SBL 2015: Markan Christology

Yesterday I blogged about some of the sessions that I attended at the recent SBL annual meeting in Atlanta. Today I am going to follow up by discussing another interesting session that I attended Saturday afternoon on Markan Christology. Since the last review was rather long, I will keep this one a bit shorter and more to the point.

doveThere were four papers presented at the Markan Christology session. One paper was by Michael Kok, titled Adoptionist Interpretations of Mark’s Gospel among Ancient and Modern Readers” (abstract here). Kok has also written about his presentation on his own blog Euangelion Kata Markon. If you aren’t a reader of Kok’s blog, you should be, so check it out! I also wrote a review recently of Kok’s new book The Gospel on the Margins, which is an excellent monograph dealing with why and how the 2nd century patristic church fathers attributed the authorship of the Gospel of Mark to the figure of John Mark, in the role of Peter’s interpreter.

Another paper was presented by Daniel Kirk, titled Idealized Human or Identified as God? A Narratological Assessment of Mark’s Christology in Conversation with Jewish Precedents” (abstract here). Kirk is also a Bible blogger, who writes at Storied Theology and runs a podcast called LectioCast. Both Kok, Kirk, and myself also attended the Bible blogger’s dinner with James McGrath Sunday night. We all had a lot of fun together, and Kok and I even walked over to the gathering together, both sharing our academic ideas along the way.

There was also a paper presented by Delbert Burkett, titled Mark’s Jesus: Spirit-Filled Charismatic and Deified Human” (abstract here), and the fourth paper was presented by Rick Watts, titled Mark’s ‘Dappled’ Christology” (abstract here). Below is a review of some of the discussion:

I’ll discuss each of the papers in the order in which they were presented. Daniel Kirk was the first speaker. In his paper he started by noting how the Gospel of Mark (1:1-3) begins by quoting the Old Testament, and that divine figures in the Old Testament impart messages. Kirk argued that Jesus is depicted in Mark on the level of OT figures like Adam and David, but is not depicted as equal to God. For example, Kirk pointed out that even passages that seem to depict Jesus on an equal level with God, such as when he is described as “the son of God” during the transfiguration (Mk. 9:7) and at his crucifixion (Mk. 15:39), actually depict Jesus as a mortal. The transfiguration has Jesus appear with the mortal figures Moses and Elijah, and during his crucifixion the Roman centurion who calls him “the son of God” also describes him as an ἄνθρωπος (“human”).

On this point it is also worth noting that Talmudic scholar Daniel Boyarin (The Jewish Gospels, pg. 33) also argues that the term “son of God” does not mean a divine figure. For example, David is described as a son of God in 2 Samuel 7:14, despite the fact that David was a mortal king. Moreover, in Exodus 4:22 God describes Israel as his “son,” which likely implies that every Judean, belonging to God’s chosen people, is a “son of God.” Paradoxically, Boyarin instead argues that the term “son of man” actually refers to a divine being. This divine figure is depicted descending from heaven as a cosmic judge in Daniel 7:13. It should also be noted that Bart Ehrman argues that the historical Jesus probably did not claim to be the “son of man,” but was referring to another figure, a kernel which is preserved partially in certain verses of Mark (e.g. 13:26), where Jesus uses “son of man” to refer to a figure who seems to be someone other than himself.

Kirk also argued that there are many categories of the divine depicted in the Old Testament, but that humans, like Jesus, are never depicted as being pre-existent.

Delbert Burkett was the second speaker. In his paper he argued that Jesus begins as a human, who later becomes divine. Burkett argued that there are two models of human divinity that Jesus is based off of: the Jewish conception of a spirit-filled charismatic, and the Greco-Roman conception of a mortal who becomes a god and ascends to heaven (such as the Roman emperors). Burkett argued that there are three stages of Jesus’ divinity in Mark: 1) before he is baptized by John the Baptist, Jesus is depicted as a human, 2) after his baptism, Jesus is depicted as a spirit-filled charismatic, and 3) after his resurrection, Jesus is depicted as a deified mortal. Burkett also noted that there are no references or implications anywhere in Mark that Jesus performed miracles before his baptism. As such, the baptism is the crucial moment in Mark where Jesus begins to possess miraculous powers.

Michael Kok was the third speaker. Kok argued that the Gospel of Mark elevates Jesus to a divine figure through an adoptionist Christology. In other words, Jesus was not a pre-existent figure, but was elevated to the status of God by adoption, both by being anointed or elected as the Davidic king at his baptism, and by attaining that royal office when seated on his heavenly throne after Easter. This view is similar to the one taken by Bart Ehrman in his recent book How Jesus Became God [1]. Likewise, Daniel Boyarin told me during his visit to UC Irvine in Winter 2015 that he also thinks that the Gospel of Mark has an adoptionist Christology. Kok argued that “high” vs. “low” Christology is something of a post-Nicene anachronism, and likewise noted that Roman emperors were adopted. As such, Kok argued that Jesus is depicted as a Davidic Messiah figure to rival the Roman emperors. Kok also noted that “heretical” sects that preferred the Gospel of Mark in the early centuries of Christianity tended to have a “low” Christological orientation (for lack of a better term).

Rick Watts was the fourth speaker, and responded to the other presenters. As many can probably glean from the discussion above, the majority view of the panel was that Jesus is depicted as mortal who does not become empowered with miraculous powers or divinity until after his baptism and resurrection. Rick Watts took the position, contrary to Burkett, that Jesus undergoes no ontological change at all during the baptism. Watts conceded that Mark’s Jesus is depicted with mortal vocabulary, but he argued that Mark “dapples” Jesus’ divinity by depicting him in mortal ways. Watts also referred to the fact that in Mark 2:5-7, when Jesus said, “your sins are forgiven” to the paralyzed man, the teachers of the law responded by saying, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” I should note, however, that the Greek verb used in the passage, ἀφίενταί, is in the passive voice, meaning that Jesus does not say “I forgive you,” but rather “your sins are forgiven,” which could simply be Jesus pronouncing the forgiveness of God. Likewise, John the Baptist also pronounces the forgiveness of sins (Mk. 1:4), but certainly is not God.

A stronger point that I thought that Watts made, however, is that Jesus is depicted as having greater miraculous powers than mortal servants of God, like Moses. For example, in Exodus 14:21 Moses performs the miracle of parting the Red Sea. The way this miracle is described, however, is by Moses stretching out his hands, and “the Lord” driving back the Sea. Moses himself, therefore, does not necessarily perform the miracle, but rather the miracle is the answer of a prayer. In contrast, Watts pointed out that when Jesus walks on water in Mark 6:45-52, Jesus is not having a prayer answered, but is himself performing the miracle of walking on water. I thought that this was a very interesting point. It does not convince me, however, that Jesus always had miraculous powers. The walking on water, after all, occurred after Jesus’ baptism, and I tend to agree more with Burkett, contrary to Watts, that Jesus probably undergoes some kind of ontological change at the baptism, especially since “the Spirit descending on him like a dove” (Mk. 1:10).

I will note one major disagreement that I had with Watts. As noted above, both Burkett and Kok argued that Jesus is partially modeled off of Hellenistic and Roman figures. Watts pointed out that the Hebrew scriptures are cited multiple times in Mark, but yet there is no citation of a Greco-Roman text. As such, Watts argued that there are no indisputable Pagan antecedents that can be demonstrated in the Gospel of Mark. This view, obviously, is quite at variance with the sessions that I discussed yesterday arguing for Homeric antecedents in Mark.

I strongly disagree with this interpretation, however. When Mark cites the Old Testament he does so to cite fulfillments of scripture. I don’t think that fulfillments of scripture are the only literary antecedents and models that exist in the Gospels, however. For example, there are several passages in Mark that make allusions to the Old Testament without explicitly citing verses, so just because Mark is not citing Pagan texts does not mean that the author is not alluding to them. Likewise, just because Jesus does not fulfill Pagan prophecies does not mean that he is not modeled off of Pagan texts and figures. I also discussed Watt’s argument with Dennis MacDonald later, and MacDonald argued that Mark cites the Old Testament to educate Gentile readers (who were more familiar with Homer) about Jewish texts and customs that they were probably less familiar with (e.g. Mark goes through the effort of explaining Jewish customs in 7:3; 14:12; 15:42). I appreciated Watts’ contribution, however, as devil’s advocate (no innuendo intended smile emoticon).

Overall, I thought that it was a very lively panel and discussion! There was a lot of friendly debate, and despite all the disagreements, everyone argued with a grin on their face. I had a lot of fun attending.

-Matthew Ferguson

[1] Though, take note of Kok’s comment below about where he differs with Erhman on Jesus’ understanding of the “son of man.”

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12 Responses to SBL 2015: Markan Christology

  1. Thanks for this great review! To basically repeat what I wrote on the Facebook thread for your readers, one point that I would differ from Burkett and might be closer to Kirk on is that I would not say that in Mark that there is any ontological change in Jesus’ nature (i.e. apotheosis), but he is anointed or elected as the David king and emperor at his baptism and he attains that royal office when seated on his heavenly throne after Easter. He is divine in that he is divinely authorized to rule on Yahweh’s behalf and his great benefactions for his people. I think other NT authors like Paul do move towards Jesus’ pre-existence and incarnation, and I know I am a minority voice in that I maintain Mark is not Pauline but represents a distinct stream of the early Christ movement (cf. When you put all of these texts in a scriptural canon together, this will lead systematic theologians to carve out the full understanding of Jesus’ divine and human natures.

    p.s. I might challenge Ehrman’s view that the historical Jesus expected another cosmic eschatological judge since “the Son of Man” does not seem to be a known title in Second Temple Judaisms (it is not a title in Daniel or the Similitudes of Enoch) and I do not see why certain sayings in the Synoptic tradition where it is just a mundane self-reference would be invented. I like the idea that Jesus started with an Aramaic circumlocution referring to himself and could have then turned to Daniel where a human-like figure representing the saints of Israel is vindicated over foreign empires and saw in that a hint of his own destiny.

  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Hi Matthew. Did any of the panelists interact with Mark 1:3: John was preparing the way of the Lord? Some do appeal to that to argue that Mark believes Jesus was the Lord, or God, since John prepares the way for Jesus (or so v 7 can be interpreted).

    • Hi James,

      I can’t remember if this issue came up specifically, but my memory, of course, is imperfect, and it was a busy panel with a lot of issues coming up.

      From my understanding of Michael Kok’s position, however, Mark 1:3 and 1:7 would not imply that Jesus was God in a pre-existent sense. Rather, John the Baptist is preparing the way for the annointed or elected Davidic king, who will obtain the royal office when seated on his heavenly throne. In this sense, Jesus will be “the Lord,” but it does not imply that he was a pre-existent being.

  3. waldobiade says:

    “Jesus will be “the Lord,” but it does not imply that he was a pre-existent being.”
    But the Gospels are describing the fulfillment of OT prophecies, so Jesus was a pre-existent being.

    I think that the whole novelty about Gospel literature, that is different from others of its contemporary literature, stands in its “adventure” of fulfilling prophecies.
    BTW, are there in the Greek or Roman literature examples of “fulfillment of prophecies” gender? If yes, then the Gospels should be compared with those.

    • “But the Gospels are describing the fulfillment of OT prophecies, so Jesus was a pre-existent being.”

      How does Jesus fulfilling Old Testament prophecies, such as being the seed of David, for example, imply that he was a pre-existent being who existed before creation?

      “I think that the whole novelty about Gospel literature, that is different from others of its contemporary literature, stands in its “adventure” of fulfilling prophecies.
      BTW, are there in the Greek or Roman literature examples of “fulfillment of prophecies” gender? If yes, then the Gospels should be compared with those.”

      There are all sorts of fulfillments of prophecy in Greco-Roman literature of many varieties. The most famous example is the prophecies of the Oracle of Delphi, and the prophecies of the Oracle are said to be fulfilled across Greek literature, from Sophocles to Herodotus, and so on.

  4. mansubzero says:

    hello Mr Ferguson

    quote :

    And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “My son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this man speak thus? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”

    And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them,

    end quote

    it seems to me that according to mark, the spirit which descended on jesus gave jesus powers.
    notice in the above verse “perceiving in his spirit”

    is omitted


    “And behold, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” But Jesus, knowing their thoughts…”

    is “perceiving in his spirit” similar to “knowing their thoughts” in his mind or is mark using the words to mean that another entity is informing jesus?

    it seems that faith and spirit are portrayed as powerful things in mark, not jesus.

    when people don’t have faith, the spirit prevents him from doing miracles, ” he was UNABLE…”

    • Yes, it is true that the noun τὸ πνεῦμα (“the spirit”) is the same in Mk. 1:10 and 2:8. It seems that Jesus is able to perceive their thoughts in Mark. In Matthew it says that the teachers of the law are speaking out loud, signaled by the verb εἶπαν (“they said”), but in Mark it implies that they are only thinking that Jesus is blasphaming, διαλογιζόμενοι ἐν ταῖς καρδίαις αὐτῶν (“thinking in their hearts”). Perhaps the implication is that the spirit gave Jesus the power of clairvoyance.

  5. mansubzero says:

    ” In contrast, Watts pointed out that when Jesus walks on water in Mark 6:45-52, Jesus is not having a prayer answered, but is himself performing the miracle of walking on water. ”

    isn’t this true of pagan gods that they perform miracles by themselves and not any assistance from other gods i.e able to do the miracle by themselves? any jewish writers who believed that holy saints were able to do miraculous deeds without invoking/requesting yhwh?

    • Most Pagan miracles are similar to the miracle that I described of Moses above, where the miracle is performed by the aid of god. For example, the Roman emperor Vespasian was able to heal a blind and a crippled man in Alexandria, but the accounts of this miracle say that he did it through the power of the god Serapis.

      Apollonius of Tyana appears to perform miracles, however, on the same level as Jesus walking on water. He can vanish out of thin air and teleport, transfigure himself, cause trees to bloom, read the thoughts of others, etc. Baal Shem Tov is a Jewish miracle worker (though his miracles are reported far after antiquity in the 18th century) who could also do miracles on par with walking on water, such as flying through the air, transfiguring himself, and becoming invisible. I don’t think that the implication is that either Jesus or Baal Shem Tov could do miracles without the power of Yahweh, but rather that they were able to invoke the miracle themselves, rather than merely have a prayer answered.

      I wonder if there would be a way to build a classification of miracles distinguishing between prophets who can successfully pray for miracles brought by divine aid, and true miracle workers who can perform miracles per se.

  6. Alex Dalton says:

    You wrote: “I should note, however, that the Greek verb used in the passage, ἀφίενταί, is in the passive voice, meaning that Jesus does not say “I forgive you,” but rather “your sins are forgiven,” which could simply be Jesus pronouncing the forgiveness of God. Likewise, John the Baptist also pronounces the forgiveness of sins (Mk. 1:4), but certainly is not God.”

    I think, from a narrative perspective, it is fairly obvious how Mark meant to portray Jesus role in the forgiveness that he pronounced, by how he has the teachers of the law responding – accusing him of blasphemy. Besides that, he states clearly that the “Son of Man” has this authority. So basically confirming that a figure, other than God, has been given the authority to forgive sins.

    With John, it is a baptism of *repentance* for the forgiveness of sins, but he certainly isn’t pronouncing anyone forgiven on his own authority; the confession and repentance implies that their forgiveness, in addition to this purification rite, is contingent upon some change on their part. But regardless, with John, we don’t see the same objection being voiced by any characters in Mark.

    • Hey Alex,

      Sorry for the delay. There have been different interpretations among scholars about what is meant by the teachers of the law’s reaction. Bart Ehrman argues that the conflict wasn’t about Jesus claiming to be God, but rather that Jesus was claiming the authority, reserved to the Jewish priests, of pronouncing the forgiveness of sins:

      “With respect to the forgiveness of sins: when Jesus forgives sins, he never says “I forgive you,” as God might say, but “your sins are forgiven,” which means that God has forgiven your sins. This prerogative for pronouncing sins forgiven was otherwise reserved for Jewish priests in honor of sacrifices worshipers made at the temple. Jesus may be claiming a priestly, not a divine prerogrative.”

      But, more importantly, I contacted Michael Kok about this passage, who actually presented at the session described above. Here is what he wrote back over email:

      “Hey Matthew, your position on Jesus’ use of the passive indicating that he was pronouncing God’s forgiveness has been argued by other scholars (cf. Geza Vermes, The Religion of Jesus the Jew, pg. 192 [Google preview], E. P. Sanders, Jesus and Judaism, pg. 273-74 [google preview]). Sanders goes on to argue as Ehrman does that Jesus may arrogating himself the prerogative of the priesthood. However, that view could be used to argue for a high Christology, such as N.T. Wright who argues that Jesus bypasses the temple cult and is now the locus where the divine presence and forgiveness is mediated.

      On the other hand, the most recent studies by Daniel Johannson (“Who Can Forgive Sins but God Alone? Human and Angelic Agents and Divine Forgiveness in Early Judaism” JNTS 33.4 (2011): 351-374 and Tobias Hägerland Jesus and the Forgiveness of Sins (Cambridge University Press, 2012) have combed through the parallels and I think they both rule out the high priest on the grounds that there was no evidence that the high priest pronounced the absolution “your sins are forgiven” and repentance/forgiveness need not be confined to the temple cult. Johannson is a student of Hurtado and argues that there are no Jewish parallels, hence Jesus is making a divine claim, while Hägerland believes he has found a parallel of prophets forgiving sins in Josephus (see Geza Vermes used to point out that the exorcist forgives sins in the “Prayer of Nabonidus” in the Dead Sea Scrolls (4Q242) but the text is fragmentary and Johannson disputes the translation. My friend Daniel McClellan pointed out that Exodus 23:21 suggests the Angel of YHWH can forgive sins because he has the divine name but there is a question of whether the Angel is an intermediary agent or the visible manifestation of Yahweh in that text. Finally, my own advisor James Crossley argues that Mark could be translated as “your sins are loosed” (the paralytics’ limbs are also set free from their bondage) and that the accusations of blasphemy could just be about Jesus’ authority (e.g. in the next chapter the religious leaders claim Jesus gets his authority from Beelzebub, Josephus records accusations of blasphemy regarding the authority of the priestly office).

      With all that said, lets say for the sake of argument that there is no Jewish parallels to forgiving sins and that it is a pretty remarkable claim that “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” Does the mention that he has this authority “on earth” mean that it is delegated authority and those upon whom Jesus’ pronounces forgiveness will be ratified by God in heaven? Should we accept the judgment of the villains in the story that Jesus has committed blasphemy? And does not the parallel in Matthew 9:8 show that this could be understood as God giving this authority to human beings? So I think my position is that the Jesus of Mark’s Gospel is the supreme human agent of God who has been given the authority to speak, act, and rule on God’s behalf.”

      Kok has written more about these issues in a blog post linked below, if you are interested in conversing with him about it:

      Unfortunately, I am very busy with graduate work at the moment, so I don’t have much time to say more here.

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