Baker Academic

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Maybe Mark Knew What He Was Doing: Again on Markan Christology—Chris Keith

I’ve been away from the blog for a short while but have been following the fascinating discussion of Markan Christology, especially the contributions from Anthony Le Donne (here and here) and Brant Pitre (here and here).  Anthony prompted me to weigh in, so I will briefly.  Let me put my cards on the table.  I agree with Anthony that Mark’s Christology is ambiguous.  I also agree with Brant that there are numerous places in the text where Mark is indeed trying to raise the issue of Jesus' identity vis-à-vis the God of Israel and implicitly making assertions, and thus I affirm (until I’m convinced otherwise) that Mark has a high Christology.  I’ve put this opinion in print in the introductory essay to Jesus among Friends and Enemies (18–29).  I also agree with Anthony and Bart Ehrman that, of course, Markan high Christology is nowhere near as explicit as Johannine high Christology.  But that’s also neither here nor there, since the question, as I’ve understood it, is really whether Mark intends (however we might be able to decipher his intentions) to indicate that Jesus was, in some way, shape, or form, understandable in terms of the one God of Israel.

But let me tie together my agreement with Anthony and my agreement with Brant by emphasizing that, as far as I understand it, Mark is likely being purposefully ambiguous with his statements.  Consider the three examples that everyone has trotted out so far.  In Mark 2, Mark has the scribes accuse Jesus of blasphemy on account of putting himself—as a forgiver of sins—in the position of God alone (or “the one God”) (Mark 2:7).  True enough, Jesus’ statement in Mark 2:10 (“…so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”) can be read to say that Jesus, as God’s representative, has been imbued with God’s authority as Son of Man, and many have read the overall narrative as such.  Nevertheless, it remains significant that—at the level of the narrative—in Mark 2:7 the question of Jesus’ identity vis-à-vis the one God, the referent of the Shema, is raised.  In other words, Mark has people around Jesus asking whether he should be doing the things that God alone does and thus I am entirely unconvinced by arguments that Mark’s narrative is uninterested in the question.  It might be uninterested in answering it the way GJohn answers it; but it’s hardly uninterested.

Similarly, with the walking on the water in Mark 6, I agree with Brant that the ego eimi in 6:50 is significant, and precisely because in numerous HB/OT texts, God alone has the power to control the weather and sea (see Mark 4) and walk on water (Job 9:8; 38:8–11, 16, 34; Pss. 65:7; 77:19; 89:9).  Now, it needs to be said that, in my opinion, Daniel Kirk andYoung have demonstrated that claims about controlling the water do not have to be read as equating someone with God; Psalm 88:26 LXX (89:25 MT) portrays God as granting power over the sea and rivers to the Davidic king with no indication that the Davidic figure then appears in the same category as God himself.  But proving that Mark 4 and 6 do not have to be read in this manner is not proving that they cannot be, and I suppose this is my point.  Mark presents readers with a narrative that certainly could be read in that way, just as the ego eimi could be read as “It is I” or “I Am."  In light of the fact that Mark 2 has already raised the issue of Jesus' identity and God's identity, I'm less inclined to see this as mere coincidence and more inclined to see it as part of a pattern of purposeful ambiguity whereby Mark can claim what he wants to claim but without doing so explicitly.

And again, with Jesus’ usage of ego eimi in the “Jewish trial” of Mark 14, it can be read in both ways, as Bart Ehrman’s response to Brant, in which he essentially conceded Brant’s point, indicated.  (Bart eventually retreated to the historical Jesus, but Brant had asked about the narrative of Mark, not the historical Jesus.)  It could be read as “Yes” or it could be read as the divine name, which would justify the response of the high priest in Mark 14:63.  Once more here the narrative tips its hat that there is something more to Jesus' answer than a mere affirmation that he's "just" the Messiah, but not in an utterly definitive manner.

Let me end with two further, and intertwined, points relating to my overall suggestion that Mark here knows what he is doing, and is being purposefully ambiguous, presenting a narrative that implicitly places Jesus in identity categories of the God of Israel but in such a way that they are not a hard and fast claim like “Jesus is God.”  First, I think it significant that, in the history of scholarship, scholars have been divided on the identity of the Son of Man  (Is Jesus referring to himself or someone else?) just as much as on whether Jesus makes a claim for divinity in the Markan occurrences of ego eimi.  Scholars have argued both, and with justification:  if Mark is being purposefully ambiguous in claims for Jesus "true" identity, there is evidence to support both arguments.  With regard to the latter, can it be read as just “Yes”?  Sure.  Can it be read as “I Am”?  Sure.  And maybe that’s the way it was supposed to be.

But, Chris, maybe Mark’s narrative is just the product of a confused author/narrator who is inconsistent!!  That’s always possible, of course, but this brings me to my second closing point, which is that it’s unlikely.  For one thing, I have a hard time believing that any person in a Second Temple Jewish renewal movement, such as those earliest followers of Jesus in the second half of the first century CE, would use the phrase ego eimi--in narrative contexts like these--in a slipshod fashion.  For another thing, if Mark is just confused, there are some strange patterns to his confusion.  The occurrences of ego eimi occur in Mark 2 and Mark 14 alongside charges of blasphemy (2:7//14:64) and references to the authority of the Son of Man (2:10//14:62), whom I take to be Jesus himself and not another (as did many in a previous generation of scholarship).  In other words, what we’re dealing with are repeated themes, or at least a repeated confluence of Jesus/Son of Man/blasphemy, not the accidents of a careless author.  (You do not have the charge of blasphemy in the storm-calming and water-walking narratives of Mark 4 and 6, but the immediate audience in these instances is Jesus’ disciples, not the Jewish leadership, upon whose lips such charges against Jesus occur.)

In short, I personally think that Mark is explicitly raising the question of Jesus’ identity vis-à-vis the God of Israel via his characters and implicitly answering it with a high Christology, but in such a fashion that I can thoroughly understand why others would read it alternatively.  Indeed, I think it very likely that Mark intended to write such an ambiguous narrative, and thus knew what he was doing.


  1. So that raises the question: Why?

    Why would Mark choose to be ambiguous on this seemingly all-important point?

    1. Strictly speaking, I don't think we can answer the Why? question without climbing into Mark's head, which of course we can't do.

      But, to answer your question, I ask "all-important" to whom? You question seems to imply that what Mark did was insufficient. He seems to think it was perfectly sufficient so far as we can tell.

    2. Wouldn't it be nice to have a solid answer to the problem of Mark's ending? Sometimes such patterns point to something revealed in the conclusion. This is yet another way that Mark's narrative teases.


    3. I think that's the right way to think of it, Anthony. Mark's narrative teases.

    4. Why would Jesus teach in parables on such an all-important subject - the kingdom of God?

    5. I propose one reason why Mark would choose to be ambiguous on this important question. Basically, like most biblical ambiguity, the purpose is to try to accommodate two or more theologies or schools of thought, at the same time.

      What two different schools are being simultaneously accommodated in the present case? Specifically, in the early days of Christianity, there would have been 1) conservative, sternly monotheistic Jews, and others. Who would not accept that their solitary God had a more or less equal partner or manifestation, like Jesus. So early texts had to keep that theme muted. But without entirely eliminating it. In order to speak to the other main theological group.

      The second group? Would be composed of 2) people Who accepted Jesus more completely. And who insisted he was a lord,even a divine one. This second group indeed saw Jesus as more or less on equal footing with Jahweh himself. And this group would soon back a high Christology; much more than the opposed conservatives.

      By the way though? The equivocation between the view of 2)Jesus as divine, and eventually at one with God, vs. 1)Jesus as merely human, persisted. In part, because even after the early conservatives who rejected a divine Christ had passed away, there would remain many who would continue to be attracted to the notion that perhaps Jesus was interesting. But who did not quite want cor various reasons,to say that Jesus was God.

      So Mark was equivocal on the matter of high Christology. So Mark could appeal simultaneously, to two somewhat opposed groups of people. And more or reconcile them. Each group coud find its own view in the text. And ignore the vague hints of the opposition theology.

      We all tend to see what we want to see, after all. And to ignore the rest.

    6. This is a creative proposal. What evidence, though, is there for these two specific groups and Mark's clear association with them?

    7. We know some Jews accepted Jesus more fully than others. Some became disciples for instance. Others did not.

      In Hurtado's latest post comments, he seems willing to consider that some Jews were willing to bend their monotheism, and allow that God might have a companion, dyadic son. But others did not.

      Why would some do this, and others would not? The individual,specific reasons may be complex. But there's a way to explain this simply, as a typical, general phenomenon: in any new movement there are typically 1)"conservatives," and 2) "liberals." There are people who are in general resistant to any cultural changes; especially in religion. Vs. those who are more open to new things.

      So when Jesus appeared, as a new son of God, there would be those who were prepared to rather fully accept this relatively new figure, and some who were not prepared to fully accept him. And there would be 3) many in between. Like say, the rich youth who was attracted to the teachings of Jesus. But who turned away, who did not become a full follower, when asked to give up all that he had, to follow Jesus.

      Likely there were many, as Paul complained, who were somewhat accepting, but still lukewarm on Jesus. Those who would give all, and those who would give only a little.

      It's a sort of general pattern in cultures. Some are more open to new things. And some are not. And many are in-between. Some fully accept something new. But many, only partially.

    8. Probably the parable of the Sower would add a Markian example. Mark 4.14-32.

  2. Brilliant post, Chris. On the question of why, though not to enter Mark's head, I think the situation called for a deft strategy.

    My two bits are here:

    1. I just left this at your blog, Bill:

      Bill, thanks so much for this! I also tend to think that it's possible that Mark's narrative unfolds the way that it does because he's intent to indicate that, while Jesus is possibly more than a man, he is certainly not less. Of course, the GJohn becomes even more emphatic about both things.

      Thanks again!

    2. GMark does want to picture Jesus rather realistically, as a real man. But at the same time, he is rather super-natural; in that he works miracles. And in the Trasfiguration Jesus or his robe,suddenly begins to glow.

      For these and other reasons, historically, many would not believe in Jesus, to one degree or another.

      And even among believers, there were many meetings and ecumenical councils in fact; to try to reconcile the different schools of thought on who or what Jesus was. Many of which even hinted that Jesus was not physically real at all. Or was "spiritual," a spirit, to one degree or another.

      So there were signs of unreality, divinity and not historical humanity, even in GMark. And eventually of course, docetists or others would rather strongly contest the status of Jesus as fully real.

      To say nothing of what total nonbelievers said.

  3. I like the idea that Mark's narrative teases. I would add that it is elusive and Mark's Jesus is elusive. This fits with Jesus' answer to the disciples' question why he talks in parables (4:12). Moreover, if the narrative does end in 16:8, where the women are told in v.7 to tell the disciples that Jesus is going ahead of them and he will meet them in Galilee,from a narrative perspective, this starts things all over again for Mark's audience, whoever they may be.

  4. First of all, to clarify the language of the long string of posts, we are dealing here with scenes, dialogue, and interpretation which did not originate with Jesus, right, but were inherited/authored by the writer(s) of Mark, post- resurrection. Here are my own interpretations:

    2:1-12. Mark has a scene where some scribes accuse Jesus of claiming for himself what can only be claimed for God (forgiving sins), i.e., blasphemy. But Mark points out that Jesus who currently sits at God's side, had the power of forgiving sins when "on earth." In other words, Jesus was consistently empowered
    on earth and in heaven, i.e. the "son of man" on earth was the same as he is in heaven, a divine human. As proof of authority to forgive sins Jesus reverses a paralysis, which Mark apparently thinks is impossible for humans.

    Chapter 12. Mark tells the parable of the murdered son of the vineyard owner. He goes on to give that son authority to teach about the key political question - paying taxes, the key spiritual question - resurrection, the key relational question - greatest commandment, and the messiah question - he is not son of David, but the one who sits with God. So the murdered son is the one who sits with God, the same 'divine human' visual provided by Mark in 2:1-12.

    14:53-65. Jesus is placed before the high priest, who asks, "Are you the Messiah...?" Jesus says, "I am," although his followers had been sworn to silence (8:30, 9:9). Mark puts proof of Messiahship on Jesus' lips with the prediction that the son-of-man would be 'coming with the clouds of heaven' during Mark's generation (13:30, 14:62). So once again Mark presents Jesus with a vision of Divine Human, each time the one who sits with God, i.e., "seated at the right hand of the Power." The high priest's accusation of blasphemy is directed, not at Jesus claim of Messiah, but at Jesus' claim to be able to "come on the clouds of heaven," something which only God could do.

    I also would place this Divine Human presentation by Mark in the category of high Christ/ology.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    1. But what about that long list of times that Jews and even Jesus himself felt that God had abandoned or was even against him?

    2. I have not made an assumption about what did and did not originate with Jesus one way or another in the post above. I think this is the starting point of the form critics, and I've been pretty vocal about their starting points being sometimes spot-on and sometimes terribly problematic.

    3. As to "Anonymous" (seriously, I'm thinking of instituting a No Anonymous policy on this blog), what "list" are you talking about? I know of no such list. I know of the lament psalms, but not a list, much less a long one. As to Jesus' quotation of Psalm 22:1 in Mark 15:36, I do not personally take that as an indication of abandonment since Mark's narrative employs much more than just Psalm 22:1 in Mark 15 and Psalm 22:1 as a whole moves beyond the lament of the first verse. See also Holly Carey's monograph on this topic.

  5. Yes to all this. It is a great way to tell a story, really.

    If you watch Japanese Anime, I think there's a great analogy in there. Anime, particularly a lot of the older films/series, has a very strong honor/shame component. The story almost always follows the same pattern - the hero has unknown or mysterious origin (often some sort of supernatural ability, even spirit-possession). He comes on the scene and shocks everyone with his continued public success in battle - verbal, physical, etc., shaming the powers that be, causing the envy and outrage of many. There is always secrecy and ambiguity around true identity/source of power. This serves to heighten the drama as the honor accumulates steadily and more is revealed. Enemies and even allies are often surprised and confused by the abilities on display. To initially or even ultimately make all of that transparent would simply ruin the story.

    1. I like any explanation that starts with, "If you watch Japanese Anime...." That's an opening that can lead anywhere!

  6. On why Mark's Jesus is elusive and secretive, I think the answer has to incorporate the importance of envy-avoidance in honor/shame cultures - even as a strategy to gain honor. On that, see:

    John Pilch, Secrecy in the Mediterranean World: an Anthropological Perspective. Biblical Theology Bulletin, November 1994; vol. 24, 4: pp. 151-157

    Anselm C. Hagedorn and Jerome H. Neyrey, 'It Was Out of Envy That They Handed Jesus Over' (Mark 15:10): The Anatomy of Envy and the Gospel of Mark. Journal for the Study of the New Testament 69 (1998):15-56.

    David F. Watson, Honor Among Christians: The Cultural Key to the Messianic Secret. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010.

    Adam Winn, Resisting Honor: The Markan Secrecy Motif and Roman Political Ideology. Journal of Biblical Literature · Volume 133, Number 3, 2014

    Hagedorn/Neyrey article online here:

  7. Chris, this is a really fantastic post! Thanks for jumping into the conversation. A couple of thoughts:

    "Purposeful ambiguity" is just the right way to put it. I think this is an excellent way of summing up what Anthony was rightly urging about the “teasing” character of Mark's narrative. (May I steal this phrase and begin using it in the classroom? :)

    It also dovetails with a point I made in The Case for Jesus—although my way of phrasing it was far less elegant than yours. In my chapter on the “secret” of Jesus identity, I suggest that Jesus speaks about his identity using "riddles, parables, and words that can be interpreted *in more than one way*” (p. 139). In other words, Jesus’ self-references are indeed deliberately ambiguous.

    So what is the key to unpacking the implicit meaning of these “purposefully ambiguous” words? I think it very frequently lies in the Jewish Scriptures. As the accusations of blasphemy against Jesus in Mark 2 and 14 make clear, when it comes to Jesus’ ambiguous declarations, his opponents seem to get the point.

    As for the question of "Why the purposeful ambiguity on this all important point?", for what it's worth, I think the answer may lie in a more extensive discussion of the question: What is the *literary genre* of Mark’s Gospel as a whole? Is Mark’s Gospel “christology” (cf. Anthony’s earlier post and the concerns expressed there)? Or is Mark a form of ancient Greco-Roman biography (a la David Aune and Richard Burridge)?

    In other words, how we understand the genre of the Gospel has a direct impact on how we evaluate what Mark is doing and why he does what he does.

    1. I think we might all agree on "teasing." But rather than "purposeful," I'd call it "deliberate." Since it is not always clear to everyone what the final solitary purpose, if any, of all this ambiguity will be.

  8. It is good that you made the connection with ἐγώ εἰμι in Mark. I do find it interesting that this use as also found in John's Gospel (which you note above) corresponds with its use in Isaiah 40-61. It is used 17x to correspond with אֲנִ֣י ה֔וּא (ani hu), אָנֹכִ֨י (anoki), אֲנִי֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ (ani YHWH eloheyka), אֲנִ֤י יְהוָה (ani YHWH),אֲנִי־אֵ֖ל (ani-EL) are all used interchangeably along with אֲדֹנָ֣י יֱהוִ֔ה (Adonai YHWH) etc.

    This all the more remarkable when one considers that Isaiah 40-61 especially chapter 45 is dealing with the idolatry of the nation of Israel versus The God of Israel.

  9. If you watch Japanese Anime... you might also conclude that Paul--our earliest Christian source--is important here. Obviously, Mark is not Paul - or vice versa. [Everyone can just insert here the necessary throat-clearing statements regarding the problems of blurring the lines between the various biblical writers' thought, different genres, communities/audiences, etc.] That being said, if we want clarification on how early Christians might have understood what appears as ambiguous claims about Jesus' identity in Mark, we probably need to factor in the Pauline epistles--recognizing, of course, that this still won't "solve" all the problems.

    Chris and Anthony, I think here of your emphasis on trajectories of memory, which has really impacted my own thought on this (e.g., my SBL paper from last November). It seems plotting out that trajectory doesn't simply mean Mark-->John. Paul should also be part of that puzzle, no?

    Anyways, it is interesting that the discussion has largely ignored Paul's views of Jesus' identity. That's not a criticism--just an observation... gleaned from my in-depth knowledge Japanese Anime, of course.

    1. I think we have a lot to work with when it comes to "how early Christians might have understood" the Markan ambiguity - the other gospels being more helpful than Paul though since they work directly with the text. I think its safe to assume that any Christian groups sharing Paul's Christological views would also see an implicit high Christology in Mark. Then again, maybe they would disagree with/censor/reword certain aspects of his portrayal as the other gospels do in places. The more difficult question though, I think is what is Mark's intent here. Even if we grant a very high Christology, what is the intent of the motif of secrecy/ambiguity? And to answer that, we need to watch more Anime. ;-)

    2. One common answer was that people didn't want to be clear that Jesus was Christ, in order to 1) protect him from being located, and killed. But a real Christ couldn't be killed, I suggest.

      So perhaps the status of Jesus was kept vague, simply because 2) most people just weren't really sure who he was. So Mark's oscillation reflects the varied opinions of his time.

      Interestingly though, I like to note that among the opinions on Jesus that Mark entertains, is the possibility that he was even a false Christ. Who was "abandoned" by God, in the end.

      This means that, surprisingly, parts of the Bible itself actually allow us to conclude that Jesus was not the true Christ.

  10. As indicated above, Mark uses ἐγώ εἰμι 3x: 6:50, 13:6 and 14:62; all on the lips of Jesus. The 13:6 passage in the part of the Olivet Discourse regarding those who would claim to be ἐγώ εἰμι, I AM. Unfortunately, ἐγώ εἰμι is not found in the Epistles of Peter. But this could be that Peter was addressing different issues about Jesus than His Messiahship.

    Papias indicated that Mark was the interpreter and writer of the memoirs of Peter; thus, the Gospel of Mark would be the Gospel of Peter via Mark.

    There is also the two known associates of Peter and Paul who went back to Jesus: Silas and John Mark. It would appear, then, that the Apostles, especially with Peter and Paul, had disseminated a certain amount of known teachings about Jesus that was taught to them by Jesus.

  11. Great post, Chris.
    It makes a lot of sense to me that Mark is being purposefully ambiguous with his statements, and your last paragraph sums it up nicely.

    I am not going to comment on the ‘I Am’ statement(s) in Mark, though they do fit with what follows, I think. For what it’s worth, I have been struck of late, going again through the books of Exodus and Numbers, at how 'Jesus-like' - if I can put it this way - the God of Israel is in his relationship with Moses in the Exodus and Numbers narratives (also in Deuteronomy).

    Consider a couple of statements. First, Exo 33:11 ‘And the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.’ This I find strangely reminiscent of the meaning carried in Mk 3:13 ff ‘And he went up on the mountain, and called to him those whom he desired; and they came to him. And he appointed twelve, to be with him and to be sent out to preach, and have authority to cast out demons.’ Just like God is with Moses – as with a friend – so Jesus is with those whom he desired and called to him – to be with him, a powerful image of true friendship. The mountain top typology is also reminiscent of the God of Israel-Moses dynamic, but is in Mark ambiguous enough that Jesus could simply be understood as acting like Moses, as opposed to as God. Interestingly, if he is acting as/like God, that would equate the Twelve to Moses! So the equation God of Israel – Moses – Torah – people, explored in Exodus, would somewhat be replicated in Mark (and in other places): Jesus – the Twelve – the good news – people. GJohn develops the God of Israel / I AM, speaking-face-to-face-with-Moses-as-with-a-friend motif much further … consider Jn 15:15 ‘No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.’

    Back to Mark. The second statement I am thinking about is in Num 12:6-8a ‘And he said, "Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD make myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses, he is entrusted with all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in dark speech; and he beholds the form of the LORD. Some of what has been said above concerning Mk 3:13 ff would also apply here. Consider now Mk 4:10-11 ‘And when he was alone, those who were about him with the twelve asked him concerning the parables. And he said to them, "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; in order that while seeing, they may see and not perceive; and while hearing, they may hear and not understand lest they return and be forgiven." So Moses is entrusted by God with all God’s house … and to some, including the Twelve – or is it to the Twelve alone - Jesus has given the secret of the kingdom of God. God speaks clearly to Moses; Jesus speaks clearly to the Twelve; even the Exodus hardening of the heart motif is echoed in the Markan passage.

    So there we have it, I am struck at how ‘God-like’ the Markan Jesus is with his disciples/the Twelve, whom he seems to empower as Moses was empowered by God. No wonder I found ‘Jesus-like’ traits in the God of Israel. That puts me in the Markan high Christology side of the divide.

    1. But doesn't God speaking face to face as a friend, make God himself more human?

      So resemblance to God the Father, surprisingly, does not necessarily make something more divine.

      Less human might be, say, the Holy Spirit?

    2. Stephane, thanks for this. As a side comment, I tend to think that Exodus 33:11 is the intertext of John 1:18, whereby John is disagreeing with Exodus and lifting Jesus above Moses.

  12. Hey Chris,

    this is a really fantastic post! i Really like blog!!

    Keep it up!!

    1. Thanks, Brennan House! I'm in Louisville. When can I come tour this lovely house?

  13. Nice post. It's also interesting that Mark's gospel is ambiguous regarding the use of κυριος in 1:3; 5:19; 11:3 (et alia). In 1:3; 5:19; 11:3, κυριος sounds like a ref to YHWH, but since it's not clear, it could be read as a ref to Jesus. Maybe purposefully ambiguous. Teasing.

    Btw, regarding the "one God" as you point out in Mk 2:7... we should also consider the expression is used in Mk 10:18 (debate with the rich man) and somewhat similarly in Mk 12:29 (in which Jesus quotes the beginning of Dt 6:4). Curiously, in all 3 instances, that phrase is absent in the parallels in Matt. So GMk has 3 statements about the oneness of God, and Matt has none of these 3. Quite curious.

    1. Fascinating observations. Thanks so much, Jeff! There is thesis from Edinburgh on kurios in Mark . . . Daniel Johansson. I think he argues along these lines, as it's related to Kavin Rowe's work on Luke. I hadn't caught the "one God" references. Thanks again, Jeff!

    2. "Mark," we might note, is a very, very, very Roman name. And the Greeks and Romans had long entertained both the notion of more than one deity. But also (with Plato's Parmenides?) The possibility that the many could come together in a "One."

      Greco Romans therefore were prepared, perhaps better than Jewish monotheists, for the notion that our god might have a close relative. And that these two could also be one, in some way.

    3. I would go further in these observations. The use of the "One God" found in Mark is paralleled in Isaiah 45. The the phrase, "I am the LORD and there is none else," is found in 45:5, 6, 18, 21-22. In each of these verses, ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ θεός, καὶ οὐκ ἔστιν ἄλλος, is used. 45:21 uses Ἐγὼ ὁ θεός, καὶ οὐκ ἔστιν ἄλλος πλὴν ἐμοῦ.

      These uses are also in conjunction that the God of Israel, YHWH, is the God of Creation and is Sovereign of that Creation and Lord over that Creation. Mark has Jesus performing the same functions and has the same power over all things, cf. also Colossians 1:15-16, "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy."

  14. I dunno, Chris. At some point, discussion of Mark's "intent" sounds strange to me, particularly here, at the Home Of Jesus Memory History (TM). Aren't we dealing here with a work that is in some part an artifact of collective memory, a particular moment in a particular memory trajectory? In what way can we say that memory is "intentional," in the way we say that theology is intentional?

    Hey. I don't mean to grossly oversimplify the volumes of work done on the subject of memory by you, Anthony and so many others. Nor do I mean to suggest that in 2016, "intent" means something naive, like "what the author meant to say." But I DO think that in the complicated interchange between memory, theology and hermeneutics, it's simply unclear what we mean when we ask what Mark "intended."

    I'm happy to listen to a conversation of what Mark means to you. I'm also happy to consider Mark as a complex reflection of variegated collective first century thought on the identity of Jesus. I'm willing to consider that somewhere in this complex might be an identifiable author-redactor who participated in the refraction of an existing social memory. But to speak of intent here raises difficult, Zeba Crook-like questions about our ability to consciously fabricate social memory, and the consequent "reliability" of that memory.

    True enough, I'm messing here with stuff I don't understand all that well. It's always bothered me, that when we talk about "social memory," we're using a word--"memory"--commonly used to describe an individual cognative process. If we talk about social memory, or collective memory, are we fabricating a myth of a social or collective mind? If so ... is this collective mind capable of "intent" as well as "memory"?

    Please understand, I'm not challenging you. I'm just confused.

    1. The memory school stresses the rather passive side of human thoughts; our minds are molded by cultural opinions, desires, and conform to them, often all but automatically. However, this passive memory element is not all there is to human thinking. We also have an active, selective, and deliberate Will.

      We have a Will. And so do institutional authorities, like the heads of estates, churches. Likely, as you mentioned, some of them redacted, edited, the collective memories.

      This shifts the emphasis away from passive memory, back to active redaction. However, perhaps memory theory should never claim to be all-inclusive. Or capable of explaining absolutely everything.

      Or if necessary, we might just agree that an editor was reflecting things, retracting them, through his own remembed opinions.

    2. Speaking as a total amateur to memory theory. I would define social memory as agreed upon impact. In other words, Mark could have used memories that came to him because they were impactful enough that more than one person agreed upon them. These, no doubt would have first been discussed in small groups.

      What might those memories have been: e.g., some association with a wilderness preacher in the area of the Jordan, with a group of followers, with teaching in gatherings of folks, with challenges from other teachers, with both foot and sea travel, with remaining calm in a storm, with antipathy toward the rich and sympathy with those who are last in society, with being loving and non-judgmental - take the log out of your own eye,with 'kingdom' teachings, with being a healing presence, with common meals, with Jerusalem and death by crucifixion, and others.

      Those memories may only contain intent minimally, although intent is probably clearer in some than others. Mark would have to interpret, from his own perspective, to 'clarify' intent, and sorting all of that out is a hard job.

      Family memories are probably a poor comparison, but perhaps not completely unapplicable. Sixty-five years later I can still hear my dad say, "Gene, I hope that you and (my brother) never smoke or drink." He may have repeated it a couple times. My brother agrees that he said it. Why do we remember it? Because it made a large impression and impact and it came true!

      Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa.

    3. Anonymous, you write "The memory school stresses the rather passive side of human thoughts; our minds are molded by cultural opinions, desires, and conform to them, often all but automatically."

      1) there are several different schools of memory theory.
      2) Most social memory theorists argue that memory is active. While there are social spurs and constraints on autobiographical memory (thus pushing back against an isolated-only model) very few suggest a model that does not include idiosyncratic will.

    4. Larry, thanks for this question. As always, you have something very astute to contribute to the conversation. To skip to the end, though, I do not have a problem with speaking of intention, and even assuming that we can get somewhere close to understanding what an "author" means to say. That's the general foundation of even this interchange, right? Don't get me wrong--I've read the literature on this and agree that we cannot ultimately, with certainly, put our finger directly on an author's "intentions." But surely there's some middle ground between assuming we can get it and throwing our hands up in the air as if we cannot know anything or cannot attribute anything to an author. I mean, even all the authors who wrote about the death of the author managed to copyright their books, right? Where do you think their royalties go? Also, most memory theory does assume, I would argue, some level of observable intentionality among those who shape collective memory; the whole "politics of memory" discussion falls apart if not.

    5. Chris, thanks for your kind response. I think this discussion is one that's best continued gradually, over a longer period. I've long seen theological implications in the kind of work you're doing.

      But I do think that it's more useful to discuss a work's "meaning" than its "intent." "Intent" may imply a level of authorial control over "meaning" that I think goes beyond what actually happens when author confronts reader or listener. The interchange between you and me helps illustrate this point. What I learn from this is not necessarily what you "intend" to teach me (and as a good teacher, you do not "intend" to control the learning experience so that your students come away with only that content you "had in mind"). Moreover, in dialogue our "intent" is fluid, and it should change as a result of our encounter. Regardless, there's going to be a gap between the intent you bring here and the meaning I find here. This is all the more true when we encounter a book where we cannot query the author. Not to mention the other problems of understanding a work from a different time and place.

      This is not to deny a place for intentionality in memory theory, any more than I intend to locate "meaning" solely in a reader/listener's preconceptions. But there's a gap between acknowledging an author's intentionality and identifying an author's intent.

      But I'm no theologian, or literary theorist, or expert in memory. I only hope to get discussion going among people like you who know your stuff. But I AM a lawyer. I DO advise this. Don't count on royalties if you write an anonymous Gospel. ;^)

    6. Larry, you may trust that if I write a Gospel of my creation, I will write it pseudonymously as you. :)

      You make several good points here, with which I do not and would not disagree. My only response would be that, whereas intentions and meaning are obviously and unquestionably two different things, they are not typically separable entirely. I agree that we cannot speak of someone's intentions with a tremendous amount of confidence; my only counter is that this does not mean we cannot speak of them at all.

      And you're right that our conversation is a good example of the difference between meaning and intent. For example, when you say, "I've long seen theological implications in the kind of work you're doing," I get the meaning. And I suppose it's true that there might be theological "implications" or perhaps "ramifications," though I do and have not spend much time on them, and those implications would stand regardless of my own intent. As to your intent with the statement, though, I confess I'm a little concerned. I sure hope you're not accusing me of carrying out the theory in the way that I do *because* of some theological agenda.

    7. I'd love to point to your last sentence as an illustration of the gap between meaning and intent, but really, it's more an illustration of how I don't always write clearly!

      Not that it's possible to avoid subjectivity altogether, not that we can ever entirely escape our moment and our context, but in my view you've always taken your topics to logical, careful and reasoned conclusions, none of which have been motivated by any agenda *I* can recognize, other than a quest for truth and understanding.

      Yes, it would probably have been better if I'd said "ramifications" instead of "implications," with the idea that memory theory might lead towards a different understanding of theology, rather than to suggest that those advancing the theory are doing so for theological purposes.

    8. Larry, thanks for that clarification! As always, I enjoy the chat and am very grateful for your friendship.

  15. Thanks. Of course, I just did in my post what I caution my students about in class... explaining Mark's theology in light of later writings (in this case, GMatt). I'm afraid sometimes GMk suffers much in this regard. The ending at 16:8 looks abrupt because of the endings later known in Mt, Lk, & Jn. But before those, would it have seemed so abrupt? Or the christology of Mk is often considered low in light of the christology later expressed in Mt, Lk, and esp Jn. But for the original readers of GMk, would the christology have seemed low... or rather high compared to Jewish theology of that time?

  16. Or were we left with confusion after all? Or in other words, the final word in Mark 16.8, is an endorsement of precisely. .. ambiguity. Though such existential openness also brings fear, at first.

  17. Ending Mark at Mark 15.8 was in fact a very recent and explicitly discussed editorial decision. One whose development and leaders you can find in the professional journals, c. 1940-1970.

    The aim was often explicitly Existential. To deliberately leave the characters, and readers, without the usual simplistic, totalizing, overselfconfident dogmas that characterized dogmatic religion.

    1. "Anonymous," I don't think anything in this statement is correct other than that there were professional journals from 1940 to 1970.

    2. Research the discussions on the different endings of Mark. Discussions that led, in our own time, the era of existential doubt, to 1)some editions of our Bibles ending Mark at Mark 15.8. And 2) others to include the short ending. To 3)others also including the long ending, to Mark 16.19.

      Today there are dozens of different editions of the Bible. Which means that the Bible is still being changed by editors today. Just as it was redacted long ago.

    3. Again, anonymous, this simply isn't correct. I have read many discussions of the Longer Ending of Mark, including Kelhoffer's published dissertation in WUNT. The evidence for the variety of endings is very ancient. Modern English versions of the Bible have nothing to do with this point.

    4. By the way, "dozens" of dfferent editions of the Bible? I'd say thousands is more accurate.

    5. Modern editions in part evaluate older text variations, and then look at each, to make their own decision as to which one to use today.

      But which does each Modern edition pick, and why? Each modern edition today faces tons of often conflicting scholarship. And is based on different modern ideas about which is best. Often the judgement is said to be based on "history." But each is made 1) according to different modern notions of what history indicates, or which moment in history should be definitive.

      Furthermore, several published articles (as I recall), preferred the truncated ending at Mark 15.8, not only on "historical," but also on 2) stylistic and 3) philosophical and 4) theological grounds.

      Many articles and sermons in the 1960s noted that ending with Mark 15.8, left us with Jesus dead, or only vaguely "raised." People as yet having no clear picture of the resurrected Jesus. The people therefore experiencing confusion. And, famously, "fear." Jesus having just died. And the people having as yet, as of Mark 15, no convincing picture of a resurrected Jesus. No clear or extended notion yet, that all is about to be made whole again, by resurrection.

      Some sermons therefore 1) bemoaned the modern decision to return to this particular historical ending. However, 2) other articles and subsequent sermons, favoured this more ambiguous and troubled ending. As both more historical. But also as less cocksure. More open to the less dogmatic, modern, existential mood (c.f.. aporia?).

      After Existentialism had simply faced and even embraced Absurdity and ambiguity, some readers were willing to face the fact that life is often indeed, simply, confusing. Then too, many questioned the truthfulness of a resurrection and of later church dogmatics.

      And so finally, the truncated and ambiguous Mark was preferred by some modern scholars or scribes. And on the basis of their decisions, the Bible was changed, again. By editors. IN some editions.

    6. No, Anonymous, you're just wrong here and focusing on vague generalities rather than actual evidence, in order to make a theological charge. First, the short ending of Mark is at Mark 16.8, not 15.8, as you repetitively state. Second, the evidence is ancient. Already in the fourth century there was debate about the ending of Mark's Gospel because many manuscripts existed that ended at 16.8. Third, the "editions" don't pick which readings to include. The editors of critical texts do that, and they do this for a living and as an academic specialty. Fourth, they never choose a reading based on "history," whatever you mean by that. They base it upon manuscript witnesses and argument for or against particular readings. Fifth, bias against the resurrection has nothing to do with it, except in the case of texts like the Jefferson Bible. Otherwise, text critics are very happy to leave all sorts of supernatural things in their critical editions. This is just a red herring on your part. Sixth, the Bible is not "changed" by these text critics; if anything, an earliest version of it is established. You seem to think that there was some pristine, original, unblemished "Bible." There wasn't. There were only ever manuscripts, and of the over 6,000 NT manuscripts that survive, not a single one agrees 100% with the others, so if readers of the NT want to get any image at all of what the earliest version said, the work of these text critics is invaluable.

    7. 1) Yes,my mistake there; it was 16.8, not 15.

      2) The evidence does seem ancient. Or historical, as I use the term here. But note that the evidence, different manuscripts, didn't absolutely indicate which variation to use. Modern editions use one ancient text. Another, still others.

      What the ancient or historic manuscripts were telling us, wasn't clear. Later editors therefore, had some personal and theological options, as to which earlier manuscripts to stress.

      3) Speaking of "editions" doing things is a common figure of speech (metonyn?). Like saying a corporation did something; of course most understand this.

      Were the editors often relying on critical scholarship? Partly. But that scholarship was not unequivocal. And so different editions often came out very differentlymy.

      4) So again by "History" as used here, I mean in large part manuscript evidence. But that evidence was not finally decisive.

      5) Ancient evidence being inconclusive, personal preference came into play. In modern editions especially, many concentrated on the problem of miracles. Those had already been partky dealt with first, by reading them as spiritual metaphors, not necessarily real events. Though as Joe Hoffman recalled recently, modern critics concentrated on critiquing the opening birth narratives, then the resurrection. As criticisms that would in effect "bookend" the entire text.

      6) So is the Bible being changed all the time? Is there any genuine factual data left in it? The common parlence that refers to "the" Bible is indeed a bit naive, and I should have put it in quotes. But if we stipulate that say, it means the more widely-accepted Bible of the last few centuries, the text that many regarded as "the" Bible, the King James Version? Then clearly it has been deviated from again and again. In hundreds of different ways. On the basis of variable evaluations of historic manuscripts. And on the basis of individual or institutional preference.

      This is useful to know. Since we can look at the evidence of how ultimately rather subjective or only quasi-historical souces, were used to produce one rather different Bible after another.

      In particular, seeing this from modern examples -from the recent era of Existentialism, say - helps us see how subjectively more ancient redactions probably proceeded. In the typical redaction process, the production of a new Bible, as it turns out, objective history is hard to find. And therefore constantly takes a back seat to theological agendas, say.

      However, one good thing about the Existential-era editing, is that it sees how subjective or variable the truth or "historical" data is. And therefore, it properly stresses the indecisive or equivocal quality of the texts. Which was there probably from ancient times. But which is particularly foregrounded by ending Mark at 16.8. Where the people are not entirely lulled to sleep by overselfconfident dogmatics. But are experiencing "alarm," and even "terror" and amazement; who are even "afraid." Having been allowed to face not just patronizing oversimplifications. But the fuller variability and indeterminacy of life.

    8. Anonymous,
      You appear to be co-mingling problems about the availability and usefulness of various manuscripts and making decisions about comparative content, and problems with the choices made by translators, literal and interpretive across the centuries.

      You may be interested in Jason BeDuhn's The First New Testament: Marcion's Scriptural Canon (Polebridge Press, Salem Oregon, 2013). This is an excellent example of the problems in manuscript selection and use, as well how the material was used by the Church Fathers.

      You might also find interesting how various translations treat a certain Pauline phrase found in Romans 3:22, 26 and Galatians 2:15-16, 20. The phrase is literally "the faith of Jesus." That phrase is found in the Scholar's Version Authentic Letters of Paul (2010). The New Revised Standard Version (1989) translates the phrase "faith in Jesus" but includes "faith of Jesus" as a possibility in the footnotes. These two translation options historically go back hundreds of years:

      Tyndale (1525) Great Bible (1535) Geneva Bible (1560), Bishop’s Bible (1568), Rheims (1582), King James 1611) Jewish N.T. (1989) Anchor Bible (1997), all used “faith of”. The RV (1881) ASV (1901) Revised Standard Version (1946) JB (1966) New International Version (1973) NJB (1986) NABR (1986)), all used “faith in.” [Authentic Letters of Paul, p. 66]

      One can see the huge theological and personal impact of the choices. Is a Christian counted righteous by “faith in Jesus” or by “the faith of Jesus,” or do the options some how interpenetrate.

      Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa.

    9. Thanks. Lots of useful basics here.

      I do in fact mingle editorial selections or decisions proper, with decisions made by translators. Which I see as related. Both of them interpreting and selecting their own choices.

      By the way, translator scribes are one source of the systematic ambiguity we see in the New Testament. Particularly at the level of individual words, and short phrases. Like "faith of" or "faith in" Jesus. Which is again a posible equivocation between endorsing Jesus as Christ. Vs. not.

  18. Great discussion and blog! As an armchair enthusiast of historical Jesus research, I’d like to share my thoughts.

    My impression is that GMark retains remembered ambiguity rather than deliberately-crafted ambiguity for a purpose. I hold the position that Mark purposely retains the ambiguity of Jesus’s identity that eyewitnesses experienced at specific events in his ministry, and therefore Mark deliberately retained the authenticity of these accounts. Of course, this statement cannot be proven, and what meager support can be found for its plausibility within the text depends upon how one dates GMark and how much veracity one ascribes to the text. My position is that it is early (both in oral and written forms) and was in circulation while Peter, Matthew, John and many other eyewitnesses were alive to vouch for its accurate presentation. That it was retained and received wide geographic distribution provides some amount of indirect support that it was considered a reliable source of information about Jesus’s ministry.

    Mark 6:30-56 provides an example of this remembered ambiguity. Mark could have presented this unit through a post-resurrection lens with Jesus as the explicit greater than/new Moses, but he did not. That Jesus performs actions greater than Moses had in the wilderness appears to be the point of retelling these events. If so, one wonders why Mark wasn't more explicit. The surface reading is that the eyewitnesses to the event were not sure what to make of Jesus and his actions. During his theophany on the water (if we can call it that, and I think we can), Mark reports (i.e., editorialised) that his disciples “were completely amazed, for they had not understood about the loaves”. The ambiguity of the events is retained as it was. If Mark’s purpose were to modify an event in Jesus’s ministry to make him appear to be the new Moses, one has to wonder why he did not just come out and say so in the text. That Mark retains the ambiguity of the event as it was remembered would seem to satisfy Occam’s razor in this case.

    Regarding Jesus's ambiguous answer to Caiaphas's question "Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed?", "I am; and you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven", I'll propose two conjectures.

    As pointed out by Dr. Pitre, Caiaphas's response leaves no doubt that he understood Jesus as affirming both being Messiah and the one like the son of man from Daniel. Claiming to be the Messiah was not blasphemous, but claiming to be the eternal heavenly figure given everlasting dominion by God was blasphemous in Second Temple Judaism. Given that Caiaphas levels the charge of blasphemy against Jesus, the relevant question is why does Caiaphas regard Jesus's ambiguous answer as a claim that he is the Danielic Son of man? Could it be the same reason Jesus gives in Matt 16:17?: "flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven." In other words, God ultimately reveals Jesus's true identity to Caiaphas who then immediately rejects that revelation and instead condemns him to death.

    Secondly, building on the above, once Jesus's true identity is revealed to Caiaphas, the interpretive key to Jesus's distinctive "I am" answers is provided: Whenever Jesus answers "I am", he is affirming that he is both the Messiah and the Danielic Son of man. All of his past interactions are given fuller meaning. The "messianic secret" begins to be revealed as his disciples can now reflect on his past statements, answers, and actions. Hence, Mark stays true to the remembered ambiguity of Jesus's identity from beginning to the very end of his account.

    1. Michael, thanks for sharing these thoughts. There's a lot in here. I'll respond briefly just to two minor things. First, how do you distinguish between "remembered ambiguity" and "purposefully-crafted ambiguity"? Is there a version of "remembered ambiguity" that would not have also been crafted? Indeed, for it to be ambiguous, does it not imply that someone crafted it as such? Second, you state that Mark could have presented the events of Mark 6 through a post-resurrection lens had he wanted to do so, implying that this is not from such a lens. But what part of Mark's Gospel is not presented from a post-resurrection lens? What other lens did the author have available? Even IF (and I stress that IF) Mark is presenting things from the life of the historical Jesus, he's still presenting them through a post-resurrection lens if writing when most people think he was writing, right? I don't think you can escape Mark's perspective no matter what other decisions we might make.

    2. Dr. Keith, thank you for the kind reply.

      I might be misunderstanding “purposeful ambiguity” and reading into it more than was intended. (I have found that I tend to be more literal than others.) l I’ll try to better explain what I mean by “purposeful”, “remembered”, and “ambiguity”.

      I agree that the gospels were invariably written from a post-resurrection vantage point, but I disagree with the view that they necessarily were written through a lens that purposefully distorted prior events to make an event more significant than it truly was remembered to be in retrospect. (Though I agree that the resurrection event itself could change how an event was remembered - memories are quite plastic afterall!) Or in terms of the current discussion, purposely written to portray Jesus’s identity as ambiguous to eyewitnesses of the events when in fact the memory of the event was that no one expressed any doubts as to their understanding of him at the time. That said, I am in full agreement that Mark chose to include certain memories and exclude others, as any writer does, to present his christology. I am less certain he purposely modified remembered experiences to advance his aims. And I’m even less certain of this if his gospel was in circulation when other eyewitnesses could have protested to his particular re-telling of their experience.

      So yes, I agree that Mark purposely chose to highlight that Jesus maintained an ambiguity regarding his identity throughout his ministry; and, in that sense it is purposeful ambiguity. But if by “purposeful ambiguity” one means that Mark created the subplot of ambiguity where none existed in memory, then I am much less inclined to agree.

      What I mean by “remembered ambiguity” is that Jesus tradition recalled that his identity was ambiguous throughout his ministry. Mark, as part of his christology, chose to include this remembered aspect of particular events as a subplot in his account. The ambiguity was not manufactured by Mark - it was remembered - and he thought it was significant enough to include in his version of the gospel.

    3. Michael, thanks for this reply. Let me ask a related question. What would you say about Mark 15 and the presentation of Jesus as "king." Mark presents it as a mockery of Jesus on an initial level but as an unknowing crowning of a rightful king on another level. Now, this is technically irony and not ambiguity, but it's a similar narrative effect. Is not Mark saying here purposefully saying, "They saw it like this in real time, but they *should* have seen it like this"?

    4. Dr. Keith, I agree that Mark 15 is quite appropriate for this discussion and, in conjunction with the other passages explored above, may provide a glimpse, however faint, of how Mark approached the writing of his gospel. I realize the following addresses more than you inquired about, but given that the theme of Jesus as king pervades the entire chapter I felt it necessary to expand my investigation beyond the event of Jesus’s mocking to more adequately respond to your question.

      First, let me summarize the text through verse 39. The Sanhedrin reaches their decision, although the text does not explicitly specify what that decision entailed. (Presumably they concluded that Jesus has committed blasphemy and must die. They, being unable to carry out the death sentence under Roman Law, devise a charge that can carry the death sentence under Roman Law: Jesus claimed to be “The King of the Jews” in direct opposition to Caesar’s authority.) Since Mark reports that Pilate asks Jesus: “Are you the King of the Jews?”, the text implies that this is the decision that the Sanhedrin had reached - to bring him up on charges that he claimed to be the legitimate King of the Jewish people, not Caesar. Mark continues the theme of the “messianic secret” by reporting Jesus’s ambiguous answer/non answers to Pilate’s questions (in keeping with Jesus’s style?). Mark then reports it was a custom during the Feast of Passover for the Romans to release a prisoner (presumably Jewish) for whom the people (once again, presumably Jews) requested. Pilate (excepting that they would request the release of Jesus?) asks the Jewish people: “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” Mark reports that the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead. Pilate then asks the crowd what they would have him do about Jesus. The crowd responds by shouting “Crucify him!” And Mark reports that Pilate, in an attempt to appease the crowd, releases Barabbas and has Jesus scourged and handed over to be crucified. During the scourging, the soldiers openly mock Jesus as a “king”. Afterwards Jesus requires assistance in carrying his cross to his crucifixion site. Once there he is crucified with the written charge against him reading: “THE KING OF THE JEWS”. While hanging on the cross, soldiers cast lots for his meager possessions and people openly mock him as do the chief priests and teachers of the law. Mark informs us that when Jesus dies around 3pm “the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” and the centurion on guard at his feet states: “Surely this man was the Son of God”.

      What are we to make of this story? Does it sound historically plausible or does it have more of the quality of a myth or legend? I believe a strong case can be made that the majority of its elements can withstand historical scrutiny as at least plausible in context. But none of them can be granted the historic confidence that is attributed to his crucifixion under Pontius Pilate.

      The charge: “The King of the Jews”
      First, during the time in question, the Sanhedrin could not execute anyone under Roman Law, even though stoning was the punishment for blasphemy under the law of Torah. So it is quite reasonable to conclude that the Sanhedrin created the charge that Jesus claimed to be “the King of the Jews” with the intent to have Jesus executed by Pilate under Roman Law, since they themselves could not do so for their actual charge of blasphemy. A plausible charge in the context of their stated end: “They all condemned him as worthy of death” (14:64). Since other non-christian historical sources remain silent as to the reason for his crucifixion, nothing more can be stated for its authenticity. That said, Mark chose to include this detail in his account to presumably advanced his aims, his christology that Jesus is the rightful king.

    5. continued

      Scourging and Crucifixion
      Skipping the prisoner release for the moment (see below), Jesus’s scourging and crucifixion are in keeping with what we know of Roman practice: both were done to humiliate as well as punish and deter. Scourging was also required under Roman law of anyone who was to be executed, so there is nothing unusual about Jesus being scourged first. If the official Roman charge against Jesus were that he claimed to be the King of the Jews, one would expect that aspect of the charge to be used against him during his scourging to further humiliate him - especially given the prominence of Empire and Caesar to the average Roman citizen, and presumably that much more so for its military personnel. Furthermore, scourging and crucifixions were very public activities designed to heighten the humiliation of the convicted person in the hope of deterring others. The public nature of his scourging during the Passover Feast would mean that many eyewitnessed it, leaving less freedom for Mark to elaborate the details. So yes, I agree that this episode advances Mark’s christology by including Jesus’s scourging and its details. As you mentioned it provides an ironic contrast between the mocking of Jesus and “an unknowing crowning of a rightful king.” But nothing in the description of his scourging appears to stretch historical plausibility when viewed in its context - the claim to be king in opposition to Caesar’s authority.

      Mark reports that the soldiers then led Jesus out to crucify him but had to force a man named Simon from Cyrene to carry his cross. This event also passes historical plausibility. Scourging was very brutal and at times resulted in death of the condemned prior to crucifixion. It is quite understandable that Jesus may have been unable to carry his own crossbar and that the soldiers enlisted a passerby to assist. The fact that Mark records that Simon “was a certain man from Cyrene” also tips the scale in favor of authenticity: it is as if Mark is encouraging his readers to verify his version of the story by seeking out this Simon and those that know him.

      Prisoner Release
      Before moving ahead, I want to take a step back and discuss the prisoner release because it and the following events have the greatest claims within this chapter of being creations of Mark. Indeed an underlying christology appears to build to a climax at verse 39, coinciding with Jesus’s death.

      As mentioned above in the summary of the narrative, Mark reports that it was a custom during the Feast of Passover for the Romans to release a prisoner for whom the people requested. It is at this point that we encounter a significant difficulty reconciling this “custom” with what we know of first century Judea. Put bluntly, there is no extra-biblical mention of such a custom at this time or any other. So it may very well be a creation of Mark. Its defense is limited to an argument that eyewitnesses to the event (since, once again, it was a very public affair) would have protested its inclusion in his gospel - resulting, presumably, in either it being edited-out of later copies or his entire gospel being disregarded as inaccurate; since neither outcome occurred, its occurrence is assumed to be accurate. Admittedly, rather meager support in favor of its authenticity. However, I may be judging Mark by too high of a standard for historical plausibility. If this “custom” existed for only for a limited time period - say Pilate’s governorship - then one would not expect to find any sources that mention it, since from a larger view of history, it would be a rather minor detail for any historian in include; that is, unless it were germane to the story. Also, given the public unrest of the time, it could very well have been a tactic that Pilate utilized to calm the masses at Passover, as Mark indicates was its purpose in this case.

    6. continued 2

      Acknowledging that history is silent concerning such a custom, I’ll exam the narrative as presented by Mark. He reports that the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead of Jesus. A rather interesting request in two respects: Mark mentions that Barabbas was in prison for murder along with the insurrectionists, and his name literally means ‘son of the father’. Pilate then asks the crowd what they would have him do about Jesus, and they respond by shouting “Crucify him!” Mark then finishes the scene by editorialising that Pilate, in an attempt to appease the crowd, releases Barabbas and has Jesus scourged and handed over to be crucified. Given this narrative, on one level, Mark has the chief priests persuade the people to release a murderer/troublemaker for the innocent Jesus. (Also note the irony that in order to appease the people, Pilate releases one of those whom had caused unrest in the past!) But on another level, Mark has the chief priests condemn the rightful king for a murderer - the true Son of God (see verse 39) for a son of the father, thus advancing his christology.

      One last point of contact with this story may come from Josephus. In his Antiquities (18.3.2), he reports that Pilate used money from the Temple’s treasury for a water project and “tens of thousands of people” joined in an insurrection against Pilate; his soldiers eventually put an end to the insurrection after many were slain and wounded. Granted this insurrection and Mark’s may not be the same, but it is interesting that Josephus records an insurrection in Jerusalem during Pilate’s governorship. Also of note, Josephus mentions Jesus directly after this event in his Antiquities with the introduction: “Now, there was about this time, Jesus…” (18.3.3). Given the loose sense of chronology in ancient histories, we cannot presume that the insurrection happened before the crucifixion of Jesus; but it is noteworthy nonetheless. If it is the same event to which Mark refers, then his narrative provides a plausible rationale for the chief priests’ and the people’s desire to release Barabbas: the chief priests and people view Barabbas as a hero - he had fought for the Temple against Pilate whom had stolen from its sacred treasury! It also explains why Pilate appears to be dismayed at the public outcry to have Jesus crucified: in contrast to Barabbas, Jesus had not participated in violence against Rome that resulted in further hardships for the people of Jerusalem/Judea. It also explains why Pilate finally caves to the plea to have Jesus crucified: he feared another bloody insurrection by the people. Additionally, if Barabbas participated in the same insurrection spoken of by Josephus, then the cruel hazing and scourging of Jesus by the soldiers may have had the added element of revenge: they took out their anger and frustration on Jesus that Barabbas - who had participated in the death and injury of their fellow soldiers - had been released from prison in exchange for Jesus. Finally, an overzealous scourging could result in a badly wounded Jesus who was left unable to carry his crossbar. So, although the insurrection described by Josephus explains the data in Mark quite well, not much more can be said. Historical sources remain silent.

    7. Casting Lots
      It is at Golgotha that Mark’s christology begins to build quickly. He reports that the soldiers crucified Jesus, divided up his clothes and cast lots to see what each would get. His description closely mirrors the wording of Psalm 22:18. But I do not doubt that Jesus’s last possessions were taken from him. Victims were stripped for crucifixion, and so surely was he. Whatever he had was surely taken by the soldiers if they deemed it of any value, otherwise it was discarded. However Mark’s wording leaves little doubt that he purposefully chose to include this incident to evoke Psalm 22 and to foreshadow Jesus’s cry at 3pm.

      Written Charge: THE KING OF THE JEWS
      As noted above, although we have historical confidence that Jesus was crucified, we must admit that we do not know why he was crucified except for what Mark presents to us. Given that Mark reports that Jesus was crucified on the charge of claiming to be the king of the Jews, it is of no surprise that the charge would be written and displayed on his cross: It was the custom of Rome to publically display the charge against the crucified. There is no reason to doubt Jesus’s crucifixion would have differed from the norm. Therefore, the written charge, “THE KING OF THE JEWS”, is in keeping with what Mark has presented as the reason for Jesus’s conviction and crucifixion. It is also advances Mark’s christology to add this detail to his account, highlighting Jesus as the rightful king.

      Hurling Insults
      Mark then informs us that passersby, chief priests and teachers of the law, and the robbers to his left and right hurled insults at Jesus. Since crucifixion was a public affair chosen to humiliate the convicted, deter future unrest, and demonstrate Rome’s might, it is not unexpected that the crucified were mocked. Once again, Jesus would not be expected to be exempt from such mocking. However, this detail also advances Mark’s christology and shows his editorial hand: His wording resembles Psalm 22:6-7 and his selection of antagonists appears well chosen. It is not possible to determine if this event actually occurred as written and Mark chose to include it due to its parallel with Psalm 22:6-7, or if in retrospect Jesus’s crucifixion reminded Jesus Tradition of Psalm 22 and Mark chose to describe Jesus’s crucifixion by including details from the Psalm. In either case, Mark advances his christology by indirectly referencing Psalm 22.

    8. continued 4

      Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?
      Mark reports that at 3pm Jesus cries, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”, and then breathes one last time shortly thereafter. It is not possible to determine whether or not Jesus actually made such a statement on or off the cross during his lifetime, just as it is not possible to determine what President Reagan said when he learned that the Berlin Wall had opened. We simply lack a record of the event, except for what Mark provides to us. So we are left we a dilemma: either Jesus was remembered as quoting the first line of Psalm 22 on the cross and Mark chose to include it, or Mark placed these words on Jesus’s lips to invite his audience to view Jesus’s death in light of Psalm 22. Regardless of the position one chooses as more credible, this scene nonetheless shows Mark's editorial hand. It is an ancient Jewish tradition to quote the first line of a psalm to evoke it in its entirety. Therefore, if Jesus is remembered as quoting the first line of Psalm 22, then he is most likely remembered as viewing his death as vindicated, as the person in the psalm. Likewise, if Mark puts these words on the lips of Jesus, then it would imply that Jesus Tradition remembered his death as vindicated in retrospect. Either way Mark advances a christology that Jesus's death was vindicated, as the person in the psalm.

      Temple Curtain Torn
      Mark includes the detail at the moment Jesus breathed his last that “[t]he curtain of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom” (v38). This event as presented by Mark appears to be supernatural and therefore out of the domain of historical Jesus research. As such, it (and the next topic) have the greatest claim for being manufactured by Mark to presumably advance his christology. Although it cannot be determined whether or not this event occurred (or any of the others discussed, except the crucifixion), I believe Mark’s intention was to invite his audience to seek greater meaning in the tearing of the curtain by applying metaphor: Jesus’s body is the Temple curtain torn in two. The letter to Hebrews provides an interesting parallel to this verse by explicitly stating that Jesus’s body is the Temple curtain (see Heb 10:19-20). Whether or not Mark intended metaphor or that both come from the same Jesus Tradition is not known, but the similarity is interesting. Nonetheless, Mark advances his christology by including this event: by his death, Jesus has removed the barrier - i.e., sin - between man and God.

      The Son of God
      The drama reaches its peak when, at the moment of his death, the centurion at his feet proclaims: "Surely he was the Son of God." As above with the torn curtain, this detail appears likely to be an editorial creation of Mark. The messianic secret is revealed in Mark's fullest expression. A gentile - the Roman centurion assigned to carry out Jesus's execution - proclaims it: Jesus is the Son of God. Until this verse in Mark' gospel, only the supernatural have recognized Jesus as the Son of God (e.g., voices from heaven, unclean spirits, demons). Now Jesus's prior declaration from Mark 6:4 is realized: “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country, among his own relatives, and in his own house." His family (except his mother and possibly an aunt), his followers (save a few women), his disciples, and the Jewish people at large all have abandoned him. His true nature is first revealed by an outsider, a gentile - the very person assigned to carry out his crucifixion and death. This revelation also completes an inclusio with the prisoner exchange involving Barabbas, which led to Jesus's execution. Jesus is revealed as the true Son of God verses Barabbas who is just a man, literally just another son of the father.

    9. continued 5

      So what are we to make of this? It may be that the centurion became a follower and he remembered that he felt a special insight that day. But, even if he did, as with all statements explored above, we cannot hope to know what exactly he said. Nor do we know what if any Jesus Tradition Mark relied upon when writing his gospel. What can be said is that Mark chose to include this detail for a purpose. It advanced his christology that proclaimed Jesus as the true Son of God.

      So, in summary, Mark’s narrative in chapter 15, when taken as a whole, is consistent with what we know of 1st century Judea and, except for a couple of editorial flourishes (Temple curtain and the centurion's declaration), can be judged historically plausible. Given that all these events were public and occurred during the Feast of Passover when hundreds of thousands of people would have been present in Jerusalem as witnesses and that Mark’s account received early and wide distribution as cherished Jesus Tradition, its overall authenticity is hard to argue against. However, this conclusion does not negate the fact that Mark advances a christology, his christology, a high christology. As any writer, Mark chose what events to include and which to disregard. He also added editorial comments and included quotations by various characters in his account - statements that we cannot expect to ever verify. Therefore, he was free to advance his aims, and so he did. It is titled “The Gospel according to Mark” after all.

  19. Nice discussion. Feel free to assign any royalties or attributions you feel are oweing to me, a perhaps prominent "anonymous." : )

    -Dr. Griffin Gaddie. Specialist in ambiguity, equivocation, and elusive anonymity.