Mark Tidbits 4: Mark's High Christology

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This is the fourth post in an ongoing series of reflections on the gospel of Mark, which I haven't been very good at keeping up with. I think at this point I might just abandon it, because the long list of posts I had ready to go disappeared with my hard drive when it failed, and I'm not excited about figuring out again what I wanted to do. Also, I was doing this as I was working through the first half of Mark in a Bible study group that I'm not able to attend this semester because it meets while I'm teaching. I wanted to gather together some of the thoughts I did save in a draft of a post a number of months ago, though. Perhaps at some point I'll decide to do some more of these now and then, but this will be the last I expect to do for now.

What I wanted to do in the post I had saved as a draft was to consider two subtle clues even in the beginning of the book of Mark that run counter to a prevailing view among scholars. A number of respected scholars have claimed that Mark represents an early portrait of Jesus from a time before what the scholars call a higher christology had developed. The idea is that Jesus wasn't perceived to be anything other than the Messiah at first, and eventually he came to be identified as God. This usually puts John's gospel as the height of the high christology, at least within the New Testament itself. They might still consider the creeds a step or two beyond that.

I don't want to challenge the idea that theological understanding developed over time. Nor am I interested in arguing that every nuance to the Johannine portrait of Jesus is in the synoptic gospels, never mind in Mark, the most simple of the synoptics by many measures, including with regard to theological statements. What I want to point out is that the gospel of Mark has two important references even in the first two chapters (in Mark 1:3 and 2:10) to things that entail, but do not make explicit, a fairly high christology.

Jesus as the Son of Man

In Mark 2:10, Jesus calls himself the Son of Man. There are places in the Hebrew scriptures where someone merely human is called a son of man. It's a common title in Ezekiel for the prophet himself, and it emphasizes his humanity as opposed to any sense he might have gotten of separateness due to being the one God was using to communicate with his people at that time. There is something of that in Jesus' use, but I think it's highly likely that Jesus also intended this term to evoke Daniel 7:13-14, and there's reason to believe Mark was aware of this as he constructed his narrative.

Some of the more recent scholars (e.g. R.T. France), reflecting a major trend toward more conservative scholarship in biblical studies, have argued that Jesus picked this title because he wanted something with two features. One was that it did have messianic connections, for the sake of his genuine followers and to line up with scripture's picture of who the Messiah is. The other is that it wasn't already in use as a messianic title and wouldn't obviously refer to the Messiah to every hearer due to its other uses, and this served his purpose of hiding his mission so it wouldn't be misunderstood as a political revolution. Both themes are particularly emphasizes in Mark.

In Mark 2:10, the first use of this title in this gospel, Jesus says his healing of the paralytic was so that they might believe that the Son of Man has the authority to forgive sins. Why would Mark choose to report Jesus' first use of this title in his gospel with this account? The most likely explanation is that the title has some connection with the authority he's talking about. If so, then he was deliberately thinking of Daniel 7:13-14. It's easier to see how it relates if we have that passage in front of us:

I kept looking in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven one like a son of man was coming, and he came up to the ancient of days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion, glory and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and men of every language might serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which will not pass away; and his kindgom is one which will not be destroyed. (Dan 7:13-14, NASB, caps not in original Hebrew removed except at sentence beginnings)

It's hard to read through these two verses without seeing the authoritative commissioning of the son of man from the ancient of days, who in context must be Yahweh. There's no doubt that this is a giving over of authority well beyond any human authority before this point.

Without knowing that background, it's easy to miss what Mark is doing. He introduces a title that has this background in a passage about Jesus' authority to do something that the scribes who were present had just said (v. 7) only God can do, which is to forgive sins. The one like a son of man in Daniel 7 has been given authority and dominion over all things for eternity. The scribes are questioning the one God sent in this way and calling him blasphemous because he claims to forgive someone. Is this a low christology? I think not.

Comparison: "I Am" Statements in John

I reminds me a little of the "I am" statements in John. Gradually, throughout the fourth gospel, John tells us of Jesus' statements that he is such-and-such. I am the bread of life (Jn 6:35, 48). I am the bread that came down out of heaven (Jn 6:41). I am the living bread that came down out of heaven (Jn 6:51). I am the light of the world (Jn 8:12). I am he who bears witness of myself (Jn 8:18). Before Abraham was born, I am (Jn 8:52). I am the light of the world (Jn 9:5). I am the door of the sheep (Jn 10:7, 9). I am the good shepherd (Jn 10:11, 14). I am the resurrection and the life (Jn 11:25). I am the way, the truth, and the life (Jn 14:6). I am the vine (Jn 15:1, 5). There are others, as well.

The most likely background to these statements is Isaiah 40-48. God uses exactly this sort of language in those oracles to describe who he is in relation to his people, particularly emphasizing his uniqueness. The Greek translation of Isaiah, which those in Jesus' time would have used as their scriptures, has the exact Greek expression that John uses to translate Jesus' statements. This is not true of the Exodus background that many have tied these "I am" statements to.

Here is a sampling of the Isaiah statements. The name of God is substituted for the NASB's the LORD, in what follows, and caps have again been altered from the NASB:

I, Yahweh, am the first and with the last. I am he (Isa 41:5b). I am with you ... I am your God (Isa 41:10). I am Yahweh your God, who upholds your hand (Isa 41:13). I am Yahweh. I have called you in righteousness (Isa 42:6). I am Yahweh. That is my name. I will not give my glory to another. Nor my praise to graven images (Isa 42:8). I am Yahweh your God, the holy one of Israel, your savior (Isa 43:3). Do not fear. I am with you (Isa 43:5). You are my witnesses, declares Yahweh, and my servant whom I have chosen, in order that you may know and believe me, and understand that I am he. Before me there was no God formed, and there will be none after me. I, even I, am Yahweh; and there is no savior besides me. It is I who have declared and saved and proclaimed, and there was no strange god among you; so you are my witnesses, declares Yahweh, and I am God. Even from eternity I am he; and there is none who deliver out of my hand. I act and who can reverse it? (Isa 43:10-13).

It continues on. All these "I am" and "It is I" statements are the same Greek word in the Septuagint translation that John uses in all these statements in John. I count 16 further such references through chapter 48 beyond what I've just listed. Most of the rest are joined with some statement about there being no other, so Jesus' identification of himself with this sort of statement must mean that in some sense he is not another. He is Yahweh, come in human flesh to do the things Yahweh had promised he would do.

When you put this together with "I and the Father are one" (Jn 10:30), you get a strong argument for a high christology completely apart from the clear statements at the beginning of the book. Most of this comes from an assumed background that Jews of the time would have known easily. I think the same would have occurred with Mark's use of 'Son of Man' in a context related to authority. Mark doesn't hit you over the head with it, as John's presentation might seem to one steeped in these Isaiah passages, but it's there, and the christology that's assumed isn't all that low.

Preparing the Way of the Lord

A much stronger christological statement appears at the very outset of the book, and you're not supposed to get it on the first reading, because the clues to interpret it fully aren't even there yet when it appears. Mark 1:3 quotes Isaiah 40:3, which refers to the preparing of the way for Yahweh. Mark refers to John as the one preparing the way for Yahweh, translated as 'kurios' in the Greek of Mark, since Jews at the time of Jesus would not pronounce the name of God but simply translated it as 'kurios', their word for Lord. [Our translations today still continue this practice, though usually with all caps to distinguish it from words that truly mean "Lord", e.g. the Hebrew 'adonai' and Greek 'kurios'.] So if John the baptizer is the one preparing the way for Yahweh, the reader should look to what follows as an explanation of Yahweh arriving on the scene. What follows is that John points the way to Jesus.

The English translations and even the Greek original of Mark don't, therefore, represent everything Mark is doing here that the Jewish mind would have picked up on. The way John is preparing is the way of the Lord, i.e. Yahweh in the Hebrew. Then John prepares the way for the one the New Testament consistently calls Lord, i.e. Jesus. What does that mean about Mark's christology? Those who claim that John has a higher christology than the other gospels, particularly those who say Mark isn't concerned with Jesus' divinity, aren't paying much attention to how this text would have been received by Jews of the time. Mark has as strong a sense of Jesus' divinity as John does.

2 Comments

I do not believe that just because Yahshua said "I am ..." in reference TO HIMSELF that he meant that he was his Father Yahweh.

a href="http://www.angelfire.com/hi2/YAHWEHFrank/IAm.html

1. I made several points, only one of which is the thing you are accusing me of basing my argument solely on. I wasn't resting my argument on any one of them, but your comment assumes I was, or you wouldn't be able to treat me as if I think Jesus was claiming unity with the Father "just because" he used the words "I am". I wasn't saying that at all.

2. The arguments at the site you link to miss the point if all you think you need to do is argue that Jesus probably isn't referring to the Exodus passage. I agree. As I argue above, the "I am" statements are much closer in form to the "I am" statements of Isaiah and probably refer primarily to them. But then the argument for divinity is much stronger rather than weaker, as you assume would be the case if Jesus isn't referring to Exodus.

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