In the previous post I put forward my reasons for doubting Michael Bird’s claim, in his anti-adoptionist polemic Jesus the Eternal Son, that Mark identifies Jesus as the “Lord” whose way is prepared by John the Baptist. Bird offers a number of further arguments in his chapter on “The Gospel of Mark and the Son of God” in defence of the thesis that “Mark portrays Jesus as a pre-existent figure with transcendent qualities who (ambiguously!) shares in the identity of Israel’s kyrios” (106). I summarise the arguments and set out my reasons for remaining unpersuaded.
1. Jesus claims a “special authority” when he says that “the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mk. 2:28).
Bird’s main concern here is to stress the uniqueness of Jesus’ authority: it is not merely as a representative of humanity (as a “son of man”) that Jesus is “lord” of the Sabbath. Perhaps it’s fair to say, with Gundry, that a “Christological point has grown out of an anthropological one, and outgrown it,” but interpretation of the christological point is determined by the comparison with David and his followers: “Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God…, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him? (Mk. 2:25–26). If the implication is that Jesus, as the Son of Man who will receive a kingdom, is greater than David, that is likely to be on the basis of his understanding of Psalm 110:1. The “Lord” who is YHWH has given the “lord” who is ʾadon a greater status and authority than David because he will rule over the nations forever at the right hand of God (Mk. 12:35-37).
2. Jesus instructs the Gerasene demoniac to tell people what the “Lord” has done for him and how he has had mercy (ēleēsen) on him, but the man goes off to “proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him” (Mk. 5:20). So Jesus is God.
Bird acknowledges that this could mean “nothing more than Jesus is the agent of the Lord and acts in his name and with his power” (88). The reason for thinking that there is more to it is that Jesus himself is the object of a petition for “mercy” in Mark 10:47: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy (eleēson) on me!” So it is “reasonable to surmise that Jesus and God modulate together under the designation kyrios“. But it is consistently as “Son of David” that Jesus is the object of a plea for mercy (Matt. 9:27; 15:22; 20:30; Lk. 18:38-39). The rich man in Luke’s parable calls out to Abraham to have mercy on him (Lk. 16:24). The point is simply that God has had mercy on the Gerasene demoniac through the agency of the kyrios who is “Son of David”.
3. The Olivet discourse presents Jesus as the “Lord” and “Son of Man” who will “enact a catastrophic judgment with the destruction of the Jerusalem temple” (90). “The implication is that Jesus is the coming kyrios who exercises judgment and is enthroned beside God.”
This is correct, and we may even conclude further that “Jesus is intrinsic to the identity of Israel’s kyrios—if we mean by that that Jesus has become intrinsic to the identity and, more importantly, eschatological activity of YHWH by virtue if his elevation to a throne at his right hand. Pre-existence is not required.
4. Bird rejects the argument of Ehrman that when Jesus forgives the sins of the paralysed man in Mark 2:7, he is claiming a legitimate “priestly prerogative, but not a divine one” (92). On the contrary, Jesus does not attempt to placate the scribes by differentiating his action from God’s authority. Rather, he ‘equates the son of Man’s authority to forgive with the authority of this “one God.”’ Jesus has claimed for himself an “unmediated divine authority that, to those steeped in Jewish monotheism, looked absolutely blasphemous.”
The point of dispute in the story is not whether Jesus was right to identify himself with YHWH but whether he had the authority to forgive sins. The implicit question is: who gave you this authority? It was certainly scandalous that Jesus pronounced the forgiveness of the man’s sins. Mark does not attempt to explain why Jesus thought he could do this, but the assumption has to be that Jesus believed that the authority had been given to him exceptionally as the Son of Man.
On the one hand, an everlasting authority (exousia) is given (edothē) to the son of man figure who is vindicated before the throne of YHWH in Daniel 7:14 LXX. On the other, in Matthew’s version of the story the crowds glorify God “who had given such authority to men”; and Jesus says of the Son in John 5:27 that God has “given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.” John appears to think that this exceptional “authority” was passed on to the disciples after the resurrection. Jesus sends them just as he was sent by the Father; and they are given the Holy Spirit with the result that if they “forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them” (Jn. 20:23).
Account also needs to be taken of the argument with the chief priests, scribes and elders in Jerusalem (Mk. 11:27-33). They ask Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?” Jesus asks them in return where John the Baptist got his authority from. They are unable to give a straight answer, so Jesus says to them “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” Only two possibilities are considered: the authority for performing such prophetic actions as the protest in the temple and the cursing of the fig tree either is given by God or comes from men.
5. Jesus’ rebuke of the violent sea is taken to be an allusion to Psalm 107:29: God “made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed”, with perhaps a snub to Caesar thrown in (Mk. 4:35-41).
The problem with this argument is that Mark provides his readers with a clear answer to the disciples’ astonished question “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” He is the beloved Son who will fulfil the task assigned to servant Israel; he is the Christ; he is the Son of David who will bring peace; he is David’s “lord”, who is told by YHWH to sit at his right hand; he is the Son of Man who will be seen by the leaders of Israel “seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven”; he is a son of God (Mk. 1:11; 8:29; 9:7; 10:47; 11:9-10; 12:35-37; 14:62; 15:39). Why should we suppose that the disciples got out of the boat secretly thinking that their master was actually God?
6. Jesus’ walking on the sea evokes Job 9:8 (God “alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea”) and exodus traditions that speak of YHWH “passing through the waters ahead of Israel”; and against this background Jesus’ egō eimi (“I am”) has a distinctly theophanic ring to it (Mk. 6:45-52).
The argument is intriguing, certainly, but it could easily be a theologically inspired over-reading of the passage. Jesus does not trample the waves, he walks on the sea and the wind dies down; in context Jesus is more likely cast as Moses, who leads his people through the sea, than as YHWH; the verb translated “pass by” (parelthein) could just as well mean “come alongside” (cf. Lk. 12:37; 17:7); and egō eimi is a bog standard way of saying, “it’s me”. For more on the Markan sea narratives see:
- Richard Hays and the God who walks on the sea
- Jesus and the sea: arguments about divine identity
- Explicit and implicit christologies in Mark
- Markan christology debate
If we still cannot quite shake off the impression of theophany in these two passages, there remains the question of whether Mark’s subtle literary method is meant to imply divine identity or what we might call a super-prophetic enactment of the presence of the God of Israel.
7. The transfiguration is not a “preview of Jesus’s resurrection or parousia”, Bird says, not the “manifestation of Jesus as a Hellenistic deity”, but a “divine disclosure of Jesus’s heavenly identity” (97).
I find this is an odd statement. Bird notes that it is only Jesus’ clothing that shines, “in a manner reminiscent of departed saints” (cf. Dan. 12:3; Rev. 4:4; 7:9; 1 En. 62:15) and says that the “imagery amounts to a visual verification of Jesus’ claim… that he is the Son of Man who will come in the glory of his Father” (97-98). So surely this makes the transfiguration precisely a prefiguring of Jesus’ vindication as the exalted and glorified Son of Man. The fact that he appears in clothes that are “radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them” indicates that what he has attained—or will attain—is external to his identity, something given to him by God. The suggestion that Jesus chats with Moses and Elijah “like he knows them from where they are from” is groundless.
The transfiguration is described in 2 Peter in terms that clearly distinguish between Jesus and the God from whom he “received honour and glory” (2 Pet. 1:16-17).
8. Bird argues, finally, that Mark’s Jesus “has a unique and unmediated sense of divine authority”, which is something more than “prophetic authority” (98). Jesus says that his words will never pass away (Mk. 13:31; cf. Is. 40:8); the saying about the ignorance of the Son places Jesus in the heavenly council along with the angels (Mk. 13:32); and Jesus tells Caiaphas that he is “destined to share God’s throne in his post-resurrection state” (Mk. 14:61-64).
There is no question, to my mind, that ‘Mark is placing Jesus within the orbit of divine sovereignty and claiming a place for Jesus within the divine regency of “God Almighty”’, as Bird puts it, and that this is established “by way of reference to the Son of Man co-enthroned beside God and sharing in the visual marvel of the divine presence” (101).
But nothing in this statement contradicts the basic point that this extraordinary status, authority and glory was given to Jesus as the faithful Son who was obedient even unto death on a Roman cross for the sake of the salvation and restoration of God’s servant people. Jesus exercises rule over the nations, on YHWH’s behalf, as the resurrected Son of David, as the firstborn from the dead, who has ascended into heaven.
I hold to my view that it is not the variegated sonship motif but Jewish wisdom narratives that provide the template for any pre-existence attributed to Jesus in the New Testament.