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Mark’s Christology–Plausibility Factors

December 11, 2014

Further to my posting on Paul Owen’s essay on Mark’s Christology yesterday, a few comments here about plausibility in understanding and making inferences from ancient texts, Mark in particular.  As the scholarly literature indicates, there continues to be a division of opinion about Mark’s Christology, especially whether the anonymous author (we’ll call him “Mark” hereafter for convenience) held Jesus to simply a human figure especially blessed by God with certain powers who was adopted by God as “Son” (or exalted to that status), or whether  the author held the earthly Jesus to have had some greater, “transcendent” significance from the start.  Of course, it’s careful exegesis of the text of Mark that must be centre of the debate, but I suggest that there are also wider plausibility-factors that need to be addressed.  Such factors can dispose us toward one or another exegetical presupposition, and/or can make one or another judgement seem more or less likely.  I’ll illustrate in the following paragraphs.

But let’s start with a couple of textual data, to illustrate the sort of judgements necessary.  On the one hand, Mark has no Johannine-like prologue explicitly positing “pre-existence” and “incarnation.”  So, does this mean that the author didn’t hold such a view, or was ignorant of the idea?  On the other hand, among the numerous Markan textual curiosities, the heavenly voice in 1:11 acclaims Jesus as “my beloved son, in you I am pleased.”  The echo of Psalm 2:7 is obvious, but the wording is quite different.  Psalm 2:7 depicts the coronation of the king as his “adoption” by God, but Mark’s wording instead simply has the voice affirm that Jesus is “my son.”  So, has the author deliberately deployed this wording because he holds Jesus to have been God’s Son already, his baptism and the heavenly voice simply serving as the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry and the divine affirmation of his status?  Let’s explore now some plausibility-factors.

Most NT scholars agree that texts in Paul indicate that he knew and presupposed the belief in Jesus’ “pre-existence” (e.g., Philippians 2:6-11; 1 Cor. 8:4-6, and others).  If so, then the idea was out there widely in Christian circles by the 50s easily.  So, how plausible is it to assume that, writing some 20 yrs or so later (per most dating of Mark), the author was somehow unaware of this idea?  Given the almost manic networking in early Christian groups, how did this author (who, as a grapho-literate person would be more likely to be informed of things) remain ignorant that a whole lot of other Christians believed Jesus was “pre-existent”?  Is that plausible?

After all, the Gospel of Mark doesn’t seem to reflect some isolated, sectarian Christian stance or group in some backwater or Swiss valley cut off from the outer world.  The text, instead, seems very much reflective of a very trans-local and trans-ethnic religious movement and message (e.g., 13:10, and other texts).  So, how might this author have remained sufficiently uninformed of the beliefs of other Christians to make it plausible that he has no knowledge of the idea of Jesus as “pre-existent”?

Or let’s suppose that the author knew of the idea but rejected it, preferring instead a kind of “adoption” view, Jesus adopted or installed as “Son” in his baptism.  Well, there are reports of ancient Christians who held such a view, though these are much later (late 2nd century and thereafter), the so-called “Ebionites” mentioned initially by Irenaeus.  But, aside from it being practically certain that this wasn’t actually the name of any Christian sect, the more relevant datum is that those to whom Irenaeus ascribes “Ebionite” Christology he says were Jews, who operated as a sect, holding themselves apart from other Christian circles.  (On this topic, see esp. Oskar Skarsaune, “The Ebionites,” in Jewish Believers in Jesus: The Early Centuries, eds. Oskar Skarsaune and Reidar Hvalvik (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007), 419-62.)

But, as we’ve noted, “Mark” seems to have been fairly involved and affirming of a more inclusive Christianity, with no indication of either sectarian tendencies or a polemical, anti-Pauline stance.  Moreover,  the early influence of Mark (serving as the model and inspiration for the authors of Matthew and Luke, and perhaps also John), the wholesale incorporation of Mark into Matthew and the substantial incorporation of Mark into Luke, all suggest that Mark wasn’t seen as heretical or espousing some Christological stance that went against the grain of others or that was so very odd and out of step.

Also, if Mark were so out of step, so unsatisfactory christologically (as compared with the growing dominance of a “high” Christology in the early churches), how and why was Mark successful in making it into the charmed circle, the four-fold Gospel (the original “fab four”!)?  Despite Irenaeus’ efforts to argue that there had to be four Gospels (arguments that seem quaint and strained), there is no reason that there could not have been, say, three (you know, like the “trinity”), or only two (perhaps only those ascribed to apostles, Matthew & John).  In short, were there any suspicion about Mark’s Christology, why is there no reference to this, no indication of it?  Instead, Mark seems to have been valued sufficiently (for whatever reason) to “make it” among the emerging list of Christian texts widely treated as scripture in the first two centuries or so.

Granted, the authors of the other Gospels obviously felt that theirs were needed, that they had something to add, that they had emphases needing to be published.  But that’s a long way short of them thinking that Mark was somehow out of step or dissenting from the Christological beliefs becoming dominant in the emerging Christianity.

We could consider additional factors, but these will illustrate my point:  That we need to consider the plausibility of claims.  As I often said in my classes, in doing history remember that many things are possible, but the historical task is to judge which things are more plausible, more likely.  So, is it more plausible that “Mark” was either ignorant of, or opposed to, the idea of Jesus as perhaps “pre-existent” and bearing “transcendent” significance, or more plausible that this author didn’t think it germane to his purpose to address the question of “pre-existence”?   Is it more plausible that the author intended this narrative as his full theological manifesto (his silences being indicative of the limits of his beliefs), or that it was occasioned by a desire to relate “the beginning/foundation [Greek:  arche] of the gospel” (1:1) in the person and ministry of Jesus, with Jesus serving as the model as well as the foundation for believers?  If the latter, then it’s a bit dodgy to make sweeping conclusions based on what the author happened not to include in this very “occasional” text.

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7 Comments
  1. Steven permalink

    The Christology of Mark is also noteworthy in depictions of the humanity of Jesus: His friends say He is beside himself (3: 21), He heals with saliva(7: 33).

    • All the Gospels emphasize the reality of Jesus’ “humanity”, including the Gospel of John. It’a a major emphasis that distinguishes them from some of the extra-canonical gospels. Mark’s emphasis on Jesus as role-model for disciples is what seems to have fired his own portrait of Jesus as genuinely human. But that emphasis doesn’t detract of his emphasis that Jesus has a transcendent significance as well.

  2. Donald Jacobs permalink

    The argument presented here relies heavily upon the assumptions 1) that Mark was written some time after Paul’s letters and 2) that Paul clearly spoke about and assumed Jesus’ pre-existence. Both of these assumptions are open to significant challenge: from Robinson and Crossley who argue Mark was composed in the 40s, and Dunn and others who argue that Paul’s Christ was not pre-existent. Indeed Romans 1 says that Jesus was declared Son of God by his resurrection. Maybe that was the background to Mark’s presentation of Jesus.

    • Crossley’s early dating of GMark hasn’t succeeded in persuading NT scholars, and would have to be taken as a somewhat idiosyncratic view.
      As for pre-existence in Paul, again, Dunn’s view hasn’t won the day. And it’s not an “assumption” that Paul presupposed the idea of Jesus’ pre-existence, Donald. It’s an exegetical judgement, an attempt to do justice to the textual data.

  3. This is a very interesting analysis Mr.(Professor?) Hurtado because I have recently pondered about why the synoptic gospels do not have the types of claims as John such as what you noted above, and whether he was unaware of those things, but these “concerns” are truly put to rest when we do realize that Mark’s gospel was used among believers who presupposed Jesus preexistence, being the agent of creation for the Father, etc. In my humble lay-person opinion, with Mark’s gospel having a significant transcendent identity such as walking on water and calming the waves(only 2 out of many examples) which according to the OT and Intertestamental literature only YHWH can do to show His sovereignty(Bless brother Johannson for this information) is amazing, and I would say John’s highly reverential view of Jesus in His gospel was basically a reminder to let everyone know, “Hey! It’s John here, just letting everyone know, this Jesus, is truly the agent par excellence, because He’s the eternal Word become flesh who was with the God and was God, see my opening verse!” I appreciate your comment that “in doing history remember that many things are possible, but the historical task is to judge which things are more plausible, more likely.” Amen indeed!

    • Dear (you didn’t give a name!!!): We don’t know THAT “Mark” believed in Jesus’ pre-existence, but my point in the posting was that it is more plausible that he did at least know of the idea than that he didn’t. As for the Gospel of John, see my essay, “Remembrance and Revelation” in which I probe how the John portrays the “Paraclete/Spirit” as revealing Jesus’ true significance only after his resurrection. So, John, in a more programmatic degree than the Synoptics, is an account of Jesus related through the “lens” of the post-resurrection revelations that the author believes have been given. You can find the pre-publication version of that essay here: https://larryhurtado.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/remembrance-and-revelation-paper.pdf

    • BillMcManigal permalink

      Dear no name, (Thanks Larry) It is hard to swallow, hook, line, and sinker, your logic that certain acts could only be done by YHWH. It seems more feasible to say by YHWH or by his Agent. The OT is full of examples of one’s doing things that “only God could do.” (eg. Moses) Since Peter also walked on water it seems a stretch to come to the above conclusion. The sons of Thunder wanted to call down fire from the sky. (what man could do that?) etc. While I am in an agreement that the gospels (and Acts too) present, what appears to be, a consistent view of Christ- What is that view? Just verses after he walked on water, Luke states that “the power of the Lord was with him to heal”- Luke 5:17. Matthew states that as the Servant of God He will put his “Spirit on him.” Nicodemus an expert during this time, who without question was well verse on the OT literature and 2nd temple literature, stated that the Teacher had “come from God. For no one could perform the miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.” Peter stated: “Jesus the Nazarene, a man clearly attested to you by God with powerful deeds, wonders, and miraculous signs that God performed among you through him.” (Acts 2) And again in Acts 10 respecting “Jesus from Nazareth, that God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went around doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, because God was with him.” If Peter was a source for Mark’s gospel we have a consistent picture of one who is the (Chief) Agent of God.

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