Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Descending Spirit and Descending Gods: A "Greek" Interpretation of the Spirit's "Descent as a Dove" in Mark 1:10

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Descending Spirit and Descending Gods: A "Greek" Interpretation of the Spirit's "Descent as a Dove" in Mark 1:10

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes non-US-ASCII text omitted.)

... (Mark 1:10)

And when he came up from the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending into him as a dove

It is well known that the Markan account of Jesus' baptism includes several echoes of Israel's Scriptures. The rending of the heavens, the heavenly voice, and the voice's words to Jesus certainly turn the reader's mind to the OT. For decades, scholars have commonly proposed that the Spirit's "descent as a dove" in Mark 1:10 is also an image drawn from Jewish literature. However, thorough searches of canonical and noncanonical Jewish texts have yet to yield an indisputable antecedent.1 Perhaps one of the reasons the motif 's origin remains puzzling is that scholars have been searching in the wrong locale. Simply because many of the allusions in Mark 1:9-11 originate from the OT does not necessarily mean that all do. Given that Jesus traditions arose in a thoroughly hellenized world, exegetes ought to consider a diversity of cultural and literary influences when analyzing Gospel stories. Several pericopes in Mark's Gospel, such as Jesus' walking on water and the transfiguration, have been identified as scenes that exhibit a confluence of Jewish and Greek literary traditions.2 A look into the world of Greek mythology may suggest that the same is true of Mark's baptism account. In the course of this article, I hope to show that the Spirit's "descent as a dove" is a motif that resonates closely with Greek mythological traditions. In order to bring to light the Greek resonances of the Spirit's descent, however, it is necessary to shift focus away from the dove, which has received a preponderance of scholarly attention, to the verse's use of a bird simile in its depiction of the Spirit's descent. By placing emphasis on the bird simile, rather than on the dove, one discerns that the Spirit's "descent as a dove" has no clear antecedent in Jewish literature precisely because the bird simile is a literary device that finds a natural home in Greek mythology-where such similes are used to describe arrivals and departures of gods.

After making the case that Greek mythology provides a logical literary home for the simile, I will explore ways in which the original author(s), tradents, and hearers of the Markan pericope might have construed the motif in terms of Jesus' identity. If, as is likely, those who handed on and received stories about Jesus had differing degrees of familiarity with Jewish and Greek cultural traditions, the images and symbols in those stories would have been variously understood.3 Accordingly, those who were familiar with Greek traditions would have been inclined to relate images and symbols in the Gospel stories to well-known themes and topoi from those traditions. I suggest that certain elements in the baptism, along with other scenes in Mark's Gospel, would have invited such individuals to associate the dove simile in Mark 1:10 with the common mythological topos of gods in human form.


The earliest Gospel reports that, as Jesus came up out of the water, he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending like a dove (.. pe..ste...) into him (Mark 1:10).4 Scholars have long sought the literary antecedent of the Spirit's birdlike descent. Hugo Gressmann, Hermann Gunkel, and Rudolf Bultmann argued that the dove motif derives from non-Jewish traditions. Gressmann and Gunkel pointed to ancient Near Eastern "Call to Kingship Sagas," and Bultmann to Persian mythology.5Most exegetes, however, consider these traditions to be too far afield and suggest that a precedent can be found in Jewish literature.6 Some prefer to identify Mark's dove with Noah's, citing as support 1 Pet 3:20-21, which compares Noah's deliverance to baptism.7 A few scholars cite passages in the OT where Israel is compared to a dove. They infer from this that Jesus is to be identified with a renewed Israel as he emerges from the baptismal waters. …

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