Baker Academic

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Why Is Jesus Accused of Blasphemy in Mark 14?

This past weekend, I was extremely fortunate to be able to attend the 2016 Greer-Heard Theological Forum entitled “How Did Jesus Become God?,” held right here in New Orleans.


The forum featured a Friday night exchange between and Bart Ehrman and Michael Bird, followed by an extremely stimulating series of Saturday lectures by Simon Gathercole, Dale Martin, Larry Hurtado, and Jennifer Knust. It was a fantastic weekend.

Given the conversation we’ve been having for the last few weeks here at the Jesus blog about the identity of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, this year’s debate was particularly timely. Although much could be said about it, I’d just like to make two brief points:


Second, during the Q&A, I was fortunate to be able to ask the final question of the night about the charge of blasphemy in Mark 14. My question was basically as follows:

Pitre: “Is Jesus claiming to be divine in his response to Caiaphas in Mark 14? And if he’s not, then why does Caiaphas charge him with blasphemy in the context of a question about his identity?”

You can view Bart’s entire answer here (at 2:36:08-2:40:00). It’s worth watching.

For our purposes, given the discussion we’ve been having about the question of whether Jesus is more than a “merely human messiah” in Mark, I was struck by the fact that Ehrman agrees that Jesus is making some kind of divine claim in Mark 14. Of course, Bart also rightly points out that it is not as explicit as the kind we find in the Gospel of John. As Bart put it in response to my question:

Ehrman: “So, is it a divine claim? Well, yeah, kind of, I mean it is, yeah kind of, but it’s not like Jesus saying ‘I and the Father are one’.” (2:39:23)

Now, if Ehrman is right here—and I think he is—then Mark’s Gospel climaxes with Jesus making a divine claim in response to a question about his identity. To be sure, it is not as explicit as some of the claims in the Gospel of John—to say nothing of later christological formulations in the New Testament and beyond.

Nevertheless, however one interprets the exact meaning of the allusions to Daniel 7 and Psalm 110, and whatever one makes of the question of historicity, on the level of the Gospel narrative, what is clear is that Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin regard Jesus’ answer to the question about his identity as so blasphemous that it is deserving of death (Mark 14:64). One thinks here of the words of Philo, who decries any “man” who “has dared to compare himself to the all-blessed God” (On Dreams 2.130), or of Josephus’ statement that anyone who “blasphemes God” should “be stoned, then hung for a day…” (Antiquities 4.202).

In short, the best explanation for the Sanhedrin’s reaction is that Jesus is making some kind of divine claim. In the words of Adela Yarbro Collins:

Yarbro Collins: “In this saying [Mark 14:62] Jesus claims to be a messiah of the heavenly type, who will be exalted to the right hand of God (Ps 110:1). Being seated at the right hand of God implies being equal to God, at least in terms of authority and power. The allusion to Dan 7:13 reinforces the heavenly messianic claim.” (Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark [Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007], 706 [emphasis mine])

As I point out in The Case for Jesus, this is one of the main problems with the oft-repeated assertion that Jesus only makes divine claims in the Gospel of John. To the contrary, in the Gospel of Mark, the controversy about Jesus begins with accusations of “blasphemy” against him for doing something that only “the one God” (εἷς ὁ θεός) can do when he declares the sins of the paralytic forgiven (Mark 2:3-12). [Notice here that the expression “the one God” is often obscured by English translations (cf. Deut 6:4; see Yarbro Collins, Mark, 185).] Moreover, the public ministry in Mark climaxes with a formal charge of “blasphemy” when Jesus answers Caiaphas’ question about his identity (Mark 14:53-65).

So, what are your thoughts? Is Jesus claiming to be divine in his response to Caiaphas in Mark 14? And if he’s not, then why does Caiaphas charge him with blasphemy in the context of a question about his identity?

And keep in mind—as Ehrman rightly pointed out—that, despite what many Christians assume, it isn’t blasphemy to claim to be the messiah.

17 comments:

  1. To this amateur, it sounds as if Jesus is claiming divinity.

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  2. Just to be clear, I was referring to myself as the amateur.

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  3. Just when I think this blog no longer has any value anymore, you go and post something like this and "totally redeem yourself!" Its surprising to here Ehrman admit this one, but it's a nice surprise. For what it's worth, I don't think some of the purported divine language in John is all that divine.

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  4. Here's how I've come to read that passage: Jesus didn't say eimi. He can't have (for obvious reasons). Mark doesn't even have him say Nai (yes). Why not? Finally, claiming to be the messiah just isn't blasphemous. So, either Mark's narrative is theologically incoherent (and why not: he's not exactly adept at the finities of Jewish law in other places), or Jesus said something in Hebrew (since he was speaking before the HP) that DID constitute blasphemy: YHVH perhaps? What might constitute evidence for this? The (perhaps merely traditional) etymological relationship between YHVH and Mark's eimi (both being forms of the verb To Be). So that's always struck me as the best way of making Mark's narrative coherent.

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  5. Of course Jesus is claiming to be divine, or Caiaphas would not have reacted by tearing his clothes, an act forbidden by the high priest in Lev 21. If Caiaphas thought that Jesus was merely quoting scripture, he would not have acted so harshly.

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  6. Brant, many thanks for this. I am glad you brought up Mark 2:3-12. For both here and Mark 14 I do indeed believe Jesus is disclosing his divine identity. I just posted about that very text here: http://newtestamentperspectives.blogspot.com/2016/02/jesus-paralytic-and-blasphemy-marks.html

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  7. Remember the Zadokite/Sadducean high priests did not believe in the spiritual realm or in a Messiah coming to lead God's resurrection of Israel. They had an earthly, materialistic theology. They believed God had divinely appointed the high priest, who had also assumed the kingly (or Messianic) role over God's people, separate from the Roman vassal King. That seems to be why Sadducees issued civil decisions with the language "according to the high priest of the Most High." The high priest was God's ruler on earth. This phrase, similar to the title in Mark 14:61, opens up another interpretive possibility for the high priest's charge of "blasphemy" in Mark 14:63. The high priest may be appalled that Jesus is claiming to play the role of the high priest--God's ruler on earth. Might it be "blasphemy" to the high priest not to claim to be God but to claim to be him? The high priest certainly doesn't seem to be playing by the book in this court case elsewhere so why would we take a strict reading of claiming to be divine?

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  8. Timely. I'm lecturing on this text in a few hours. I'm with you in seeing a divine claim here. Only here and in Mk 2 do you have Jesus using 'son of man' and the charge of blasphemy. It forms something of an inclusio in Mk's account. Note m.Sanhedrin 7.5 on the response to blasphemy: "And the judges stand upon their feet and rend [their clothing]. And they may not mend. "

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  9. It does seem that the text in Mark 14.62 has Jesus making some kind of strong claim. But note that the parallel passage in another gospel, makes something subtly but significantly different of this.

    That is? In Mat. 26.63, when Jesus is asked by the priest whether Jesus is "the Messiah, the Son of God," Jesus is, as he was in 95% of Mark, far more elusive. Rather than strongly affirming that he was a Messiah, or even the Son of God, Jesus merely says that OTHERS have said so; that the PRIEST, not Jesus, had said such things. When asked if he is the Messiah, rather than affirming that, Jesus is first silent. And then he merely says to the priest "You have said so".

    In Mark, that subtle nuance was, for a moment, missed. In Mark, we suggest, the priest who wrote Mark willfully misses or chooses to ignore, that nuance in Jesus's language. But to us, it is clear that it the priest who jumps to the conclusion that he himself emotionally desires. The priest or believer, WANTS it to be Jesus himself who was making the claim of being the Son of God.

    Read more closely though, we see that it was not Jesus himself, the text itself, that jumped to the conclusion that Jesus was making a divine claim. It was not Jesus, but the priests. Who, out of their emotional desires, imposed just that one, biased reading on Jesus. While the ignored the ambiguity of Jesus himself; and his own language.

    To this day, many priests, religious leaders want to preach the image of a strong, unequivocally divine Christ. Either for 1)their own peace of mind. Or 2)for the sake of their congregations. However, to come to that reading of Jesus, they must studiously ignore the many other layers of texts, beyond Mark 14. They must insist that we ignore the other 95% of Mark, where Jesus is self depreciating. And they must shut out, on technical grounds, the clarification or correction made on that single passage. By Matthew 26.638, among hundreds of others.

    But for that matter? Suppose we end by suggesting that even if we limit our attention just to MArk alone? Then we might as well note that 1)the claim to be a Messiah is not consistent with the majority of the text. 2) It is not certain this is a divine and not human Messiah. Even as 3) the text perhaps warns about it own authors. As it warns about apostles like Peter, in 14.72.

    But especially, for that matter, specifically 4) in effect, any momentarily proud, cocksure Messianic sentiment in Jesus, is soon rescinded. By Jesus himself on the cross. Jesus finally, clearly asserting that in the end, he was "abandoned" by God, in 15.34.

    Thus Mark's Jesus finally retracted any earlier assertion of his divinity, or even his merely human Messiah-hood.

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  10. A friend has suggested that Ehrman's use of "divine" does not necessarily mean the same as "God." So what exactly does he mean by "divine"?

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  11. Yes. Jesus is claiming divine authority to do things only deity does, including judge God's representatives on earth. The authenticity of this scene is not as dubious as Ehrman asserts, as he does not explain why he rejects potential sources behind the the tradition. See my paper for Darrell Bock on Academia.edu: https://www.academia.edu/16171016/The_Jewish_Examination_of_Jesus

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  12. I finally took Dr. Pitre's advice and watched the debate (though I haven't watched the Q&A, yet). Ehrman made it very clear, early in his opening presentation, that he thinks GMark holds a high Chrisology. But his contention is that GMark also holds an Adoptionist view; that Jesus was adopted as God's Son, becoming fully divine, at his baptism; prior to that GMark thought Jesus was merely human.

    Ehrman also points out that in the Roman world, being adopted conferred a more esteemed position on a person than mere natural birth.

    So the debate was not whether GMark holds to a high Christology. Both men agreed he did. The debate was whether GMark holds an Adoptionist view.

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  13. The historical Jesus might have also been heralding the soon coming of a Son of Man figure (a heavenly figure who as appointed by God to judge the world) who was not himself, which is similar to what some Dead Sea Scroll authors wrote about and whose arrival they were predicting. And Jesus's followers might have identified that figure with Jesus after his death, and the trial scene and dialogue might have been composed at that time rather than being the words of Jesus at his trial.

    The Sanhedrin in this case might have grown concerned by a Messianic movement that threatened to erupt into chaos, especially knowing how brutal Rome could be in its retaliation. If Jesus was a trouble-maker with followers who increased unrest or indulged in chaotic acts in the Temple district, that would not have pleased the Sanhedrin, would it? The trial could have consisted of trying to determine by what authority Jesus and or his followers were stirring up chaos in the Temple district, especially during Passover with Rome on full alert. We may never know the exact conversation during such a trial, Jesus could have simply said he was moved by God in some way or demonstrating God's will in doing what he did--righteous prophetic anger. And the Sanhedrin could have disputed that Jesus indeed was acting out of divine inspiration and anger of some sort. But there's no reason to believe they would simply let such a figure go and risk him inspiring more unrest or chaos during the Passover festival. Jesus may also have been insulting and disputing the importance of religious leaders and the way they ran the Temple. And we all know how disputes and insults can escalate until someone yells, Hitler or in their case, blasphemer.

    So the question should be, what do we know about the historical authenticity of the earliest Gospel? On what basis can one claim that the trial scene is historically authentic and accurate? (Or the walking on water scene for that matter, both having much emphasis placed on them by "Christologists.")

    Should one simply skip across Lessing's ditch and assume that what the author of GMark thought and wrote "about Jesus" is the same as what Jesus may have thought about himself? We have no writings from Jesus, only from devoted believers. We lack much else besides. See

    Christianity raises as many historical questions as it purports to answer: http://edward-t-babinski.blogspot.com/2015/06/christianity-raises-as-many.html

    A False Trilemma: http://infidels.org/library/modern/robert_price/beyond_born_again/chap7.html

    Jesus, God's Son? http://infidels.org/library/modern/robert_price/son.html


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  14. Pay no attention to the historical implausibilities in the trial accounts. How are the evangelists supposed to have found out what happened? All of the disciples had fled, except for Peter who hoped to avoid detection among the crowd in the high priest's courtyard. But the interrogation of Jesus did not occur where Peter could hear it. Indeed, Peter is busy undergoing his own interrogation in the courtyard at that time. Did Jesus fill the disciples in after his resurrection? Picture the scene: Jesus is ready to vouchsafe to the eleven the final teaching of the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3). "Sure, Lord," Peter pipes up, "But first, let's hear what happened to you during the trial. I'm really curious!"
    The second problem with the trial narratives is that details fly in the face of what we know of rabbinical jurisprudence. They are convening on Passover eve for a capital trial? Not likely! And why would a claim to be messiah, even if deemed false, amount to blasphemy? It didn't when Rabbi Akiba endorsed the ill-fated Simon bar Kochba as the messiah.
    One begins to suspect that the gospel writers did the best they could to fill the gap from their imaginations, assuming that the point of contention between Jesus and the Sanhedrin was the same point believers were debating with Jewish leaders in their own day, i.e., Jesus' divine status, an belief which later Jews did consider blasphemy after Christians began viewing Jesus as divine. Per Acts the disciples didn’t begin to worship Jesus until after his bodily ascension.
    Did the Sanhedrin play any role at all in the trial and death of Jesus? Jesus was crucified, a Roman penalty inflicted on pirates, seditionists, and runaway slaves. A.N. Sherwin-White, an authority on Roman law, he argued that the Sanhedrin would have needed Pilate's permission for Jesus to be executed, as the gospels say, but other scholars dispute S-W's opinion. But even if S-W is correct, the matter remains unresolved: if Jesus was executed for blasphemy, why did Annas and Caiaphas not seek Pilate's permission to have Jesus stoned to death, since stoning was the required penalty? That they did not raises the possibility that the grounds for the execution were different, perhaps political, as many scholars have held.
    Can the surviving evidence can settle the question? The historicity of the trial narrative is as debatable as the question of what Jesus may have claimed of himself. To treat the trial stories, and only one interpretation of them, as factual, and to base your case for Jesus’ full divinity on them is to build a house on sand.
    And in answer to the question of the high priest, "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?" did Jesus reply "I am" (GMark) or "You say that I am" (GMatthew/Luke)? As it happens, some early Markan manuscripts agree with Matthew/ Luke in attributing to Jesus an ambiguous answer: "You say so." There is no way to be sure what the earliest manuscript of Mark reads at this point, since manuscript evidence from the 1st century or so is practically non-existent. But ask yourself which is more likely, that, faced with a clear affirmation of Jesus' messiahship in Mark's trial scene, Matthew and Luke would both, independently, deem it better to befog the issue by introducing the more ambiguous phrase, "thou sayest?" Or did GMark originally have the ambiguous "thou sayest" which GMatthew/Luke both reproduced, but later copyists found theologically inadequate and changed to a nice, juicy "I am"? I think the latter scenario makes the more sense, but who knows? Scholarly New Testament criticism can afford to live with uncertainties, unable to decide between possible theories. But orthodox Christianity has doctrines and dogmas. It's also wise to remember that the term "son of God," is not equivalent to the later doctrinal formulation, "God the Son." Based on http://infidels.org/library/modern/robert_price/son.html

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  15. Change"Per Acts the disciples didn’t begin to worship Jesus until after his bodily ascension."

    To

    "Per Luke 24:52 the disciples didn’t begin to worship Jesus until after his bodily ascension."

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  16. Another point is that when Jesus claims in his trial in GMark that he will be "seated on the right hand of Power" (14:62), this could have been viewed as “blasphemous” in the sense of an ancient Jewish "binitarian" heresy mentioned in ancient Rabbinical literature, whereby some claimed that "There are two Powers in heaven." This binitarian heresy was particularly associated with the idea that one of God's servants should be so highly exalted as to be enthroned by his side. According to one rabbinic text, a scholar suggests that David will occupy a throne next to God. A colleague reproaches him: "How long will you profane the Shekinah?" In the late book III Enoch, the exalted Enoch is given the divine Name and a throne next to God's. A later redactor tries to tone this down for fear of binitarianism. What we can see in all this is that Jesus' claim to be enthroned by God's side could be taken by hearers as blasphemy even if not intended as a claim to be God.

    See http://infidels.org/library/modern/robert_price/beyond_born_again/chap7.html

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  17. I know next to nothing about it, but I wondered about the Two Powers, too.

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