Baker Academic

Friday, February 5, 2016

Dear James: Alan from Norwich Writes about Markan Christology

Now I've read just over half of the letters that have come in, I don't feel as guilty about picking one out. At random, I chose this one from Alan, Norwich (UK).
Dear James,
Sometimes even a car fan such as myself likes to escape the hellish congestion around the A1042 Ring Road and go on my weekly country ramble. With my faithful Labrador Retriever, Bouncer, we set off to the north Norfolk coast for a delightful meander, taking in Blakeney, Stiffkey, and Warham. With Bouncer off chasing anything that ruddy well moves, I snapped off a branch for a makeshift walking stick and began thinking about the recent blog discussions on Markan Christology. Is it high or low? What do bloggers mean by "divine"? So piqued was my interest that I decided not to visit the local owl sanctuary but instead stop for a pint of Woodforde's Real Ale at Wells-next-the-Sea and google agony aunts specifically geared towards answering questions about Jesus. Lo and behold, such a thing exists on a blog which has been at the centre of these Christological debates! I appreciate that agony aunt genre has constraints and there is absolutely no need to spend time linking to, or engaging with, the other discussions as they are easy to find. But, please, could you give us some brief thoughts?
Norwich (UK)
Cheers Alan, lovely stuff. While some complain about the flatness of that part of the world, I share your appreciation for the local environment. I won’t engage with all the blogs due to the aforementioned constraints and I appreciate you allowing me the freedom to blog out loud on this.

First, we have to ask ourselves, what do we mean by ‘divine’ and ‘high’ and ‘low’? By ‘divine’ do we mean Jesus presented as something like co-equal with God? Do we mean Jesus is like an angel or an elevated figure like Moses,Melchizedek, Messiah, or Enoch? Remember the language of theos or El/Elohim can be applied the God of Israel but it is not technically the name of this god and it is language that can also be used to describe angels or elevated figures.

So already we face problems. In the case of Mark (and here I may be echoing issues raised by Le Donne), we don’t necessarily have direct narrative indications as we do in (say) John 5 or John 10 where equality with God (whatever that might precisely mean) is flagged up and deemed problematic for ‘the Jews’. There aren’t really such conflicts of this variety in Mark. What we have are gaps in our knowledge and scholars inevitably try and fill these gaps. Some, on the blogs, have turned to textual clues, but even these are ambiguous.

Let’s start with blasphemy. Is this an indication of something divine? Maybe. Johannine equality? Not so clear. ‘Blasphemy’ can cover accusations of different sorts, including legitimacy to serve in the priesthood(Ant. 13.293-295; cf. Lev. 21.14), with one side (in this case a Pharisee) calling for the high priest to step down and the other (in this case a Sadducee) calling blasphemy.

Let’s next take nature miracles. In Mark 4.35-41, Jesus stills the wind and the sea and the disciples are awestruck. In Mark 6.45-52, Jesus walks across the stormy waters and the storm is again stilled. This passage contains the much discussed ‘I am he’ (6.50) which, it is often argued (including here on the Jesus Blog by Pitre), echoes God’s use of the ‘I am’ formula (Exod. 3.13-14). Does this indicate Johannine-style divinity, Alan? It remains unclear, does it not? Taking on divine ‘attributes does not necessarily equal being equal with God in the strongest possible sense. There are (as is sometimes noted) rabbinic stories about figures who act similar to Jesus in the Gospel stories (e.g. Pesiq. R. 36.1; Pirqe R. El. 10; b. BM 59b). From b. BM 59b we might also note the naughty R. Eliezer who has mastery over the elements without appeal to God. And his ability to carry out miraculous deeds does not appear to be controversial (unlike Eliezer’s halakic decisions):
It had been taught: On that day R. Eliezer brought forward all the arguments in the world, but they did not accept them. Said he to them:‘If the halakah agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!’ Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of place – others affirm, four hundred cubits. ‘No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,’ they retorted. Again he said to them: ‘If the halakah agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it!’ Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards. ‘No proof can be brought from a stream of water,’ they rejoined.
Another rabbinic story worth mentioning in relation to walking on water is Gen. R. 2.4 (on Gen. 1.2) where the spirit of the Messiah hovers just above the water. I know what you are thinking, Alan: aren't such stories late, much later in certain cases? Of course! But, even after ‘Christianity’ (or whatever you want to call it) had emerged, such miraculous stories could continue without problem. And there are, of course, earlier stories. Philo’s description of Moses, who is called ‘god and king of the whole nation’, included some mastery over creation:
For, since God judged him worthy to appear as a partner of His own possessions, He gave into his hands the whole world as a portion well fitted for His heir. Therefore, each element obeyed him as its master, changed its natural properties and submitted to his command… (Vit Mos 1.155-156)
Compare the similar language in Mk 4.41: ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’ I’d use Greek, Alan, but it’s a bit of a hassle right now. Nevertheless, the linguistic similarities are there if you check. Another text (sometimes noted) is the description of the anointed figure in 4Q521: ‘[for the heav]ens and the earth will listen to his anointed one…’ Hopefully now you can see that the Markan miracles do not necessarily have to be taken as indicating divinity in the strongest possible sense.

What about ‘I am (he)’? Again, we should be cautious given that elevated figures can take on attributes of YHWH. What’s more, the phrase can be used in a banal sense by human beings (as Pitre points out) and so context is crucial. Some points worth observing here. In Mk 6.49-50, it is used by Jesus to inform the disciples that he is not a ‘ghost’. Contrast John 18.5-6 where people step back and fall to the ground when Jesus says ‘I am (he)’. This use is not quite what we find in Mark. Are not the disciples awestruck, Alan, because the elements obey Jesus rather than his use of ‘I am’?

More could be said but you get the idea. Another complicating factor is audience. How might the audience(s) have interpreted this? How might the author or authors of Mark have interpreted his/their own text? Well, we don’t know very much. Given that we have seen experts on the Bible blogging different possibilities, presumably ancient experts in the Bible (or non-experts) have read divinity in the strongest sense into Mark. But, prior to John, we don’t know. Mark and his community or communities or audience or audiences may or may not have worshipped the fully divine Christ but we lack the sort of evidence that we have in John’s Gospel and we are always left with that difficult question: why are the Johannine Christological controversies not present in Mark?

I hope that helps you ponder, Alan, and I hope it helps the real ale go down smoothly.

If you have a question to contribute to "Just Ask James" email to


  1. James, I was about to cite your examples in your chapter in the Casey festschrift if you had not written this post. Anyways, here is my response to the helpful posts by Brant and James ( I am enjoying the blog conversation.
    - Mike K.

  2. James, this is a very good post and (obviously) is just the surface of decades of research on your part. Because I can't help myself: you have hinted in the past that you might find merit in the early high Christology arguments which have emerged in recent decades. Am I right on this? Are you willing so say more? My guess is that you'll want to bring Paul into such a discussion.

    1. Ah, well that would take a lot of detail etc. but I guess I could make some comments. there are some similar issues (how high? how early?) which would make things different from certain figures in the EHCC. What I would say is that the resurrection appearances must have played a significant role in understanding Jesus as an elevated figure and when we combine that with perceptions which are likely to be early (e.g. kingship in some form, judging Israel) then you've got a significant figure. In this respect, Paul is interesting because we have the example of someone who interpreted his vision and he obviously has Jesus elevated in a significant way. Presumably he wasn't the only one (and his Christological speculations do not seem to be controversial, unlike issues surround the Law). It is very difficult to prove with an certainly given the lack of firm evidence but it is at least plausible that Jesus-as-elevated figure was something present in the 30s.

    2. Though this does not mean in the Johannine sense. If that and the surrounding controversies were happening, why did no one else mention it prior to John?

  3. Dr. Crossley wrote: "Hopefully now you can see that the Markan miracles do not necessarily have to be taken as indicating divinity in the strongest possible sense.
    What about ‘I am (he)’? Again, we should be cautious given that elevated figures can take on attributes of YHWH."

    I've thought that this perspective makes a lot of sense (see previous posts), but it also occurs to me that no one has mentioned that right off the starting line Mark 1:2-3 refers to, "Prepare the way of the Lord," as the work of John the Baptist, which seems to no doubt be an echo of Isaiah 40:3-4, "In the wilderness prepare the way of YHWH, make straight in the desert a highway for our God." It's hard not to construe that reference as "divinity in the strongest possible sense." And even when "lord" pretty obviously means function, does anyone other than YHWH have the authority to determine behavior on the Sabbath, "So the Son of man
    is lord even of the Sabbath" (2:28).

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    1. Mark 1.2-3 is important given its agenda-setting location at the beginning. However, I still have my reservations. First, other figures could take on the authority of YHWH. Second, it could be read as authorising something like 'all the things associated with Jesus', just as the Dead Sea Scrolls used the same Isa. passage to authorise their particular view on the world.

      Mark 2.28 obviously comes after 2.27 and I think this makes sense as a generalising use of 'son of man' (=human, with reference to the speaker, cf. 'one' in English). Matt and Luke drop 2.27 and make Son of Man a clear title for Jesus alone. Even so, plenty of people make decisions about behaviour on the Sabbath and there is one rabbinic discussion about picking up fruit on the Sabbath. Those from Jericho say yes, the rabbis say no.

    2. Yes, given the complexity of Mark's presentation and the humanity (subject to death) of Jesus, I think it's reasonable to rephrase Mk 1:2-3,"Prepare the way of the one who has been given YHWH like authority, power, wisdom, and vision."

      Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa.

  4. I was wondering about Mark 14:22-24

    22 And as they were eating, he took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” 23 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. 24 And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many."

    Are there any parallels in Jewish literature to this? How should Mark's Christology be understood in terms of this passage?

    1. If memory serves: Hyssop dipped in blood, marks the door for Passover. Though blood should not be consumed. Kosher meat should be drained of blood. Though the blood can be used for things, if not for food...?

      So it seems that one really, really non-Jewish, non Old Testament element in Jesus, is the command to drink blood.

    2. Again, a very big topic! And, of course, see the books to the left (or my left), in particular Brant Pitre's Jesus and the Last Supper.

      It obviously depends on whether you think whether there is a command to drink blood as such? Or does the context allows for some playing around with martyrdom, sacrifice, Passover, wine etc. without worrying about drinking human blood...? Incidentally, I'd be wary about deciding whether something is 'Jewish' or 'non-Jewish' in terms of historical analysis. Instead, I'd suggest we think about whether perceived or assumed things to be 'Jewish' or 'non-Jewish'.

    3. And it is in John 6 where the problematic implications of drinking blood are taken up. Such controversies are not mentioned in Mark.

    4. Mark is a short gospel, and much is not said. Controversy might be implied though, around Jesus in general. By his arrest and execution.

      And whether mentioned or not, anyone then or today,could see specific conflicts between Jesus, and Old Testament food and blood laws. See Gen. 9.4; Lev. 7.26, 17.10-14, 19.26.

      Such things would be easily noticed by kosher observers. Who would see him as being not a fully observant Jew, therefore.

      This would help lead to controversy about the degree of his divinity.

      Likely the problem of the reference to Jesus ordering the drinking if blood, was soon noticed therefore. Even as a metaphor, it would have been offensive then, as it is today.

      Later extended attempts to finesse this,allegorize this, to be sure, are found later, in John 6. But likely because a problem had been earlier perceived.

  5. Mark 2:7 "Who can forgive sins but God alone?"
    For Mark, Jesus could also declare all food clean.
    Moreover, the transfiguration can be another example of teophany

    1. It is often argued that Mark 2.1-12 and the forgiveness of sins is a divine passive (i.e. sins forgiven by God...). I think the passage about who has authority from God on earth to carry out the act (I also think it is about authority to carry out healing--the Greek can equally be translated as 'release'--and is the same type of controversy as the controversy over the authority to exorcise demons in Mark 3).

      As for Mark 7, the authority to overrule food laws does not necessarily equal divinity in even a strongest sense. However, a few of us think that Mark 7.19 is about handwashing (the context established in Mark 7.1-5) and Jesus not really accepting the view that food eaten with unwashed hands defiles the insides (i.e. all kosher foods are clean), a view Matt interpreted correctly (Matt. 15.1-20).
      Transfiguration: yes, clearly this is good evidence for Jesus as an elevated figure, like Moses and like Elijah, but, it is worth adding, the appearance of God is the trump card in establishing Jesus' authority.

  6. Why are divine elements in Jesus only very vaguely, unequivocally hinted at in Mark? Perhaps because it was hard for his contemporaries to first, make Jesus a fully Jewish God. Note that most Jews rejected him. Regarding him as not obediently Jewish. And so any biblical references to his Jewish godhood, being often rejected, would have to be equivocal, or veiled.

    Or indeed? If anything, Jesus is subtly marked as a pagan god. By his radically non-kosher advocacy of drinking or eating blood. A very African figure (c.f.. Massai?).

    Either view to be sure, would have alienated many early prospects. And later ones too. So to try to accommodate two schools, but without obviousness, and conflicts? Two types of gods or men, were subtly, deniably,equivocally,presented: 1)Jesus the Jewish man or god. Or 2) Jesus the pagan hero, even the cannibal. Drinking blood. Or letting others drink his blood, to acquire his manna (c.f.. manna),or power, or life. A striking reversal of Judaism.

    Any such sly equivocation, to be sure, might cause a forthright person to question the holiness or divine status of any and all persons involved in any such thing. And so divinity itself is not unequivocally presented.

    1. Few things here. First, things like Jesus obeying elements is a lot like a roughly contemporary take on Moses. And this points to a bigger picture: the stuff attributed to Jesus is part of a whole range of known ideas. As for 'most Jews' rejecting him, this is also problematic. Most Jews would not have heard of him when he was active and when the earliest followers were proclaiming him, well we know some were not impressed but we don't know what most thought, if anything, on his obedience or otherwise. On Jesus the cannibal, is there even a command to drink blood? And why do we not get something like John 6? If it was a 'striking reversal of Judaism' why does no one in Mark register any outrage and why do we not get anything like John 6? Again, constructing things as 'Jewish' and 'non-Jewish' or 'pagan' is not always helpful, particularly if the texts do not construct identity in such a way.

    2. In most cultures, food restrictions, and related clean/unclean distinctions, have probably always been a primary marker and shibboleth in establishing tribal identities. Including especially Jewish identities. Whose kosher laws long kept them from internalizing socially with others. Including especially the prohibition on eating blood, or meat with blood in it. Which was established in fact as a capital offence in the Torah.

  7. Corrections:

    vaguely, ambiguously

    Mana (c.f.. manna).

  8. Maasai (c.f. Messiah), from the Nile

  9. Hey James, thank you for this post!

    First, I'm glad you emphasized the fact that elohim is not, properly speaking the "name" of God, but rather a noun (like "deity"). In the original post, that's one of the reasons I focused on ἐγώ εἰμι; I was trying to refocus the discussion not simply on divine attributes but rather on the divine *name* given by YHWH to Moses on Mount Sinai (Exod 3:14). I must admit I took the disciples to be awestruck both by Jesus doing what "only" God can do--walk on the waves (Job 9) and by his "I am" saying.

    You've also got me really intrigued by the rabbinic parallels you cited above about figures who act similar to Jesus in the Gospel stories (e.g. Pesiq. R. 36.1; Pirqe R. El. 10; b. BM 59b). Do any of them say "I am" while performing their miracles?

    If so, that would really fascinating and a major contribution to the discussion.

    But now I must be off to drink some of my own Mardi Gras ale!