Narrative, a Jewish Jesus, and early high Christology

Read time: 7 minutes

I heard Rikk Watts from Regent College, Vancouver, talk this week to a group of church leaders about what’s currently going on in theology. He began with some good reflections on the challenges facing anyone trying to keep track of developments across the ever-expanding—or ever more boggy—field of New Testament studies. To paraphrase his paraphrase of Bernard Lonergan, there are good ways of not knowing everything and bad ways of not knowing everything.

But the core of his argument with respect to the New Testament was that we are steadily abandoning systematic constructions of theology in favour of 1) a historical narrative about 2) a thoroughly Jewish Jesus, which 3) has been shown nevertheless to generate an early high christology. And boy, was he pleased about that!

“As it is written in Isaiah the prophet…”

The example he gave was the opening of Mark’s Gospel. The appearance of John the Baptist is prefaced in Mark 1:2-3 with a combined quotation from Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3, by which Israel’s story is invoked:

Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me.

A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Malachi is speaking about the coming of YHWH to judge wickedness in Israel and reform a corrupt temple system. Isaiah has in mind the coming of YHWH to deliver his people from their captivity in Babylon and bring Jerusalem’s humiliation to an end. Neither, according to Watts, mentions a messiah. The implication, therefore, is that John is the “messenger” who prepares the way for Jesus, who must be YHWH in person.

Mark has made some changes to the Malachi text: “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way….” The wording may reflect Exodus 23:20 LXX, which I’ll come to in a moment. Guelich notes this and argues, as others have done, that “your” refers to Jesus:

Though Jesus has not yet personally entered the scene, the evangelist assumes the reader understands Jesus to be the “Lord” of 1:3 and thus the “you” of 1:2b whose way is prepared by the following events in 1:4–8.1

But the further inference has been made that Mark is in this way directly identifying Jesus with YHWH, who is the “Lord” in Isaiah’s text. For example, Bauckham:

The parallelism of ‘your [i.e. Jesus’] way’ and ‘the way of the Lord’… is an instance of the common early Christian practice of applying to Jesus Old Testament texts that use the divine name.2

So Rikk Watts argued that in this opening scene Mark portrays Jesus first as God, as YHWH coming to save Israel by way of a second—strictly a third—exodus through the wilderness (1:2-3); and then as man, as the anointed servant who is baptised by John (1:10-11). [pullquote]Rikk is a delightful fellow and a great champion of narrative approaches to theology, but he left me unpersuaded on the christological point.[/pullquote]

I add my usual caveat: this is not an argument against the divinity of Jesus; it is an argument—or part of an argument—about how the Jewish narrative brought the church fathers to the point at which they had no choice but to assert categorically that Jesus is God.

“I send my messenger before your face…”

The statement “I am sending my angelos (messenger or angel) before your face” is found word-for-word in Exodus 23:20 LXX: God is sending an angel ahead of Israel to guard them on their journey to the “land that I prepared for you”. If this has influenced the peculiar wording of Mark 1:2, then we should allow for the possibility that this is a statement about Jesus as Israel journeying to the land, as part of an underlying exodus typology. Matthew makes much more of this theme.

But in any case, in Mark’s construction of the narrative, it is not the prophet but YHWH who speaks. YHWH says to Jesus that he is sending a messenger to prepare a way for him. Having made changes to Malachi 3:1 which differentiate between God who speaks (“I send my messenger”) and the person addressed (“who will prepare your way”), it seems very unlikely that Mark intended his readers to infer an identification of Jesus as Lord with YHWH as Lord.

The same differentiation is found in the saying about David’s Lord: the kyrios who is YHWH invites the kyrios who is a greater king than David to sit at his right hand and rule in the midst of his enemies (Mk. 12:35-36; cf. Ps. 110:1-2). Jesus is kyrios because he will be given authority to rule.

We also need to take into account Jesus’ identification of himself as the Son of Man who has “authority on earth to forgive sins” (Mk. 2:10). What was regarded as a divine prerogative has been delegated to him—Matthew has the crowds glorifying YHWH because he has “given such authority to men” (Matt. 9:7). It is a remarkable enough development, but it presupposes difference not identity.

“After me comes he who is mightier than I…”

John thinks that a “mightier” person is coming, “the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie” (Mk. 1:7). But the superiority of this person consists in the fact that he will baptise not with water but with the Holy Spirit. We might suppose that it is God who gives the Holy Spirit, but when Peter explains the events of the Day of Pentecost, he says that having received the “promise of the Holy Spirit” from the Father, Jesus has “poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing” (Acts 2:33).

There is some reason to think that Luke compares Jesus to Moses, who “ascended” and received the gift of the Law to give to Israel, but the point is perhaps more likely to be that, having received the Spirit at his baptism, Jesus, now seated at the right hand of God, has poured out the same Spirit on his followers, who will therefore be the Christ-like servant community through which YHWH will bring about his purposes.

“You are my beloved Son…”

If Isaiah 40 begins with a statement about the coming of YHWH, who will overrule nations and rescue his people, very quickly we are presented with the servant of YHWH, “my chosen, in whom my soul delights” (Is. 42:1; cf. 41:8-9). YHWH has put his Spirit upon him. The Lord who stretched out the heavens and spread out the earth has called his servant Jacob and will give him “as a covenant for the people, a light for the nations” (42:5-6). The way is prepared for YHWH, but what happens is that YHWH declares his delight in his servant and states his intention to use him to bring about his purposes. Indeed, YHWH’s servant Israel is itself the means by which the mountains will be levelled for the journey through the wilderness:

Behold, I make of you a threshing sledge, new, sharp, and having teeth; you shall thresh the mountains and crush them, and you shall make the hills like chaff; you shall winnow them, and the wind shall carry them away, and the tempest shall scatter them. (Is. 41:15–16)

Malachi, admittedly, does not have this servant figure. But we are told what will happen to the righteous, those “who fear my name”, when the day of fire comes to burn up the arrogant and evildoers like stubble. The “sun of righteousness” will rise to heal them; and they will “tread down the wicked”, who will be ashes under their feet, “on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts” (Mal. 4:3). Jesus is not spoken of in such terms, but it points to the fact that a community of the persecuted righteous, whether or not represented by a singular suffering servant or Son of Man, is expected to play a crucial role on the day of God’s wrath against Israel.

This all suggests to me that if YHWH chooses to address his Son in terms that in their original context referred to YHWH himself, it is because he intends to give to him a supreme authority—as his servant, as the Son of Man who suffers because of his obedience to the Father, as the one who will be elevated to a position of royal authority superior to David’s—to act on his behalf at this time of eschatological crisis.

The key christological question at this point is not how the human servant is also YHWH, but how the servant will become the exalted Lord at the right hand of God. In my view, the answer to that question is given in the story of the Son of Man, who is the suffering servant but who is given the kingdom. Mark’s narrative climaxes in Jesus’ declaration to Caiaphas that he will “see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mk. 14:62). It is the Son or servant who suffers who will receive supreme authority to exercise YHWH’s rule with respect both to Israel and to the nations.

  • 1R.A. Guelich, Mark 1–8:26 (WBC, 1989), 11.
  • 2R. Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel (2008), 265.

HI Andrew, Barney suggested that I take a look at your blog. Thanks for engaging, and I do apologize that I was unable to give more of the reasoning behind my position, but it didn’t seem appropriate given the nature of my talk and the general make-up of the audience. But if you’d like to follow it up, there’s a longish section in my published dissertation, Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark (WUNT 1997/Baker), pp. 61-90, and more recently with some developments in Beale and Carson, OT in the NT, “Mark,” 113-22. But yes, I am delighted that Jesus’ Jewishness is at long last being taken seriously, with all that this entails, but that’s a longer conversation. Barney tells me you are a Pauline scholar—congratulations—I wish I’d known. I’m sorry too that we didn’t have the time to explore these issues in depth in person; it might have helped clarify much.

So a couple of suggestions if I may:

a) it is of course Mal who first takes up Exod 23:20, but alas not quite word for word; there’s a critical change to a key verb (from Exod’s “guard” to “prepare”) which is the verb Mark uses. This, along with Mark’s following emphases on John as Elijah (notably 9:13), suggests that Mark’s interest is Malachi not Exod. If that’s so, it’s difficult to see how one can get “the messenger preparing for Jesus as Israel” out of Malachi. Both Isaiah and Malachi are looking for the return of Yahweh to his temple.

b) it might be worth paying a bit more attention to the contexts of Mark’s use of Ps 110 and the crowd’s acclamation in Mt 9. The former I discuss in more detail in Beale and Carson, and re the latter, I’m not sure that one reference to the largely uncomprehending crowds is our best guide to Matthew’s Christology.

c) it might also be worth doing some work on who, in Israel’s Scriptures, is characteristically described as the “Mighty One” (especially in Isaiah, given Mark’s opening attribution) and who alone (of course) in Israel’s tradition pours out his Spirit. The implications of the comparative (“strongER”) are also worth pursuing—in the kind context we find re Mark/John Baptist, this only ever describes Yahweh. If John is Elijah it might be worth noting that Elijah is first and foremost associated not with the coming of the Messiah but Yahweh himself. This being so, could not the Acts citation, where Jesus does what only Yahweh can do, instead be argued to include Jesus in Israel’s conception of Yahweh? (See e.g. Paul’s inclusion of Jesus in the Shema (1 Cor 8:6).

d) can I suggest that appealing to the baptism is, sorry to be so blunt, a red herring? The question is not whether Jesus was human (Davidic Messiah etc.)—which in my thesis and other publications I strongly affirm—but whether he is also Yahweh. To appeal as you do to the baptism is to beg the question. I.e. to affirm the positive (that Jesus is son) simply does not establish the negative (he cannot be Yahweh). I think there’s a basic confusion here of two grammars that Israel’s Scriptures keep quite separate : i.e. language ABOUT Yahweh (Isa 40; Mal 3; mighty one, baptizer in the Spirit, forgiver of sins, Israel’s bridegroom, ruler of the stormy seas, etc. etc.) is quite distinct from language that Yahweh USES OF Israel, David, and his servant (son, beloved, begotten, firstborn, etc.). My guess is that the centuries later post-apostolic theologians would have saved themselves a great deal of trouble in their rumination on how Jesus could be both God and son if they’d been mindful of this fundamental Scriptural distinction. Anyway, blessings… and thanks for taking the time.

Marc Taylor | Wed, 05/30/2018 - 03:00 | Permalink

Hello Andrew,
In terms of your last paragraph I would affirm that Mark held to a very early and high Christology of Jesus in that Mark 14:62 is linked with the Son of Man being offered ‘worship” (Aramaic: pelach) in Daniel 7:14.

The same differentiation [as in Mark 1:2] is found in the saying about David’s Lord: the kyrios who is YHWH invites the kyrios who is a greater king than David to sit at his right hand and rule in the midst of his enemies (Mk. 12:35-36; cf. Ps. 110:1-2). Jesus is kyrios because he will be given authority to rule.

The problem is that in the [Hebrew] of Psalm 110:1 we read …

The Lord [YHWH] says to my Lord [l’adowny]: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”

… so the Lord YHWH is clearly distinct from the one whom David calls ‘my Lord’ [‘adowny].

In Mark’s [Greek] quotation of Psalm 110:1 …

The Lord [kyrios] said to my Lord [tō kyriō mou], “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”

… the word for Lord is exactly the same [kyrios] for both: the second ‘Lord’ is distinguishable from the first ‘Lord’ only because of the ‘my’ [mou] appended to it.