Richard Hays and the God who walks on the sea

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). [pullquote]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.[/pullquote]

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.

I will preface this comment by saying I believe in the divinity of Jesus.

With regard to walking on the water, Peter also walks on water, presumably because Jesus enables him to do so.  Peter’s lack of faith causes him to sink.  So, at least at first blush, it looks like, because of Peter’s consummate trust in Jesus, Jesus enables him to walk on water.  You could make the argument that Jesus’ consummate trust in God serves a similar purpose.

The theme of dominion over chaos is obviously present in the story and has echoes of Genesis 1, which would lean more toward a Jesus-as-divine interpretation.  Although, Adam also has dominion over the created order in God’s name.

Phil, I too believe in the “divinity” of Jesus, though what that means in New Testament terms (broken down further into, say, Markan, Pauline, Johannine terms) and what it means in classical trinitarian terms are not, in my view, quite the same thing.

In the end the response of the disciples is to “worship” Jesus because he is a/the Son of God (Matt. 14:33). They recognize, presumably, that Jesus is in a unique relationship with God as his Father because of his exceptional trust and obedience. When the chief priests, scribes and elders mock him at the cross, they say: “He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God’” (Matt. 27:43). Trust was understood to be a defining characteristic of the relationship.

I hear you about classical trinitarian formulations.  Their abstract nature lays the foundation for all sorts of formulations and debates that I doubt are in the scope of biblical revelation at all (cf. Monophysitism).

For me, the sticking points tend to live in Johannine literature, such as the titles “Alpha and Omega” and “first and last” in the Apocalypse.

Jaco van Zyl | Fri, 11/21/2014 - 10:47 | Permalink

The book is a disappointment, yes.  It is disappointing because it is a piece of wish-driven hermeneutic to prove what they want to prove.  Theology is sadly, the only discipline which by far gets away with this wish-driven analysis of evidence.

To add to your texts above, another from Isaiah 45:14 would sufficiently explain the data in the Synoptics:

“Thus says the Lord:
The wealth of Egypt and the merchandise of Ethiopia,
    and the Sabeans, tall of stature,
shall come over to you and be yours,
    they shall follow you;
    they shall come over in chains and bow down to you.
They will make supplication (shachah) to you, saying,
    “God is with you (or “in you”, bach) alone, and there is no other;
    there is no god besides him.” “

To echo Sam Harris, “What do you do if people don’t value evidence?  What do you do if they don’t value logic?”  Richard Hays is one of those.

Yes. The problem with Hays’ figural hermeneutic is that he reads backwards not only from Jesus to the Old Testament, which is exegetically appropriate, but, at least in some areas, from the later church to Jesus—which means further that Jesus’ figural reading of the Old Testament gets misconstrued.

Thanks for the helpful Isaiah reference.

Like you, I found this bit about παρέλθειν the most impressive part of Hays’ argument that there is an intertextual relationship between Mark 6 and Job 9. The explanation of such stray details is the “ring of truth” that often confirms a larger interpretation as the right one.

Unlike you, I am generally impressed by the “divine identity” Christology pioneered by Bauckham and Hurtado and now adopted by Wright and Hays. I can see from your comments on it that you believe it is leaving out significant parts of a more complicated narrative. But what I’m not getting yet from you is a “big picture” that can also “pay off” in greater explanations of otherwise curious and unexplained details such as this παρέλθειν in Mark 6.

That’s a fair observation. Yes, I think the narrative is more complicated than these divine identity christologies suggest. More than that, it is making a point which for Jesus and his followers was seemingly much more important than what the divine identity christologies suggest. The later church was concerned with ontology. Jesus and his followers were concerned with kingdom. That is probably my central contention.

I can see that the apocalyptic narrative about kingdom might reasonably be summed up, from a later perspective, in ontological terms—and possibly, though I’m not entirely convinced, that summing up is hinted at in the Synoptic Gospels in such texts as Mark 6:45-52. But to my mind the apocalyptic narrative is the big picture in the New Testament—the story of how YHWH came to rule over the nations of ancient world through the agency of his Son. It was simply the success of that missio Dei which subsequently raised ontological questions in the Greek mind. To an extent the ontological problem is pre-empted in the claims, arising from Wisdom traditions, that Jesus was involved in the creation of all things. What I’m not sure about, to be honest, is how the apocalyptic and Wisdom narratives relate to each other—if they do at all.

I strongly agree that ontology is a Greek pursuit and that the Bible isn’t interested in it.

But the Bible is very interested in monolatry, and it seems to me that Bauckham’s categories are congruent with that interest. As he puts it in Jesus and the God of Israel, “The value of the concept of divine identity appears partly if we contrast it with a concept of divine essence or nature. Identity concerns who God is, nature concerns what God is or what divinity is.” And it seems to me that much of what Hays is doing in Reading Backwards is legitimate in light of that concern for monolatry. This is not an anachronistic or retrojected concern. It is reflected in questions asked by characters in the gospels: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

But I would gladly read more from you about what is missing or wrong about “divine identity” christology. If it is steamrolling an important narrative, flesh that out for us. Or remind me if you’ve done it elsewhere. (I have Re:Mission, The Future of the People of God, and The Coming of the Son of Man, and have benefited greatly from them all, but I don’t recall anything specifically targeted at this issue.)

There is nothing to be impressed about regarding Bauckham’s novel “Christology of Divine identity.” It is precisely this kind of sentimental infatuation with this new theological gadget that has most pro-Trinitarian theologians intrigued by its possibilities.  This again confirms this overwhelming tendency of theology to get away with wish-driven hermeneutics and messy logic.  “Thank God for Bauckham who provided an alternative to the traditional language to affirm WHAT WE WANT TO AFFIRM, namely the Trinity.”  This emotional excitement about a fundamentally flawed and incoherent proposal by Bauckham has blinded most pro-Trinitarian scholars from adequately scrutinizing it.

Something worth considering is Bauckham’s hasty and inadequate division between Creator and created.  Michael Peppard’s “Son of God in the Roman World” adequately criticises Bauckham’s proposal as historically flawed.  A good critique of this can be read here:  James Dunn has also raised some concerns over the inadequacy of this proposal (Did the First Christians Worship Jesus?,  pp. 141-144).  Dale Tuggy has pointed out Bauckham’s abuse of logical terms to push for a cherished theology here:

These compelling criticisms will obviously only resonate with those who have outgrown the compulsion to believe what they want to believe.  Cognitive dissonance can be a hard thing to resolve…