Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The divinity of Christ in the Gospel of Mark

Over the weekend, I posted (see below) on an alleged "scholar" of Scripture who thinks there are "no traces" of divinity in Christ in the first three gospels. Someone wrote back, asking me to say more on the subject, which I am happy to do.

However, it's a huge subject, and I can only scratch the surface. Most responsible commentaries address this pretty well, at least noting the more obvious indicators.

I'll share with you some sections from work I did in the seminary. I did an extended exegesis of the Gospel of Mark (widely held to be the first Gospel written, and usually held to have a "lower," that is, more humanity-focused Christology), looking at this very question: how does the author show Christ's divinity, if at all? What intentions, on the part of the human author, may we infer, from a close reading of the text?

My conclusion was: "I believe Mark’s Gospel gives a consistent and explicit portrait of Jesus as fully divine, and I will marshal the evidence from the text to support this."

Of course, there are a few passages in Mark that can be cited against this argument. But here's the noteworthy thing: "the troublesome texts for my argument arise only in words directly attributed to Our Lord--which invites another hypothesis which allows for the unevenness and does not require us to think our human author or redactor was having some off days as he produced his work: Mark is reporting troublesome things Jesus really said--and he didn’t feel at liberty to 'fix' them."

In short, sayings by our Lord, appearing in Mark, need not undermine the conclusion that the author of the Gospel intends to portray Christ as divine, but rather point to the author faithfully presenting the enigmatic quality of Jesus. After all, if Christ is divine, yet human as well, how could he not be enigmatic to us? Some troublesome sayings should not be so surprising. Rather, we might find the whole package a little too neat and tidy without such troublesome sayings.

Anyway, we'll come to those troublesome passages eventually.

Let's look at some highlights of Mark. I'm going to insert some of my earlier work, without footnotes and all that falderall; if anyone wants further information, let me know.

In Chapter 1, Mark cites Isaiah, in reference to John the Baptist.

As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way. A voice of one crying out in the desert: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths’" (1:2-3).

Mark here identifies John the Baptist as God’s messenger, with God speaking in the first person, in relation to Jesus’ advent. Thus Mark, in conflating Old Testament passages, has God addressing Jesus. Mark combines at least two and perhaps three, Old Testament passages: Exod. 23:20, Isa. 40:3, and Mal. 3:1. In Exodus we read, “See, I am sending an angel before you, to guard you on the way and bring you to the place I have prepared.” This seems to strike a discordant note, as the emphasis is on the messenger, rather than one to whom he points. But as Daniel Harrington observes, “In Exod. 23:20 (LXX), God promises to send his messenger before Israel and guide it to the Promised Land. Using phrases from Exod. 23:20, Mal. (MT) 3:1 placed God’s promise in an eschatological context and prepared for the identification of the precursor as Elijah”—whom Mark identifies with John the Baptist.

Note what Malachi actually says: “I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me; and suddenly there will come to the temple the LORD whom you seek.” Thus in Malachi, the messenger (whom Mark identifies with John) precedes YHWH. The Isaiah passage confirms this: “A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the LORD! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God!”

Let's look closer at that Malachi (3:1-3) passage being recalled here:

Lo, I am sending my messenger
to prepare the way before me;
And suddenly there will come
to the temple the LORD whom you seek,
And the messenger of the covenant
whom you desire.
Yes, he is coming,
says the LORD of hosts.
But who will endure the day of his coming?
And who can stand when he appears?
For he is like the refiner’s fire,
or like the fuller’s lye.
He will sit refining and purifying (silver),
and he will purify the sons of Levi,
Refining them like gold or like silver
that they may offer due sacrifice to the LORD.

Of course, later in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus will come “suddenly” to the temple (11:15); in Chapter 13, Mark will describe Jesus coming in power and judgment. Perhaps Mark wishes us further to connect Malachi’s image of “refining and purifying” the “sons of Levi” with Jesus’ ministry of preaching repentance (1:15), his role of judgment (13:24-27) and the new covenant of his blood, poured out for the many (14:24).

If we look at the context of our Isaiah reference, 40:1-11, we find references to expiation (2), the revelation of God’s glory (5), and of God himself coming to Jerusalem (9-10)—and while Mark doesn’t do so expressly, we can certainly make connections here, with Jesus’ passion and death, his transfiguration and his entry into Jerusalem. We can wonder if that is where Mark was intending us to go.

Then we move on to Mark 1:9-11: "The heavens being torn open…a voice came from the heavens."

The main scene for Mark’s Gospel is earth; but at several points our view expands to include the heavens. The voice that speaks here, will speak again in 9:7. What is the significance of the voice coming from heaven? Other than 13:31 (“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away”), heaven always denotes divinity or divine authority. Jesus looks heavenward before performing signs (6:41; 7:34), and it is precisely a “sign from heaven” that Christ’s opponents seek (8:11). When Jesus tells the high priest he will see “the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven,” alluding to Dan. 7:13 and Ps. 110:1, the link to divinity will be obvious enough at the Lord’s trial for the high priest to cry “blasphemy” (14:64). We see Jesus take his seat at the end (16:19).

But we discover more subtle signs of Jesus’ heavenly connection as well. When demons speak, they have startling clarity about Jesus’ identity: “I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” cries the first demoniac to meet Jesus (1:24; see also 3:11; 5:7). We get atmospheric signs—but only twice: at the Transfiguration of Jesus, when a cloud overshadows Jesus (9:7), and again at the crucifixion, when darkness covers the “whole land” for three hours (15:33).

Returning to “the heavens being torn open.” Timothy Schehr, commenting on the parallel story in Matthew, deems this momentous:

Only once in the Old Testament do we read that the skies opened for a vision of God and that was in a vision granted to Ezekiel at the time of his call…

What does it mean when God opens the sky? A reference to Isaiah might be of help here. In…[Chapters] 63 and 64 the people imagine themselves to be sealed off from God, as if the heavens were a barrier between themselves and God. They even ask God to "rend the heavens" and come down to save them. At the baptism of Jesus, there is no barrier between God and the world. The sky is opened and the Father and Jesus act as one. It seems to emphasize how close God wants to be to us.

Note what Mark does not say or do to link Jesus to heaven.

Occasionally the Lord looks heavenward before a sign (6:41; 7:34); and twice we see Jesus praying in Mark (6:46; 14:32). But we never see Jesus asking heaven for help—which is just what we do see in the Old Testament miracles that parallel Jesus’. When Elijah and Elisha raise the dead, they ask God’s intervention (1 Kings 17:21; 2 Kings 4:33). In multiplying the widow’s provisions, Elijah refers to God’s action (1 Kings 17:14). When Elisha multiplies loaves almost exactly as Jesus does, he also cites God’s action (2 Kings 4:43-44). In contrast, Mark shows a consistent pattern—Jesus either speaking or acting, and the miracle occurs. This recalls Genesis 1:3: “Then God said: ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.” Augustine Stock points out that Mark’s Gospel opens with έν άρχή, recalling the opening words of the Greek translation of Genesis, έν άρχή.

Twice in Mark Jesus calms the sea (4:39-41; 6:50-51), recalling psalms describing YHWH doing this (Pss. 104:7; 106:9; 107:29).

In Mark 6, Jesus walks on the water. There, Mark wrote, “He meant to pass by them (6:49). For John J. Kilgallen, this “recalls that this is the description God uses of himself in showing himself to Moses [Ex. 33:18-23]. God wanted Moses to see him, but the best that the human being could be given is a glimpse of the divine being as ‘he passed them by.’”

Also on this occasion, Jesus says “έγώ εìμι,” echoing YHWH’s self-identification in Exodus 3:14. Daniel J. Harrington in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary insists on this, adding that only God walks on water (Job 9:8; 38:16). “έγώ εìμι” appears twice more in Mark—Jesus predicts false messiahs will say this (13:6); and he answers the Sanhedrin in this fashion, provoking a cry of blasphemy (14:62).

There are at least two other occasions Mark puts YHWH’s words on Jesus’ lips.

Both come in response to his disciples’ inability to grasp what Jesus is telling or doing. When the Twelve ask privately for an explanation of Christ’s first parable, he responds, “to those outside everything comes in parables, so that ‘they may look and see but not perceive, and hear and listen but not understand, in order that they may not be converted and be forgiven’” (4:12).

This is from Isaiah 6, where the prophet has been given his great epiphany of YHWH, and the Lord God commissions him to prophesy to his people. In Mark 8, the Lord is exasperated at the disciples’ lack of understanding about the feeding of the crowds. “Do you have eyes and not see, ears and not hear?” (8:18), Christ asks, his words recalling Jer. 5:12 and Ezek. 12:2.

Mark 1:13: "He remained in the desert for forty days."

Mark has already introduced the figure of Elijah. Now we begin to have allusions to Moses, and perhaps again to Elijah. What will Mark make of this?

In the ensuing narrative, Mark contrasts Jesus with both figures. To fully appreciate this, we need to make an excursus here to note one more detail: just twice Mark has Jesus going “up the mountain”: Jesus first ascends “the mountain” in 3:13, when he summoned “the twelve,” and again in Mark 9:2, the Transfiguration. We see this elsewhere in Scripture especially in relation to Moses and Elijah: when YHWH forms his covenant—at his mountain—with the twelve tribes, in Exodus 19 and 24, and with Elijah (1 Kings 19:8). (We could recall Abraham’s ascent up the mountain, but I don’t see any indication Mark is alluding to that.)

Mark is preparing to answer—especially in relation to Moses and Elijah—the questions he shows Jesus asking: “who do people say…who do you say that I am?” (8:27-29). We have seen how he introduces Elijah. How about Moses? In Mark 7, Jesus rebukes Pharisees and scribes for modifying Moses’ teaching (7:8-13). But when the Pharisees challenge him on divorce, Jesus does not flinch from modifying Moses, appealing to the original divine intent (10:1-12). I.e., they are subordinate to Moses, but Moses is subordinate to Jesus—which is consistent to his approach to the Sabbath (2:28).
All this comes to a head at the transfiguration of Jesus. W. M. Swartley and J. A. Ziesler discover parallels between the transfiguration account and Moses’ experiences on Sinai: Moses takes three individuals with him (Exod. 24:1-9); Moses too is radiant (Exod. 34:29-35). Stock points out, concerning Mark’s description of Jesus’ “dazzling white” appearance: “in the OT the glory of God is always conceived as shining brilliance or bright light. Here that language is borrowed to describe the glory of the Son of God.” Perhaps Mark was recalling the words of Isaiah:

Rise up in splendor! Your light has come,
the glory of the Lord shines upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth,
and thick clouds cover the peoples;
But upon you the LORD shines,
and over you appears his glory. Nations shall walk by your light,
and kings by your shining radiance (Isa. 60:1-3).

In the Transfiguration, Mark answers any question about the relationship of Jesus to Moses and Elijah. Here we have all three side-by-side—the second and last time Mark takes us “up a mountain” (9:2). By a process of elimination, we can identify Jesus only with YHWH. The literary genre—“that of an epiphany, a sudden manifestation of the divine” —and the selection of Elijah and Moses confirm this. They are the only two figures in the Bible who seek to “see” God—which they both do, on the mountain. But their encounter is veiled. Moses must hide, and see only God’s “back” (Exod. 33:22-23); Elijah experiences only signs (1 Kings 19:11-12). But Mark shows us Moses and Elijah no longer hiding, but “conversing” with Jesus. Moses sees YHWH’s face at last!

And he cured many who were sick (1:34). The healing ministry of Jesus figures prominently in Mark; beginning immediately in the first chapter, with the man with an “unclean spirit,” then Simon Peter’s mother-in-law (30-31), then those brought from the “whole town” (32-34)—and so on through much of the Gospel. Mark uses these stories to teach many things, but several—which include confrontations between the Lord and demonic powers—are very suggestive of Jesus’ divinity.
We see this in the first healing.

Jesus is accosted by a man with an unclean spirit, who shouts, “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are: the Holy One of God.’

This is a remarkable choice of words. The complete phrase, “Holy One of God,” appears only in the Gospels, in this story or parallels to it. But the term “Holy One” appears frequently throughout the Old and New Testaments —occasionally of mere human beings (Num. 16:7, Ps. 106:16; Dan. 3:35; 4:13; 23; 8:13), but far more usually of God. It appears 62 times in the Old Testament, most frequently in Isaiah, who uses it 29 times.

There are pleasing connections we could draw—Isaiah speaks of the Holy One “in your midst” (12:6), in whom the poor and lowly rejoice, who gives sight to the blind and makes the deaf hear (29:18-19). We can only speculate whether Mark meant for us to discover these. What is clear is that, having the opportunity to cite them himself, he did not do so when it would have been convenient: when he shows Jesus healing the deaf and blind (7:32-37; 8:22-26; 9:17-29; 10:46-52), and on his entry into Jerusalem, where the poor and lowly do indeed rejoice at the Holy One in their midst (11:1-11). All the evidence suggests Mark’s use of “Holy One” draws on the term’s divine association rather than on its association with mere mortals.
The Lord’s ability to effect healing and command evil powers is rightly astonishing and inexplicable (1:27).

In the next chapter, Mark forces the question of its significance: first when he shows Jesus not only healing, but forgiving sins (2:5-12), and again when he later shows Jesus as “master even of the Sabbath” (2:28).

In the healing episode, Mark uses a device we saw already with the unclean spirit, and which we’ll see again—Mark has the enemies of Jesus immediately sensing the deeper reality. Thus the unclean spirits recognize him (1:24; 3:12; 5:7); and here the scribes ask just the right question (without, sadly, arriving at the right answer): “How can this man talk like that? He is blaspheming. Who but God can forgive sins?” (2:7).

Perhaps the scribes were recalling Isaiah 43:25: “It is I, I, who wipe out, for my own sake, your offense; your sins I remember no more.” Robert Gundry points out that “According to Jewish belief, not even the Messiah was going to forgive sins.” With high drama, Mark shows Jesus decisively resolving the question as the scribes proposed it, and proclaims healing. As we saw above, we recall the Creator’s words effecting what they describe in Genesis. The crisis of explaining this—that is, other than by admitting Jesus’ divinity—forces the Lord’s opponents to suppose Satan is at work in Jesus—a notion the Lord ridicules (3:22-27), and which has the ring of desperation about it.

Throughout Mark, we see many examples of Jesus’ word effecting healing—but there is a striking example of the opposite: the cursing of the fig tree. We might ask of this episode a question similar to the scribes’ question in Mark 2: Who can, by a word, cause life to wither but God alone? Indeed, as Harrington points out, this is a frequent image, appearing in the prophets, almost always referring to divine action:

You shall become like a tree with falling leaves,
like a garden that has no water (Isa. 1:30).

The LORD is angry with all the nations
and is wrathful against all their host;
He has doomed them and given them over to slaughter.
Their slain shall be cast out,
their corpses shall send up a stench;
The mountains shall run with their blood,
and all the hills shall rot;
The heavens shall be rolled up like a scroll,
and all their host shall wither away,
As the leaf wilts on the vine,
or as the fig withers on the tree (Isa. 34:2-4).

I will gather them all in, says the LORD:
no grapes on the vine, no figs on the fig trees,
foliage withered! (Jer. 8:13).

I will lay waste her vines and fig trees,
of which she said,
“These are the hire my lovers have given me” (Hos. 2:14).

Like the first fruits of the fig tree in its prime,
I considered your fathers…
I will love them no longer;
all their princes are rebels.
Ephraim is stricken,
their root is dried up;
They shall bear no fruit (Hos. 9:10, 15-16).

Taylor points out, “The story, as Mark records it, is a miracle-story intended to illustrated the divine power of Jesus.” We might note that, right after the fig tree account Mark gives us comes the parable of the vineyard tenants (12:1-12), that so strongly echoes Isaiah 5.

Well, if you've read this far, and want more, let me know.


R10B said...

May I suggest this article for a good review of Ehrman's book. Excellent comments as well.

Mark Anthony said...

Nice work, Father. I certainly agree that Mark considered Jesus to be divine, in some developing sense. I'm not sure if we can say that Mark, or the rest of the New Testament, would understand "divine" in the Nicean sense.

But here's the fun question: As you point out, the "troublesome" sections of Mark are all attributed to Jesus' own words, so, if we hopped into Mr. Peabody's Way Back Machine and could ask Jesus directly, "Are you God?", what would he say? Does it change if we ask, "Are you divine?"

As the old joke goes, when Jesus asked the disciples at Caesarea Philippi who he was, Peter responds, "You are the Second Person of the Trinity, the hypostatic union, the Incarnation of the Logos." And Jesus responded, "Huh?"

Fr Martin Fox said...


Thanks for your comments...

I'll have more on this sooner or later, as I addressed that point in the paper I'm quoting from. Stay tuned. . .

Anonymous said...

More, please.

I will be sending a link to a good Southern Baptist friend, as well.

Anonymous said...

Father - in addition to really appreicating just learning more about the Bible - I always like to see the connections between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Seeing the 'big picture'.
Also - showing that as Christians - we are not afraid of using all types of academic research to further understand the scriptures - because God is Truth and we never have anything to fear from the truth.
God Bless - and I agree with Anna - more please.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading this article. The connections between Old and New Testament are wonderful. I'd love to read more like this! Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Father thank you for this post. The way in which you have demonstrated that 'the promises of the Old Testament are fulfilled in the New' was very instructive.

Could you tell me what you consider some 'responsible commentaries.'?

Does the bulk of orthodox biblical scholarship today consider Mark to be the first gospel written?

Fr Martin Fox said...


When I referred to "responsible" commentaries, I was casting a pretty wide net. I meant merely to exclude those who were extreme, either extremely skeptical or negative toward the Scriptures, or those who would be extreme in (for lack of a better term) a fundamentalist approach. You'll notice I cite the authors of various commentaries in my post; I would consider any of them "responsible," along with those associated with mainstream series, or the New Jerome Biblical Commentary or the Catholic Study Bible. (That doesn't mean I agree with all of them; my point is, that the textual evidence for Mark showing Christ to be divine is very mainstream.)

As to your second question, it hinges on what you refer to "orthodox" scholarship. Not knowing what you mean by that, I will refrain from answering in those terms.

Instead, let me say this. Among "mainstream" scholars, I think the "Mark came first" position still dominates.

I must confess, this isn't something I get excited about, so I may be out of date; but my recollection is that even among those who are most skeptical of the historical-critical approach, some, if not most, will go along with Markan priority. Those who insist on the "traditional" Matthew-came-first position are a small but scrappy number.

In the seminary, I read some things on this, and was open to considering the Matthew-came-first position, especially since I am skeptical of the historical-critical approach (I don't reject it altogether). I think Farmer was the fellow who really argued for Matthean priority; I read some of his stuff, and was insufficiently motivated to pursue it further.

In general, my impression is that the historical-critical wave has crested, and is very slowly ebbing.

I'm not wholly hostile to historical-critical; I think you can do some good things with it. However, one can get lost in the quicksand of "getting behind the text," which gets increasingly speculative, whereas the text itself is not. We have that. I prefer to focus mainly on that.