Mark Essay 4: WHAT DID MARK THINK OF JESUS?



In this matter it is essential to distinguish between what Mark thought of Jesus and what Jesus thought of himself. The two concepts must be in continuity, but with the deepening of understanding of the nature and significance of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and with the particular circumstances of Mark's community, different aspects may well come to the fore. To begin with, Mark's gospel is primarily concerned with the gradual revelation of who Jesus was, whereas, as Morna Hooker says, 'it is clear that for Jesus himself it was the proclamation of God's kingdom, not his own messianic status, that was central' (p. 201).



A second caution is also important. For Christians Jesus is the Word made flesh, the incarnate Son of God. This understanding of Jesus is, however, the product of centuries of deepening of understanding. 'Word', 'flesh', 'incarnate' are all terms which have no place in Mark, and 'Son of God' is an expression which can bear a variety of meanings in the Old Testament. Mark stands early in the Christian development of understanding of the Master, and it cannot be assumed that his view of Christ is in all respects explicitly the same as that of the Council of Nicaea, or even of the gospel of John. It is an important point of departure to realise that Jesus never calls himself 'God'. Nowhere in Mark is Jesus called 'God'. Indeed, only three times in the New Testament is Jesus explicitly so called, and all of these instances stand at the very end of the process of development and reflection (Jn 1.1; 20.28; Heb 1.8). It is possible, therefore, and necessary, to ask how Mark's good news sees Jesus, and what it contributes to the deepening understanding of his role and being.



A. THE SHAPE OF THE GOSPEL



Mark's gospel is full of wonder, a wonder gradually focussing on the person of Christ. Like so many of his individual short phrases and expressions, as a whole it falls into two halves, pivoting on the episode at Caesarea Philippi; the first half is devoted to the gradual discovery that he is the Christ, the Messiah, as Peter acknowledges for the first time on that occasion; the second half is devoted to the gradual and painful discovery of the nature of his messiahship, that it is the way of suffering and rejection.



The gospel is defined not only in the middle, but at both ends as well. The first section and the last are particularly significant. Although the gospel is a gradual process of wondering discovery, this amazement applies primarily to the actors in the drama, and especially to the disciples. To the reader the first section gives the game away. The introductory section is as true an introduction as the Prologue of John or the Infancy Stories of Matthew and Luke, for it sets the scene and informs the reader of the true nature and import of the story to come.



1. The prologue of Mark (1.1-13) sets the scene carefully. It falls into three sections: the testimony of tradition, the baptism and the testing of Jesus. But before that comes the heading, which is itself highly significant; 'the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, son of God'. These last three words are missing in some manuscripts, but are supremely apt. With the declaration of the centurion at the foot of the Cross, 'Truly this was son of God', they bracket the gospel. In accordance with the ancient literary (and the modern mathematical) convention, this is a way of showing that everything within the bracket is defined and characterised by the bracket itself. In this case, therefore, that means the gospel is characterised as the gospel of the son of God. This expression arches over the gospel, which consists in showing that and how Jesus is son of God.



(1) The testimony of tradition is given by the quotation from the prophets and by the preparation done by the Baptist. Both of these show that Jesus stands in the tradition, or rather as the climax of the tradition, of Israel. The prophets testify to him. The Baptist is clad as a prophet and especially as Elijah, who was the final prophet foretold by Malachi to be the immediate herald of the final coming of the Lord. The scriptural quotation hints already that the coming of Jesus is the coming of the Lord.

Isaiah 40.3 reads: 'Prepare a way for the Lord,

make a straight highway for our God.'

Here the person for whom John prepares the way and makes a straight highway is Jesus; he has taken the place of 'the Lord' and 'our God', so that his position is already hinted.



(2) The central scene of the prologue is that of the baptism of Jesus. Or rather, not so much the baptism, as the authentication of Jesus on the occasion of his baptism. The authorisation of a rabbi, or the divine guarantee of a particular interpretation put forward by a rabbi, by a voice from heaven, is a well-known convention of Jewish literature. So the basic point of the voice from heaven is to authorise Jesus' mission. In this particular case, however, there are three modalities of this authorisation which should be noted. They are implied by the words, 'You are my son, the beloved, my favour rests on you'.



- the expression 'son of God' does not in itself by any means imply the incarnate Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity. In the Old Testament it is not so exclusive a term. It is used to describe various people who are especially close to God, stand in a special relationship to him and have a special mission from God for which he empowers them. Thus angels are called sons of God, Israel itself is called God's son, so are the judges and rulers of his people; latterly the Wisdom literature calls the just man God's son (see New Jerusalem Bible, note Mt 4.3d). So far in Mark its exact sense remains to be defined. But at least it denotes that Jesus is the chosen representative of God, with a special mission to perform. It suggests that in some sense he is the embodiment of the people of Israel.



- the words 'you are my son' (as Luke makes clear by adding 'this day have I fathered you') are an allusion to the royal Psalm 2. This psalm is the celebration of a royal coronation, in the tradition of the Egyptian court ceremonial. In this tradition, the king was held to be adopted by the god. Similarly in the Davidic tradition, the king is considered God's son. So these words of the voice from heaven imply the kingship of Jesus, suggest that he is the king-messiah of the line of David, a theme stressed by Mark in his narrative of the trial and crucifixion.



- the phrase 'my favour rests on you' are an allusion to the Song of the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah 42.1. The second part of Isaiah contains four songs of a mysterious Servant of the Lord, who will suffer and die to save his people. This is the opening of the first song.



Here is my servant whom I uphold,

my chosen one on whom my favour rests,

I have sent my spirit upon him,

he will bring fair judgement to the nations.

The allusion is strengthened by the mention of the descent of the spirit of the Lord in Isaiah, echoed by the mention of the Spirit immediately afterwards in Mark 1.12. Integral to these songs is the suffering, persecution and redemptive death of the Servant, so that by identification with the Servant the suffering and death of Jesus are already introduced in this prologue itself. This quality of Jesus as the Servant of the Lord will be stressed again and again in the course of the gospel by allusions to the Songs of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah. In 10.45 Jesus alludes to it by saying, 'The son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many'.

Here the expressions paradido,nai yuch. auvtou/ polloi. are allusions to the Servant Song in Is 53.10, and dou/nai u`pe.r lu,tron to Is 43.1-4.

In the account of the institution of the eucharist the diaqhkh. recalls Is 42.6 'I have made you a covenant of the people, a light of the nations' and a similar promise in Is 49.8.



(3) The third element of the introduction is the testing for forty days by Satan in the desert (1.12-13). This is an echo, made much more explicit in the accounts of Matthew and Luke, of the testing of God's son Israel for forty years in the desert. Where Israel failed, Jesus, God's son, remains faithful. But two further elements of Jesus' mission which will be prominent in the gospel are here presaged, the struggle with Satan which will occur in Jesus' expulsion of evil spirits, and his testing by suffering and persecution. Each of these will form major themes in the gospel story.



The main thrust of the revelation of Jesus in the gospel is, then, already foreseen and suggested in these thirteen verses of prologue.



2. The Conclusion of Mark (16.1-8) consists of the story of the empty tomb. This in its turn confirms the message which was already adumbrated in the prologue.



Mark 16.9-20 appears to be the conclusion. It should not, however, be considered part of the original gospel of Mark, and so evidence of his theology. The manuscript tradition is complicated. In brief, two different additional endings are preserved in some manuscripts, neither of which is particularly strongly attested. The most likely solution is that, once the gospels of Matthew and Luke had come into being, with their full stories of the appearances of the Risen Lord, it was felt that Mark was incomplete without any such stories. The 'longer ending' (vv. 9-20) can be seen at a glance to be a secondary collection of scraps drawn from sayings of the gospels and Acts of the Apostles about the resurrection appearances and the future mission of the disciples, mere brief resumes of quite different character to Mark's lively stories. There are also distinct differences of style between these verses and the main body of the gospel (see Essay 1). It will be assumed, without further argument, but with the virtually unanimous agreement of scripture scholarship, that these verses should be left out of consideration in seeking Mark's own meaning.



The passage is not in any way a proof of the emptiness of the tomb or a proof of the resurrection. The young man in a white robe invites the women to check that the tomb is empty, 'See, here is the place where they laid him' (v. 6), but they make no attempt to do so. If the passage were intended to prove the reality of the disappearance of the body, it would have included a thorough examination of the empty tomb in order to confirm the angel's words. Instead, what is given is the explanation or interpretation of the fact, the fact itself being taken for granted. This is the function of an angelus interpres.



The convention of an angelus interpres would be immediately recognised from previous biblical and other Jewish literature. A young man clothed in white is a stock figure to explain supernatural happenings (Ezek 40.3; Zech 1.14; 2.2, 7, etc; Dn 8.16; 9.21-22; 2 Mc 3.33).



His function is confirmed by the reaction of the women when they see him: amazement. This is the stock reaction to a heavenly messenger, who then reassures them (vv. 5-6).



In a way the real meaning of the event becomes clear principally in the reaction of the women to the explanation. 'They were frightened out of their wits, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid' (v. 8), literally 'Trembling and ecstasy gripped them...for they were afraid'. Awe and fear are the natural reaction to the divine, and here it is three times repeated, in characteristically Markan style, first with a Markan doublet ('trembling and ecstasy'), then with a typical Marken afterthought-explanation introduced by ga.r=for. It is with this that the gospel comes to an end; the fear and awe of the women is left hanging in the air, leaving the gospel open-ended. The message is that at the resurrection the divine has burst upon human history with all its awe-inspiring potential.



Thus the last scene of the gospel answers to the first, as Jesus' divine sonship is established in a new way and recognised at the resurrection.



3. The Transfiguration (9.2-8) The same emphasis on Jesus' divine sonship occurs also at the turning-point of the gospel. Immediately after the scene at Caesarea Philippi (Peter's confession, followed by the first prophecy of the Passion and its sequels, 8.27-38), the Transfiguration again makes clear that Jesus is the authoritative son of God, as the voice from the divine cloud reiterates and expands the words at the Baptism, 'This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him'. Numerous traits link this episode to the resurrection, to the extent that it has been interpreted as a misplaced or anticipated resurrection narrative. The white garments and the transfiguring bespeak a heavenly being, as does the fear of the onlookers. The account is bracketed at either end by the statement that the kingdom of God is about to come in power (9.1) and the allusion to the resurrection (9.9). This scene, then, acts as a reminder of the true nature of Jesus as the disciples begin to learn that he is to suffer as Messiah.



B. THE SON OF GOD IN ACTION



Within this careful framing by Mark there are four other features which bring out the special quality of Jesus: the constant wonder at his actions, his authority, the recognition by evil spirits and the nature-miracles.



1. The constant wonder of the witnesses to Jesus

An atmosphere of awe and wonder pervades the gospel, a feeling that Jesus is more than an ordinary human being. This is sometimes in reaction to his deeds, sometimes consequent upon what he does not do.

- When he calls the first disciples they follow without question, no explanation being given or needed; they seem simply to be drawn by his personality (1.18, 20; 2.14). Luke modifies this to give some previous miracles which explain their response (Lk 5.1-11). When Jesus gives the disciples authority, they go off without question to execute his mission (Mk 6.7). When he sends the disciples to commandeer a mount, they depart without question and the owners respond without hesitation (11.1-5).

- His authority is remarkable: 1.22 'He made a deep impression on them because, unlike the scribes, he taught with authority'. 'Here is a teaching that is new, and with authority behind it' (1.27). 'Even the wind and the sea obey him' (4.41). 'After that, no one dared to question him any more' (12.34). It is not only among the simple countryfolk that his unquestioning and unquestioned authority prevails. He commands always like one whose orders cannot be questioned. Questioners come to him, asking for decisions on all kinds of issues, fasting, payment of tribute, interpretation of scripture. On the occasion when his authority is challenged (11.27-33), he is not at all shaken, but leaves his challengers themselves confused and challenged.

- His reputation spreads 'everywhere, through all the Galilean countryside' (1.28). 'Everybody is looking for you' (1.37). 'Great numbers who had heard of all he was doing came to him' (3.8). 'Wherever he went, to village or town or farm, they laid down the sick in the open spaces, begging him to let them touch even the fringe of his cloak' (6.56).

- His miracles excite awe and astonishment: 'They were all astonished, and praised God, saying, "We have never seen anything like this"'(2.12). 'They were overcome with awe, and said to one another, "Who can this be?"' (4.41). 'And everyone was amazed' (5.20). 'At once they were overcome with astonishment' (5.43). 'They were utterly and completely dumbfounded' (6.51). 'Their admiration was unbounded' (7.37). The awe and astonishment are, of course, at the cures worked by Jesus. But cures and wonderful healings were not unprecedented. There were examples known also at Greek shrines and among Hellenistic and Galilean charismatics. What is especially remarkable is the commanding way in which Jesus accomplishes these miracles. With rare exceptions there is none of the machinery common in other miracle-stories, no impassioned prayer to God for a miracle, no spitting, no anointing, no abracadabra. The sick simply put their trust in Jesus and he responds.



The evidence sketched so far shows that Jesus' personality is remarkable; at least God is acting in and through Jesus. But as yet the source of this authority and power is unfocussed.



2. Recognition by evil spirits

The initial conflict with Satan which concludes the introduction already suggests that the expulsion of unclean spirits by Jesus may have special importance. It is the unclean spirits who first acknowledge Jesus as the Holy One of God (1.24) and son of the Most High God (5.7). The fact that neither the disciples nor other onlookers seem to be affected or informed by these cries indicates that they are not intended to be taken as literal sayings, actually audible. It is more Mark's way of expressing the acknowledgement of Jesus' power evident in the return of the possessed man to normality. This return to normality is understood as an acknowledgement of Jesus as son of God, expressed in the cry of the unclean spirit. It is an indication of Mark's view of Christ, parallel to the voice from heaven at the Baptism and the Transfiguration.



3. The nature miracles

Among the miracles of Jesus the two miracles of the sea stand out for their symbolic value. The fear and awe of the disciples at the Calming of the Storm is all the more remarkable as a contrast to their earlier ironic sarcasm, 'Master, do you not care? We are lost' (4.39). Their change from cynicism to admiration can be explained against the background of Psalm 107.23-29:

Voyagers on the sea in ships,

plying their trade on the great ocean,

have seen the works of Yahweh,

his wonders in the deep.



By his word he raised a storm-wind,

lashing up towering waves.

Up to the sky then down to the depths!

Their stomachs were turned to water;

they staggered and reeled like drunkards,

and all their skill went under.



They cried out to Yahweh in their distress,

he rescued them from their plight,

he reduced the storm to a calm,

and all the waters subsided,

and he brought them, overjoyed at the stillness,

to the port where they were bound.



Jesus has taken the place and played the part of Yahweh. Similarly in the story of the Walking on the Water Jesus is seen to play the part of God, for it is only Yahweh who can walk on the sea:



Job 9.8: He and no other has stretched out the heavens

and trampled on the back of the sea.



Psalm 77.19: Your way led over the sea,

your path over the countless waters,

and none could trace your footsteps.



Perhaps, as Morna Hooker suggests (p. 169), there is a special significance in this wonder immediately following the miraculous Feeding of the Five Thousand. The Feeding is carefully shaped by allusions to bring out the lesson that Jesus is like Moses in providing bread for his people in the desert; in the succeeding story the allusions to God alone being in control of the sea shows that he is still more than Moses. In the story of Israel's exodus from Egypt, the manna in the desert and God leading his people across the sea are events which succeed each other. 'The crossing of the sea and the gift of manna are the central miracles in the Exodus story, and it is therefore not surprising to find Mark tying these two miracles of Jesus closely together'.



C. THE SON OF MAN



A very frequent designation which Jesus uses for himself in Mark is 'the son of man'. The derivation and original meaning of this expression have been hotly disputed. How Jesus originally intended it, what he meant by it, and whence it is derived, may be considered later. In Mark, however, the meaning of it is less obscure. It occurs fourteen times in Mark, always on Jesus' own lips, and in two different ways:



1. Of Jesus' passion, death and resurrection. Jesus uses it several times in speaking of his approaching passion, death and resurrection. It plays a key role in the three great prophecies of the passion (8.31; 9.31; 10.33), again in another prophecy of the passion and vindication (9.9, 12), and is used three times of the passion without explicit mention of the resurrection (10.45; 14.21, 41).



2. Of Jesus' authority. The other way in which the Markan Jesus uses this expression of himself is to state his authority. On two occasions this is his authority on earth, authority to forgive sins (2.10) and authority over the Sabbath (2.28). On the other occasions, all the sayings are in prominent positions, and therefore all the more important for Mark's view of Jesus.



- If anyone in this sinful and adulterous generation is ashamed of me and of my words, the son of man will be ashamed of him when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels (8.38).

This saying leads into the Transfiguration, when Jesus is already seen in the glory which will be his. It is a presage of the final judgement.



- And then they will see the son of man coming with great power and glory. And then he will send the angels to gather his elect from the four winds (13.26-27).

This is the climax of the 'eschatological discourse', the foretelling of the persecution of Jesus' community in the world, ending with their liberation by the son of man.



- You will see the son of man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven (14.62).

The importance of this saying is that it forms the climax of the interrogation before the high priest. In Mark's presentation it is the claim which constitutes the point of his final rejection by the Jewish authorities, and leads immediately to the decision to have him killed. The claim is judged by the high priest and his council to be blasphemy. It is not immediately clear why this should be blasphemy. Certainly the claim to be Messiah is not blasphemous, for other messianic claimants soon before or after this were not condemned for blasphemy. Most probably the reason is the combination of 'seated at the right hand of the Power' and 'coming with the clouds of heaven'. This implies that Jesus is to be at the right hand of God on his throne. But if while 'seated' he is also 'coming', he must be actually sharing the mobile Merkabah-throne of God. This Merkabah-throne is the chariot-throne on which God is seated in Ezekiel 1. Already at the time of Jesus this imagery bulked large in the imagination and descriptions of Jewish mysticism (called Merkabah-mysticism). Such a claim would give good grounds for the charge of blasphemy.



From these three key-sayings it is clear that for Mark the background of the expression 'son of man' is the prophecy of Daniel 7.13-14:



I was gazing into the vision of the night,

when I saw, coming on the clouds of heaven

as it were a son of man.

He came to the One most venerable

and was led into his presence.

On him was conferred rule, honour and kingship,

and all peoples, nations and languages became his servants.

His rule is an everlasting rule

which will never pass away,

and his kingship will never come to an end.



In the prophecy preceding this vision Daniel describes four great beasts, representing the four great empires which persecuted and oppressed the Jewish nation. The son of man, in his turn, represents the nation itself, at last vindicated and triumphant, and finally to rule over the whole world with God's own authority. Mark understands the expression, well-known to have been characteristic of Jesus, to be this son of man, sharing God's power and authority. However in this final saying he goes beyond the prophecy, to represent Jesus as sharing the throne itself of God. The trial scene is, then, for Mark the climax of his presentation of the mystery and meaning of Jesus.