Monday, February 1, 2010

Mark 1:9-11

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.

And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.

And a voice came from heaven, "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased."
(Mark 1:9-11)

Καὶ ἐγένετο ἐν ἐκείναις ταῖς ἡμέραις ἦλθεν ᾿Ιησοῦς ἀπὸ Ναζαρὲτ τῆς Γαλιλαίας καὶ ἐβαπτίσθη ὑπὸ ᾿Ιωάννου εἰς τὸν ᾿Ιορδάνην.

καὶ εὐθέως ἀναβαίνων ἀπὸ τοῦ ὕδατος εἶδε σχιζομένους τοὺς οὐρανοὺς καὶ τὸ Πνεῦμα ὡς περιστερὰν καταβαῖνον ἐπ᾿ αὐτόν·

καὶ φωνὴ ἐγένετο ἐκ τῶν οὐρανῶν· σὺ εἶ ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἀγαπητός, ἐν σοὶ εὐδόκησα.
Mark 1:9-11

Obviously, we have Jesus being baptized here. There are a few things that I see immediately, piquing my curiosity and enticing me to study further.
  • First, verse 9 uses the word, "baptized". What is this Greek word and how was it understood?
  • Second, verse 10 says, "the Spirit descending on him like a dove". Does it have the appearance of a dove's body, or is it merely behaving like a dove?
  • Third, I read this passage and I believe I see reference to the three persons of the Trinity - all in one place, at one time. Is this an accurate understanding, or am I projecting my own familiarities with this theological concept onto the text?

"Baptized" - ἐβαπτίσθη - "he was immersed"
I have to confess that I'm already conditioned to a particular meaning of this word, as I was raised in a family that usually attended Baptist churches. With that in mind, right off the bat I'm already understanding that being baptized involves being fully immersed in water. However, for the sake of this study, I am attempting to approach this as a beginner student of the Greek language (oh wait, I am a beginner!) and try to understand these words in the same way I would if I was learning any other language.

To begin,
I want to see if I arrive at a meaning from the immediate context. In the very next sentence it says, "when he came up out of the water". Logically, I must conclude that at some point he went down into the water. This conclusion is merely drawn from experience and/or what I've been exposed to through science. Drawing out parallel theories where 'coming up out of' would not necessarily imply 'went down into': (1) he "materialized" already in the water; (2) a great deal of water fell on him; (3) mass hallucination resulting in the crowd perceiving water where there was none (they were in the desert, maybe it was a mirage). I think I'm fairly safe in assuming that Jesus had to enter the water before He could be reported as coming up out of it.

Next, I reference some dictionary(s) The Greek word used here is
ἐβαπτίσθη (ebaptísthee).
From Thayer’s Greek Definitions:
baptizō - from baptō - Part of Speech: verb
  1. to dip repeatedly, to immerse, to submerge (of vessels sunk)
  2. to cleanse by dipping or submerging, to wash, to make clean with water, to wash one’s self, bathe
  3. to overwhelm
baptō - Part of Speech: verb
  1. to dip, dip in, immerse
  2. to dip into dye, to dye, color
From Strong’s Hebrew and Greek Dictionaries:
  • A derivative of baptō; to make whelmed (that is, fully wet)

Okay, I think that makes it pretty clear. Jesus was submerged into the Jordan River, He was "overwhelmed", He was "dipped" in the water, and brought back out of the water. He was fully immersed.

And to top it all off,
a partial reference from Bible Study Magazine, by James Montgomery Boice, in May 1989.
'Baptizo' is not to be confused with 'bapto'. The clearest example that shows the meaning of 'baptizo' is a text from the Greek poet and physician Nicander, who lived about 200 B.C. It is a recipe for making pickles and is helpful because it uses both words. Nicander says that in order to make a pickle, the vegetable should first be 'dipped' (bapto) into boiling water and then 'baptised' (baptizo) in the vinegar solution. Both verbs concern the immersing of vegetables in a solution. But the first is temporary. The second, the act of baptizing the vegetable, produces a permanent change.
What does this have to do with our study? Very little. I just think it's interesting that someone thinks that a pickle recipe from 200+ years before Jesus' birth tells us anything about what Scripture means when we read the word 'baptizo'. Language changes quite a bit in 200 years, especially in the general everyday use. While external sources can be helpful in assisting us with our study, we must be careful not to allow anecdotal or clever stories to guide us here. Interpret Scripture by Scripture (not pickle recipes).

"the Spirit descending on him like a dove"

From A Harmony of the Four Gospels, by J. W. McGarvey, LL.D. and Philip Y. Pendleton, A.B.. (1863):
That is, like a dove. All four evangelists are careful to inform us that it was not an actual dove (see Matt 3:16 Mark 1:10 Luke 3:22 John 1:32)

As a child, when I read/heard this I totally pictured a literal white dove hovering over Jesus. I still do, actually. You still see artistic renderings of this scene with exactly that. There's probably a whole series of discussions in just that topic, relating why we are directly commanded to make no graven image of God. All good intentions aside, inevitably you come away with "white dove" = Holy Spirit. Before you know it, we're assigning status and deity to the bird, our cities and streets are overrun with doves, and so on and so on. But I digress...

If not an actual bird, what idea is being conveyed here? What exactly does "ὡς περιστερὰν" or "like a dove" mean? First of all, "ὡς" is an adverb. Merriam-Webster's dictionary defines an adverb as "typically serving as a modifier of a verb, an adjective, another adverb". This is modifying a verb, and that verb is "descending". It is meant to serve as a helper to the reader in understanding how the Spirit descended. How does a dove descend? Is there anything else pertaining to the use of a dove in this passage that is pertinent to our understanding it completely? Would the dove have meant anything to the Jews of the day? The reason I ask is that in the parallel passage in Luke, he actually points out that the Spirit was in the form of a dove's body:
"the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily (σωματικῷ) form like a dove" (Luke 3:22)
In Robertson's Word Pictures it is pointed out that the "symbolism of the dove for the Holy Spirit is intelligible." Meaning that it can be understood by the reader what the dove means here, as it has long been viewed as a symbol of peace and gentleness. These characteristics hold true with what was prophesied about the coming Messiah.

Then I find one other thing really interesting: doves are the poor man's offering, under the old Levitical system of sacrifice (also the only bird allowed as a sacrifice). We see Mary bringing this offering to the temple in Luke 2:22-24; from what I can deduce, this would be indicative of the economic condition of Jesus' family. All of this really does convince me that it wasn't just a random reference to any bird, but that the dove was specifically chosen to represent the Spirit here and the witnesses to that event, if more than Jesus and John the Baptist saw it (some scholars seem to think only one or both saw/heard this event take place) would have picked up on the symbolism. So, as one reading this in the Word today, I think to impute the characteristics of a dove onto the symbol in which the Spirit took at Jesus' baptism is in line with the intent of Scripture.

The Trinity?

A quick note on how I approach my study of Scripture, related to writing these posts: I paste the passage to study into a blank post, then make some comments on what it is that I see right away, those things I know I want to study. During, but mostly after, my study do I finish writing the post. By the time I get to the last topic, I've flipped through many references, commentaries, and study aids.

I say that so that I can say this: I've seen in many commentaries and study tools that I'm obviously not the first (by a long shot) to see reference to the Trinity in this passage. Many men before me have written their own commentaries and study notes on this passage (and parallel passages in the other gospels) and made note of the same thing. We see God the Father speaking from heaven, God the Son coming up out of the waters of the Jordan, and God the Holy Spirit descending from heaven.

I stop here to ask, why is this important? What should we as students of the Word take away from this? Right away I see that this blows away any claims that the Trinity can be simply explained as God taking on one form at a time, like a costume change or something. The scene described here explicitly shows the three persons of the Trinity at one time and in one place. There is SO much to the doctrine of the Trinity, too much for this post. If you want to read more about the doctrine of the Trinity, please read this and/or this.