The “Rending of the Heavens:” The Markan Critique of Modernity as a Basis for Hope

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In Greek thought the cosmic structure has great power.  The word “stoicheia” translated “elements” or “first principles” is used to refer to the cosmic structure that dictates the “fate” of human beings.  Wink summarizes the use of this term in the New Testament with the following catalogue: [T]he “ABCs, the elementary or first principles of faith,” the “constituent elements of the physical universe,” the “basic constituents of religious existence common to Jews and Gentiles alike (rituals, festivals, laws, beliefs),” and the “first elements or founding principles of the physical universe.”[xxvi] The “elements” are unaffected by the petitions of human beings.  The structure is understood in largely impersonal terms and the elemental structures of the universe serve to confine even the gods.

The striking use of the term “splitting” or “rending” of the heavens (Mark 1:10) and the “splitting” or “rending” of the veil of the Temple (Mark 15:38) would suggest that the very structure of reality has been changed by this event.  All that had been previously “fated” is now changed.  A new order of reality has been initiated.  The social and political realities that were a product of the “old order” are now undermined.  The destiny of human beings can now be understood in new ways.  Baptism symbolizes this change.  The social boundaries are now altered, “for all of you are now one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28 NRSV), and Jesus triumphs over the “fallen powers,”[xxvii] the embodiments of the spiritual structures of the cosmos, by disarming them and making a “public example of them” (Col. 2:15 NRSV).

The accounts of the baptism of Jesus use the Dove as a symbol of the Holy Spirit.  The presence of this imagery would have been understood against a backdrop of Near Eastern and Greek ideas of the role of various goddess figures in the birth of the “hero” and, by the Diaspora Jew, in light of the role of the Spirit in identity-defining events found in the Hebrew Scriptures.[xxviii]  Most importantly, the common elements found in the accounts of creation, the flood, the crossing of the Red Sea, the entrance into the promise land through the waters of the Jordan river, and the baptism of Jesus generally employ symbols such as: the voice of God, the presence of a hovering Dove, water, cosmic division, and the creation of a new reality.[xxix]

Transformative Meaning

Taken together, the importance of water as the medium of birth and as a symbol of death, the splitting of the heavens, the decent of the Holy Spirit in the form of a Dove, and the Voice from heaven are all integrated to form a tightly drawn symbolic narrative.  This narrative tells of both birth and death, creation and the possibility of a new creation, of references back to the “Old Adam,” and of the proclamation of a “New Adam.” All of these symbolic themes are centered in the inauguration of the narrative and ministry of Jesus the Christ who, as the suffering-servant, is victorious even in death and who, by the power of God, will be raised to life to reign as King and Victor over all the forces of evil.

Thus, these opening verses of the Gospel of Mark provide clues to the cosmic significance of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and sketch an altered context in which the question of the nature of truth must be engaged.  It is a bold assertion.  It expresses a surprisingly sophisticated Christology and a nuanced understanding of the context of Hellenism to which this message of hope is announced.  A new eschatological age is beginning.  A true picture of reality is proclaimed.  Promises made and anticipations pre-figured in wide cultural expression come into focus.  Cosmic powers are engaged and dethroned. The intersection of time and eternity occurs in the One of unique personhood.  It is a calling and proclamation of something new and transformative which is centered in this one person and this one message: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15ESV).


If this reading of the opening verses of the Gospel of Mark is one that is sensitive to the parameters of a classical understanding then certain conclusions can be drawn.  Mark declares Good News.  The social, political, economic, and ideological structures of this world are not ultimate and cannot be treated as such.  Peter L. Berger writes:

The relativizers are relativized, the debunkers are debunked – indeed, relativization itself is somehow liquidated.  What follows is not, as some of the early sociologists of            knowledge feared, a total paralysis of thought.  Rather, it is a new freedom and flexibility in asking questions of truth.[xxx]

The “deflation” of the concept of truth that reduces all truth claims to a closed system of mutually referent claims is itself relativized by the “rending of the Heavens” through the action of God the Father. The powers that seek to control the lives of individuals, families, social groups, societies, and cultures have been defeated in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.  This “rending of the heavens” opens the cosmos to its true “telos,” provides hope to the hopeless, and offers the Holy Spirit to empower a transformation of personal and cultural life.  We who hear this Good News are called to follow our Lord who not only transforms lives but also transforms human culture.  A new reality is disclosed.  A new basis for truth is concretized in history.  We are now invited to join the company of culture-makers who reflect God’s own creativity in our own “sub-creation” and thereby point to the Truth that is the center all things


[i] Kugel, James L. The Bible as It Was, 552.

[ii] 18.

[iii] 19.

[iv] 20.

[v] Hall, Christopher A. Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, 132-176.

[vi] Kugel 21-22.

[vii] 23.

[viii] Collins 130.

[ix] Collins 130.

[x] Boring, M. Eugene, Mark, 29.

[xi] Delling, Gerhard. “Archo,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol I, 479-484.

[xii] Wink, Walter. Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament, 13-15, and 151-156.

[xiii] Colossians 1:18-19 (ESV)

[xiv] Boring 30.

[xv] Boring 30.

[xvi] Collins 72

[xvii] As quoted and translated by Collins 131.

[xviii] Collins 135-136.

[xix] Cate, Jeff, “The Beloved Son: The ‘Only-ness’ of Mark’s Christology” presented Spring 2009 SBL

[xx] Cate

[xxi] Provance 97-100.

[xxii] Provance 101

[xxiii] Cited by Provance 99-100.

[xxiv] Traub, “Ouranos,” TDNT, VII.512.

[xxv] Luckmann and Berger, The Sacred Canopy: The Social Construction of Reality.

[xxvi] Wink 77.

[xxvii] __________Naming the Powers.

[xxviii] See Provance 126-170.

[xxix] 146-147

[xxx] Berger, A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural, 42.