Baptism and Temptation of Jesus (Mark 1:9-13)
Gospel of Mark Chapter 1 verses 9-13
9 And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized of John in Jordan.
10 And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him:
11 And there came a voice from heaven, saying, Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
12 And immediately the spirit driveth him into the wilderness.
13 And he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted of Satan; and was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered unto him.
Compare: Matthew 3:13-17; Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 3:21,22; Luke 4:1-13
Also see: » Where did the Trinity Come from?
Jesus is Baptized by John the Baptist
This is the first appearance of Jesus in the earliest gospel account — full-grown and ready to begin his ministry. We have nothing here about Jesus’ conception, birth, or childhood — all very popular stories which play important roles in Matthew and Luke. If these were known events, why did Mark skip them?
Mark also skips why Jesus is being baptized by John. The other baptisms were done for the remission of sins — was this something needed by Jesus? According orthodox Christian tradition, Jesus was sinless and wouldn’t need baptism for such a reason.
But what other reason could there be? Some scholars argue that this is a tradition about Jesus which predates the idea that he was sinless — or that he was God.
It is argued that what we are reading about here is Jesus being appointed to a particular, holy position within his lifetime instead of being destined for it from before birth (again, notice the lack of information about Mary, his mother, being informed about his identity while she was still pregnant).
The words spoken by the voice from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son,” seem to come from Psalm 2:7, of which the second line is “today I have begotten you.”
Mark leaves this out, so it’s not clear whether he held the “adoptionist” position which taught that Jesus was just a regular man who was “adopted” during his baptism to be God’s son. The author of Hebrews, though, does include both lines, further indicating just how common this position may have been among early Christians. It is little wonder that Matthew changed the scene to have the spirit address the entire crowd.
Upon baptism the Holy Spirit evidently descends upon Jesus. Although being baptized alongside others would suggest Jesus’ solidarity with others, this points to his separation and distinctness. The text is specific that this is something that Jesus sees, but does this mean that no one else was aware of it? And if John is unable to baptize people in the Holy Spirit (v. 8), why did the Holy Spirit appear at the baptism — was John mistaken about his abilities?
Presumably the voice from the heavens is God. In this account, God speaks directly to Jesus (the same can be found in Luke 3:22), but when these events are described in Matthew 3:17, God addresses those present at Jesus’ baptism: “This is my beloved son.” Does this again suggest that in this very early account by Mark, only Jesus is aware of what is going on and everyone else is kept in the dark? Given the way Jesus continually tells his apostles to keep quiet about his identity, this is not implausible. Most likely, though, the announcement is included here for the benefit of Mark’s audience.
Both of the formulation in Mark and that in Matthew played a role in the development of the early Christian heresy known as “adoptionism.” According to this doctrine, Jesus was an ordinary human being who was “adopted” by God as his son at the point of his baptism. An unsympathetic person might even suggest that Jesus is experiencing a religious hallucination — lots of people think that God speaks to them and singles them out for a special cause. What made Jesus right?
Temptation of Jesus
Immediately after baptism, Jesus is driven into the wilderness for forty days where he is tempted by Satan. It’s not clear what it means to say that Jesus was “driven.” Did he not want to go? Did God force him? Was he simply overcome with an irresistible urge after hearing voices?
The word here for “wilderness” is the same one used to describe the activity of John the Baptist. People often have a misconception as to what “wilderness” meant. The Middle East is often thought of as consisting of vast deserts, and therefore the wilderness that John came out of and Jesus went into is also thought of as desert. This is not necessarily true. It could have been any uninhabited area, even one used to graze sheep. It may, then, have had abundant vegetation and water.
This trope of forty days would have been familiar to audiences at the time — Noah, for example, rode the ark for forty days and forty nights and the Jews wandered in the desert for forty years. The idea of a holy man wandering in the wilderness to tangle with demons, purifying himself for a holy cause, would have also been familiar — not just to people in the region but for many cultural groups around the world.
Mark offers no details about what happened during those forty days or how Satan tempted him. This stands in sharp contrast with other gospel accounts were we are filled in on at least some of the events that transpired during that time. This leads us to a couple of questions: why weren’t the details relevant for this, the earliest gospel? If people knew about them, why skip them? Then again, it’s strange that people knew about them — Jesus was alone, after all.
Or was he? According to this account he was, but the gospel of John relates that between his baptism and his trip through the desert he called his disciples and attended the wedding in Cana — a direct contradiction to Mark’s claim that Jesus immediately went into the desert. If any disciples were around, they might have known something about what happened.
Finally, it is worth wondering just how Jesus could be tempted in the first place. Sure, we have descriptions in the other gospels about what Satan did, but that doesn’t explain how and why Jesus was tempted. To be tempted by something is to actively covet it, but didn’t Jesus teach that the desire for something that you shouldn’t have just as bad as actually taking/acquiring it?
Thus, the experience of temptation is a type of sin and a sign of our human sinfulness. Granted, Jesus was fully human, but he was also supposed to be a sinless human. It was only because of his sinlessness that his sacrifice was supposed to be sufficient for all the sins of the world. Thus, either being tempted by things like power and riches is no sin at all, or Jesus sinned. Neither view seems entirely compatible with orthodox Christianity.
The common translation of “temptation” may be better rendered as “testing,” but it’s not clear if that overcomes the questions above. The depiction of this scene in the other gospels, where we are given more details, definitely appears to qualify as “temptation” as people usually think of the concept.