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

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The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” 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 opening 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.” The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”(Mark 1:1-15 ESV)


One does not have to be a prophet to reach the conclusion that Western Civilization is in crisis.  Whatever consensus we presumed existed in the past has fractured along a bewildering number of lines that no longer can be organized in an honest fashion by utilizing terms such as “liberal” or “conservative” or “progressive” or “reactionary.”  Voices from nearly every corner of the spectrum of debate have lodged charges of “moral failure,” “economic failure,” “political failure,” “too much religion,” “not enough religion,” “the loss of values,” the “application of the wrong values,”  “the advocacy of rights,” “the loss of rights,” and throughout, the cries charging intolerance, disrespect, prejudice, and hate abound.

Even the most strident of voices in this clamor of arguments raise questions about the nature and authority of the Bible.  For those who assert some kind of allegiance to the claims of the Bible and the central role the Bible has occupied in Western Culture, the current crisis is understood as the direct result of the cultural rejection of the message of this important text.   For those who have repudiated the role of the Bible, affirming the rise of modern science and the development of a critical historiography in its place, the various challenges to the authority of the Bible that have been debated for nearly four hundred years in the West have provided conclusive proof that the future of the West depends upon the dismantling of all religion.  Yet, or maybe because of the nature of this debate, the crisis of modernity demands a reexamination of the way in which the Bible is interpreted and the possible ways it can speak to our contemporary situation.

Classical Hermeneutics

James L. Kugel, Starr Professor of Hebrew Literature at Harvard University and the Professor of Bible at Bar Ilan University in Israel recently challenged academic Biblical study by clearly drawing the differences between classical and modern hermeneutical understandings.  He argues that four principles tie together both Jewish and Christian interpretation of the Scriptures from the classical period until the beginning of the Renaissance.[i]

The first assumption is that the Bible is a “fundamentally cryptic document.”[ii]  The “cryptic” nature of the text requires the process of interpretation to uncover multiple dimensions of meaning within a particular text and assert that the meaning so uncovered is related, in some way, to the meaning of other passages found in different books arising in dissimilar historical contexts and composed by a variety of authors.

Second, the Bible is profoundly “relevant” to life.  It is “one great Book of Instruction.”[iii]   The entire canon, not just portions within the canon, is intended to provide guidance or wisdom for life.  One who studies the Bible learns the wisdom of God.

The interpretation of scripture was guided further by the third assumption.  Scripture is “perfect and perfectly harmonious.”[iv]  Creative effort was expended by the interpreter to insure that the appearance of conflict was resolved in such a way that the essential harmony of the text was preserved.  Patristic interpreters utilized a variety of methods to accomplish this task including references to the historical, moral, and spiritual meaning of a particular text.[v]

The last principle presented by Kugel is the most important.  Scripture was understood to be “divinely sanctioned, of divine provenance, or divinely inspired.”[vi] Kugel argues that the first three assumptions did not develop out of the fourth[vii] but that the history of interpretation points to the fourth one.  It is certainly the case in the history of the Church’s interpretation of the Bible. The belief that the Bible is divinely inspired and that such an understanding is supported by the Bible itself continues to be profoundly significant for the interpretation of scripture and is one of the central issues in the numerous battles concerning its interpretation.

The fact that these assumptions seem “odd” or “old fashion” to the vast majority of contemporary exegetes serves only to confirm Kugel’s basic thesis. It points out the radical “break” that has ruptured the connections between modernity and the classical tradition.  This break or rupture extends to every discipline – not just Biblical studies – and has contributed many of the peculiar features of our current social setting.  For example, most academic disciplines practice the prejudice of the “contemporary” by assuming the most recent is always the best. Accordingly, most of us “moderns” question the value or relevance of anything arising during the classical era.  This even includes the wisdom and insight one could find in ancient documents such as the Bible.

Profound and troubling questions concerning the nature of authority, the existence of “truth,” the contours of the social relationships of human existence, the nature of the self, the dimensions of meaning, and the role of virtue are either ignored or recognized as more challenging and difficult because of the “break” between modernity and the classical tradition.

The central point that I am making at this juncture is this: the broad contours of contemporary thought both within and without the academy suggest strongly that “real knowledge” (if we can speak of this at all) is limited to a very narrow range of assertions. If we can speak with certainty of “truth” it can refer only to scientifically verifiable statements.  Many thinkers even challenge the meaningfulness of scientifically informed language about the world. They argue that we can know with certainty very little because we are trapped in a closed system of mutually referent claims and, so, for many, the very notion of truth has dropped out of any meaningful dialogue.

In its most radical forms, contemporary thought is ruthlessly relativistic concerning values (that is, there are no universal values of any kind), individualistic and nominalistic in its assessment of the dimensions of reality (that is, only the concrete individual entity is real and there are no universals), physicalist and materialistic in its assertions of what is real (that is, reality is material in nature and all phenomenon can be reduced to its most basic physical components), and hedonistic in its understanding of what is good (that is, personal pleasure is above all).  These value-laden convictions shape what contemporary people are able to “see” and “hear” in and through their encounter with “reality” and, thus, make it very difficult to see and hear a different message that would open up a deeper understanding of reality and re-assert the reality of truth – a truth that changes lives and alters our experience of the world.

The Biblical Lens

The Biblical focus of this brief paper will be the heart or center of the opening section of Mark’s gospel.  In visual art the frame, the matting, and the skill of the artist draw our vision to the center of the painting and its message.  In this case, verses 1-3 and verses 14-15 provide the outer frame.  Verses 4-8 and 12-13 accent the vivid colors of the center or heart of the passage found in verses 9-11.

The opening sentence of the Gospel of Mark makes a bold proclamation:  “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” These words confront contemporary readers with jarring ambiguity.  The Gospel of Mark opens with a “titular sentence”[viii] that lacks a predicate.[ix]  It has been understood as a title, the first line of the prologue, as the first sentence of the whole gospel, or as part of a longer sentence.[x]   The challenge of the opening sentence is highlighted by the ambiguity of the words utilized.

The first word of the Gospel of Mark is “arche.”  This term has a wide range of meanings.[xi]  It can simply mean “beginning,” as the initiation of a temporal sequence, and this is how it is usually translated.  But it can also mean:  the “original material” out of which all material reality emerges; or as the unchanging “principles” that govern reality; or as the “norm” of all things; or as the “beginning and the end” of all reality identified with “logos.”  As such, the term “arche” refers also to that which has primary “power” or “dominion.”  This understanding of the term is used in Daniel 7 (LXX) and in Ephesians and Colossians, and many other passages,[xii] to name spiritual realities whose power is expressed in and through economic, social, and political structures and individual embodiments of that power.  In Mark 13 the term is used two times to indicate the radical nature of the changes that the apocalyptic context will bring.  Ultimately, Paul asserts that Jesus Christ is the “arche,” the preeminent power in whom “the fullness (pleroma) of God was pleased to dwell.”[xiii]  As Boring argues, no single English word conveys these meanings.[xiv]

“Evanggelion” is translated as good news.  This term had a particular place in the ideology of Roman rule.  It was used to announce Roman military victories and the birthday celebrations for the Emperor who was seen as savior.[xv]  The employment of this term by Mark is significant.  It points to a new savior whose rule will subvert the rule of Rome.  It is the witness of and about Jesus Christ that is “good news.”

The term “Jesus Christ” is used in Mark only here.  The text asserts that Jesus is the Christ, the “anointed one.”   It is important to note that Mark reinterprets the “traditional understanding of the royal messiah”[xvi] through his understanding of the cross and resurrection of Jesus.

Like Hosea, whose proclamation is translated into Greek in the LXX and rendered in English as “(The) beginning of the word of the Lord to Hosea (LXX),”[xvii] Mark proclaims that Jesus is the Christ who both expresses the Word of God as “Good News” and who bears or embodies the Word of God as “Good News.”  The eschatological time has come, it “is fulfilled” (vs. 15).  The rule of God is present. The only proper response is to repent or turn toward the message and the messenger as expressing the truth of reality and to believe or trust fully in the Good News of God – understood as both the content of the message and the character of the messenger.

This proclamation is set within the context of a complex history of promise and fulfillment.  The words from the “prophets” (Mark 1:2) seem to be an allusion to both Ex. 23:20 (LXX) and Mal. 3:1 (LXX)[xviii]  while verse 3 is from Isa. 40:3 (LXX).  These verses serve as reminders of the promise of one who would come and prepare for the dramatic manifestation of the LORD to his people.  Clearly, Mark understands John the Baptizer to be the one who prepares the way (vs. 4-8).

That Jesus is the one who announces the rule of God, who embodies the Good News, who defeats the “powers,” and whose sacrificial death not only redefines the role of Messiah but also provides the real victory over all that would destroy the God-established relationship and governance over human life and society is demonstrated in his faithfulness to the Spirit’s direction and his resistance to the temptations of Satan.  This very concise summary of the conflict between Jesus and Satan is the first expression in Mark of one of its dominate themes, that is, the theme of cosmic, spiritual conflict between Jesus and the “principalities and powers.”

The heart or center of the passage (vs. 9-11) is the linkage of the preaching and baptism of John with the obedience of Jesus affirmed in the apocalyptic theophany of the decent of the Spirit and the voice from Heaven which identifies this One as the “beloved son” of God.  Cate argues that the usual translation is best rendered: my only son.[xix]  This construction is used three times in Mark’s Gospel: 1:11; 9:7; and 12:6.  Each passage is significant.  Mark 9:7 contains several of the same features as 1:11 including a voice from heaven. Mark 12:6 lies in the heart of a parable of the Wicked Tenants in which Jesus emphasizes that the owner of the vineyard sent his “only” son to collect the fruit of the vineyard only after a number of slaves sent for the same purpose had been killed by the tenants.  Cate argues that Mark’s use of this word is influenced by the way LXX uses the term. This is especially evident in Gen 22:2, 12, and 16 where it is emphasized that Isaac is Abraham’s only son.[xx]  The use of “agapetos” in Mark 1:11 is profoundly significant.  The voice of God identifies Jesus as His only Son; not another slave but the Son, the incarnation of the King and Owner Himself.

The Baptism of Jesus provides a window into the Trinitarian and Christological meaning of the text.  The baptismal event is marked by the “heavens opening” (ESV) or “rending” and the Spirit descending upon Jesus in the form of a dove.  A “voice came from heaven,” a Hebraic way of announcing the voice of God, saying “You are my only Son; with you I am well pleased”  These words are drawn from Ps 2:7, a coronation Psalm, and Isa. 42:1, the first of the suffering servant songs in Isaiah.

In the symbolism of this event, Jesus is pictured as identifying with all those who would seek a deeper and fuller relationship with God and as the unique Son of God who is now present and able to provide spiritual succor for those who suffer.  In this role Jesus is the fulfillment of the priestly function.

The Trinitarian understanding of God is also expressed in the symbolism of the anointing Spirit now manifested visibly on Jesus who proclaims with power the Reign of God.  Here, in this one event, Jesus is presented as the fulfillment of the roles of prophet, priest and king.

Familiarity with this event prevents us from realizing the radical nature of this text.  Baptism was not an everyday occurrence.  The message of John challenged the sense of identity of the average Jew and called into question the role of the religious establishment.  Unmistakably, John evokes the prophets of old, especially Elijah, and breaks the perceived silence of God.  Everyone was talking, some were listening, and a few were responding to his call for repentance.  Into this charged situation comes Jesus.  He enters the water fully and is immersed.  The image is a radical one.  It is an embodiment of both birth and death.[xxi]

The imagery of Baptism easily can be seen as an embodied symbol of death, burial, and resurrection.  The Apostle Paul utilizes this symbolism in Romans 6.  Paul reminds the Romans that “all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death” and so “just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-4 NRSV). Jesus, also, makes the connection between his baptism and the cross in Mark 10:38.  It also must be noted that the “rending of the heavens” or “splitting” in Mark 1:10 is linked to the “rending” or “splitting” of the veil of the Temple in Mark 15:38.  In all of these ways the Baptism of Jesus is linked to his death and resurrection.  The context in Mark has led interpreters, additionally, to suggest that Passover motifs are also woven into the connections between baptism and death and resurrection.  The splitting of the heavens is related by these interpreters to the splitting of the waters in the Exodus.[xxii]

Here the birth images have their place.  According to Jean Danielou, the catechetical lectures of Cyril of Jerusalem contain an argument in which the water of baptism is understood as both a tomb for the sinner and a womb from which the new person emerges in a new birth in Christ.[xxiii]  In this sense, the Baptism of Jesus serves as the “birth narrative” in Mark’s gospel.

The symbolism of the “splitting” of the Heavens may also point to other important meanings.  The Heavens can be seen in general terms as the structured cosmos.  In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Heavens are created by God and provide the God-ordained structure of reality.  Even the “heavens” tell of the “glory of God” (Ps.19:1 NRSV). In this sense the “Veil of the Temple” suggests a cosmological understanding.  The temple is the place where God encounters human beings in a direct way.  The veil serves as a symbol of the separation of earth and heaven: the realm of human life and the realm of God in Heaven.  Such a distinction and separation is inviolate.  The realms are distinct.  Human life and destiny are lived out within this cosmic reality.

In the broad sense, Hellenistic thought (both Greek and Jewish) included both physical and metaphysical dimensions in its understanding of the term, “heaven or heavens.”  It was the physical firmament that stretched above the earth and it was also the realm of the powers that exercised profound control over human affairs.  Even in Jewish thought, heaven could be used as a term for God and at the same time as a spiritual realm of multiple levels where the stars were symbols of the angels and the throne of God lay beyond the highest heaven.  There is even Jewish speculation concerning the transformation of both heaven and earth at the end of time.[xxiv]

The New Testament development of these concepts includes the idea that the heavens were a given aspect of God’s creation and any changes in their structure would indicate an eschatological or apocalyptic event of great magnitude.  Such a dramatic change would point to the fulfillment of the hope of Isaiah 61:1-2:

If only You would tear the heavens open and come down,

so that mountains would quake at Your presence –

as fire kindles the brushwood, and fire causes water to boil –

to make Your name known to Your enemies,

so that nations will tremble at Your presence!

The “heavens,” understood metaphysically contained many features which served to provide a cosmic structure to human life.  It is the nature of pre-modern conceptions of reality that the “heavenly” structures of reality dictate to the “earthly” structures.  Legitimation of earthly realities depends upon their approximation to heavenly realities.    The “sacred canopy” as Luckmann and Berger termed it[xxv] provides the model for all earthy institutional manifestations.  In classical cultures cosmic realities are organized in a hierarchy or series of values or levels that serve to shape the valuation of human institutions and behaviors on earth.  The interlocking nature of the cosmic structures provided for Hellenistic thought a compelling reason to believe in the determination of life by “fate” and the static and necessary nature of ultimate realities understood as the “forms,” or the “un-moved Mover,” or the “Logos.”

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.