This last month I’ve explored some difficult Markan passages and some ways interpreters have dealt with them, but a major conundrum is how to read Mark’s christological presentation as a whole. Basically, Mark seems to divide into two halves with a heavy concentration on power in the first (healings, exorcisms, 2 sea & feeding miracles) and, after Peter’s great confession at Caesarea Philippi (8:27-30), an emphasis on servanthood and suffering (3 passion predictions, the rebuke of Peter as Satan for resisting the divine plan, the discipleship section with its call to self-denial and take up the cross, Passion narrative). Of course, such an outline is not entirely accurate as there are hints in the first half of a mission to die such as the bridegroom to be taken away (2:20) and power in the second half such as Jesus’ miraculous foreknowledge, the supernatural portents at the crucifixion or the resurrection. Yet there is a question whether undergirding the gospel is a theologia gloriae or a theologia crucis. Famous for forcefully arguing the latter, Theodore Weeden (Mark: Traditions in Conflict) put forward that charismatic pneumatics that were also opposed in Paul’s Corinthian correspondence and behind sources such as the Johannine “signs source” or stories of the wonder-working apostles (cf. Acts) infiltrated the evangelist’s community. They presented a “divine man” (theios aner) christology and themselves as heirs of the disciples and prophets who come in Christ’s name to lead believers astray with “signs and wonders” (13:5-6, 21-22). Thus Mark undermines the presentation of a Christology of Power in the first half by focussing exlusively on the journey to the cross in the second half, relentlessly polemicizes against the disciples and attempts to expose and refute traditions inherited in the Gospel with redactional omissions or insertions (e.g., the disciples are denied resurrection appearances at the end and one appearance is relocated to the transfiguraton). Some aspects of Weeden’s thesis have fallen on hard times such as the scholarly construct of the “divine man” from the disparate Greco-Roman sources (side note: I am not sure what is the latest reconstuction of the conflict of Paul with his opponents or “super-apostles” in Corinth if any Pauline bloggers want to help me out?) and Weeden’s own reconstruction of the theology of Mark’s opponents from what he discerns as “tradition” versus “redaction,” but it still is a popular position that Mark has a Pauline emphasis on “Christ crucified” and on power in weakness and polemicizes against other Jesus followers who deny such an emphasis (e.g., the Jerusalem Church which allegedly represented Jesus as authoritative Teacher or Davidic Messiah or apocalyptic Son of Man while neglecting the soteriological significance of the cross).
Alternatively, a few other scholars have argued that Mark presents an overwhelming Christology of power. Robert Gundry’s well-known commentary challenges the idea that Mark was written to a specific “Markan community” and instead argues that Mark was written to outsiders as an apologetic for why Jesus was shamefully crucified. Thus, Mark infuses both halves with a christology of power to show that Jesus is firmly in control of his fate and willingly surrenders his life (e.g., note that even on the cross Jesus does not die with a whimper but a great cry). Although he demurs from Gundry’s judgment that Mark was written for outsiders rather than fellow Jesus-followers (Gundry’s commentary often downplays the significance of Jesus’ instructions of discipleship for those within the community of followers), Adam Winn (The Purpose of Mark’s Gospel: An Early Christian Response to Roman Imperial Propaganda) largely follows Gundry on this point and argues that the presentation of the powerful Messiah is meant to rival the imperial propaganda about the emperor Vespasian in light of his triumph in the Jewish War and ascension to power after a tumultuous period in Rome (e.g., the 3 shortlived emperors after the suicide of Nero). Again, I am not quite sure some of the parallels with Vespasian are as strong as Winn supposes nor sure that Mark was composed in Rome, but I have no problem with the idea that Mark challenges the imperial cult with the “good news” (euangelion) of Jesus Christ. For my part, I wonder if both halves ought to be held in tension and one should not be overemphasized at the expense of the other. On the one hand, in response to real (or perceived) persecution at the hands of political and religious authorities Mark reminds readers about the heavy price of discipleship but also that Jesus is a model to follow as he had already walked the path of humility, extreme suffering and death on their behalf. This also seems to me to partly explain the theme of the messianic secret as Jesus’ messianic identity cannot be fully understood apart from Mark’s redefinition of the task revolving around the cross. On the other hand, it hardly seems to me that the evangelist would spend over half the gospel presenting a “Christology of Power” that (s)he rejected (and indeed there is power in the second half as well) and it would be more comforting to Mark’s readers, not that Jesus was weak, but that Jesus was indeed powerful and after willingly relinquishing his life he was vindicated by God at the empty tomb and will return as the powerful Son of Man to vindicate his suffering followers. Where do you think the weight of Mark’s christology lies – power or suffering?