Mark’s Christology–Plausibility Factors
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.