Baker Academic

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Markan Christology: Blasphemy, I Am, John's Gospel, and the Rhetoric of Parallelomania

The Markan Christology debate continues. I will repeat some points that I think need addressing and then address Mike Bird’s non-argument about parallelomania in his latest instalment.

1. Blasphemy. As I previously pointed out, ‘blasphemy’ can cover accusations of different sorts, including legitimacy to serve in the priesthood (Ant. 13.293-295; cf. Lev. 21.14), with one side (in this case a Pharisee) calling for the high priest to step down and the other (in this case a Sadducee) calling blasphemy. As we will see, blasphemy can involve making divine claims in the strongest possible sense. But it does not have to be.

Let’s take the case of Mark, again. In Mark 2.1-12 it is about forgiveness or release (the Greek has a wide semantic area, and note we are dealing with a man unable to use limbs or speak) of sins which, as has long been pointed out, can be a divine passive (‘your sins have been forgiven/released by…’). It talks about the son of man having authority on earth. In Mark 3.22-30 we have another, bitter debate over ‘blasphemy’ and it is about the source of Jesus’ authority to carry out exorcisms: God or Satan? The theme of authority continues in the Temple scenes (11.27-33) and when we get to the ‘blasphemy’ in Mark 14.61-64 could it be the culmination of a theme about the source of Jesus’ authority? Almost certainly. Does it mean Jesus is divine in the strongest possible sense? Not necessarily, or at least it is very difficult to know how it would have been perceived. We know the concept of blasphemy could stretch beyond claiming equality with God. And this is where those texts about various exalted figures and concepts are likewise important in confusing matters: we know other figures from Moses to Wisdom could be constructed in highly elevated terms.

2. ‘I am (he)’. As I previous pointed out, we should be cautious given that elevated figures can take on attributes of YHWH. What’s more, the phrase can be used in a banal sense by human beings and so context is crucial. Some points worth observing here. In Mark 6.49-50, it is used by Jesus to inform the disciples that he is not a ‘ghost’. Contrast John 18.5-6 where people step back and fall to the ground when Jesus says ‘I am (he)’. This use is not quite what we find in Mark. Are not the disciples awestruck in Mark 6.49-50 because the elements obey Jesus rather than his use of ‘I am’?

3. John’s Gospel. I have no easy answers to the question of Mark’s Christology and it may be ambiguous as Chris Keith and others have suggested. But those who claim divinity in the strongest possible sense need to have an answer to why nothing prior to John has passages like this where the construction is far more explicit and causes controversy with ‘the Jews’:
“But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.’ For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.” (John 5.17-18)
“‘The Father and I are one.’ The Jews took up stones again to stone him. Jesus replied, ‘I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you going to stone me?’ The Jews answered, ‘It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.’ (John 10.30-33)

And so to Bird’s take on parallelomania:
it is possible to contest this reading by pointing to texts where human/heavenly figures do things that others take as a divine thing that the Marcan Jesus does, e.g., forgive sins, walk on water, judge the wicked, etc. This is purported to be evidence that the Marcan Jesus is a divine agent rather than a divine person. While I do not dispute the value of using ancient texts to illuminate a given text (see Michael Kok‘s great summary), nevertheless, the issue is what is Mark trying to communicate about Jesus, and the effort to mute his claim by appealing to parallels simply runs afoul of Samuel Sandmel’s famous warning against parallelomania! Parallels are good for mapping how readers familiar with a given text might understand the story – reading after all is matter of context and prior reading experiences – but parallels cannot determine purpose or over power the narrative sweep of a text. Everyone go and re-read Sandmel!
This is simultaneously both accurate and inaccurate, or at least can lead us to some absurdities if we believe the rhetoric. The parallels do not have to be used in the sense Bird claims and he gives no example highlighting such behaviour. In this debate, at least as I would use ‘parallels’, such texts are not used to say ‘Jesus was exactly like this or that figure because a non-Markan text says so’ but to establish what people might have understood when they heard or wrote about someone walking on water or when the term ‘blasphemy’ was used, or why John contains details about equality with God and conflict with ‘the Jews’ in his narrative sweep. Bird needs to deal with these arguments and not resort to comparatively meaningless rhetoric about ‘parallelomania’ just because such texts are inconvenient details.

But what if we accepted Bird’s use of parallelomania as he has viewed it applied to the Christological debate? Well, we’d have to discount his arguments elsewhere (which regularly cite Jewish texts just like everyone else) if he were consistent. For instance, here is a different argument from Bird elsewhere: ‘Jesus’ action in preaching a gospel and his work of healing and exorcisms correspond with the messianic vocation as spelled out in the Messianic Apocalypse from Qumran’. What happened to parallelomania? Why cite DSS or Jewish texts if they are merely parallels? As Bird knows, it’s what you do with the text that matters, not just listing texts. Bird uses the example from Qumran to explain that Jesus was making messianic claims. In other words, they are texts which helps us understand context and reconstruct perceptions. And the principle underlying this sort of thinking is exactly what is happening when at least someone like me (and I presume plenty of others—Bird, recall, gives no examples so it is difficult to assess) uses examples which could lead to conclusions that Bird does not necessarily want. ‘Parallelomania’ is not a Get Out of Jail Free Card when confronted by problematic data.

And then there’s this nagging suspicion I have. It’s almost as if scholars are using Jewish texts as a Good Thing when they support their presuppositions and a To Be Neglected Thing when they do not.


  1. I wonder if Jesus walking on the water (and passing by) could count as the Markan highlighting of "I am" in the same way as John's people falling down. And my guess is the disciples were not astounded only by Jesus command over wind and water, as the disciples were terrified thinking he was a ghost and "they had not understood the incident of the loaves; their minds were closed"

  2. James: thanks much for your great comments. I'd add that we should be allowed to at least consider the major gospel parallel to the Markan "I AM": Mat. 26.63-66.

    In 26.62-64,it is evident that Jesus himself is not saying he is the Messiah. But it is the priests who are saying that. Who are imposing that reading on Jesus. Clearly Jesus himself had "no answer" on that subject, and was "silent." Clearly Jesus says that priests are putting those words in his mouth: "you"priests have said such things, in 26.64. And then the text actually pictures a priest in the act of putting his own reading on a Jesus who, himself, is clearly not claiming to be the Messiah. Mat. 26.64-65.

    1. Jesus mentions the Son of Man. But that is a different term than Christ or Messiah. Too, a son of man is a conmon term for a mortal. As opposed to a son of a God. Even as Jesus refers to the Son of Man in third person.

      Which suggests the Son was not Jesus himself.

      Granted, the text is finally equivocal on all this. But there's no slam dunk therefore, for divinity.

  3. Luke has one also in Luke 22:66-71, He basically says if he tells them they won't believe.

  4. I'm not taking sides in this debate, but the argument from "parallelomania" really needs to be laid to rest. That argument has never accomplished anything, except to introduce an equally uncritical parallelophobia.

    I have never seen the argument used the way Sandmel intended it. Instead, it tends to be used as a blunt instrument. ("Colonel Mustard ... was killed in the ballroom ... by parallelomania.")

    1. Well said. It's essentially just name-calling in evangelical hands. And an aggressive excuse for failing to perceive abstract relationships.

  5. Hi, I have a question here on 14:62 - which may be relevant to the "blasphemy" issue...
    Mk 14:62 looks like a combination of Psalm 110:1 and Dan. 7:13. Is this a known combination (which can be found elsewhere), or is it original to Mark?
    Thank you

    1. Both apocalyptic? Day of the Lord stuff. An assertion that if we're not good, the lord will return and kill almost everybody.

      Jesus is vaguely, equivocally linked to this Lord-like power, among other powers, to a degree. Though he's hard to find, curiously, in Revelation. And he several tines says he himself will not judge.

  6. Being rather new to the group I'm not sure if participants may suggest or request blog topics.
    If so, my request would be to dialogue on the phrase "faith in/of Jesus/Christ/Son" as found in Galatians 2 and Romans 3. These differences have existed in translations for hundreds of years. See my Feb 22 post under Chris Keith's most recent contribution to the Mark's Christology discussion.

    The Greek phrases in question: dia pisteos Iesou Christou, ek pisteos Christou (Gal 2:16), en pistei zo te tou uiou tou theou (Gal 2:20), dia pisteos Iesou Christou (Rom 3:21), ek pisteos Iesou (Rom 3:26).

    Please forgive any errors in using english letters for the Greek.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

  7. I have assumed that Mark 14:62-64 was the "parallel" of GJohn's blasphemy passages cited above. Why think it wasn't? Because it happened during the secret inquest before the chief priests, instead of out in public? There may be good explanations for that, such as GMark's was more likely an actual event, and GJohn's weren't.

    1. Definitely parallel to John 18.20-34-38.

      Normally cross-gospel parallels are not in fact rejected by anyone. So I raised this point. To note that in many contexts, even evangelicals and anti-parallelists like Bird, accept the existence and importance of parallels.

      But for that matter, say,limiting attention just to Mark, militates against that exploration of intertextuality.

      To be sure, I appreciate the value of occasionally concentrating our attention just on one limited object or gospel, by itself. But at some point, it's useful to start pulling back, to look at the bigger picture again.

      Especially since it definitely seems to me that parts of Mark were written or edited in the time of later gospels. Clearly all the gospels were edited all together, more than once,for at least a partial continuity and harmony. Though John's theology is a bit more certain about Jesus.

      Significantly by the way, even as parts of the NT are written later and later, and farther and farther away from any historical Jesus, the more these remote parts - like John - become more and more certain about the facts of his life.