Mark’s Christology

by James Dowden

There has been a bit of back and forth in the blogosphere about whether Mark thought Jesus was God: Michael Kruger says yea; James McGrath says nay; and Dale Tuggy gives an overview of the data. On one level, it seems to be that old proto-orthodox/adoptionist ding-dong all over again; and there may be some insights into the nature of the canon there.

But I would like to look at a few of the passages that Dale Tuggy highlighted.

1. Mark 1.12-13: the so-called Temptation

Tempted. (12) But, you can’t tempt God.

I fear that what we have here is Biblish not meaning the same as the usual modern English meanings of words. For “tempt”, a popular online dictionary gives the following:

tempt
verb (used with object)
1. to entice or allure to do something often regarded as unwise, wrong, or immoral.
2. to attract, appeal strongly to, or invite: The offer tempts me.
3. to render strongly disposed to do something: The book tempted me to read more on the subject.
4. to put (someone) to the test in a venturesome way; provoke: to tempt one’s fate.
5. Obsolete . to try or test.

It’s only natural – especially when Matthew and Luke’s synoptic parallels are subconsciously in mind, despite knowing deep down that Mark did not know these – to read sense (1) into the passage. But the verb that is traditionally translated “tempt” here – πειράζω – has its core meaning close to sense (5), and Mark’s usage of it conforms to this elsewhere (all quotes ESV):

  • 8.11 The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him.
  • 10.2 And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
  • 12.15 But, knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why put me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.”

With this meaning in mind, the analysis “you can’t tempt God” doesn’t work. Indeed, the parallels between Mark 1.12-13 and the second half of Psalm 95 (aka the Venite) are somewhat marked:

12 The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.

And sticking with the ESV, even though it’s changed its Biblish into modern English here:

Today, if you hear his voice,
8     do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
    as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
9 when your fathers put me to the test
    and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
10 For forty years I loathed that generation [etc etc]

Whatever point Mark was trying to make with this allusion to the Israelites’ testing (“temptation”) of God, it clearly wasn’t “you can’t tempt God”.

(On a bit of an aside, it needn’t be mediated through Psalm 95. Mark could of course have been thinking of the incidents in Exodus 17 and Numbers 14, which are parts of the same story – including describing God as being tempted/tested on both occasions – after a more narrative fashion.)

But we have a nice little Bible translation issue here: why does (seemingly) every translation anomalously and misleadingly go for “tempted” at Mark 1.13, when “tested” would convey the meaning of the Greek better in modern English? (There’s a similar issue with the noun πειρασμός at Mt 6.13 // Lk 11.4 and Mk 14.38 and parallels, although versions such as the ESV, NASB, NIV, and HCSB offer different renderings elsewhere (e.g. James 1.12).)

2. Mark 1.14-15: the Gospel of God

Proclaims the good news from God. (14-15)

Here we encounter that tedious argument about Greek genitives that is bound to send everyone to sleep. So I shall be perhaps uncharacteristically brief. Is the Good News of God the Good News from God or the Good News regarding God. There is a case to be argued that this is the latter from the content of this proclamation – translating on the fly, “The time has come, and God’s reign has drawn near! Repent, and believe the Good News!”

This leaves quite a big question of what it means to be God’s Anointed, his Christ, when the proclamation seems to be that God himself is king. Is the messenger/sender distinction even helpful? (And do we have a relationship to a closely neighbouring Psalm here – see Ps 93.1; 96.10; 97.1; 99.1?)

3. Mark 1.25-26: the Holy One of God

Demon tries to blow his cover (25-6) – he’s “the Holy One of God.” 

And here we have a title that’s unhelpfully used in two different ways in the Old Testament. Firstly there are human holy ones (e.g. Dt 33.3), but these are nearly always plural and a way of referring to God’s people. There’s even an entire ἐκκλησία of them on one occasion (Ps 89.7). Very rarely is this usage singular – the two examples I’ve noticed are Daniel 8.13-14, where one holy one has a slightly strange conversation with another about Temple sacrifices, and Psalm 106.16, where Aaron is described precisely as “the Holy One of God”. (There’s a near miss at 2Ki 4.9 about Elisha.) So shall we say that Mark means that Jesus is God’s priest, blatantly reading Hebrews into Mark as an excuse to say Melchizedek?

Then there’s the other use, where God himself is the Holy One. These days it would probably be frowned upon to read Leviticus’ constant refrain as “be holy, just as I, the LORD, your God am the Holy One”, but it’s probably just this sort of reading that originally got קָדוֹשׁ used as a name of God. Yes, usually this is qualified “the Holy One of Israel” (or similar) – a particular favourite of Isaiah’s – but this is not consistently so (for counter-examples, see Job 6.10; Is 40.25; Hos 11.9; Hab 1.12; 3.3). So instead, shall we read into Mark that ancient Isaiah-modelled prayer from both Judaism and Christianity: “O Holy One, O Holy One, O Holy One, LORD God of Hosts”?

Once more, I would argue that we have Mark being subtle and ambiguous. This post has probably gone on quite long enough, and I’m not even at the end of Mark 1. But if any point be taken away from it, it should be that we shouldn’t allow trying to understand Mark’s Christology to impair our view of his subtlety. Maybe it’s okay that that Gospel raises more questions than it answers; in that lies both its broad appeal and frustration at its inadequacy that have resonated down every clichéed century.

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