So then, the scholars argue, the author of Mark, whoever he was—the familiar names conventionally attached to each Gospel come later*—added the famous statement of divine favor, descending directly from the heavens as they opened. In Mark, the voice says, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased,” seeming to inform a Jesus who doesn’t yet know that this is so.
But some early versions of Luke have the voice quoting Psalm 2: “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.” Only in Matthew does it announce Jesus’ divinity to the world as though it were an ancient, fixed agreement, not a new act.
If one thing seems nearly certain to the people who read and study the Gospels for a living, it’s that this really happened: John the Baptizer—as some like to call him, to give a better sense of the original Greek’s flat-footed active form—baptized Jesus.
They believe it because it seems so unlikely, so at odds with the idea that Jesus always played the star in his own show: why would anyone have said it if it weren’t true?
Ever since serious scholarly study of the Gospels began, in the nineteenth century, its moods have ranged from the frankly skeptical—including a “mythicist” position that the story is entirely made up—to the credulous, with some archeologists still holding that it is all pretty reliable, and tombs and traces can be found if you study the texts hard enough.
The current scholarly tone is, judging from the new books, realist but pessimistic.
This curious criterion governs historical criticism of Gospel texts: the more improbable or “difficult” an episode or remark is, the likelier it is to be a true record, on the assumption that you would edit out all the weird stuff if you could, and keep it in only because the tradition is so strong that it can’t plausibly be excluded.
If Jesus says something nice, then someone is probably saying it for him; if he says something nasty, then probably he really did.
Mark invents the idea that Jesus’ secret was not that he was the “Davidic” messiah, the Arthur-like returning king, but that he was someone even bigger: the Son of God, whose return would signify the end of time and the birth of the Kingdom of God.
The literary critic Frank Kermode, in “The Genesis of Secrecy” (1979), a pioneering attempt to read Mark seriously as poetic literature, made a similar point, though his is less historical than interpretative.