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Jesus as God’s Chief Agent in Mark

December 10, 2014

Paul Owen’s essay,  “Jesus as God’s Chief Agent in Mark’s Christology,” is a stimulating contribution to the newly-published multi-author volume, Mark, Manuscripts, and Monotheism, eds. Chris Keith & Dieter Roth (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014), 40-57.  In this posting I continue my review of the essays in this book.

One of the continuing debates among scholars is what to make of Mark’s view of Jesus, some scholars continuing to posit a “low” view of Jesus, perhaps as Messiah but little more, and other scholars insisting that Mark reflects the view that the Galilean Jesus also bears a transcendent significance that links him with God in some special way.  Owen clearly comes down on the side of the latter view and in this essay reviews some key reasons for doing so.

He defines what he means by “God’s Chief Agent,” as a figure who is “associated with God in a unique capacity in the manifestation of his sovereignty” (citing my phrasing from my book, One God, One Lord:  Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism, p. 20).  So Owen (rightly in my view) avoids as anachronistic the categories that later came to govern Christological debates in the early churches (“ontological” categories), and focuses simply on how Mark’s narrative portrays Jesus in relation to God.

Owen commences with analysis of the opening of Mark (esp. 1:1-3).  With some other scholars (e.g., Joel Marcus), Owen judges that the peculiar form of the (conflated) biblical quotation here reflects Mark’s view that Jesus is identified as the mysterious figures of the biblical texts in question, amounting to a figure “who acts in the place of YHWH” (45).  Then, drawing attention to Mark’s references to the significance of Jesus’ name, Owen contends that these suggest that “Jesus stands in the place of the one who sent him (God)” (48).

Next, focusing on Mark 5 and the reference to Jesus as “Son of the Most High God” (5:7), Owen suggests that Psalm 82 may lie in the background of Mark’s narrative here, Jesus taken as the figure of that Psalm who acts powerfully on God’s behalf (similarly, in the Qumran text, 11 QMelchizedek, a mysterious figure called “Melchizedek” is so identified).  Then, Owen probes the narrative of the feeding of the 5,000 (Mark 6:35-44), finding allusions in it to OT passages such as Ezekiel 34:11-31, where God “in the person of a new David” (55) will “shepherd” God’s people.

Owen concludes that “Mark’s Christology is much ‘higher’ than many modern scholars are inclined to grant” (56).  For, if, for example, John the Baptist “prepares the way” of a figure who is apparently referred to “Kyrios” (YHWH) in Mark 1:3, then the author must have intended that the heavenly voice at Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:11) should be taken as “identifying Jesus as God’s Son, not elevating him to that status” (56).  In a footnote, Owen makes explicit that he proposes that Mark identified Jesus with “the theophanic ‘angel of the Lord,'” but that this doesn’t mean “equating Jesus  . . . with a created angel, however exalted . . .” (57 n. 55).

Owen was one of my first PhD students, and, in addition to this stimulating essay, he has produced other important work, especially his joint-authored essay on the Aramaic phrases involved in “the son of man” debate:  Paul Owen and David Shepherd, “Speaking Up for Qumran, Dalman and the Son of Man: Was Bar Enasha a Common Term for ‘Man’ in the Time of Jesus?” JSNT  81 (2001): 81-122.  We also co-edited a multi-author volume on this topic:  Larry W. Hurtado and Paul L. Owen (eds.), ‘Who Is This Son of Man?’ The Latest Scholarship on a Puzzling Expression of the Historical Jesus (London: T&T Clark, 2011).

I’m pleased to have Paul’s essay included in the Mark, Manuscripts, and Monotheism volume, and I hope it will contribute to a more profound engagement with Mark’s Christology.

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  1. I appreciate Larry’s highlighting of my essay here! Since it has garnered a few comments I will try to respond briefly.

    Robert, I would see Mark’s Christology as on the “same par” as the other canonical gospels, for reasons such as Larry highlights, as well as others (some of which are in the essay). Paul’s Christology, which is presupposed in his letter to the church(es) at Rome, likely predates the kind of religious devotion to Jesus which would have been commonplace by the time Mark penned his gospel (also situated in Rome). There is never any indication that Paul thought his “high” Christology (including preexistence) was a novelty, or a break from the devotional patterns and rhetoric of those who preceded him in faith. So where is there room for any substantial Christological change or radical innovation in the last half of the first-century? Growth in understanding and nuance and clarification? Certainly. That continued for centuries. But I don’t think Mark would find John’s Christology unrecognizable or vice versa.

    Donald, I don’t see the self-effacing, modest comments of Jesus in Mark 10:18 and 13:32 as in any real conflict with my point of view, any more than Jesus’ comment that “the Father is greater than I” in John 14:28 is a problem for John’s high Christology. As for my comment about Jesus not being identified as a “created” angel, that was directed mostly to conservative and evangelical readers (part of the world I live in) who might be needlessly alarmed by my support for an angel-Christology model, mistakenly thinking of it as lending support to a kind of proto-Arianism, which it does not. The writers of the NT nowhere directly addressed the question of whether there was a time before “the beginning” when the Son “was not.” It was left to subsequent centuries of debate to hammer out that question in explicit confessional and intellectual detail. However, I will gladly confess that I believe wholeheartedly that the orthodox answer to that question ultimately proved more faithful to the spirit, hermeneutical trajectory, and devotional piety of the New Testament witnesses, than did the Arian alternative, which ultimately failed to win the day (and rightly so).

  2. This is a great review. I love how Mr.(Professor) Owens recognizes Jesus amazing story in the gospel of Mark. For more information on Mark’s Christology see Daniel Johannson’s thesis available for view.

    • Yes, Daniel was another of my fine PhD students, and his thesis is a really stimulating analysis of Mark’s Christology.

  3. Donald Jacobs permalink

    Does Owen comment on the verses that explicitly distinguish Jesus from God? (10:18 and 13:32)

    • Donald: No, but in a limited essay you can’t deal with everything. In any case, I fail to see the point. Owen’s argument isn’t that Jesus is “God”, but that he is uniquely linked with God, as God’s unique agent, so closely that he can function in God’s stead as his unique emissary.

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        You seemed to say Owen ruled out an angel Christology in Mark. When you say:

        “Owen makes explicit that he proposes that Mark identified Jesus with “the theophanic ‘angel of the Lord,’” but that this doesn’t mean “equating Jesus . . . with a created angel, however exalted . . .” (57 n. 55).”

        I am intrigued, who in particular views Jesus in Mark as being equated with a created angel. Does Owen reference who it is holds this position that he disagrees with? “Created angel” in itself is an intriguing term, which seems to imply its converse: “uncreated angel”, is that how Owen perceives the Jesus of Mark? This terminology has the potential to sound more apologetic than academic.

      • Well, Donald, Owen can (and should) speak for himself, so I won’t try to be the ventriloquist’s dummy here. One possibility: “angel of the Lord” in the OT seems more to be a kind of alter-ego for YHWH than an “angel” in the “ordinary” sense of the word. That might be what Owen was pointing to. But, as I say, read the essay and/or take it up with him.

  4. Hugh Scott permalink

    As with your other comment on Mark 16, your comment here clamours for a link with Prevost’s book ‘How to Read the Apocalypse’. Prevost convincingly proves that the whole purpose of the Apocalypse/Revelation, endlessly stressed, is, to quote your own formulation of the issue, ‘the inclusion of Jesus with God as recipients of corporate/cultic devotion’.

    I would welcome your comment, original or from some other scholarly source, of the value of this underrated but indispensable book by Prevost. As Prevost also continuously stresses, this supremely high Christology of John of Patmos represents a totally primitive, primary, Christian view of the Lamb Slain/Resurrected/Triumphant/Worshipped-as-God..

  5. Julian Stroh permalink

    I’m curious if anyone else found it significant that Jesus lists only the commandments related to behavior towards other people in Mark 10:17-19. Then in verse 21 when he tells the rich man he lacks one thing, Jesus seems to combine the rich man getting rid of his possessions (and his idolatry) and following him as fulfillment of the commandments toward God, which is reinforced in verses 29-30. That strikes me as a rather astounding move.

  6. I’m finding your current series of particular interest. While I’ve focused much on GJohn of late, your somewhat recent blog post regarding the 60th anniversary of New Testament Studies guided me to Morna D. Hooker’s excellent “The Johannine Prologue and the Messianic Secret,” in which she, among other things, compares and contrasts vv 1-18 to vv 1-13 in Mark’s Gospel. The Markan introduction she calls a “prologue in narrative form” (p 41). The climax of this ‘prologue’ is the heavenly voice in v 11, with, per Hooker, the phrase my Son, whom I love being “almost identical in meaning with” (p 42) monogenes huios from John 1:18.

    While Hooker does not specify, she promotes what I’d call a high Christology in Mark’s Gospel (e.g. He was “the Son of God”- which I interpret the author as implying a familial type of relationship by her contexts – and “the Spirit of God himself was at work in what he did” (p 43)).

  7. Robert permalink

    This sounds really interesting. Of course, the claim that Mark has a “low Christology” is usually meant relative to the other gospels. Does Owen still consider Mark’s Christology relatively lower, or on the same par, as the other canonical gospels?

    • The terms “low” and “high” don’t really mean as much as some folk assume, or even the same things from one scholar to another. For some “high” Christology requires explicit reference to Jesus’ “pre-existence” and “incarnation,” and anything that doesn’t mention these explicitly is “low”. That’s rather simplistic, as, e.g., Bart Ehrman judges in his latest book.
      I’ve tended to draw attention to the ways early Christian texts both distinguish Jesus from other figures in the divine retinue, and also link him with God in terms of attributes, but even more importantly, in the inclusion of Jesus with God as recipients of corporate/cultic devotion. In the ancient Roman setting, it was who and how you worshipped that signified your “religion”. And in ancient Jewish tradition, confining worship to the one God alone was THE paramount concern. So, the remarkable “dyadic” nature of earliest Christian devotion is . . . remarkable in that ancient setting.
      Owen doesn’t directly address Mark’s Christology in comparison with the other gospels, but I’d guess that he sees them as closer than far apart.

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