The Christology of Mark

December 5, 2012

Scholars debate whether anything in Mark rises above the categories of Jewish agency or, to borrow the terminology of Bauckham and Hurtado, presupposes that Jesus is included within the divine identity or exalted far above other intermediary figures as the co-recipient of a dyadic devotional pattern.  On the one hand, there are texts in Mark that seem to distance Jesus from God: Jesus undergoes John’s baptism rite of repentance (1:4, 9; see how this is dealt with in Matt 3:14-5; Luke 3:20; John 1:26-34), has seemingly limited power to heal at times (6:5-6; 8:23-6; cf. Matt 13:58 rewords the former and Matt/Luke omit the latter), redirects the adjective good as appropriate only for the one God (10:17; Luke 18:19; reworded in Matt 10:16-7), admitted his ignorance about who in the crowd touched him (5:31; cf. Luke 8:45; omitted in Matthew) or the end times (13:32; cf. Matt 24:36; omitted in Luke), and felt abandoned by God (15:34; cf. Matt 27:46; replaced by other words in Luke 23:46; John 19:30).  Alternatively, other scholars note that Mark 1:2-3 rewords scriptural texts about preparing Yahweh’s way to preparing the way of Jesus (=the Lord) and Gathercole argues that the I have come + purpose clause in the infinitive 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) are paralleled in angels, the heavenly Elijah, or theophanies (Preexistent Son, 92-145; audio in three parts; criticisms by James Dunn).  Further, they argue that Jesus claims prerogatives or perform deeds that only the God of Israel could do.  I will look at two examples below, but for a further bibliography see:

Jesus’ Authority to Forgive Sins?

In what came to be known as the famous trilemma that Jesus is a liar, lunatic, or Lord, C.S. Lewis (Mere Christianity) builds his case that Jesus had a divine self-understanding on the basis of his claim to forgive the paralytic.  Countless commentators agree that, in Mark 2:1-12 (cf. Matt 9:1-8/Luke 5:17-26), Jesus exercises a divine prerogative and the omniscient narrator reveals the inner thoughts of the scribes who took offense at Jesus’ blasphemy (2:6-7).  N.T. Wright has an appreciative article about Lewis (“Simply Lewis“), but adds that Lewis took a shortcut in his case that Jesus is making himself out to be God when it is more accurate, Wright presumes, to say that people find in Jesus what they would normally get in the temple where the divine presence was housed and sins forgiven.  Yet other scholars (Geza Vermes, E.P. Sanders) point out the passive tense “your sins are forgiven” suggests forgiveness is attributed to God, so Jesus is not necessarily going beyond what priests do or the exorcist who forgave the sins of the Babylonian king in the Qumran Prayer of Nabonidus (yet 4Q242 may be too fragmentary to be sure of the translation).

Johansson (2011; cf. Media CTS Symposia 2012 – “Jesus and the Forgiveness of Sins: An Indicator of Jesus’ Divine Identity”) and Hägerland (2011, unpublished paper) offer up-to-date surveys of the Jewish evidence to see if there are parallels to intermediary figures (prophets, priests, Messiah, angels, Angel of Yahweh) personally forgiving or mediating forgiveness of sins on God’s behalf, even agreeing that there is no evidence that priests pronounced an absolution for the forgiveness of sins, though they disagree whether it is totally unparalleled (cf. Josephus, Antiquities 6.92-93).  If Johansson is right that the action is without precedent, with the exception of the Angel of Yahweh who may have once been held to be the physical manifestation of the deity (Exod 23:20-1), one could see Jesus usurping an exclusive divine right.  But with the use of the divine passive and claim that the Son of Man has authority “on earth” to forgive sins, presumably it is God who granted this authority and ratifies the judgment in heaven and the parallel in Matthew 9:8 celebrates that God gave such authority to humans.  Likewise, in Mark 11:25 divine forgiveness is predicated on the disciples forgiving each other and in John 11:23 Jesus’ authorizes the disciples to forgive or retains sins.  See the debate between Michael Bird and James Crossley on Unbelievable:  Bird defends the traditional view of Jesus’ high self-understanding while Crossley insists that Jesus is not doing anything radical, translating the Greek as your sins are loosed” meaning that the paralytic’s limbs are set free of satanic bondage (cf. Luke 13:16) and that the blasphemy charge may just be over where Jesus received his authority (see Mark 3:22, 29 on the charge that Jesus is in league with Beelzebub; cf. CD 4.12-8) rather than a reaction to an implicit claim to divinity.

Power over the Waters?

When Jesus walks on water in Mark 6:48-51, many scholars see allusions to Yahweh’s power over the water (Job 9:8; Psalm 89:9), a theophany in the remark that Jesus intended “to pass by” (Exod 33:19), and the divine name in the command to not fear because “I am” (egō eimi) (Exod 3:14; Isa 43:10, 13, 25; John 8:58; 18:5) (Gundry 1993: 336-7; Hurtado 2003: 285-6; Gathercole 2006: 63-4).  This last point may be countered by the fact that the Greek could also just mean “it is I” and the disciples do not fall prostrate before him as in John 18:6.  Yet Mark’s disciples are pretty obtuse because their hearts were hardened (Mark 6:51-52), while in Matthew the disciples respond with the appropriate reverence (Matt 14:33).

Alternatively, Jesus may be compared to a liberating prophet like Moses who divided the sea in the exodus (Horsley 2001: 105).  Crossley (2010: 140-1) adds that the natural elements obey Moses who is called a god (theos) (Philo, Life of Moses 1.155-6, 158; cf. Theudas wishing to divide the waters or Rabbi Eliezer’s mastery over the elements) and the spirit of the Messiah hovers over the waters (Genesis Rabba 2.4 on Genesis 1:2).  Horsley (2001: 105) further objects that Mark would not sharply challenge Roman imperial ideology to turn around to support an Ancient Near Eastern imperial myth of the divine king who subdues the waters representing the forces of chaos.  Contrastingly, Daniel Kirk and Stephen L. Young identify Jesus as the Davidic Messiah who rules on the deity’s behalf and notice that Yahweh sets the hand of the king over the Sea (Psalm 89:25), in a Psalm that laments that God has not upheld the promises to the Davidic kingdom and may have fed into messianic hopes for the restoration of David’s line.


A theologia crucis or theologia gloriae in Mark?

August 24, 2012

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 [1981]: 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 JesusNovT 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.