Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Did Mark Think Jesus Was God?

It often happens that when a Christian apologist cites some scholarly tome and I track down the book to read it, I find that it undermines the apologist’s position as much as it supports it. I was recently debating the question of whether the Gospel of Mark presents a different and lesser view of Christ’s divinity than the Gospel of John with Nick Norelli on his blog Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth. Nick cited Darrell Bock’s, Blasphemy and Exaltation in Judaism: The Charge Against Jesus in Mark 14:53-65 as support for his position and urged me to read it. I normally view reading recommendations to be attempts to weasel out of an argument that isn’t going well. (I do this because when I have done the reading, I have found the person who did the recommending unprepared to discuss it.) However, I have always found Nick to be a pretty straight shooter so I requested Bock’s book through inter-library loan.

After looking through Bock's book, I think it provides support for the argument that the author of Mark did not think that Jesus was God. Bock shows that first century Jews believed that God, in his infinite wisdom, had in the past and would in the future exalt certain unique human beings thereby granting them authority to execute certain divine functions on His behalf and allowing them to sit in his presence. These individuals nonetheless remained human beings subordinate to and distinct from God. Mark's Jesus makes sense as an exalted human whose relationship with God was one of agency rather than equality. There seems to be no reason to read between the lines to find some divine Jesus when a human Jesus fits Mark's cultural context.

As the title indicates, Bock’s book is focused on thirteen verses from the Gospel of Mark:
They took Jesus to the high priest, and all the chief priests, elders and teachers of the law came together. Peter followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest. There he sat with the guards and warmed himself at the fire. The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death, but they did not find any. Many testified falsely against him, but their statements did not agree. Then some stood up and gave this false testimony against him: "We heard him say, 'I will destroy this man-made temple and in three days will build another, not made by man.' "Yet even then their testimony did not agree. Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, "Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?" But Jesus remained silent and gave no answer.
Again the high priest asked him, "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?" "I am," said Jesus. "And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven." The high priest tore his clothes. "Why do we need any more witnesses?" he asked. "You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?" They all condemned him as worthy of death. Then some began to spit at him; they blindfolded him, struck him with their fists, and said, "Prophesy!" And the guards took him and beat him.
Mark 14:53-65. 1 Bock examines how Jesus’ claim fit into first century Jewish understanding and why the priests considered it blasphemous.

It should be noted that Bock’s book does not seek to compare Mark’s Christology to John’s or Paul’s or anyone else’s. It would not surprise me if he does it elsewhere, but Blasphemy and Exaltation is directed towards responding to arguments from more liberal scholars that the passage in Mark is ahistorical. Bock does this by thoroughly examining the first century Jewish literature concerning blasphemy and exaltation and showing that the priests’ conclusion that Jesus had committed blasphemy was consistent with the understanding that prevailed at that time. In his discussion with me, Nick used Bock’s work to argue that the Gospel of Mark expresses Christ’s deity just as clearly as the Gospel of John does, but it is not an argument that Bock addresses in the book.

Although Bock’s writing is geared towards other biblical scholars and hence often over my head sometimes (particularly when he quotes German scholars in German), he does provide an accessible summary of his argument at the end of the book:
Jesus’ blasphemy operated at two levels. 1) There was a claim to possess comprehensive authority from the side of God. Though Judaism might contemplate such a position for a few, the teacher from Galilee was not among the luminaries for whom such a role might be considered. As a result, his remark would have been seen as a self-claim that was an affront to God’s presence. 2) He also attacked the leadership, by implicitly claiming to be their future judge (or by claiming a vindication by him). This would be seen as a violation of Exod. 22:27, where God’s leaders are not to be cursed. A claim that their authority was non-existent and that they would be accounted among the wicked is a total rejection of their authority. To the leadership, this was an affront to God as they were in their own view, God’s established chosen leadership.
Blasphemy and Exaltation p. 236.

What I found most intriguing was Bock’s discussion of the exalted human figures that are found in early Jewish literature outside the Bible. For example, Enoch only makes a fleeting appearance in Genesis 5 as the father of Methuseleh, but there was apparently a large body of non-canonical literature on him. In it he is the angelic Metatron at one point and the Son of Man dispensing judgment from a heavenly throne at another. Other exalted humans include Adam, Abel, Moses, Elijah, and the future Messiah. According to Bock, there was “a wide variety of views about who gets into God’s presence." There also seem to be a variety of activities that these figures undertook while in a state of exaltation. Nevertheless, each individual was selected for exaltation by God, each one's power and authority was delegated by God, and each remained subordinate to God.

When apologists argue that Mark understood Jesus to be God, they typically point to Jesus doing "God-like" things like forgiving sins. However, Mark understood that God could and did delegate the performance of "God-like" functions to certain unique humans when it suited him to do so. When challenged for forgiving sins, Jesus specifically noted that he has the "authority" to do so. Mark 2:10. Isn't it more reasonable to think that Mark was telling a story with in the context of first century Judaism rather than rethinking its concept of monotheism?

Bock argues that the priests considered Jesus' claim blasphemous because it was a self-claim2 and it does seem logical that the exaltation itself would be one prerogative that God would never delegate. However, the fact that the priests thought Jesus was usurping a divine prerogative doesn't mean that Mark thought so. The priests were mistaken on this point and Mark knew they were mistaken because Mark knew that God had revealed himself as the source of Jesus' status at both his baptism and his transfiguration.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus says things about himself that go beyond what even an exalted human being might have been able to claim within the context of first century Judaism, e.g., "he who sees me sees the Father" and "I and the Father are one." His opponents understand that Jesus is claiming to be God. In Mark, on the other hand, Jesus claims the status and authority that God has been known to confer on exalted humans. According to Bock, this is how the Jewish priests understood his claims.

If you understand contemporary idioms, you don't think that someone who says "I am so hungry I could eat a horse" is actually communicating an intent to consume an entire equine. By the same token, if Bock is correct about first century Judaism, there doesn't seem to be any reason to attribute to Mark an understanding of Jesus as God incarnate rather than as an exalted human.

1 The passage has parallels in Luke and Matthew, but apologists will almost always cite Mark in support of the claim that the Synoptic gospels reflect the same view of Christ’s divinity as the Gospel of John. This is because Mark reports that Jesus unambiguously answered “I am” when the priests asked him whether he was the Messiah. Depending on the translation you read, Jesus seems to be tap dancing around the question in Luke and John.

From the King James Version:
Art thou the Christ? tell us. And he said unto them, If I tell you, ye will not believe: And if I also ask you, ye will not answer me, nor let me go. Hereafter shall the Son of man sit on the right hand of the power of God. Then said they all, Art thou then the Son of God? And he said unto them, Ye say that I am.
Luke 22:67-70.
But Jesus held his peace, And the high priest answered and said unto him, I adjure thee by the living God, that thou tell us whether thou be the Christ, the Son of God. Jesus saith unto him, Thou hast said: nevertheless I say unto you, Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.
Matthew 22:63-64.

2 Bock also acknowledges the possibility that Jesus wasn’t talking about himself when he spoke of the priests seeing “the Son of Man coming on the clouds,” but was instead referring some future messenger from God who would judge the priests and vindicate Jesus. Blasphemy and Exaltation p. 225-28. Apparently, the phrase “son of man” was a circumlocution in Aramaic that meant something along the lines of “yours truly.” Although Jesus repeatedly refers to himself as “the son of man” in Mark, he may not have been claiming the title of the figure from Daniel’s prophecy in most of those cases. In other words, when Jesus said “the son of man has nowhere to rest his head,” all he meant was “yours truly has nowhere to rest his head.” Therefore, when he refers to Daniel’s “Son of Man” in the third person when responding to the priests, he may actually have been referring to some third person.

Bock considers this to be the less likely reading, however, if it is correct then the charge of blasphemy rested only on the insult to God’s priests rather than on the insult combined with Jesus’ claim about himself.

1 comment:

  1. You might want to check out this volume of Letter and Spirit, subtitled the Hermeneutic of Continuity. This theme is a new development in biblical exegesis and scholarship and features some really creative writing. I think you'd dig it.