Satan in Mark, the earliest Gospel


4.1) Satan in Mark, the earliest Gospel: 

Testing and obstructing Jesus


Now let us turn to the Gospels.  It is generally agreed that the shortest of them, Mark, is also the earliest.

Mark starts simply, with no infancy narrative.  First he tells of John the Baptist, who announces that another man will come who will baptize not with water but with (or in) the Holy Spirit.  When Jesus appears, he takes his turn and is baptized by John like everyone else.  However, the Spirit enters the picture immediately afterwards.  For when Jesus emerges from the water, he sees the Spirit like a dove descending upon him.  Then a voice from above says, “You are my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Thereupon the Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness.  Then Mark says the following:  “He was in the wilderness for forty days, being tested by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts, and the Angels ministered to him” (Mark 1.12-13).  Mark gives no indication of what Satan’s testing of Jesus consisted.  But it is clear that it was an experience that he was required by God and the Spirit to undergo as part of his preparation.

Mark did not think it necessary to go into details, or even to state the self-evident conclusion that Jesus passed the testing with flying colors.  We may, however, be able to get some idea of what Mark had in mind for Satan’s trial of Jesus from a Jewish pseudepigraph known as the Apocalypse of Abraham (OTP 1).  It was written a generation or so after Mark, and it elaborates on the tradition of testing Abraham that we have studied above (in Genesis 22 and the Book of Jubilees).  It tells of a test of Abraham that has some similarities to Mark’s spare account



of Jesus in the wilderness, and it may be that Mark was drawing on a similar tradition.

The Apocalypse of Abraham is basically a “midrash” or meditation on the fifteenth chapter of Genesis, which tells of God’s first call to Abraham.  The Biblical text has Yahweh ordering Abraham to make sacrifice of animals, which he does, driving unclean birds away from the carcasses.  Then Abraham falls into a deep sleep and a terrifying darkness envelops him, whereupon Yahweh tells him that his offspring will be enslaved for 400 years (Gen. 15.9-13).  In contrast, in the apocalyptic midrash, God orders the sacrifices to take place on a high mountain, after a forty-day fast.  The Angel Jaoel, who has protective as well as destructive duties, accompanies him.  Arriving on Mount Horeb, Abraham finds the prescribed beasts of sacrifice and gives them to Jaoel and to the other Angels who have joined them.  Then Azazel appears in the form of an unclean bird and persistently tries to dissuade Abraham from proceeding, but Abraham refuses to respond to him (Apoc. Abr. cc. 9-14).  Azazel, we recall, was the leader of the Watcher Angels of the Book of Enoch, in charge of teaching the wrong lessons to humankind.  It is odd to see him out and about, still active, since he was supposedly imprisoned and awaiting the Last Judgment.

Mark is more traditional in having Satan perform the role of tester.  By having Angels present, he may be recalling the confrontation in Zechariah between “Jesus the High Priest” and “Devil,” as the Septuagint has it, where the Angel of Yahweh is at hand to speak in Jesus’s defense.  Of course, there is no role for animals in this schema.

After telling of Jesus’s testing in the desert, Mark continues by relating how Jesus began to gather Disciples and to heal the sick.  His first cure is of “a man in an Unclean Spirit” (Mark 1.23).  But it becomes quite obvious that it is the other way round, an unclean spirit inside a man, for this filthy or contaminated Spirit is an invisible parasite, dwelling inside the man.

However, unlike our modern indwelling parasites—germs, viruses, tapeworms, and so on—this parasite is rational, very



knowledgeable and very vocal.  It professes to know who Jesus is—he comes from Nazareth, and he is “the Holy One of God”—and it is afraid that he has come to destroy “us.”  It begs Jesus to let them alone, for they have nothing to do with him.  Jesus commands it to be silent and to come out of the man (Mark 1.23-26).  This is the “Messianic secret” that we mentioned above (chap. 3.1).

Jesus’s next cure is of Peter’s mother-in-law, who is down with a fever.  When Jesus takes her hand, the fever leaves her (Mark 1.30-31).  It could be that the fever is also thought of as an in-dwelling parasite, but it does not speak.  Later on, he cures many people who have various diseases, some of them caused by Demons—literally, “Demonic Beings” (Daimonia)—whom Jesus drives out.  These parasitic Demons are clearly the same sort of entities as the contaminated spirit encountered above; they know who Jesus is, and he commands them to be silent (Mark 1.34).

So far, there is nothing to connect the Unclean Spirits with Satan.  That will soon change.  Or will it?  I am referring to the Beelzebul incident, which many readers interpret as identifying Satan with the ruler of the Demons, in the sense of Chief Demon.  This, I believe, is a mistake.  Let’s look at the episode in question.

Mark tells us that scribes from Jerusalem explain Jesus’s ability to expel Demons by saying that he is himself possessed by the Chief Demon:  “He has Beelzebul, and by the Ruler of the Demons he casts out Demons” (Mark 3.22).  This sounds like a sarcastic jibe, like that of the Judeans in John’s Gospel when they accuse Jesus of having a Demon (see 3.1 above), but Jesus takes them seriously, or at least pretends to do so.  He calls them over and “speaks to them in parables.”  We can count five parables, given in rapid succession:

1)  “How can a satan cast out a satan?”

2)  “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.”

3)  “If a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.”



4)  “If Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.”

5)  “No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man.  Then indeed the house can be plundered.”

(Mark 3.23-27)

By failing to recognize that Jesus is making five comparisons here, to refute the notion that the Chief Demon, Beelzebul, would be interested in casting out other Demons, readers have assumed that Jesus is identifying Satan with Beelzebul, and also saying that Satan had a kingdom, that his kingdom is falling apart, that he will soon be deposed and incapacitated, and his assets confiscated.

But now that we recognize that Jesus is only making five comparisons, and that Satan is brought up in only one (or perhaps two) of them, what exactly is being said about him?  Remember, we know nothing about Satan except that he put Jesus through a forty-day test in the desert.

In the first parable, Jesus refers not to the proper name of Satan, but takes it as a common noun:  “a satan”—perhaps meaning “an adversary like Satan.”  He is saying in effect that a satan, that is, an adversary, is not likely to act against a fellow-adversary.  Because the definite article is not used here (not ho Satanas but simply satanas), it seems clear that Jesus is not speaking of Satan at this point.  But he does introduce Satan himself in the fourth parable:  it would make no sense, Jesus says, for Satan to rise up against himself.  So we must conclude that Satan is still “standing,” still securely in his place, and that his end is nowhere in sight.  At the same time we can read between the lines:  it’s too bad that Satan’s end is not imminent (and also that he is not divided against hmself).  This, however, tells us nothing about what Satan’s function is.  Except that we already know that he is a tester.

In the next chapter, instead of the mini-parables delivered to the Jerusalem scribes, Jesus tells a long parable, that of the sower and his seed, to the assembled multitudes.  Later, when his intimates ask him to explain the parable, he does so, because they have been given the secret of the kingdom of God.  Others who do not possess this secret



are told nothing more than parables, “so that they may look and not see, hear and not understand” (Mark 4.12).  Here Jesus is quoting the words of God to Isaiah that we cited above (chap. 3.3), where He orders Isaiah to deliberately mislead the people.

So, misleading the people is something that we have seen God and His prophets doing to the Israelites of old, and what Paul also said he was doing, and now we find Jesus doing the same thing.  But, as Jesus explains the parable, he indicates that there is yet another person in charge of misleading the people, namely, Satan.  He says, “Some persons are on the pathway where the word is sown, and when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them” (Mark 4.15).

That’s it for Satan in Mark, except for the episode in which Peter rebukes Jesus for saying that he must suffer and die and then rise from the dead.  Jesus rebukes Peter in turn and calls him Satan:  “Turning and looking at his Disciples, Jesus rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan!  For you are setting your mind not on Divine things but on human things'” (Mark 8.33).  Perhaps this is an example of the sort of testing that Satan put Jesus through in the wilderness, urging him to deviate from God’s plan for him.  If so, we can be sure that Jesus rebuked Satan just as forcefully as he does Peter, when he sees Peter acting in a Satanic role.

When all is said and done, Mark does not give the impression that Satan is a particularly important figure in the scheme of things.  At most, he seems to be an obstructionist.  His first activity is to induce people, including Jesus, to deviate from their duty.  His second function is to prevent people from understanding their duty—but Jesus himself does the same thing, as did God and the prophets before him, and as Paul does after him.