People who read this blog regularly will know that I am generally rather sceptical about claims that the writers of the Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark and Luke—intended to present Jesus as God. See, for example, “Jesus as Lord in Mark” or “Simon Gathercole’s argument about pre-existence and divine identity in the Synoptics”. I’m not saying that the idea does not occur, in some form or other, elsewhere in the New Testament, or that the later church was wrong to construct its theology in formal trinitarian terms. I am well disposed towards the view that the divine emperor paradigm was a significant factor in the development of the “kingdom” argument, providing a bridge between the early apocalypticism and the later metaphysics. But I am concerned that in our zeal to establish an early high christology we risk misrepresenting what is actually happening in the Synoptic Gospels, which is kingdom, not incarnation.
So I’m a bit disappointed with Richard Hays’ new book Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness. I am on board with the theoretical argument about the use of scripture in the Gospels (I won’t try to explain here how his idea of a figural reading backwards is compatible with the stress I have placed on a historical reading forwards). But I am not persuaded by the exegetical conclusions he is drawing about Jesus’ divine identity—with one possible exception.
In the chapter on Mark, Hays makes much of the fact that John’s ministry is introduced with the combined quotation from Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3:
As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight….’” (Mk. 1:2–3)
Hays asks whether we should not “draw the obvious inference that, for Mark, Jesus is in fact to be identified with the Kyrios of whom Isaiah speaks” (20). The argument is also made with reference to Luke (62-64).
Clearly Jesus will constitute in some sense the fulfilment of the prophetic conviction that YHWH is about to come to his people first to judge (Malachi) and then to deliver (Isaiah). But when he appears in the story of John’s activity shortly after, he takes the part not of YHWH but of the obedient and beloved Son, who is the victim Isaac (Gen. 22:2), or the servant Israel (Is. 42:1), or Israel’s king (Ps. 2:7): ‘a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased”’ (Mk. 1:11). Jesus enters the wilderness not as the God who will lead his people back from exile but as obedient Israel, determined to put God first (Matt. 4:1-11). The point, it seems to me, is that YHWH will intervene in the affairs of Israel through his faithful servant. John prepares the way for the Lord who will deliver his people by means of his Son.
The next three passages from Mark that Hays discusses (21-24) to my mind point not to identity with YHWH but to the delegation of authority to Jesus. Hays acknowledges that Jesus’ forgiving of the sins of the paralytic (Mk. 2:1-12) could be interpreted in this way—he quotes Joel Marcus: “Thus, for Mark, the heavenly God remains the ultimate forgiver, but at the climax of history he has delegated his power of absolution to a ‘Son of Man’ who carries out his gracious will in the earthly sphere” (117 fn. 12). He thinks, however, that “in light of the already noted identification of Jesus as the Kyrios…, the reader of Mark’s Gospel may ponder at least the possibility that his sovereign authority to forgive sins is not just delegated” (22). This is already a very hesitant statement, but if, as I have argued, it is not so obviously the case that Jesus is implicitly the divine Kyrios of Isaiah 40:3, there is little reason to suppose that a direct identification with YHWH is intended here.
Secondly, the story of the calming of the storm in Mark 4:35-41 is no doubt meant to recall Psalm 107: exiled Jews are caught in storms at sea; they cry out to the Lord, and he delivers them from their distress: “He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.” But to infer an identification of Jesus with God from this is unwarranted. Jesus has authority over the elements because it has been given to him. When they reach the other side, a demoniac recognizes him as “Son of the Most High God”, and it is clearly in this capacity—as the obedient Son to whom God has given authority—that he permits the demons known as Legion to enter a herd of pigs and destroy themselves in the sea (Mk. 5:1-13).
Thirdly, Hays thinks that Jesus is implicitly identified with God when Mark says that he had compassion on the crowd “because they were like sheep without a shepherd” (Mk. 6:34). But if Ezekiel can differentiate between YHWH as the shepherd who seeks out his sheep and feeds them and David as the shepherd whom YHWH sets over his sheep to feed them (Ezek. 34:22-23), we are hardly bound to conclude that Mark means Jesus, who is explicitly “Son of God”, to be viewed as the divine shepherd rather than the Davidic shepherd.
But I am in two minds about Hays’ reading of Mark’s account of Jesus walking on the sea of Galilee (Mk. 6:45-52). He points to the relevance of this passage from Job, particularly in the Septuagint version:
[The Lord] alone stretched out the sky and walks on the sea as on dry ground…. If he passed over me, I would certainly not see him, and if he went by (parelthēi) me, I would not even know. (Job 9:8–11 LXX)
He suggests that this gives us not only the literary precedent of God walking on the sea but also an explanation for the peculiar detail in Mark that Jesus “meant to pass by them (parelthein autous)”. Like Job, the disciples appear not to recognize the one who passes by. If there is also an allusion to YHWH passing by Moses hidden in a cleft in the rock (Exod. 33:17-23; 34:6), then there are theophanic overtones: Jesus is revealed to the disciples as the God who created the heavens and the earth. And perhaps we should read Jesus’ “Take heart; it is I (egō eimi)” as a massive hint (wink, wink!) that Jesus thought of himself as the God who spoke from the burning bush: “I am who I am” (LXX: egō eimi ho ōn)? I would dismiss the references to Exodus as tenuous, but otherwise the argument does not seem too far-fetched, at least when taken in isolation.
The alternative interpretive background would be the exodus crossing of the sea. Psalm 77:19-20, for example, links walking through the sea with the shepherd image:
Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen. You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron. (Ps. 77:19–20)
As Hays points out, this is a walking through rather than on the sea, but such a tradition would make sense of the collocation of the feeding in the wilderness and the walking on the sea, the importance of which is underlined by Mark’s closing statement: “they were utterly astounded, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened” (Mk. 6:51–52). We can also account for Jesus’ intention to pass by: he is acting out the passing of the people of Israel through the sea (cf. Josh. 4:23; Neh. 9:11 LXX)—this is Morna Hooker’s view (The Gospel According to St Mark, 170); and in Matthew’s retelling of the story Jesus invites Peter to make the difficult journey of faith with him (Matt. 14:28-31). Jesus says to his disciples, “Take courage” (tharseite); Moses says to the people before the parting of the sea, “Take courage” (tharseite: Ex. 14:13).
The Nehemiah passage may be relevant in other ways:
And you broke asunder the sea before them, and they passed through (parēlthosan) in the midst of the sea on dry land, and those who pursued them closely you threw into the depths, like a stone in violent water.
If we superimpose this crossing of the sea on the earlier one, when Jesus cast out the legion of demons on reaching the other side, we may wonder if there isn’t a broad exodus-exile typology at work here. On the authority of YHWH Jesus plays the part of the shepherd Moses, comes to the aid of distressed Israel, and leads them through the sea towards a new home (beyond the borders of Israel?), overcoming the pagan oppressor, which will be destroyed in the sea like the armies of Pharaoh.
Perhaps in the end I lean towards the second explanation, but that may simply reflect my general bias.