Sunday, February 7, 2016

Mark's Divine Christology: In the Eyes of the Beholder?

Recently, there has been some interesting discussion on whether Mark's Gospel portrays Jesus in divine terms. These posts can be seen here with the most recent being Brant Pitre's contribution to the discussion.

I'd like to make some observations regarding Mark's Gospel in general. It seems a truism to state this, but I will anyway-- Mark's Gospel is not John's Gospel. Whereas John leaves no doubt to the reader that Jesus is God, Mark's approach is more connect-the-dots, leaving the reader to tease out the implications. As Timothy Geddert states succinctly in a recent article, "In comparison to the other Gospels, Mark has the lowest explicit Christology but the highest implicit Christology."1 

The implicit nature of Jesus' divinity in the Gospel of Mark is in keeping with the enigmatic nature of the First Gospel in general. Ardel Caneday puts it this way:

Because Mark's technique of telling the story imitates the method of Jesus' self-disclosure, correct understanding of Mark's narrative does not lie on the surface of his story any more than the explanation of Jesus' parables, riddles, miracles, and symbolic acts did for his disciples as he walked among them. Just as Jesus discloses who he is by way of parables and riddles, whether in his teachings or actions, so Mark writes in parables and riddles, all with the intention that his readers who have ears to hear and eyes to see should respond without impaired speech to answer correctly Jesus' question, which though first addressed to those who heard him in the flesh, now cries out from the literary page with the same effect: "Who do you say I am?" (Mark 8:29)2
With these observations in tow, I'd like to take a look at but one example of Mark's implicit Divine Christology in the so-called Markan prologue.

Divine Christology in the Markan Prologue (Mark 1:1-13)

 Before turning to Mark's prologue (Mark 1:1-13), it would be helpful to discuss briefly the nature and function of prologue's found in the canonical Gospels. As J.M. Gibbs noted long ago, the prologue's function is threefold--(1) The prologue functions as a précis of the remainder of the gospel, and thus, it includes a guide to the structure of the gospel.  (2) It provides the setting or frame of reference in terms of which the whole of each gospel is to be understood.  (3) It is also, so to speak, a table of contents which indicates, either explicitly or implicitly, the major themes and motifs of each gospel.3

In other words, the reader of Mark's Gospel should have his/her collective reading antennas in tune when reading the prologue, as Mark will unfold many of his main themes here in the first thirteen verses that will recapitulate in the remainder of the narrative. For example, let's take a look at the conflated citation in Mark 1:2-3, "As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way(τὴν ὁδόν σου); the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way(ἑτοιμάσατε τὴν ὁδὸν) of the Lord (κυρίου), make his paths straight, (ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους αὐτοῦ)...'"  

The conflated citation consists of Exodus 23:20a; Mal 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3. Mark 1:2a cites almost verbatim Exodus 23:20a (LXX), "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you.." where God promises to send an angel ahead of the Israelites in the wilderness, and Mark 1:2b, "...who will prepare your way" reflects the text of Mal 3:1, with the significant change that "your way" is rendered "my way" referring to YHWH in both the Hebrew and Greek OT. In Malachi, the messenger is identified with Elijah elsewhere (Mal 4:6). This messenger in Mark prepares the reader for the appearance of John the Baptist (1:4-9), who is unmistakably linked to Elijah, even down to the details of his prophetic garb (cf. 1:6; cf. Zech 13:4; 2 Kgs 1:8). Returning to the point made above, the change from "my way" to "your way" (Mal 3:1; cf. Mark 1:2b), referring to YHWH in the former sense, leaves Jesus/God as the only possible referents to the second person personal singular pronoun in the latter sense. Once again, Mark writes with such subtlety that only those who have ears to hear will understand (Mark 4:9,23). The last citation, Isa 40:3 in Mark 1:3, also includes a subtle, yet significant shift in referent. Isa 40:3 (LXX) reads "A voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of our God (τοῦ θεοῦ ἡμῶν)." The citation in Mark 1:3 is verbatim until we get to the end, where "the paths of our God" becomes "his paths." Once more, the only referents that the third personal singular pronoun can be are Jesus/God. This Markan adjustment once more places YHWH and Jesus within the same Divine identification. It is important to note that Mark is not making sharp distinctions between YHWH and Jesus, but is rather including Jesus within the Divine identity. This also holds true for the referent κύριος in the above citation. As Johansson states:

"Instead of attempting to solve the ambiguity, we should let it stay, κύριος refers to both God and Jesus and, consequently, links Jesus to the God of Israel." 4

One more item of note regarding the above discussion, the language of "the way" in the composite quotation attributed to Isaiah is programmatic for Mark's Gospel. Malbon puts it this way:

In addition, "the way" (a part of both the Mal 3:1 and the Isa 40:3 references) turns out be a theologically charged location for the Markan Jesus, as repeatedly reported by the narrator in 8:22-10:52. The suggestion that Jesus is Lord is not explicit, but it fits with the Markan rhetoric of juxtaposition.5

If the Markan prologue hints at the Divine identification of Jesus at the beginning of his proclamation of the good news (1:1) shouldn't the reader expect more implicit, subtle references throughout the rest of Mark's narrative? Mark's enigmatic style should not be confused with an absence of such an identification, rather, it is the reader that needs to bring their collective reading/hearing to his narrative. Mark is not John, so let Mark be Mark.

1 Timothy Geddert, "The Implied YHWH Christology of Mark's Gospel," Bulletin for Biblical Research 25.3; (2015); 325-340; here 325.

 Ardel B. Caneday, "He Wrote in Parables and Riddles: Mark's Gospel as Literary Reproduction of Jesus' Teaching Methods," Didaskalia 10.2 (1999); 35-67; here 42.

J.M. Gibbs, "Mk 1,1-15, Mt 1,1-4,16, Lk 1,1-4,30, Jn 1,1-51: the Gospel prologues and their function" in Studia evangelica, (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1973), 154-188. 

4 Daniel Johansson, "Kyrios in the Gospel of Mark" Journal for the Study of the New Testament 33.1, (September 2010): 101-124; here 105.

5 Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, Mark's Jesus: Characterization as Narrative Christology (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2009), 71; (italics mine).


abcaneday said...

Good work, Matthew.

I may be incorrect concerning what I say in the following. If so, someone may correct me.

Just this morning I was teaching on Mark 9:2-29, where, after Jesus and his three selected disciples come down from the mountain following Jesus' transfiguration, they come upon a confused scene in which the other disciples have not been able to expel a tormenting demon from a man's afflicted son. After some verbal exchange, Jesus casts the demon out.

Then Mark's Gospel tells us, "And when he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, 'Why could we not cast it out?' And he said to them, 'This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer.'”

True to Mark's subtle way, this is a powerful declaration by Jesus of his own deity. Is it not? The disciples could not expel the demon because they were not praying to God, asking for the boy's deliverance. They took the matter into their own hands. Jesus does not need to pray in order to cast out the demon; Jesus directly exorcises the demon. In other words, he need not pray because he is deity. Mark is subtly telling us that Deity takes on the demon directly; the Divine One, Jesus, one worthy of receiving prayers, need not himself pray but simply speak the word, and the demon flees.

Indeed, Mark has a high Christology, and it is just as Matthew has argued that he presents it with subtlety, not explicitly forthright. After all, Jesus insists that all who hear him, "Listen!" He warns, "If you have ears, then hear!" Jesus' deity does not lie open for all to see; he does not wear his deity on his sleeve. He discloses it subtly, and Mark preserves that subtlety for us, his readers. So, even when the afterglow of the transfiguration has not yet faded, Mark draws attention to this subtly by telling us, "And immediately all the crowd, when they saw him, were greatly amazed and ran up to him and greeted him" (9:15). And, by the way, it is not merely coincidental that the incident concerning the demon possessed boy and Jesus' subtle disclosure of his deity to his disciples occurs immediately after he returns to them from his transfiguration when they doubtless notice the residuals of his transfiguration on his person and clothing. This is vintage Markan narrative.

Matthew D. Montonini said...


This is a wonderful example! Thanks so much for chiming in.
Mark's subtlety pervades his Gospel, once again inviting the reader to draw out the implications of what is said, as much as what is not said.