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