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Recognizing Jesus

Mark’s brief account of Jesus’ baptism is an excellent example of Scripture as “high context” literature which omits many important details because the author expects the listeners or readers to know them and fill in the gaps.

In “low-context” literature, no details are left out; examples are legal documents such as contracts, loan and credit card agreements, and mortgages.

Mark expected his audience to supply their distinctive cultural understanding of kinship, including paternity.


Joseph accepted Jesus as his son and embedded him into the family to give him honorable standing.

Jesus presumably leaves his family and village to come to John for baptism. This movement is very symbolic. In the ancient Mediterranean world, family is one of the central social institutions. Individuals have no identity or meaningful existence apart from the family.

Middle Eastern audiences would not miss the significance of Jesus’ symbolic break with family ties. What will he do now? A person not embedded in a family is as good as dead. Jesus has taken what seems to be a very shameful step away from his family.


The circumstances of the baptism of Jesus provide an immediate answer to this startling predicament. A voice emanating from the torn-open heavens declares Jesus to be son of God, beloved of and highly pleasing to the Father.

In the ancient world with its very primitive understanding of reproduction, it was impossible to prove who was the actual father of a child. For this reason, only when a father acknowledged a baby as his own did that boy or girl become a son or daughter.

We know that Joseph, by agreeing to marry Mary who was not pregnant by him, performed precisely this task on behalf of Jesus. Joseph accepted Jesus as his son and embedded him into the family to give him honorable standing and a secure setting in which to live.

Now that Jesus has symbolically left family and village behind, none other than God personally acknowledges him as a beloved and obedient son.

Still, one difficulty remains. Honor is a public proclamation of worth accompanied by a public acknowledgement of that worth. The torn heavens indicate that this is a public event. If not for that fact, Jesus’ experience would be quite personal and, in this society, meaningless.

Yet the text does not mention crowds or other witnesses. Who else hears this statement? Who will acknowledge and confirm this public claim to honorable status for Jesus?

Clearly, Mark expects those who hear and read the Gospel to recognize the eminent source of Jesus’ honor and provide the confirmation required. You and I are expected to recognize Jesus as the pleasing Son of God.

In the ancient Mediterranean world, Jesus’ true identity was a critically important matter. A son of an artisan from a backwater village has no legitimacy as a public figure (“Where did this man get all this? ... and they took offense at him” [Mark 6:2-3]). But the legitimacy of the son of God as a public figure is incontestable.

How do American believers “fill in the blanks” of high context passages in the Bible, such as Jesus’ baptism?

John J. Pilch
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John J. Pilch was a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible.
Go to to find out more.
Art by Martin Erspamer, OSB
from Religious Clip Art for the Liturgical Year (A, B, and C).
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