The question of Markan “Christology” has recently been in the biblioblogosphere. In particular, I’ve been following with interest the back and forth between Michael Bird, James McGrath, Dustin Smith, some quotes from Daniel Kirk, and Joel Watts on the whole question of Mark’s presentation of Jesus’ divine identity.
In particular, I was struck by Smith's claim that “Mark makes no attempt to suggest, imply, or hint that Jesus is anyone other than the human Messiah...” (emphasis added)
Jesus Walks on the Sea: “I Am”
I’d like to throw my hat into the ring by calling attention to one passage that sometimes gets overlooked in the debate over Jesus’ divine identity in the Gospel of Mark: the account of Jesus’ walking on the sea:
When evening came, the boat was in the midst of the sea, and he was alone on the land. And seeing that they were struggling to row because the wind was against them, he came towards them in the fourth watch of the night, walking on the sea. He wanted to pass them by. But when they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost and cried out; for they all saw him and were terrified. But immediately he spoke with them and said to them, “Take heart, I am; do not be afraid.” Then he got into the boat with them and the wind ceased. And they were greatly amazed, for they did not understand about the loaves, but their hearts were hardened. (Mark 6:47-52)
Several aspects of this text, especially when situated in an ancient Jewish context, strongly suggest that Jesus is being depicted as the God of Israel.
1. Jesus’ ἐγώ εἰμι Saying in Mark 6:50 and the Name of YHWH
First, there is Jesus’ declaration to the disciples. Although most translations have Jesus declaring: “Take heart, it is I” (e.g., NRSV), the original Greek form is absolute: “Take heart, I am” (Greek ἐγώ εἰμι) (Mark 6:50)
Now, it is of course true that the expression “I am” can be used to identify oneself when a predicate is used in an immediately preceding statement (e.g., 2 Sam 2:20; John 9:9). On the other hand, as is well known, “I am” (Greek ἐγώ εἰμι) is also the divinely revealed name of God to Moses on Mount Sinai:
Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’” (Exodus 3:13-14)
Is this Old Testament background significant? Or is Jesus simply identifying himself? Given the context of Jesus’ astonishing demonstration of power over creation, many scholars think that Jesus “I am” statement here is evocative of the Old Testament theophanies. To take but a few recent comments on Jesus’ walking on the sea in Mark 6:
John Meier: [W]hile the “surface meaning” of egō eimi in the Gospel narrative is “It is I,” the many OT allusions… intimate a secondary, solemn meaning: the divine “I am.” (Meier, A Marginal Jew [ABRL; New York: Doubleday, 1994] 2.918 [emphasis added])
M. Eugene Boring: Jesus speaks to them in the words God uses as his own formula of self-identification: ‘I am’ (Exod 3:13–15 and repeatedly in Deutero-Isaiah, e.g., Isa 41:10; 43:10–13, 25; 45:6, 18, 22; 48:12)… The Greek egō eimi at the pedestrian level merely indicates identity, like the colloquial ‘it’s me,’ as in John 9:9. But in the context of all the other marks of divine epiphany, the phrase here must have the connotation of the divine self-revelation, the disclosure of the divine name as YHWH, the one who says absolutely, ‘I am.’ (Boring, Mark: A Commentary (NTL; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006], 190 [emphasis added].)
Adela Yarbro Collins: “Jesus is being portrayed here [in the walking on the sea] as divine… (Mark [Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007], 335)
Once again, taken in isolation, “I am” can simply mean “it’s me”. But in the context Jesus’ extraordinary manifestation of power over creation, “I am” functions as a revelation of his divine identity. In other words, in a first-century Jewish context, the account of Jesus walking on the sea is not just an epiphany, but a theophany--a revelation of his divine identity to his disciples.
2. Jesus Wanted to “Pass Them By”?
Should there be any doubt this, it’s important to highlight an otherwise puzzling detail of the walking on the sea: the uniquely Markan statement that Jesus "wanted to pass them by” (ἤθελεν παρελθεῖν αὐτούς) (Mark 6:48) What are we to make of this detail?
Once again, the significance seems to be found by looking carefully at Old Testament theophanies. For in Jewish Scripture, when YHWH appears and reveals his name, he also “passes by”. Consider the two classic theophanies to Moses and Elijah on Mount Sinai. In both cases, it is the God of Israel—YHWH himself—who “passes by” the human recipients of the theophany:
[The LORD said to Moses:] “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you my name ‘YHWH… While my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by...” The LORD passed before him, and proclaimed, “YHWH, YHWH, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love… (Exodus 33:19, 22; 34:6)
[God said to Elijah:] “Go forth, and stand upon the mount before YHWH.” And behold, YHWH passed by… (1 Kings 19:11)
In each of these cases, the Greek Septuagint uses the exact same verb for “passing by” (παρέρχομαι) as we find in Mark’s statement that Jesus wanted to “pass them by” (παρέρχομαι) (cf. Mark 6:48 with Exod 33:19, 22; 34:6; 1 Kings 19:11 LXX). What are we to make of this striking coincidence? I agree with John Meier and Joel Marcus:
John Meier: Clearly, in such a context the verb parerchomai (“pass by”) refers to an epiphany in which Yahweh or Jesus wills to draw close to someone so as to be seen in transcendent majesty, to proclaim his identity… The conclusion from all this is clear: the verb parerchomai in Mark 6:48 intends to present Jesus walking on the water in terms of an OT epiphany. (Meier, A Marginal Jew [ABRL; New York: Doubleday, 1994] 2.917 [emphasis added]).
Joel Marcus: In this OT text [Exod 33-34] God’s “passing by” is accompanied by the proclamation of his own identity as a gracious and merciful deity (Exod 34:6);in our narrative, similarly, Jesus identifies himself… (Marcus, Mark 1-8, 432 [AYB; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001], 432 [emphasis added])
Now, if in the OT God proclaims his identity by “passing by,” then it stands to reason that when Jesus “passes by” he is doing the same thing: proclaiming his divine identity: “I am.”
3. The Context: “I Am” + Walking on the Sea
Third and finally: if any doubt should remain, however, I would call attention to one last point. Once again, the meaning of the words “I am” in Mark 6:50 must be determined by the context. And in context, Jesus doesn’t just say “I am”; he declares “I am” while walking on the sea.
The reason this context is important is because, in the book of Job, it is God alone who is said to walk on the sea:
Then Job answered: “…How can a mortal be just before God?…
[He] who commands the sun, and it does not rise; who seals up the stars;
who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the Sea…
who does great things beyond understanding, and marvelous things…
Look, he passes by me, and I do not see him,
he moves on, but I do not perceive him. (Job 9:1-2, 4-11)
Intriguingly, in the Septuagint, the following detail:
“Who alone…. walks on the sea as on dry ground”
(περιπατῶν ὡς ἐπʼ ἐδάφους ἐπὶ θαλάσσης) (Job 9:8 LXX).
In light of such parallels, Richard Hays recently wrote:
Richard Hays: In this narrative context, there is little doubt that we should also hear Jesus’ comforting address to the disciples (“It is I” [ἐγώ εἰμι]; do not be afraid” [6:50]) as an echo of the self-revelatory speech of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob speaking from the burning bush in Exodus 3:14… Thus, when Jesus speaks the same phrase, “I am,” in his sea-crossing epiphany, it serves to underscore the claim of divine identity that is implicitly present in the story as a whole. (Hays, Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness [Waco: Baylor University Press, 2014], 26).
I have to confess, I never saw this clearly before reading Hays’ recent book. But I should have, since it was also pointed out some time ago by David Friedrich Strauss, who states that Jesus’ “ascendancy over the law of gravitation” (nice!) is in effect to “exhibit himself, as it is said of Jehovah, Job ix.8, LXX., περιπατῶν ὡς ἐπʼ ἐδάφους ἐπὶ θαλάσσης , walking upon the sea as upon a pavement.” (Strauss, The Life of Jesus Critically Examined [London: SCM, 1972], 504].
My New Book on Jesus
Obviously, more could be said. But I post this for two reasons.
First, maybe I missed it, but I saw no references to any of the scholars I cited above in the recent comments by James McGrath or Dustin Smith. I’d love to hear what those engaging in the debate over Mike Bird’s original post think. Are Meier, Marcus, Yarbro-Collins, Boring, and Hays off base to see Jesus’ egō eimi saying in Mark 6 as a reference to the divine name? If so, how does one explain the multiple connections between Jesus walking on the sea and key OT theophanies?
Second, yesterday, I had a new book on Jesus come out from Image Books (Penguin Random House). Just to be clear: I’m not talking about Jesus and the Last Supper, the academic monograph that Eerdmans just published in November 2015. Because I’m a glutton for punishment, I decided to publish two new Jesus books just a few months apart! The new book, entitled, The Case for Jesus, was released yesterday and written for a general audience. At the heart of the new book is the question of the divine identity of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels. What I’ve shared above is just one small piece of the puzzle.
To sum up: when we combine (1) Jesus’ use of egō eimi, (2) the reference to him “passing by,” and (3) the context of him walking on water (!)—is it really tenable to claim that Mark makes no attempt to “suggest, imply, or hint” that Jesus is anyone other than “the human Messiah”?
So, I’ve got three questions:
1. Are Meier, Marcus, Yarbro-Collins, Boring, and Hays off base to see Jesus’ egō eimi saying in Mark 6 as a reference to the divine name?
2. If Jesus is YHWH in person—and remember, “I am” is the Creator God’s name—then why doesn’t that have implications for the debate over Jesus’ preexistence in Mark?
3. Do you think an academic monograph exploring passages like these would be a worthwhile project?