For many scholars Mark, indeed all the Synoptics, lack an explicit teaching on Christ’s pre-existence that we encounter in the Philippians hymn (Phil 2:6-11) or John’s theologically profound prologue on the Logos. However, one scholar to challenge the consensus is Simon J. Gathercole in The Pre-existent Son: Recovering the Christologies of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2006). If you haven’t read it, you can listen to an audio-recording (part 1, part 2, part 3; HT Nick Norelli and Daniel James Levy), consult the RBL reviews with a highly critical one by James Dunn or the positive one by Frank J. Matera and see how various bloggers have interacted with him here, here, here, here, here. There is also criticism in Adela & John Collins, King and Messiah as Son of God. My focus will not be on the book as a whole but mainly the parts that pertain to Mark and my notes will be a summary of its contents. In future posts I will summarize books/articles with a very different take on Mark’s Christology but will probably leave my own thoughts or critique to the end of the series.
After an introductory review of scholarship (pp. 1-20) and a chapter arguing a pre-existence christology was widespread before 70 CE in passages such as Phil 2:6-8; 2 Cor 8:9; 1 Cor 15:47; Rom 10:6; 1 Cor 8:6; Col 1:16; Gal 4:4; Rom 8:3; 1 Cor 10:4-5; Heb 1-2 (if one accepts a pre-70 date); Jude 1:5 (depending on the text-critical solution) (23-43), he moves to discuss examples of the heavenly transcendence of Christ in the Synoptics (46-79). So for Markan examples (i.e. excluding the Matthean/Lukan redaction such as “Emmanuel” or Luke’s revised call narrative of Peter)
- Jesus stands above the Twelve who symbolize Israel (55-56) and angels (Mk 13:37) (56).
- Forgives sins, which is not something priest or prophet could pronounce, nor is it a divine passive for the passage goes on to emphasize that the Son of Man “can” and “has authority” to forgive and one should not read too much into “on earth” as God also acts on earth (57-58).
- Accused of blasphemy for forgiving sins and at the trial for his claim to the heavenly throne (cf. b. Sanhedrin 38b) (59-61).
- Sea miracles as divine acts (Ps 107 [Ps 106 LXX]; Job 9:8 LXX; cf. ego eimi in Mk 6:50) (61-64)
- Jesus “Name” (Matt 28:20; 28:19) and use of ego eimi (I am) (Mk 13:6 par; Matt 7:22; 12:12) (65-67)
- The recipient of obeisance/worship. There is little evidence in Mark though the Leper and rich man fall on their knees and Jairus at Jesus’ feet (Mk 1:40; 10:17; 5:22) (69-70)
- Supernatural knowledge into people’s thoughts (cf. Marcus, Mark 1-8, p. 222) (70-71)
- “Why do you call me good” seems to distance Jesus from God, but Jesus goes on to issue a command alongside the divine commandments and thus shares in the divine goodness (74)
These passages may imply a transcendent status for Jesus, but the heart of his case is part two on the “I have come” sayings (p. 84 lists 10 sayings: Mk 1:24 [par Lk 4:34]; Matt 18:29; Mk 1:38 [Lk 4:33]; Mk 2:7 [par Matt 9:13/Lk 5:32]; Matt 5:17; Lk 12:49; Matt 10:34/Lk 12:51; Matt 10:35; Mk 10:45 [par Matt 20:28]; Lk 19:10; p. 86 on Nag Hammadi). These usually have “I have come” (ēlthon) (alternatively “the Son of Man,” “you”) + purpose clause in the infinitive (exception Mk 1:38). He excludes 3 sayings - in Matt 11:19a/Lk 7:34 the emphasis is not on “came” but on on the modus vivendi of Jesus and John and has no infinitive of purpose (88-9); Lk 9:55 has text-critical issues (89-90) and Mk 1:45 probably a reference to the Leper (90-91). Although he sees an initial plausibility to the pre-existence option as it implies a “coming” from somewhere (86-87), ch. 4 (92-111) disputes all the “false perspectives” on the formula:
- Hellenistic prophets (cf. Bultmann) with the parallel of Vespasian in Josephus War 3.400 (but Josephus is speaking about one episode in Vespasian’s life rather than his whole life and ministry [p. 96]) and Origen Against Celsus 7.9 (but Celsus is parodying Christian claims and his prophets claim to be divine [p. 96-98]) (95-99)
- Aramaic idiom for “I am here”, “I will”, “it is my task” (Jeremias), but its problems have been exposed elsewhere and it should not be imported to Greek Gospels (99-100)
- … from Nazareth. This may only be possible for a few of Mark’s sayings but is still questionable (e.g., Mk 1:38 is hardly Jesus’ movement out of obscurity if he is just sticking to small villages but rather his purpose in coming to minister).
- Prophetic commission (cf. 1 Sam 16:1-5). But others “come” out to offer the sacrifice and the emphasis is on David who comes out to be annointed (103-4). The other example is Pesikta Rabbati 20, but it does not emphasize Moses’ prophetic status but the unique function of his ascent to heaven to receive Torah.
- The Messiah (cf. Isa 61; the Baptist’s “coming one”). But the formula does not emphasize the coming per see (i.e. Jesus’ coming or presence as fulfilling prophecy) but rather the goal of the coming and there is little specific messianic functions in the sayings (107-8)
- An epiphany (Dibelius). But “come” cannot be construed as some kind of technical term and proponents are too vague on what they mean by epiphanic (108-9)
- A leader’s boast. Gathercole sees this as a frivolous suggestion and one potential example (e.g. Julius Caesar’s veni, vidi, vici) is again a single episode rather than whole purpose (109-10)
The best parallel Gathercole can find is for angels (113-47), the heavenly Elijah (137-141) and God’s own coming (or the Angel of YHWH = a divine theophany) (141-45). They come from heaven with prior intent and sum up their mission with this formula and make up the best parallel to the sayings of the gospels that imply Jesus came from heaven (113-16). He also later notes that the early reception of these sayings took it in an incarnational sense (Heb 10:9; Jn 1:9; 3:19; 6:14; 16:28; 18:37) (174). Turning to the Synoptics (148-76), lets examine his exegesis of specific Markan sayings. He sees the “us” in Mk 1:24 as not just a reference to the name “Legion” or the plurality of demons residing in the man but to the whole demonic realm, the purpose of which Jesus’ came to destroy and the demons recognize his supernatural origin as the “holy one” (cf. Deut 32:3; Ps 89:6, 7; Dan 4:17; Zech 14:5) (152). Mk 1:38 is not just a local task (e.g. 1:9 from Nazareth, 1:34 from a house) but his whole purpose of proclaiming the kingdom for which he was sent (cf. Lk 4:43) and coming forth implies from somewhere (147). A local sense is unlikely in 2:17 where his mission is to save sinners (158). Mk 10:46 sums up Jesus’ entire “first” coming and carries the implication that Jesus did not exercise his right to be served, a right no mere prophet could assume (167-68). He does note that the parable of the tenants both the servants (i.e. prophets) and the son are sent by the tenant owner, but he argues that Mark already revealed Jesus’ heavenly identity as son in the baptism and transfiguration and so readers would bring heavenly resonances to the sending of the son which they would not for the commission of the prophets (188). Much of the rest deals primarily with Matthew (i.e. critiquing the identification of Jesus with divine wisdom, Christ’s presence in Israel’s history) or Luke (the Anatolē from on high); here are a few notes from his chapters on the traditional titles (Messiah, Lord, Son of God, Son of Man) as they pertain to Markan passages. Regarding the debate over whether the Christ is David’s son or his Lord in 12:35-37, he sees a critique of the idea that the Messiah was merely David’s son when his lineage was more exalted and the passage may even suggest that the Lord was addressing him in primeval time (cf. Hebrews interpretation of Ps 110 and the heavenly Melchizedek) (236-38). Along with 1:2-3, he entertains the option that the quoted scriptures are addressed to the Son from the Father outside of narrated time in eternity past or at least that 12:35-37 may hint at the Messiah’s pre-existence at the time of David, though he admits that this is inconclusive and may point to Jesus’ eschatological lordship (250-52). 5:19-20, like 1:2-3 and 2:28, present Jesus already as the exalted Lord and very closely identified with Yahweh (244). After covering some of the history of research on the Son of Man as a pre-existent heavenly being (254-58), he notes the fit with the expectation that the Son of Man ought to be served and from where he “came” in 10:45 (259). As for Son of God, this identity is recognized by supernatural agents and miraculously by the centurion (273). Son of God could just be a royal title but this Son of God shares in the divine holiness in the battle against evil (cf. Mk 1:24), causes demons to confess and bow down before him, is proclaimed as such by God on the mount of transfiguration with his shining clothes/appearance and accompaniment by heavenly figures (Moses, Elijah) suggesting he belongs to their world, is revealed to be of heaven origins (12:34-37), is above the angels (13:32) and is divinely sent (12:6) (276). There is more but that should give an idea of how Gathercole sees a transcendent, pre-existent Christ even in the pages in Mark, so let me know what you think are the strengths and weaknesses of his case.