Thursday, March 09, 2006

More on the Divinity of Christ in Mark

This section is about the ‘problem’ texts in Mark.

Francois Dreyfus identifies those texts in Mark that might be cited as evidence against Jesus’ divinity:
Ignorance of who touched his garment (5:30);
Ignorance of Scripture (2:26; 12:36);
Denial of knowledge of the time of the end (13:32);
Refusal of title "good" (10:18);
Resistance to divine will (14:36);
Abandonment by God (15:34).
As indicated, the first three concern apparent lack of knowledge of what we might suppose God to know—or, rather, what we might expect Mark would show Jesus knowing as God. The third through fifth concern something more significant—Jesus seeming to position himself apart from God; the sixth one is not so easily categorized. I will treat each of these categories in turn, some briefly, others at more length.

The woman with the hemorrhage (5:21-34). When Jesus asks, "Who has touched my clothes," is he really ignorant of this?

The passage does not actually say Jesus did not know—it only tells us he asked. Mark himself tells us Jesus was "aware at once that power had gone out from him" (30). The disciples consider ignorance in this situation to be expected: "see how the crowd is pressing upon you?" (31). And yet we see Jesus "looked around to see who had done it." Why would Jesus ask this question if he knew the answer? Some ancient commentators can help us. Pseudo-Chrysostom observed, "although he knew her who touched him, that he might bring to light the woman, by her coming forward, and proclaim her faith, lest the virtue of his miraculous work should be consigned to oblivion." St. Bede, noting that the climax was the woman presenting herself before the Lord, adds, "the object of his question was that the woman should confess the truth of her long want of faith, her sudden belief and healing, and so herself be confirmed in her faith, and afford an example to others." Thus the climax of this encounter comes with the Lord’s parting words: "Go in peace and be free of your complaint."

Ignorance of Scripture. In Mark 2:26, the Lord refers to Abiathar giving bread to David (1 Sam. 8:17), when in fact Ahimelech did so; in 12:36, Jesus attributes Psalm 110 to David, which modern exegesis challenges. Does this show ignorance on Jesus’ part?

The "erroneous" reference to David’s authorship means little. For all we know, modern exegetes who challenge David’s authorship of Psalm 110 may be wrong. And, if Jesus did know David was not the author of the psalm, but his listeners operated on the assumption that David had written it, would it not be odd to see Jesus take this occasion to raise this question? In any case, the question we consider is not the knowledge of Christ per se, but the extent to which Mark deliberately shows Jesus as God. Attributing the psalm to David would only be a problem if we were confident Mark knew he was depicting Jesus with manifestly erroneous knowledge—and yet, it would seem that he is simply attributing to Jesus what was commonly believed to be true.

The reference to Abiathar may be of a similar nature. "Mark’s immediate source seems to have been a haggadic development of the passage. Here, Abiathar, the priest and associate of David, has replaced the lesser known Ahimelech, Abiathar’s father." Gundry gives credence to this hypothesis of Stock, by pointing out that

Jesus adds a number of features not found in the OT passage: (1) David’s having companions with him; (2) his having need; (3) his and his companions’ being hungry; (4) the house of God and David’s entering it rather than merely asking for bread; (5) Abiathar being a "high priest," not just a "priest"; (6) David’s eating the loaves…either while he is still inside the house of God or after he has come out, and (7) his giving some of the loaves to his companions.

Denial of knowledge of the time of the end (13:32). This presents a more serious challenge, because here we have Jesus’s words seeming to distinguish himself qualitatively from the Father: "But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." Many explanations of this text get at the theological issue it raises concerning Jesus’ divinity and his knowledge. But what we’re concerned about is the consistency of the portrait Mark intended to paint of Jesus—and so far we have seen a great deal of evidence for a portrait of Jesus’ divinity. So the question is, why would Mark provide this seemingly contradictory image? Before we simply accept it as an authentic saying of Christ that we can’t fully digest and move on, let us attempt a further explanation.

First, we might notice the features of the larger pericope (13:1-37), which reinforce what Mark has already given us to show Christ’s divinity. Consistent with Jesus’ self-deriving authority, Jesus answers the disciples’ questions, not with Scriptures, but with his own words. These questions are prompted by Jesus’ certain assertion that the temple will be destroyed. Hence Jesus has invited this entire discussion—he is in control. He wishes to reveal what he now recounts, concerning what will happen and what it will be like. Further, Jesus makes an astonishing claim about his words: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away" (31). This is language we expect to hear about God’s word—and indeed, we do: "Though the grass withers and the flower wilts, the Word of our God stands forever" (Isa. 40:8). "Your word, LORD, stands forever; it is firm as the heavens" (Ps. 119:89).

Second, we should recall what prompted this discourse: the disciples asked two questions: "when will this happen," and "what sign will there be when all these things are about to come to an end." The Lord’s response is not to tell them directly what they ask. He describes a number of events, and says toward the end of his discourse that "when you see these things happening, know that he is near, at the gates." Fair enough—but how near? This the Lord does not answer. Instead, Jesus seems intent on tamping down their interest in this question. The emphasis in Chapter 13 is on watchfulness (9, 23, 35, 37), as opposed to readiness, in the sense of knowing just how things will turn out. Several times, the Lord cautions the disciples, "do not be alarmed" by "wars and reports of wars" (7); "do not worry beforehand about what you are to say"—instead, wait: it will be given you "at that hour" (12).

Third, we might notice that not until almost the end of this pericope does Jesus give anything like an answer to the disciples’ question—and it entails two lines that seem to contradict each other:

Amen, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.

But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

Verse 30 by itself is most curious, in light of all Jesus does to evade being pinned down on the time of "these things"—particularly in light of verse 32. On one level, we can reconcile them this much: Mark shows Jesus saying only generally that "these things"—described in 13:1-27—will happen sometime in "this generation." Any more specific knowledge—such as the exact "day" or "hour"—"only the Father" possesses. But is Jesus really answering the original question? That is to say, is he answering on the original terms? If so, all Mark gives us in verses 4-30 seem oddly placed. If, however, we conclude that the Lord’s answer is also proposing a change in terms, as I suggest—that is, from a posture of knowing readiness versus trusting watchfulness—then the order of the material makes sense, with the bulk of the Lord’s answer stressing this very theme, then a very general time-frame, with Christ’s closing comments returning to the theme of trusting dependence on God—with even the Son of God himself as an example of this.

Why do any of us want to know "what will happen"? We want control. Armed with the knowledge they seek, the disciples could plan accordingly, and try to manage the days ahead. The Lord slams the door shut on any such ambition. They must trust God to manage things. They are not the "lord of the house," but the "servants" (13:34-35), hence the key message Jesus offers his disciples is not "when" but "Watch!"

This puts 13:32 in a different light. Instead of it being primarily about the knowledge Jesus would have as God, it is rather the supreme example of the radical dependence Jesus is recommending throughout this discourse. Even the Son—whom Mark has shown us to be YHWH in so many ways already—is yet in a relation of submission to the Father.

We’ve seen this before: at the opening of the Gospel, Jesus is the "beloved Son" receiving the Spirit and the pleasure of the Father (1:10-11); he is in the desert, assailed by Satan, dependent on God’s angels for his needs (1:12-13); in the feeding of the five thousand, and the healing of the deaf man Jesus looks up to heaven (6:41; 7:34); when Jesus speaks of his own glory, it is the glory he receives from the Father (8:38)—which is immediately confirmed in the Transfiguration (9:2-8). We might also think of the Lord’s response to James and John’s request for exaltation at his right and left (10:40). Of course, the preeminent illustration of this will come as the Lord approaches the cross. We see him praying for deliverance to "Abba, Father," in the garden—but above all, he says, "not what I will, but what you will" (14:36).

Refusal of the title good. "A man ran up, knelt down before him, and asked him, ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus answered him, ‘why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone’" (10:17-18). As Harrington in the New Jerome Biblical Commentary observes, "A gulf between Jesus and God is contrary to much of the gospel tradition. It is explicable as either a testy reaction on Jesus’ part or a pedagogical device on Mark’s part regarding the identity of the Son of God." As the Navarre Bible explains, "It is not that Christ rejects the praise he is offered: he wants to show the depth of the young man’s words: he is good, not because he is a good man but because he is God, who is goodness itself. So, the young man has not gone far enough."

Gundry points out that the rest of the passage makes clear why we can’t leave it just as though Jesus is pointing to God, away from himself. "Jesus does something else, something astonishingly self-promoting: he tells the rich man that keeping God’s commandments will not bring him eternal life, but that carrying out Jesus’ commands will—and it is the one thing that will." We might here recall what St. Jerome observed: "The question is something like a priest who, while inwardly despising his bishop, yet continues to address him openly as ‘bishop.’ Whereupon the bishop answers, ‘To you I am not the bishop; you may leave my presence.’" Not that the man "despised" the Lord—but that he did not yet have the requisite understanding of his identity to provide a proper basis for addressing him as he did.

Resistance to divine will (14:36). See above concerning Mark 13:32.

Abandonment by God. "And at three o’clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which is translated, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (15:34). This argument misses the real significance of the Lord’s words—he is citing Psalm 22, a psalm that moves from a man’s cry of desolation to his assurance of deliverance.

Francois Dreyfus’s comments bear citation here:
[I]f Jesus had wanted merely to express a personal prayer without reference to the psalm he would have said: "My Father" for Jesus never prayed "My God" apart from this single text. And the very fact that he twice repeats: "My God," a repetition, moreover, without any parallel in the prayer of Jesus, is even more of an argument Jesus quotes Scripture.
This does not mean that Jesus is not making this prayer his own. But it invites us to understand this cry in the context of the entire psalm. Let us indicate that Jesus said it in Aramaic, which implies a certain personal familiarity with this psalm since, in the liturgy, it was recited in Hebrew: now, as a matter of fact, and this is the second point, the liturgy infrequently used this psalm. The earliest testimonies regarding this relate to the Feast of Purim in which the deliverance of the Jews of Persia, who were destined for extermination by Haman, is celebrated. Psalm 22 appears to be there at its right place since it is describing a desperate situation, transformed by God into a deliverance.

With this in mind, we have no reason to see this passage at odds with Mark presenting a consistent picture of Jesus as God. Why should Jesus-as-God not be depicted citing Scripture, from the cross, that bears witness to God’s deliverance—i.e., the Resurrection? It is consistent with what we’ve seen above—Mark wishes to show the divine Son in an intimate relationship of obedience to and reliance on the Father.


Rich Leonardi said...

Father Fox,

A person would never guess that you wrote a seminarian thesis on Mark. ;-).

Father Martin Fox said...

Reading this again, this is a little more dense than the previous section I quoted, and I probably could explicate this better than I did.

My bottom line conclusion about the "problem passages"? That only one passage is really a problem: Mark 13:32, where Our Lord says, of the end of things, no one knows, not even the Son, but the Father.

And while I can't fully explain why Our Lord said what he did, I think the textual evidence is so strong for Mark painting a picture of Christ being divine, that I'm left asking, did Mark himself not notice this problem?

I'm sure he was aware of what he had written (many Biblical commentators actually seem to think the human authors did NOT pay attention to their own work!)

So how to solve this?

Either he thought this saying wasn't a problem; or he felt that one enigmatic statement by the Lord did not undo everything else.
Those are how I conclude the matter of Mark 13:32 as well.

Anonymous said...

I very much enjoyed this article. Thanks for taking the time to teach us. This is the type of Bible study so many Catholics are hungry for - well, I am, anyway. Thanks, again!

Mary said...

Excellent answers (this is coming from a woman with a master's from div school). But I had to laugh at the first "problem" ("Who touched me?"). Of course your answer was right - it was like God asking in the Garden, "Where are you?" as if he didn't know! When my kids were little and made a huge mess, if I said, "Who did this?" I knew EXACTLY who did it! I just wanted THEM to admit it!

Anonymous said...

'Where are we' asked in the garden is a true question - God is without guile, He does not know where they are because they are in sin. When Jesus comes and dies on the cross, God finds out - because they fell into a well, and on the Sabbath the Lord pulled them out - and with them all that sleep (recall how he told them what man, if he had a sheep in a well would not on the Sabbath pull them out).

Further, God the Son does not know the hour - there is a marked difference between knowing something and pocessing knowledge. This is taught by the mother of God. In the ancient Iconography of the Church by Luke and foretold in Psalm 45 (KJV, 44 LXX) the Lord is portrayed on the throne (Mary) with a sealed scroll.

Only the lamb is worthy to unseal the scroll - yet the lamb unseals the scroll as the Incarnate God has entered time (eternally begotton of the Father). If as God, God did not know voluntary patience and know watchfulness, know the course he urged on His own disciples by experiencing it Himself - as opposed to instant "intellectual" knowledge - He could not be fully omnipotent and all knowing. To be all knowing, God must know what it is like to not know - so the Son is eternally begotten of the Father before all worlds. It is not the property of the Word to know instantly all things - though He has access to all instant knowledge. This is a requirement of humility which God also must know to be God - and that includes the humility that patiently waits.

God for example knows repentance. He repented He made man and flooded the world with His tears. So Jesus wept but did not repent - God the Father repented He made man and wept man nearly out of existence in the flood. So too, tears are a second baptism so that both the Father and Son abide in those who repent in tears - because the tears proceed from the Father and the Son.

Therefore God the Father is God, God the Son is God, and where the Son is there the Father is also and they are one God with the All-Good Holy and Life-giving Spirit - one God in three persons of one essence.