Baker Academic

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Markan Christology: Low, Underdeveloped, or Understated?

Yesterday Dr. Pitre weighed in on the recently revived Markan Christology debate with a wonderful reflection on the walking-on-water episode in Mark 6. Brant reminds us that John Meier, Joel Marcus, Adela Yarbro-Collins, Eugene Boring, and Richard Hays (thus a nice spectrum of fantastic scholars) take Jesus’ egō eimi saying to suggest Jesus' divine status in some sense. If we add Pitre's name, this list becomes even more formidable! We are then left with the question, in what sense is Jesus portrayed as divine? Does Mark put forth Jesus as a manifestation of Divinity, as a semi-divine agent, or as someone who benefits from divine agency as a mediator of the divine? As I mentioned in the comments section, I think that the debate is fascinating. I am not certain whether the Second Gospel is quite as explicit as the Fourth Gospel on this matter and I am committed to reading both on their own terms.

Traditionally NT scholarship (and Brant links a few readers along these lines) concludes that Mark must be read as a representation of lower Christology. I have tended to think of Mark, rather, in terms of a collage of underdeveloped and inconsistent images of divine agency. So I am not opposed to reading Mark 6 (for example) as a wink and nod toward Divinity. Brant points out that in conjunction with the "It is I" or "I AM" statement in Mark 6, Jesus intends to pass them by [καὶ ἤθελενπαρελθεῖν αὐτούς]. I would add also that in addition to egō eimi Jesus also says the equivalent of "fear not!" which is suggestive of like theophanic episodes [ἐγώ εἰμι, μὴφοβεῖσθε]. Brant intriguing plays up the "passing by" statement as an echo of theophany (cf. Job 9:8 LXX).

The most cautious solution would be to call these hints toward Divinity inconclusive. But what is the most we could say? Mark is echoing, hinting, winking. Let's play along for a moment and affirm that Mark is indeed intending a statement of Jesus' Divinity (in some sense) with this episode. Can we agree that whatever statement is being made, it is understated?

If indeed we can agree that Mark is understating his Christology here, what do we make of the fact that Jesus intends pass them by but doesn't do it? The language of "passing by" in this context is intriguing language to be sure. But Jesus ends up not doing it and instead gets into the boat. It's like we almost get a symbol for Divinity and then we don't quite get it. Rather than transcendence we get immanence.

This is just the sort of thing that I love about Mark's Gospel! Is it enough to revel in the beauty of the ambiguity here? Must we connect the dots in a Johannine way?



  1. Among other subjects, I sometimes teach literature in various colleges. So I appreciate complex messages, ambiguity, polygamy, in poetry and literature. However? It is entirely different when you find ambiguity in say, religious rules and laws. Especially in rules to which say, the death penalty is often attached, formally or informally. In that case, ambiguity as to what we should have done, is not so pleasant.

  2. I suppose we might ask a rhetorical question:
    Assuming your "underdeveloped" thesis, what is Mark asking us to do with this "underdeveloped-ness" of such passages? Given a gospel that ends at 16:8 (but the longer ending would work as well), it seems that Mark is asking the hearer to connect the dots: "Who then is this that even the wind and sea obey him?" The οικονομια of Jesus' life naturally leads us to the θεολογια question.

  3. Brant and Anthony, thank you for such insightful comments on Mark's presentation of Jesus and divinity.

    My way of putting it would be that Mark presents Jesus as "super-human." Jesus becomes fully aware of his special status at baptism ("You are my son..."), inheriting the responsibilities of Israel's king (cf. Ps 2:6-7), and in this role his insight is superior to that of Moses and Elijah ("...listen to him."cf. 9:7). One way that he demonstrates this superiority is by revealing his inside knowledge of the kingdom of God.

    Further, Mark presents Jesus with remarkable predictive powers: he seems to know everything in advance like who's going to kill him and how, where the disciples will find a colt, the desertion of the disciples, his resurrection, and Mark's generation seeing the coming of the Son of Man. He's always right, of course, but with the outcome of the last prediction pending and eventually proven historically incorrect.

    Jesus seems unlimited and all powerful in his ability to cure any disease, reverse any deformity and cast out any kind of demon. To these skills must be added YHWH like behaviors of controlling the seas and multiplication of food to thousands.

    But this power is not limited to the world around him, it also includes the ability to self limit, such as performing no miracles from chapter 11-16 and prayerfully turning his fate over to the Father.

    I think that it would be a mistake to push this Markan approach to the point of suggesting pre-existence. After all, Jesus did not understand himself until his confrontation with John the Baptist, and he had to prove himself in a temptation experience; and Mark certainly isn't docetic, as the resurrection was bodily in nature, which body (spiritual or otherwise) would meet the disciples back in Galilee.

    In summary, Mark presents Jesus with powers that the Father gave him to prove to the populace that he was the Messiah.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

  4. He "begins to pass them by"-- but does not-- because in Mark's topoi the disciples only begin to see and understand who Jesus is. They do not fully grasp his identity.

  5. Hey Anthony! Thank you so much for a great post and for once again adding nuance to the discussion. I totally agree with you that Mark's Gospel is simply not as explicit as the Fourth Gospel. For what it's worth, so do some of the early church fathers who commented on the christology of the respective Gospels. See especially Augustine, who explicitly states that "Matthew, Mark and Luke" (the Synoptics) have "occupied themselves chiefly with the humanity" of Jesus, whereas "Christ's divinity... has been taken specially in hand by John" (De Consensu Evangelistarum 4.10.11)

    I also agree with you that there is an inescapably "elusive" quality to the identity of Jesus in Mark. This is, after all, the Gospel where Jesus talks about people "seeing but not perceiving" and "hearing but not understanding" the "mystery (μυστήριον) of the kingdom." (Mark 4:12) I've always thought that it was precisely this insight that made William Wrede's book *The Messianic Secret*, such an enduring contribution to Markan scholarship (even if his historical explanation falters). Even though students these days rarely sit down and read Wrede, we are still wrestling with the questions he raised about Jesus' identity in Mark.

    I do wish Wrede would have paid more attention to the Old Testament and how Jewish Scripture helps us connect the dots in Mark. In the case of Jesus walking on the water, it's not just that there are OT parallels like Jesus saying "I am" or "passing by"; it's that the parallels are with OT theophanies that involve God "passing by" while revealing the *divine name* (Exod 3:14; 33-34; 1 Kings 19). This makes me think that Mark intends for his readers to use the OT itself to connect the dots.

    Finally, I think that even the OT background does not eliminate the implicit or ambiguous nature of Jesus' identity. In fact, in some ways, it only heightens it, by stimulating precisely the kind of discussion about Jesus' identity that takes place in the Gospel itself--and on the Jesus blog!--"*Who* then is this, that even wind and sea obey him?" (Mark 4:41)