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. 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?
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).
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.