrōpōi in Mark 3:3 and 5… In both A and A’, Jesus responds to unspoken opposition with a counter-question in good rabbinic controversy style: “Which is easier to say…’Your sins are forgiven’; or to say, ‘Rise, take up your pallet and walk’?” (2:9), and “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm?” (3:4)” (110).

(4) The end of A’ is an inverted transformation of the ending in A, in which A ends with people amazed by the miracle (2:12), but A’ ends with the Herodians and Pharisees wanting to kill Jesus (3:6).

Next, not only does 2:13-17 (B) (Jesus eating with sinners and tax collectors) corresponds to 2:23-28 (B’) (Jesus’ disciples picking heads of grain on Sabbath), B is also tied to A by “the catchwords hamartia (“sin”) and hamartōloi (“sinners”)” (111). Similarly, B’ is connected to A’ by “the catchwords tois sabbasin (“on the Sabbath”) and exestin (“it is lawful”)” (111). In other words, B points back to A and B’ points ahead to A’. Also, both B and B’ (1) happen outdoor and (2) end with a proverb and a Christological saying to justify the actions in the controversies. B ends with, “‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick,’ followed immediately by the implied Christological saying, ‘I came not to call the righteous, but sinners’ (2:17)” (111-12). B’ ends with, “‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath,’ followed immediately by the Christological saying, ‘So the Son of man is lord also of the Sabbath’” (112). “The central sections of B and B’, however, are concerned not with sinners or Sabbath, but both are concerned with eating” (112), in which the root of the word esthiō (to eat) appears four times in these two passages.

Finally, while 2:18-22 (C) (Jesus questioned about fasting) as the center of 2:1-3:6 is not “a precise chiastic structure within itself, set within the larger chiastic structure” (113), it does seem to follow the pattern of “double saying [verses 18-19], allusion to the crucifixion [verse 20], double saying [verses 21-22]” (113). In short, “C fits very well as the centre of the chiastic structure. It is concerned with fasting, set between B and B’ which are concerned with eating. V. 20, with its allusion to the crucifixion, is the centre not only of C but of the entire controversy section. It is set over against the two outside stories, A and A’, with their ‘resurrection’ type healings” (113). With this focus on the allusion to Jesus’ death at verse 20, it appears that “Mark employed the conflict stories theologically to place Jesus’ life in the context of his death, and he used them in his narrative construction to show how Jesus’ death historically was to come about” (115).

81 Martin Kähler, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ, trans., Carl E. Braaten (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1964), 80.

82 Adela Yabro Collins, Mark: A Commentary, 303. Collins notes that although this relationship between disciples’ missionary work and suffering “may or may not have been intentional on the part of the evangelist… the connections may well have been made by some ancient readers, just as they are by some modern readers.” Ibid., 296.

83 I am assuming the two-source theory that argues for the priority of the Gospel of Mark in which Matthew and Luke use Mark as a major resource in writing their gospels.

84 Matthew 12:30, on the other hand, has Jesus say that, “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” An identical saying is also found in Luke 11:23 within the similar parable story. Luke 9:50, however, also has the similar saying with Mark 9:40 within the parallel parable story.

85 Brian Blount, Go Preach!: Mark’s Kingdom Message and the Black Church Today, 5-10.

86 Ibid., 92.

87 K. C. Hanson and Douglas Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus: Social Structures and Social Conflicts (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1988).

88 Benny Liew, “The Gospel of Mark,” 110.

89 One can say that this self-preservation tactic, in some ways, could be a colonial move because when the Jesus group grew bigger or more prominent in the society, such tactic might not be necessary anymore. For example, as many scholars have noted, compared to Mark’s community, Matthew’s community was not only more affluent and influential, but it also had sharper criticisms against the Jewish authority (Allan Powell, 64). This change of social status, especially if Matthew was written in Antioch, might be one of the reasons that contributed to the more clearly negative portrayal of John in Matthew than in Mark. As time went on and as Christian groups gained more membership and influence in the society, boundary drawing to distinguish itself from other groups would be clearer and the authority of the Jesus group would be stressed more and even absolutized, as we eventually see the sharp dualistic language in the Fourth Gospel – either one is inside the group or outside the group. There is certainly no gray area in between. Everything is clearly defined: either you are with us or you are against us!

90 For details,,, and

91 In the case of John, the ambiguous relationship between the John and Jesus groups became more clearly defined as Christian communities gradually became more established in society. And as the John group continued to exist alongside the Jesus group, like what we see in the Pseudo-Clementine writings, such association with John was not only less helpful but also problematic.

92 What I have in mind here is Justin Ukpong’s description of inculturation interpretation of the Bible as “a contextual hermeneutic methodology that seeks to make any community of ordinary people and their sociocultural context the subject of interpretation of the Bible… The goal is sociocultural transformation focusing on a variety of situations and issues.” Justin Ukpong, “Inculturation Hermeneutics: An African Approach to Biblical Interpretation,” in The Bible in a World Context: An Experiment in Contextual Hermeneutics (eds., Walter Dietrich and Ulrich Luz; Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 18. An inculturation reading involves the interaction of three elements where (1) ordinary people’s “sociocultural-historical contexts provide the resources for the reading; (2) “the reading is done from the perspective of the people’s context and reflects their concerns, values, and interpretive interests,” and (3) “the use of the people’s conceptual frame of reference in the reading.” Ibid., 19. The concern here is to empower the ordinary people to speak boldly from their sociocultural context so that the Bible is not just the missionaries’ Bible, but their Bible as well!

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