The Christology of the Gospel of Mark

[Editor’s Note: Often on Fridays, we will stray from our series of the moment and engage in interesting posts that catch our eye.]

by Drew Smith

The Christology of the Gospel of Mark has been and continues to be a point of debate among biblical scholars and theologians. Indeed, we could say this about all four of the canonical Gospels. Recently, New Testament scholar Michael Bird sparked an online debate when he offered his summary of Mark’s Christology:
The Marcan Jesus participates in the kyricentricity of Israel’s God. He is identified as a pre-existent heavenly figure who has come to earth, who carries divine authority, who embodies royal and priestly roles; and in his person, words, and deeds he manifests the holy presence, the redemptive purposes, and the cosmic power of the Lord of Israel.
I am not going to quibble with much of what Bird offers as his summary of Mark’s Christology, but I do believe he has no evidence that Mark’s Gospel offers a view of Jesus that is pre-existent. Unlike Matthew and Luke, there is not in Mark a birth narrative communicating the miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth. Moreover, certainly unlike John, Mark does not even slightly suggest that Jesus is the Word that was in the beginning and who was God, but who has become flesh. No, it seems to me that Mark’s Christology is more restrained in the claims the narrative makes about Jesus.
What I do think is going on in Mark’s presentation of Jesus, Mark’s Christology, is actually an aspect of the presentation of God, Mark’s theology. In other words, while Jesus is not portrayed as pre-existent, that pushes the evidence too far, Jesus is certainly presented in close relationship to God. Indeed, while there is a distinction between God and Jesus in that both play roles in the narrative, there is also an inseparability between God and Jesus.
This might be seen from the beginning of the narrative, where the narrator of the Gospel introduces a mixture of quotations from the Old Testament and attributes them to the prophet Isaiah (1:2-3). Mark’s use of these Old Testament passages, and the attribution of them to Isaiah, is for the purpose of persuading the audience to understand the following narrative within the context of the eschatological hope found in Isaiah 40, and to see this hope coming to fulfilment.
The use of these quotations at this juncture in the story picks up the story of the past and continues the hope begun at that former time in the time of Mark’s audience. In appropriating the context of Isaiah in their understanding of Mark’s beginning, the audience would understand that God is at work within Mark’s story, fulfilling the promises of the past.
In particular, the narrative introduces the voice of God, through the quotation of scripture, who announces that “I”, God, “am sending my (God’s) messenger ahead of you (Jesus).” The one who sends is God. The one sent is interpreted by the Gospel as John. And the one who John goes before is Jesus.
But, the narrative says that the purpose of the messenger (John) is to “Prepare the way of the Lord (kyrios)”. To whom does kyrios refer in this verse in Mark’s opening? It seems somewhat ambiguous.
Certainly the Old Testament text that Mark is quoting here refers to God as the Lord, and, in my view, the narrative does not remove this title from God. Rather, it seems that in extending the term to Jesus, Mark intends to demonstrate the inseparability of God and Jesus. Thus in his identity as the kyrios Jesus acts with the authority of and in concurrence with God who is also kyrios.
Moreover, God is presented as the sender of the messenger, John, who is to prepare the way of the Lord, and to make straight the paths of Jesus. The paths of which God, through scripture, speaks is the way Jesus will walk through the narrative. Thus in sending John, the messenger, ahead of Jesus to prepare the way for Jesus, God is presented as the one who also sends Jesus. Moreover, the absence of any birth narrative or genealogy of Jesus in Mark communicates to the audience that the origin and significance of the one coming is found completely in God. God gives Jesus the authority to act and speak as representative of God throughout the narrative.
This is brought into clearer view for the audience through the voice from heaven proclaiming Jesus as “my beloved Son”. This vision serves as the authentication of Jesus by God to act as representative of God throughout the narrative. For the audience of Mark, all the actions and teachings of Jesus follow from this experience. Thus, the baptismal scene serves the Markan audience as the basis on which they are able to view Jesus as the one sent by God, who is the Spirit empowered Son of God.
This is also evidenced in the statements where Jesus, the narrator, or another character refers to Jesus’ coming (See 1:14-15; 24; 38; 2:15-17; 10:45. Cf. 9:37 where Jesus speaks of one who sent him and 12:1-12 where, in parable, the owner of the vineyard sends “a beloved son”, a reference not lost on any reader of Mark’s narrative.). In presenting Jesus as the one who has come and the one sent from God, the narrator sets Jesus in relation to God as the one who represents God on earth. Thus the actions Jesus carries out on earth are to be viewed by the Markan audience as God’s actions, or actions done by and for God.
Indeed, my own summary of Mark’s Christology, though a longer summary than Bird’s, while being more cautious than Bird’s view of Jesus’ preexistence, does view the Gospel’s Christology as an aspect of the Gospel’s theology in the sense that from the beginning of Mark Jesus is associated with God and God is associated with Jesus.
First, as God is presented in the narrative as the authenticator of Jesus, so Jesus is presented as the authoritative actor and speaker for God. Jesus is clearly presented as the one sent from God. Moreover, his miracle working activity is understood in light of the coming of God’s rule. Certain themes and characteristics exist in the miracle stories that serve to highlight Jesus as acting on behalf of God.
Regarding Jesus as speaker for God, Jesus speaks with authority from God, and presents himself in relation and submission to God. His teaching is focused on the coming rule of God, and the actions required by all who wish to be part of that rule. Moreover, via some of his sayings and actions, Jesus is presented as standing in place of and on behalf of God. Those who desire to participate in the coming rule of God must meet the requirements voiced by Jesus, and indeed must recognize Jesus as the authoritative envoy of God. Thus through his actions and words, Jesus is presented as the one who is authenticated by God.
Second, as God is presented as the commissioner of Jesus, so Jesus is presented as the Son of Man/Son of God who carries out the divine commission. Jesus is clearly presented in Mark as understanding the task for which he has been sent. Although he does view his miracle activity, as well as his preaching and teaching as commissioned by God, it is ultimately his suffering and death which are understood in the narrative as the primary purpose for his coming.
Through the narrative presentation of Jesus’ suffering and death, as well as the Markan Jesus’ words concerning his death, the audience is presented with the clear portrayal of God as the one who acts to bring about this death for God’s purposes. From the Markan Jesus’ perspective, it is God’s will that he suffer, God who ultimately stands behind the “handing over” of Jesus, and God who abandons Jesus to death. Jesus, however, is not to be viewed here as a character without freedom of choice, for he freely and intentionally gives his life away, submitting to the will of the Father (14:36).
Finally, as God is presented as the vindicator and exalter of Jesus, so Jesus is presented as the risen and glorified Son of Man/Son of God. The resurrection of Jesus is no surprise in the Markan narrative, for Jesus clearly speaks of it (8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34; 14:28). In each setting it follows on the prediction of his death, and is thus tied to the activity and will of God. The specific use of the passive verbs by Jesus in 14:28 and by the young man at the tomb are intended to focus the audience’s attention onto God as the one who can and does raise and vindicate Jesus.
Moreover, as the Son of Man, who is the Son of God, Jesus envisions his final vindication as that which God accomplishes. His future testimony before the Father and the angels (8:38) implies the authority given to him via his vindication by the Father. He is the one who is the Messiah, who as David’s Lord (kyrios used in reference to Jesus) sits at the right hand of the Lord (kyrios used in reference to God), as this Lord places the enemies of the Messiah (Jesus) under his feet (12:36).
His victory is pictured as a cosmic event which brings about the shake-up of the heavens, in which he takes his authoritative position over the angels, sending them forth to gather the elect of God (13:24-27). The enemies of the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One, will witness this event, as the Son of Man is exalted to the right hand of the Power, a circumlocution for God (14:62). Thus in God’s faithfulness to the Son, God conquers the enemies of humanity, death and evil, and thereby vindicates and exalts the Son.
Through the genre of narrative Mark presents a portrait of Jesus which is an aspect of its portrait of God. God plays the main role in the narrative being the sender, authenticator, commissioner, and vindicator of Jesus. Jesus is presented in terms reflecting this presentation of God. He is presented as the one sent from God, the one who has authority to act and speak for God, the one who gives his life in obedience to the commission from God, and the one who is vindicated by God.
Thus, the significance and identity of Jesus in Mark is an aspect of the narrative presentation of God. As God is the one who authoritatively identifies Jesus as the beloved Son (1:11; 9:7), so Jesus is the one who authoritatively identifies God as Abba-Father (esp. 14:36). Christology and theology are interrelated in Mark.
Mark’s theology is a christological theology; a theology centred on the presentation of Jesus as the one who speaks and acts for God. Mark’s Christology is at the same time a theological Christology; Jesus is presented as finding significance and identity in his relationship to God. Thus, although theology and Christology are often considered separate concerns in Mark, as indeed God and Jesus are separate characters in the narrative, there is also the clear presentation of their inseparability within the second Gospel.
Does this mean that Mark’s Christology frames Jesus as divine in the sense that John frames Jesus as divine? Does Mark’s clear association of Jesus with God carry a pre-existent emphasis? I think not. That, again, reads into the narrative what is not clearly there. Mark clearly presents Jesus in close association with God, but that close association does not decidedly equate Jesus as God, particularly in terms of a pre-existent divine figure.

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  1. Thanks, Drew. I’m sure this will come as as surprise to people who read into the gospel of Mark the high Christology of John. How, in their minds, could there be a different understanding of the status of Jesus? It’s important (from my perspective) to realize that the New Testament is reflective of the many different ways that the church understood Jesus in the first century. It’s no wonder we see different conclusions. If we keep this in mind, we will be much more tolerant of differences held among believers today.

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