10ᐯ Jesus was coming up out of the water. Just then he saw heaven being torn open. Jesus saw the Holy Spirit coming down on him like a dove.

Mark 1:10
  • Author: Flavius Josephus
  • Created: Flavian Imperial Cult

This is one of the more challenging verses to translate, as it speaks in metaphors that aren’t clear. When I say, “the heavens opened up”, I mean that there is a great volume of rain falling. Rain doesn’t appear to be indicated here overtly, but this could be exactly what was meant or there could be a different meaning here. The ever-vague “Spirit” has no descriptive language, so this is something that was widely understood at the time of writing, but less so today. What does it mean that it descends “like a dove”? In the Greek, the spirit descends “like a pigeon”.

Of course, there are always translation difficulties that hinder understanding, but in this case, the original Greek actually contains more information. The English translation loses the indicators of who was having the experience. In the Greek, it’s clear that Jesus is having the experience of the spirit descending on himself. This is helpful in that it rules out translations that would have John sharing in these experiences. 

But what was that experience like? Was it like standing in a deluge, or a sprinkle? How is the Spirit’s descent like a dove? Loud and clumsy? If this is meant to be insulting, perhaps it is a reference to bird defecation: as if a bird shit on his head as he came out of the water and he perceived that as having been anointed. To take an insulting image further, we can project a level of hypoxia that would cause visual and aural distortions: the “opening of the heavens” and the “voice from the heavens” could have simply been hallucinations from going without oxygen for too long. The metaphor could simply have been about making a realization, much as the modern “mind blown” metaphor is used today, about alignment with Rome.