What Does it Mean that Jesus “Apprenticed” with John the Baptist?

ChristJohn the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
Mark 1:4-5

It’s Year B in the lectionary cycle and, in the year ahead, Ched Myers will be offering comments on the Markan texts a couple of days before the Sundays they come up in our churches (as they do unevenly in the first half of the year, consistently in the second half). This is the first of a year-long series.

With the start of the new Christian liturgical year we begin the Year B lectionary cycle. The gospel reading for this Sunday, Second Advent, features John the Baptist (Mk 1:1-8). Mark eschews any kind of birth narrative of Jesus, choosing instead to jump right into the story by invoking Isaiah words of wilderness prophecy (1:2-3; see the O.T. reading for Sunday), followed by the introduction of John (1:4-8).   By focusing first on the Baptist, Mark seems to be emphasizing the importance of Jesus’ subsequent apprenticeship to this feral figure. Unfortunately, later Christian Christological tradition has played down the significance of Jesus’ baptism (and presumed mentorship) by John, to the point of disappearing it altogether, a theological suppression that has served to depoliticize the gospel narrative.

Why did Jesus choose this wilderness prophet to apprentice to? John is portrayed by Mark as someone who has “rewilded,” subsisting on the margins of society by foraging from the land (1:6). He invites his people into the sacred waters of the Jordan for renewal—far from the domesticated ritual baths of Judea’s cities and villages.   Of course John’s costume—camel hair skins—invokes the memory of the great Elijah (2 Kg 1:8). But that story lacked “closure”: Elijah was raptured into heaven at the Jordan River (2 Kg 2:6-14). Moreover, Malachi later promised that Yahweh would send the AWOL prophet back to Israel “before the great and terrible day of the Lord” in order to turn the people around (Mal 4:5f). So Mark thus opens his story by presenting John-as-Elijah at the Jordan, exhorting the people to repent. This prophetic genealogy is far more important to Jesus’ identity than the kinship lines invoked by Matthew and Luke in their birth narratives.

Elijah challenged kings (I Kg 18-19), and so did the Baptist. The Jewish historian Josephus, a contemporary of Mark, explains that Herod Antipas, one of the successors to the dictator Herod the Great, executed John for stirring up a popular insurrection. So Mark reports that Jesus’ public ministry begins “after John is arrested by Herod” (1:14), a stark fact he later fleshes out in a flashback story (6:14-30), explaining that John was imprisoned because of public criticism of Herod’s political alliances through marriage. Jesus’ ministry in Mark thus begins with his fateful choice to publicly identify with a notorious dissident, whose days are numbered because of his vocation of speaking truth to power. This not only makes the Nazarene complicit in John’s rebel movement, but also connotes a “passing of the torch” in a prophetic revival.   Throughout the rest of his story, Mark virtually conflates Jesus’ vocation with both John’s (6:14-16; 8:28; 9:11-13; 11:30-32) and Elijah’s (9:4; 15:35f).

So what does this mean? A contemporary analogy can help our imagination. Mark wrote 40-50 years after the executions of both John and Jesus. While the first century world of Roman occupied Palestine seems remote to North American Christians, the world of Memphis, TN in April of 1968 is not. We too live less than 50 years after Martin Luther King was assassinated, in what we now know was a government conspiracy to silence his prophetic voice—exactly one year after King’s public excoriation of U.S. foreign policy in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech at Riverside church in New York.   What might it mean for us to be disciples of that Dr. King—not the domesticated saint of the national holiday? Few today dare speak as unequivocally as did King about racism, poverty and militarism, despite the fact that our government is, as in 1968, again mired in foreign military interventions while unwilling to restructure an economic system that guarantees widening social disparity. I believe that for us, apprenticing to a Kingian version of prophetic faith helps recover the political meaning of Jesus’ alignment with John the Baptist.

Mark further introduces Jesus as hailing “from Nazareth in Galilee” (1:9), emphasizing these origins throughout his story (1:24; 10:47; 14:67; 16:6). This village was obscure (Nazareth is otherwise unattested in ancient literature); but it lay a mere three miles southwest of Sepphoris, the fortress and administrative center of Herod the Great in Lower Galilee. After Herod’s death in 4 BCE, a major Judean insurrection broke out, which included the sacking of the royal armory at Sepphoris by rebels (see Josephus, Antiquities, 17:271 and Wars, 2:56). In retaliation, the Roman legate Varus razed the city and enslaved its inhabitants.

Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee, moved shortly thereafter “to impose Roman Style order” on the region by rebuilding Sepphoris, repopulating it with loyal functionaries and workers, and renaming it Autocratoris—literally… “belonging to the Emperor.” If Jesus of Nazareth labored as a construction worker in Nazareth, it is highly likely that he got work as a young man rebuilding Sepphoris, just an hour’s walk away.* Such a scenario is all too familiar to workers in Iraq or Afghanistan, the Philippines or Columbia today, who are forced to build the infrastructure of foreign military occupation in their own country. The destruction and reconstruction of Sepphoris would surely have had a profound impact on Jesus consciousness as a bitter catechism in imperial realities.

I had the opportunity this year to write the Foreword for Dr. Osvaldo Vena’s new book, Jesus, Disciple of the Kingdom: Mark’s Christology for a Community in Crisis (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Vena explores the idea that Mark’s Jesus was himself also a disciple—of God.   He rightly points out that the discipleship of Mark’s Jesus begins with the strategic and consequential choice to apprentice with the Elijah-like prophet John. And when the Baptist is silenced by Antipas, Jesus takes up his message and begins building a movement of discipleship among disenfranchised peasant fisherman (1:14-20).

Mark’s prologue portrays the world of Roman-occupied Palestine in political, social, economic and religious crisis. Historically we know that in this context, tensions stemming from imperial forces of domination and “globalization” gave rise to prophets who called their people to radical change. John took his cue from the wilderness tradition, and Jesus from John. If we are to be followers of that Jesus, we must also make choices in the conflicted terrain of our world about what prophetic traditions we apprentice to and what social movements of liberation we help build as individuals and as church. However controversial or consequential such choices may be, such is what it means to be a disciple of the Great Disciple of God’s Kingdom.


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