Markan christology debate

Read time: 14 minutes

I have been closely following recent exchanges among a set of notable scholars regarding Mark’s christology. All good stuff, a model of civilised online debate. On one side we have those who argue that in subtle, ambiguous, indirect, and covert ways Mark presents Jesus as a figure who in some manner shares in the divine identity (Michael Bird, Chris Keith, Michael Kruger, Anthony Le Donne, Brant Pitre). On the other side are those who doubt it (James Crossley, Daniel Kirk, James McGrath, Dustin Smith, Joel Watts, Stephen Young). Some are not direct participants in the conversation but have been cited; and there are no doubt contributions out there, filling the void like dark matter, that I’ve overlooked. If I’ve mis-categorised anyone, let me know—I’m a little unclear where Crossley falls, for example. This is a partial overview of, and response to, the debate. Apologies for the length.

The narrative sweep of the Gospel

Let’s start with one of the broader hermeneutical issues that gets attention. Michael Bird insists that parallels are helpful for giving a sense of how ancient readers might have understood the story but “cannot determine purpose or overpower the narrative sweep of a text”. He is reacting, I think, against the arbitrary and polemical citation of one background text against another. Fair enough.

One problem with this statement, however, is that intertextuality has become a major factor in how we determine the shape of the Gospel narrative. If we allow that on Jesus’ lips the phrase “Son of Man” is not merely a title or an idiom of self-reference but an allusion to the symbolic or visionary drama of Daniel 7, we have to ask to what extent the story of Antiochus Epiphanes’ campaign against Judaism and the apostasy that it generated should be allowed to control our reading of the Gospel. Old Testament allusion and “narrative sweep” are not independent of each other. In the end, what we are looking for has to be an overall narrative coherence.

Which brings me to another question…. Where does the narrative sweep take us exactly? The Gospel opens with the words: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” What direction does that send us in? Yes, we have the quotation from Isaiah 40:3 to deal with, but like Isaiah Mark moves from a statement about the way of YHWH to the presentation of the servant or son who receives the Spirit of YHWH in order to fulfil the mission of YHWH. The way of YHWH is to anoint a servant in whom his soul delights (Is. 42:1).

Significantly, when Michael Kruger sets out to show that Mark “presents Jesus as God from the very opening few verses in his gospel”, he begins with the Malachi-Isaiah quotation in Mark 1:2. He fails to take into account the fact that the appearance of a messenger who will prepare the way of the Lord is framed by 1) the affirmation that Jesus is the “Son of God” in verse 1, and 2) the anointing of Jesus as the “beloved Son” in the wilderness. In the larger story, if Jesus in any sense comes in the place of YHWH, it is because he has been empowered and authorised to do so.

Bird thinks that an adoptionist reading of Jesus’ baptism may make sense “if one were immersed in the Greco-Roman context”, but not if we take “Mark’s entire story” into account. But if the statement “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased” is meant to recall Isaiah 42:1 and Psalm 2:7, then we have something that is not adoption but which still falls short of divine identity. Jesus is Israel, the chosen servant “in whom my soul delights”, upon whom YHWH puts his Spirit, who “will bring forth justice to the nations” (Is. 42:1-2, 18-19). Or he is Israel’s king, who today is not adopted but “begotten” and given the nations as his heritage (Ps. 2:7-9). In any case, we are not resorting to Greco-Roman parallels here, we are retelling a biblical story.

What else lies in the path of the narrative sweep of Mark’s Gospel? Jesus’ preaching begins with the announcement of the imminence of the kingdom of God. Unclean spirits acclaim him as the Son of God (3:11). When he calms the storm, the disciples ask, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”, but a few verses later the Gerasene demoniac cries out, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” (5:7). In the most revelatory passage in the Gospel, Jesus charges the disciples not to tell anyone that he is the Messiah, and is again identified by God as “my beloved Son” (8:29-30; 9:7). Having drunk the cup that he must drink, he will sit in his glory, but it is not for him to grant who will sit with him (10:39-40). He enters Jerusalem as the Davidic king who “comes in the name of the Lord” (see Smith). He is the “beloved son” who is sent to the vineyard and killed by the tenants (12:6-8). He is the “Lord” who sits at the right hand of YHWH until all his enemies have been put under his feet (12:35-36).

Isn’t Mark telling a story about how Jesus is the Son of God who will suffer at the hands of the authorities in Jerusalem but will be seen by his enemies to have been exalted to a position of authority to rule at the right hand of the Father (14:62)? The mockers at the cross do not raise the issue of Jesus’ divine identity. They say, “Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe” (15:32). At the moment of his death the centurion affirms, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

My impression is that those who are arguing for a divine identity christology in Mark tend to treat the salient passages in isolation from this narrative sweep—and as I’ve said before, there’s no point in defending a high view of Christ at the cost of a low view of scripture. We may choose to think that Mark allows ambiguous intimations of a different identity to show through at certain places, but the level of ambiguity entailed is such that this begins to look like a poor literary judgment. Anthony Le Donne regards the elusiveness of the hints as a virtue, but to my mind the narrative sweeps them out of consideration.

But now to the texts….

The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins

Chris Keith is prepared to concede that the story of Jesus’ healing the paralysed man is ambiguous: Mark has put Jesus in the position of the “one God”, but Jesus’ explanation could be taken to mean that “Jesus, as God’s representative, has been imbued with God’s authority as Son of Man” (2:10). But frankly, I don’t see the ambiguity. It seems highly likely that Jesus references Daniel 7:13-27 here, according to which God gives kingdom and authority to a “son of man” figure who in some manner represents righteous but persecuted Israel. The crowd then do not prostrate themselves in front of this supposedly divine Jesus; rather they “glorified God”, which points elsewhere, because he has “given such authority to men”, as Matthew puts it (Matt. 9:8).

They saw him walking on the sea

The argument that the story of Jesus’ walking on the sea echoes Job’s description of the creator God, who “walks on the sea as on ground” (Job 9:8 LXX), is in many ways compelling—especially if we think also that the curious detail that Jesus “meant to pass by (parelthein) them” is explained by Job’s statement “if he went by (parelthē) me, I would not even know” (9:11 LXX), and that Jesus’ “I am” (egō eimi) to the disciples is meant to bring to mind YHWH’s “I am” (Ex. 3:14; Is. 41:4; 43:10–11). See Brant Pitre’s helpful post for the details.

The cautious suggestion of J.R. Daniel Kirk and Stephen Young that Psalm 88:26 LXX speaks of God granting power over the sea and rivers to the Davidic king gets a mention.1 But this is a statement about the extent of the ideal Davidic kingdom, from the Euphrates to the Mediterranean. I don’t think it has any relevance for the interpretation of Mark 6:45-52.

More relevant may be Psalm 77:19-20, though I can hear Michael Bird tutting at the parallel-jumping:

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.

This helps to make sense of the connection between the walking on or through the sea and the feeding of the lost sheep in the wilderness (Mk. 6:34, 52). Both Jesus and Moses exhort their “followers”, “Take courage” (tharseite: Ex. 14:13 LXX; Mk. 6:50). The “passing by” (parelthein) of Jesus may be the “passing through” (parēlthomen, parēlthosan) the sea of the Israelites (Josh. 4:23; Neh. 9:11 LXX).

Something about the feeding of the five thousand leads Jesus immediately to “force” or “compel” (ēnagkasen) the disciples to get into the boat and set off to the other side of the lake (Mk. 6:45). There is clearly a strong dramatic link between the two incidents, even if we are at a loss to explain it. If the feeding in the wilderness casts Jesus as Moses, he is also the “one shepherd, my servant David”, whom YHWH sets over his lost and scattered sheep (Ezek. 34:23). Moses prays that the Lord will appoint a leader for Israel to succeed him so that they may not be “as sheep that have no shepherd” (Num. 27:17). To the extent that this accounts for the walking-on-the-sea incident, it seems much more likely that the disciples are challenged to recognise in Jesus the shepherd who is with them when they are struggling to make progress than to glimpse in his ghostly form the person of God. Mark’s narrative intent is made clear: the disciples were astounded because they “did not understand about the loaves” (6:52).

So I can’t help thinking that the claims for the theophanic nature of this story have been overstated—the product of an over-active theological imagination. It is not a necessary interpretation. There are ways of reading the passage, still informed intertextually, that find it much more in keeping both with the immediate context and with the “narrative sweep” of the Gospel, which asserts that Jesus is the Son or servant of God, the Messiah, who has been empowered and authorised to judge and rule at the right hand of God.

The verb parerchomai would normally have the meaning “pass by” or “pass away”, and there are other texts, in addition to Job 9:11, that are suggestive for the interpretation of this passage. For example, when God appears near the oak of Mamre, Abram says, “Lord, if perchance I have found favor before you, do not pass by (parelthēis) your servant” (Gen. 18:3 LXX); Isaiah writes: “For my God is great; the Lord will not pass me by (pareleusetai). The Lord is our judge; the Lord is our ruler; the Lord is our king; he will save us” (Is. 33:22 LXX).

But BDAG also lists the sense “to stop at a place as one comes by, come to, come by, come here”. Jesus says, for example, that the master will make his servants recline at table and will “come alongside” (parelthōn) and serve them (Lk. 12:37; cf. 17:7; 4 Macc. 11:3; Sir. 29:26; Jos. War 3:347; Ant. 1:337). There is a natural congruence between the master who comes alongside his servants who are at a table to serve them and Jesus who comes alongside his disciples who are in a boat to save them. [pullquote]The whole mystery of Jesus striding right past his struggling disciples, coyly hinting at his divinity, has vanished in a puff of smoke. Or am I missing something?[/pullquote]

It would mean that Jesus is intending to come alongside the boat but they see him and are terrified, so he must first reassure them that it is he and not a ghost before getting into the boat. Guelich, curiously, attributes an epiphanic sense of “I am” to a “pre-Markan setting”, but acknowledges that at the level of the story as presented by the evangelist, it serves merely to identify Jesus:

…Mark’s explanation (6:52) of the disciples’ response to the ensuing “rescue” (6:51) shows that the disciples did not recognize this epiphanic self-disclosure. Recognizing “it is I” to be simply Jesus’ identification of himself, the frightened disciples are then “amazed” by what happens when he joins them in the boat because they did not “understand the loaves” (6:51).2

Where the putative pre-Markan meaning comes from is not made clear. But the point to underline here, particularly bearing in mind Bird’s insistence on taking account of the “narrative sweep” of the Gospel, is that the story as it is told requires only a mundane, non-epiphanic sense for egō eimi.

Another passage in Mark should also be taken into consideration. Jesus warns his disciples in the Olivet discourse that “many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am (egō eimi)!’ and they will lead many astray” (Mk. 13:6, my translation), which associates the absolute “It is I” not with divinity but with messianic identity.

Finally, we have a similar incident in Luke. When Jesus appears to the disciples after the Emmaus Road encounter, they “were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit” (Lk. 24:37)—much like the disciples in the boat. Jesus then concretely identifies himself to them: “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself (hoti egō eimi autos). Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.”

You have heard his blasphemy

Brant Pitre asks: “Is Jesus claiming to be divine in his response to Caiaphas in Mark 14? And if he’s not, then why does Caiaphas charge him with blasphemy in the context of a question about his identity?”; and states: “Mark’s Gospel climaxes with Jesus making a divine claim in response to a question about his identity.”

Caiaphas asks Jesus, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” (Mk. 14:61). If Jesus wants to answer in the affirmative, we would expect him to say, “I am” (egō eimi), which he does, quite unremarkably. He then conflates and applies to himself two Old Testament passages (Dan. 7:13; Ps. 110:1), which speak of authority to rule over the nations given either to righteous Israel or to Israel’s king. There is a claim to divine authority here in response to a question about messianic identity. But there is no claim to divine identity. Dustin Smith holds this view.

Pitre quotes Yarbro Collins: “Being seated at the right hand of God implies being equal to God, at least in terms of authority and power.” Quite. Mark’s claim about Jesus is that he has been given authority and power to judge and rule at the right hand of God. We might call that “equality”, but we can’t call it “identity”.

As for the charge of blasphemy, James Crossley makes the obvious point that “blasphemy” covers a multitutde of sins and cannot be restricted to claims to divine identity. Ezekiel writes: ‘I have heard the voice of your blasphemies (blasphēmiōn); for you said, “The mountains of Israel are deserted; they have been given to us for food,” and you talked big against me with your mouth. I heard!’ (Ezek. 35:12–13 LXX). The Hebrew reads: “you magnified yourselves against me with your mouth”, which would account for Caiaphas’ response without foisting a claim to divine identity on the text.

In the Maccabean narratives “blasphemies” denotes unspecified impieties committed in the land—certainly not people going round claiming to be divine (1 Macc. 2:6; 2 Macc. 8:4; 15:24). Crossley also mentions a controversy over whether a person should be punished with death for “blaspheming” against the high priest Hyrcanus (Jos. Ant. 13:293-94), though presumably Caiaphas is not objecting to an insult against himself. We also have; “let this adversary of ours be esteemed like one of these wild beasts, since he has a long while reproached our army and blasphemed (blasphēmōn) our God, who yet will reduce him under my power” (Jos. Ant. 6:183). The blasphemy here is clearly not to claim to be God but to defy God. Aqiba (early 2nd century) is accused of profaning the Shekinah when he suggests that one of the thrones placed for judgment in Daniel 7:9 was for David (b. Sanh. 38b).

And so…

There’s a lot more that could be said, no doubt, on both sides. It’s an ongoing debate. My view at the moment is that the overall sweep of the Gospel, if anything, works against the idea that Mark has hidden high christological easter eggs in his text. The walking-on-the-sea episode still gives me some pause, but if there are ways of accounting for the details that preserve the narrative coherence of the Gospel—especially the connection to the feeding of the five thousand—then perhaps I am just imagining things. But it is difficult, I accept, to erase the ghostly thought from one’s mind.

Finally, let me cover my back by saying that this is not about denying trinitarian belief. It is about bringing back into focus the constructive argument, the narrative sweep, of the Synoptic Gospels, which has to do with the lordship of Jesus as a political outcome.

  • 1J.R.D. Kirk and S. Young, “I Will Set His Hand to the Sea: Psalm 88:26 LXX and Christology in Mark” (JBL 133.2, 2014), 333-40.
  • 2R.A. Guelich, Mark 1–8:26 (1989), 351.
Alex Dalton | Wed, 02/24/2016 - 21:50 | Permalink

I think the problem is that both the groups in this debate — those arguing for divine identity and those arguing for divine authority — are both missing what it means to be “Son of God”. The divine identity scholars want to equate the Son with the Father, and in that case, he is no longer the Son (they frame things in terms of him coming *as* God). The divine authority group wants to say “there’s no divine identity here”, Jesus is just the Son who is an authoritative agent of God. But Jesus being the Son, gives him a divine (not just a royal) identity. He is part of the divine family. He has God’s Spirit within him, he has *of course* been given the authority to act on God’s behalf. To be Son, is to obey *and* be *like* the Father. God Himself announces this divine relation in the narrative. The Son forgives sin, he has authority over demons, he heals the sick, controls the weather, materializes food to feed the multitudes miraculously, treads upon the sea, is seated at the Father’s right hand, etc. I can agree with the “authority” folks that the Son is not the Father, but this group of scholars seems to split hairs, saying again and again “Jesus just has divine *authority* not identity here. This really is a catch-all argument that can explain anything. There isn’t a single thing Jesus could do or say, that cannot be explained away as just having the *authority* of God.

@Alex Dalton:

But Jesus being the Son, gives him a divine (not just a royal) identity. He is part of the divine family. He has God’s Spirit within him….

Alex, thanks. How is Jesus part of a “divine family” that would exclude others? Sonship is a corporate notion. Israel is God’s son. Believers attain the same sonship that Jesus had in relation to the Father; they are fellow heirs with Christ insofar as they share in his sufferings and vindication; they are called his brothers; they also have the Spirit of God in them (Rom. 8; Gal. 4:6); they are given the same authority to heal, cast out demons, forgive sins; and as Jesus allows later in Mark, the disciples will sit with him in glory at the right hand of God (Mk. 10:40). Being “like” the Father is not a Markan emphasis.

And why does the word “Father” not occur in any of the passages that are thought to imply divine identity?

Part of the problem here, of course, is that “identity” is, or is being used as, a very slippery word. Perhaps the two sides are using the word in different ways. I would ask: what forms of language that we actually have in Mark can properly be translated in terms of “identity”? What sort of definition of identity would be appropriate in the context of Mark?

There isn’t a single thing Jesus could do or say, that cannot be explained away as just having the *authority* of God.

Why is it explaining away? If, as I’ve argued, the “narrative sweep” of the Gospel (informed by some critical passages from the Psalms and Daniel) is towards the idea that YHWH has empowered and authorised Jesus to judge and rule with respect to Israel and perhaps also the nations, why wouldn’t ambiguous texts fall in line? Why shouldn’t Mark have constructed a coherent narrative?

@Andrew Perriman:

Andrew: How is Jesus part of a “divine family” that would exclude others? Sonship is a corporate notion. Israel is God’s son. Believers attain the same sonship that Jesus had in relation to the Father; they are fellow heirs with Christ insofar as they share in his sufferings and vindication; they are called his brothers; they also have the Spirit of God in them (Rom. 8; Gal. 4:6); they are given the same authority to heal, cast out demons, forgive sins; and as Jesus allows later in Mark, the disciples will sit with him in glory at the right hand of God (Mk. 10:40). Being “like” the Father is not a Markan emphasis.

Alex: Except for some very minor quibbles (sonship is often corporate, not always IMO) I am in 100% agreement with all of this. Believers are very much within this corporate Sonship, co-crucified with Christ, co-raised, made immortal, seated with Christ in the heavens, sharing his throne and reign, becoming the dwelling place of God here and now as the new Temple; we are the fullness of God, one Spirit with God, brought within the divine family, and members of the divine body — of his flesh and of his bones, “one flesh”, the Bride, etc. Because we are now “in Christ”, we partake of the divine nature as well.

Being “like the Father” is just assumed of any son, in cultural context. To be “son of” is to be like the Father in the Mediterranean world. I would submit that this is one of the most primary and fixed meanings of the word, and the conceptual basis of its usage all throughout the Bible. As for Markan emphasis of God-likeness beyond that, all of the stuff about having authority is to do the very acts *of* the Father. Further, I don’t think we can have the fulfillment of a last Adam-typology (Adam being very created to function like the Father himself, patterned after him, in his image, etc.), we can’t have a David-like Jesus (David being a man after God’s own heart), or Jesus as a type of Israel (Israel’s righteousness being patterned after God’s in the OT), a new Moses (who was “like God” to Pharoah) without Jesus being *like* the Father in Mark. Indeed, to be a prophet in the OT is to be like God to the people, to speak his very words, be animated and supernaturally empowered by his Spirit, and often even to be pulled into the very plight of God, which they symbolically convey/typify to the people (e.g. Hosea). And we know that the point of the Gospels so often is that they were, at the same time, prophetically symbolizing the life of Christ himself, even as believers lives do now. The imitation of Christ is the imitation of God, as Christ shows us what it looks like, for a human to look like God. I think that is the whole point of Mark’s major emphasis of “following Jesus” — to be like the Son, as the Son is like the Father.

@Alex Dalton:

My view is that the sonship/participation-in-Christ theme has to do with “eschatological” suffering and martyrdom; I don’t think that in the New Testament it functions as a generic definition of being a member of the covenant people. That aside, I don’t yet see how your line of argument supports the sort of divine identity argument that Bird, et al., are putting forward, which very much assumes the uniqueness of Jesus. Keeping that debate in view, no one is arguing for hints of divine identity in Mark on the strength of statements about likeness. And likeness is not identity: I am like my brother in certain respects, but we are not the same person.

I would also question your statement that “being a son of” is to be like the father. That may often be the case, but Psalm 2 is critical for christology, and here being a Son of God does not signify likeness but inheritance. This alerts us to the fact that in the New Testament sonship is closely associated with inheritance, from Jesus’ parables of the prodigal son and the wicked tenants in the vineyard to Paul’s statements in Galatians 4:30 about the son of the free woman who inherits. It seems to me that the sonship of Jesus is not primarily about his likeness to or identity with the Father but about the expectation that he will inherit the kingdom of God.

@Andrew Perriman:

Hi Andrew — on being “in Christ”, I agree it has to do with eschatological suffering/martyrdom as well, but I’m not sure how you could subsume all of the aspects of participation under a “suffering/martyrdom” category. This is a major theme for Paul and from my reading, he sees almost every aspect of his theology through the lense of participation — from election, to atonement, justification and the sacraments, to his the concept of new creation, present/future resurrection, and glorification. Yes, believers are united to Christ in suffering, as sons/heirs, but also through resurrection and glorification (Romans 8:17). Union and participation are even grounds for ethics in Paul (1 Corinthians 6:19-20) and John (John 15:4) and the unity of believers (Romans 12:4-5, John 17:23). The idea of the church as Temple, the body of Christ, bride of Christ that becomes “one flesh” of Christ is about believers being joined to Christ and conformed to his image by his actual indwelling, in every way, not just suffering. Maybe I am missing your point here.

I am not defending the “divine identity” stuff, though I do think a) those scholars make some interesting connections and b) Jesus, as Son of God, is divine and unique. On uniqueness, see my response on that below. The divine identity folks are clearly Trinitarians and seem to want to say something like Jesus = Yahweh. I do not hold to the Trinity (nor do I even understand how it makes any sense), or the latter equation. I would have to disagree with you though, when you say that no one argues for divine identity on the basis of “likeness”. Both the divine identity folks argue on the basis of what can be called “likeness” (Jesus can forgive like Yahweh, judges like Yahweh, walks the water like Yahweh, feeds Israel like Yahweh, reveals himself in theophanies that are just *like* OT theophanies, etc.) and the divine authority/agency folks do as well (mostly all of the divine authority and agency claims are about things that God is typically said to do, that Jesus has been divinely authorized to do). Basically,we see the Son, acting just like the Father, and the two camps disagreeing about what that means. I agree on Psalm 2 being critical. Yes, this Psalm is about inheritance which itself *is* definitely about *likeness*. God is making the King *like* him in Psalm 2. He will inherit/possess and rule the earth, just like God! This is what God does. See Psalm 82:8, noting also that this is a Psalm that also equates sonship with divinity.

@Alex Dalton:

I’m not sure I can do justice to all your input, but I’ll do my best! Thanks for taking the time to engage.

I’m not sure how you could subsume all of the aspects of participation under a “suffering/martyrdom” category.

Not everything is directly about suffering/martyrdom, but the overarching story that is being told or presupposed is essentially, in my view, an eschatological one about the participation of the necessarily Christlike churches in the transformation of the ancient world, culminating in the confession of Jesus as cosmic Lord by the nations. Much of Paul’s teaching wouldn’t look out of place in a different narrative-historical context (i.e., we can make direct use of it today), but we read him better if we keep the eschatological frame in place. So, for example, the “ethics” of 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 is grounded in the relationship of believers to Christ, not only because he is the Lord who will come soon to judge the pagan world, but also because in the meantime the churches are the concrete embodiment of, and witness to, that future judgment.

Where in Mark or in texts that might have influenced Mark are conclusions expressly or unequivocally drawn about the relation of the king or son of God to YHWH on the basis of likeness?

@Andrew Perriman:

I don’t use the “identity” language personally, and I agree on vague it is, but I also think, when we’re talking about familial relations among divine beings though, specificity is going to be rather difficult. If Mark had Jesus say something like “I am the Father” (I don’t think this is true obviously), we’d still be left with a head-scratcher. I think the divine identity folks basically want to say Jesus and the Father are “one” in some sense related to their actual nature. The divine authority folks are saying they are “one” in a sense related to authority or function. Then I read some people who speak of “embodiment” which seems to be a sort of conflation of the two.

You ask “why is it explaining it away?”. My point is that no matter how explicit Jesus was in sayings or deeds, or how seemingly “divine” his attributes, it would always be the case that we could invoke a “that’s just divine authority” argument. For instance, over on the Jesus Blog Anthony Le Donne says we need to always remember the distinction betw. “divine” and mere “divine agency”, but then seems to think ” Jesus creating birds from clay and breathing life into them” in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas as a “smoking gun” demonstration of divinity, the kind Mark is specifically lacking. I’d have to disagree. What is so special here? The act of creation? Is turning clay to a bird more divine than materializing fish and loaves out of thin air? If it is the aspect of creation of life that is divine, then we could always just say that this divine attribute is delegated to Jesus. He’s not divine, but has divine authority to create.

@Andrew Perriman:

In further response to your question “How is Jesus part of a ‘divine family’ that would exclude others?”, though, as I said I think his divine Sonship is very much inclusive of his followers, I would definitely stress that Jesus is “Son of God” in a unique/special sense beyond the sense that Israel is son, even in Mark. There would be no real reason for God to make this pronouncement at the baptism, were it the case that this was just some corporate status already shared by every Israelite. This is a unique sonship in Mark only understood initially by divine/transcendent beings (the Father, demons, and I’d argue Jesus himself). In the parable of the Tenants, the “son” is the final envoy, in contradistinction to the prophets/servants sent before him. At the Transfiguration with two of Israel’s greatest prophets in his presence, Jesus is again declared the (beloved) Son by the Father. It is not “These fellas — Moses, Elijah, and Jesus — are my beloved sons”. Angels are “sons of God” in the OT, but again, in Mark 13:32, the “Son” is distinguished from them. Mark 9:7 and 12:6 indicate that God indeed expects Israel to listen to Jesus *because* of his unique status as Son.

Further there is the wider Greco-Roman context to take into account. Was Mark (writing to Rome?) ignorant of the Imperial cult? Was he ignorant of the fact that Augustus was widely known as the divine “Son of God”, and would he really have put that confession on the lips of a Roman soldier at such a climactic moment in the Gospel, were he not intending divine connotations? That seems unlikely.

Alex Dalton | Wed, 02/24/2016 - 22:26 | Permalink

“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.” (Psalm 77:19-20)

I don’t see a strong connection here at all with Jesus walking on the sea, but if we grant it, in the Psalm, it is actually God’s path on the sea. So if anything, I think, if this is the reference, it favors the divine identity argument. We’re transitioning from Jesus as Moses, to Jesus as Israel, to Jesus as Davidic shepherd, but in the actual text cited, the activity of Jesus is most congruent with what is attributed to God in the Psalm.

@Alex Dalton:

Why would we not think that Jesus = Moses, by whose hand YHWH led his people like a flock through the sea?

@Andrew Perriman:

Hi Andrew — I suppose it *could* go either way, but when I read Psalm 77, it seems the primary referent of these passages is God, with particular emphasis on his presence in the Exodus. The waters are personified as witnesses — actually seeing/fearing at the sight of God (Psalm 77:16), as the disciples see/fear Jesus (Mark 6:50). Further, just as it is Jesus who walks upon the sea, it is God himself whose “path is through the great sea” in the psalm. So I think this would really favor the divine identity interpretation if it was a good parallel, but like I said, I don’t think it is. Were Psalm 77 and Moses/the Exodus in view in the Markan miracle, I would think 1) the waters would part or dry up, and Jesus would be walking on dry ground and 2) he would actually be leading them in some sense. It seems a stretch to equate Jesus’ passage from land over the top of the water, to the boat where the disciples are where they then all ride a boat to land, to the Exodus voyage through parted waters on dry ground, leading the Israelites. Were the Exodus in view, Mark could’ve just portrayed an actual parting/crossing — especially given that there is precedent for precise typological recapitulation of this Exodus miracle both in the OT (by Joshua, Elijah, and Elisha) and by at least one other messianic claimant during the time period (Theudas). The Psalmist also makes much of the turbulent storm that is aroused by God’s presence in this great salvation event, but Mark seems to see the presence of Jesus as (miraculously) having the opposite effect (Mark 6:51). I could go further, but all in all, I think there is too much dissimilarity for this text to be very relevant.

On the contrary, I’m impressed by the resonance with OT theophanies, as Pitre lays out, and find it hard to chalk up to scholarly imagination or coincidence (particularly the “passing by”, which is very odd and in need of explanation as it stands in the verse, IMO). I don’t go the whole way here, but, at a minimum, I think Jesus is being portrayed as some sort of visible manifestation of the presence of God.

Billy North | Thu, 02/25/2016 - 17:31 | Permalink


Thank you for your post. Your argument is very compelling.

My question: If I accept the “divine authority” of Jesus and I am apprehensive or reject the high christology “divine identity” interpretation, where does that place me within the scope of Christian orthodoxy?



Andrew Perriman | Thu, 02/25/2016 - 17:40 | Permalink

In reply to by Billy North

@Billy North:

The post is only about Mark. If we take the rest of the New Testament into account, the picture becomes much more complicated. We then also need to ask how and why the language and conceptuality changed as the church in the patristic period thought through the implications of the apocalyptic narrative for the new world that was emerging. And now, if New Testament studies is reaching back for a historical, pre-theological understanding of Jesus, how do we integrate that development into continuing story of Christian belief?

Hi Andrew, if I could also submit my series of posts for your consideration (…). I am absolutely on the side of you and Kirk in not disputing trinitarian belief but respecting the individual narrative flow of the various texts of the New Testament. Crossley was my PhD advisor when I looked at the reception of Mark’s Gospel in the second century and how some Patristic theologians wrestled with Mark’s orthodoxy. Crossley has a chapter entitled “Mark’s Christology and a Scholarly Creation of a Non-Jewish Christ of Faith?” in a Festschrift for Maurice Casey that takes scholars to task for neglecting the comparative Jewish evidence for the things Jesus does in Mark’s Gospel, so I think you have generally categorized his views correctly.

Finally, though I am in general agreement with everything you have written in this post and even for seeing a Moses Christology behind the Sea and Feeding miracles, I also think there may be more to the article by Kirk and Young. In my reading of Psalm 89, the point that Yahweh has crushed chaos in establishing the created order and the Davidic kingdom, but the psalmist laments that the deity has not kept true to the dynastic promise to David and that the forces of chaos have overtaken them in the exile. So I think it could work well with Mark’s narrative that Jesus, the one elected to David’s throne as his son and his Lord, subdues the forces of chaos on God’s behalf.

@Mike K.:

Thanks, Michael, I’ve added your link with a few others to the bottom of the post. It looks like a useful set of articles.

But as regards Psalm 89…

YHWH rules the sea and crushes the chaos-monster Rahab like a carcass (9-10). The idiom of verse 25 is quite different: “I will set his hand on the sea and his right hand on the rivers.” This is not a statement about ruling the chaos of the sea but about the extent of his kingdom, similar to:

Your territory shall be from the wilderness to the Lebanon and from the River, the river Euphrates, to the western sea. (Deut. 11:24; cf. Josh. 1:4)

…[the vine of Israel] sent out its branches as far as the sea, and as far as the river its shoots. (Ps. 79:12 LXX = 80:11)

And he shall exercise dominion from sea to sea and from river to the world’s limits. (Ps. 71:8 LXX = 72:8)

…his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth (Zech 9:10)

In none of these parallels do we have the idea that Israel’s king will do what YHWH does in subduing the raging sea.

It is also not said in Psalm 89 that David will “rule the raging of the sea” or suppress the forces of chaos that threaten Israel. It is YHWH who will crush his foes before him (23). The chaos/sea motif does not recur in verses 38-52; nor is there any suggestion that a Davidic king will subdue the forces of chaos on God’s behalf. If anything, the appeal is to YHWH to remember his faithfulness, which he swore to David, and intervene to put things right—and, presumably, re-establish the monarchy.