The first half of Mark’s Gospel is filled with action: healing and exorcisms, authoritative teaching, definitive pronouncements in legal controversies, power over nature (Sea and feeding miracles). At the mid-point Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ (8:27-30) and then the emphasis shifts to passion predictions, commands to become as children or servants and take up a cross, the disciples’ betrayal and abandonment of Jesus, and extreme mental and physical agony in the Garden followed by torture and crucifixion. Why does Mark have this jarring juxtaposition of images of Jesus’ power with his mission of suffering?
Many scholars read a “corrective Christology” into Mark. A mark of older scholarship was to see Mark’s portrait of Jesus as fitting a common type known as a “divine man” (theios anēr) in Hellenistic literature or Jewish literature under the influence of Hellenism such as Jewish historiographers or Philo on Moses, a quasi-divine apotheosized hero or ruler, magician, or sage. Jesus’ wisdom and supernatural feats fit the model in Rudolf Bultmann’s Theology of the New Testament (New York: Schribner, 1951) or Morton Smith’s “Prolegomena to A Discussion of Aretalogies, Divine Men, the Gospels and Jesus.” JBL 90 (1971): 174-19 (see “aretalogy” under genre) and more recently W.R. Telford, The Theology of the Gospel of Mark (Cambridge University Press, 1999). Others argued that Mark wished to combat this theology with an emphasis on the suffering and weakness of the cross. The thesis of Theodore Weeden (Mark: Traditions in Conflict) was that pneumatic Christians, similar to the ones opposed in Paul’s Corinthian correspondence and behind the traditions in the Johannine “signs source” or the stories of wonder-working apostles in the book of Acts, infiltrated the Markan community. They presented a “divine man” (theios aner) christology and saw themselves as both heirs of the apostles andprophets who come in Christ’s name (ego eimi or “I am”) to lead the community astray with “signs and wonders” (13:5-6, 21-22). In response, Mark undermines the presentation of a Christology of Power in the first half by focussing on the way to the cross in the second half, relentlessly polemicizes against the twelve apostles, and exposing as well as refuting their traditions through redactional insertions (e.g., they taught that only the privileged few had access to the mystery revealed by Jesus to the disciples in 4:11 but Mark adds that the hidden will be made manifest like a lamp that shines for all in 4:21-2).
While I accept the critique of Jonathan Z. Smith (Drudgery Divine: On the Comparison of Early Christianities and the Religions of Late Antiquity) of scholars who search exclusively for a Jewish background that is not contaminated by wider Greco-Roman influences in order to construct a pure genealogy for Christianity, but one in which Christians supersede this background, and so I am in favor of studying cross-cultural parallels wherever they may be found, the “divine man” thesis has fallen on hard times. It has been deconstructed as a modern scholarly construct conflating the wise philosopher and the miracle worker and attempted to assimilate too much disparate data about separate figures in antiquity to be of much analytical use (see Carl Holladay, Theios Aner in Hellenistic Judaism: A Critique of the Use of This Category in New Testament Christology [Missoula: Scholars, 1977]; J.D. Kingsbury, “The ‘Divine Man’ as the Key to Mark’s Christology: The End of an Era?” Interpretation 35 : 243-57; B. Blackburn, Theios Aner and the Markan Miracle Traditions: A Critique of the Theios Anēr Concept as an Interpretative Background of the Miracle Traditions Used by Mark [Tubingen: Mohr, 1991]; David L. Tiede, The Charismatic Figure as Miracle Worker [Missoula: SBL, 1972]; Walter L. Liefield, “The Hellenistic ‘Divine Man’ and the Figure of Jesus in the Gospels” JETS).
Still, many scholars hold that Mark has a Pauline stress on “Christ crucified” and “corrects” the Jerusalem Church’s supposed representation of Jesus as Davidic Messiah or apocalyptic Son of Man and neglect of the saving power in the weakness of the cross. Joseph Tyson (The Blindness of the Disciples in Mark JBL 80 (1961): 261-8), John Dominic Crossan (“Mark and the Relatives of Jesus” NovT 15 (1973): 81-113, Werner H. Kelber (The Kingdom in Mark: A New Place and a New Time) , and Telford (Theology) have Mark fault the Jerusalem Church for nationalistic Davidic messianism, setting up a family dynasty or a hierarchical leadership base led by Jesus’ brother James and the Twelve, exclusion of non-Jews, false expectation for the eschatological restoration of Jerusalem, etc. See some polemical passages against the Twelve or family of Jesus under “authorship.” I do not deny that Mark represents the desire of the Twelve for positions of power and authority and frequently unable to fathom the re-definition of messiahship around service and suffering, but James Crossley points out that there is no reason that the Jerusalem Church would see Torah observance as incompatible with vicarious death (cf. 2 Macc 7) and there was an expectation of the gathering of the nations in Jewish eschatological thought (“Mark’s Christology and a Scholarly Creation of a Non-Jewish Christ of Faith” in Judaism, Jewish Identities and the Gospel Tradition [London: Equinox, 2010]). An article by Norman Perrin (“The Christology of Mark: A Study in Methodology,” 125-140 in W.R. Telford, The Interpretation of Mark [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995]) argued that Mark reinterpreted “Christ” and “Son of God,” familiar titles of devotion to his readership to establish rapport with them, in light of his Son of Man Christology. Perrin saw the Caesarea Philippi (8:27-31) and Sanhedrin trial (14:55-65) as redactional: in both scenes Jesus is called “Christ” or “Son of the Blessed” by others, but he redefines the roles with his terminology of the Son of Man who must suffer or who will sit at the right hand of Power. While Son of Man sayings show up in multiple gospel traditions (e.g., the apocalyptic Son of Man), Perrin makes the case that Mark redactionally added sayings about the Son of Man’s present authority (forgive sins, Lord of Sabbath) and predictions of his death and resurrection in three days. Undoubtedly Son of Man is an important concept, but Perrin is mistaken to pit it against Jesus’ divine sonship (see JD Kingsbury, The Christology of Mark’s Gospel [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983]). After all, Jesus’ sonship is proclaimed at the baptism and transfiguration by no less an authority than God (1:11; 9:7), surely a reliable character, and at a climax of the story at the cross (15:39).
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Robert Gundry (Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993]) and Adam Winn (The Purpose of Mark’s Gospel: An Early Christian Response to Roman Imperial Propaganda [Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 2008]) argue that Mark infuses both halves with an overwhelming Christology of power. Note that the second half has the transfiguration (9:1-13), a dramatic exorcism (9:14-29), the healing of blind Bartimaeus (10:46-52), the imagery of the Son of Man in glory (13:26-27; 14:62), accurate predictive powers, Jesus’ loud shout along with supernatural omens when he dies (15:33-8), and the resurrection (16:1-8). Gundry’s thesis is that Mark depicts Jesus as fully in control to apologize to an outside audience put off by Jesus’ shameful mode of execution. Winn’s thesis is that the image of the powerful Messiah rivals the imperial propaganda about Vespasian in light of his triumph in the Jewish War and ascension to power following the tumultuous period of three short-lived emperors. For my part, I wonder if this goes too far in the other direction. I would argue that Mark wants readers to hold both images in tension – Jesus as God’s chief envoy (eschatological messenger, sign prophet like Moses and Elijah, God’s son as the Davidic Messiah, Son of Man or representative of Israel) legitimated with power and authority and Jesus as the innocent sufferer – to show that Jesus willingly relinquished his power to surrender his life out of love. It also provides a model to follow in that if the audience endure if the midst of persecution as the subjects of another kingdom and follow Jesus on the way of the cross, they will receive their recompense when the kingdom fully comes and he returns as the Son of Man in power and glory.