Markan Christology, Progressive Christology

Lectio Divina 200pxOne of the planned purposes of this blog is to explore some of the winding paths of Scripture through exegetical studies. We are beginning with Mark, and as you can see from previous posts, some groundwork needs laid for understanding Mark and some of the key components therein, along with evaluating some of the currents in Markan research. There are two more elements of Mark to examine before we begin, both reflected in the opening verse: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Mark packs much into this opening statement which we shall examine in two parts: First, the use of ‘Son of God’ in Mark and then, next time, the concept of ‘Messiah’ as understood by the disciples, Jesus, and Mark. Here today we will examine Mark’s Christology and some of the major players and works that help us understand the breadth of scholarship that speaks to the Christology of Mark.

The ‘Son of God’ title and theme is important to Mark and for our understanding of his purpose and perspective. ‘Son of God’ appears at the beginning and end of Mark (1:1, 15:39), at moments of theophany and divine address (1:11, 9:9), and by those in the spiritual realm who could claim special knowledge (1:24, 34, 5:7, et al). Considering this, it is fairly clear that this title plays a part of great significance to the Markan understanding of who Christ is.  So in the most basic of ways, we see the Christology of Mark directly laid out in the first verse of the Gospel: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” This is who Mark understands Christ to be, and it is how he chooses to introduce the main protagonist of his story to his audience. What exactly it means to be Son of God, however, is a matter of some debate. While M. Eugene Boring does note that “there is widespread but not universal agreement that [ὁ] υἱὸς [τοῦ] θεοῦ represents the key Christological term for Mark,” he says, “Whether [this] should be understood as a ‘divine’ title in Mark continues to be disputed.”[1] Johansson confirms this ‘disputed status,’ noting that while some do ascribe a high Christology to Mark,[2] it is “common opinion that the Synoptic Gospels display ‘low’ Christologies” and regarding Mark specifically, that “it seems that a majority of scholars would ascribe a ‘low’ Christology to Mark”[3] as well.

Despite this, however, it is my opinion (following in particular the French scholarship of Lagrange and Benoit[4]) that Mark’s Christology is indeed a high Christology. Many things inform this conclusion (which shall be addressed further as we explore Mark), including the linking of Christ with the divine through the use of the ‘Son of God’ title, through Jesus taking on the divine prerogatives of God (i.e. forgiveness, 2:5), and through His authority displayed over the elements of Creation in manners reserved for God (4:39, cf Ps 89:8-10, 105:9). Boring reaches this same conclusion as well, saying that “Mark should be located among those NT authors with a ‘high’ Christology who affirm the ‘deity’ of Christ.”[5] To come to this understanding, Boring conveyed the importance of relying on an examination of the context of Mark and his usage, as opposed to relying on Hellenistic usage of the ‘Son of God’ concept. Taking the complete context of Mark into consideration, therefore, he says that “while no one of the nineteen texts catalogued above[6] is compelling in itself, in the aggregate they incline one toward the view that Mark affirmed what is now called the ‘deity of Christ.’”[7]

Though I consider it important to consider Jesus’ acts of apparent divine power when uncovering Mark’s Christology, Boring leans more heavily on the title, “Son of God” to come to this conclusion. Boring holds that Mark’s use of the title relates to “Christ’s commission, authority, and obedience in carrying out his Father’s commission.”[8] This interpretation of the ‘Son of God’ title as one that is inextricably linked to Jesus’ commission from the Father was a theme explored in great detail by Robert C. Tannehill in his article, “The Gospel of Mark as Narrative Christology.”[9] Speaking of the pronouncement of this title from heaven, Tannehill says, “The baptism and transfiguration scenes show that the title Son of God is the preferred title in Mark when the author wishes to stress Jesus’ commission from God.”[10] Then when this title appears at the end of the work, Tannehill says that “a principle function of the centurion’s confession is to remind the reader that Jesus through his death has fulfilled God’s commission.”[11]

Tannehill utilizes the Son of God motif to both bookend the Gospel, forming an inclusio in Mark, as well as utilizing it to drive the narrative forward. He, like Boring, argues that it is only a consideration of the story from beginning to end that makes for a proper understanding of Jesus as ‘Son of God.’ Tannehill calls this a narrative Christology, and says that “studying Mark as narrative Christology provides a deeper understanding of the meaning and function of Mark’s presentation of Jesus Christ.”[12]

Boring, however, presents one particular problem that arises through use of narrative, that “it is the nature of narrative to present its content sequentially. Narrative thus seems to call for diachronic understanding, and many scholars have been misled by this clue to assume that Mark’s Christology can be charted chronologically.”[13] Boring does not adhere to a chronological perspective of Mark’s Christology but believes this to be an imposition upon Mark’s model, repeatedly insisting that this is a “non-Markan approach to Christology.”[14] A chronological Christology has typically been used to present a low Markan Christology (with which Boring disagrees), as one that was developed from an initial understanding of Christ as merely human, but being developed later into a Christology that presented him as divine.[15] In this model, “the human Jesus is adopted as divine Son at baptism and/or is exalted to divine status at the resurrection.”[16] Because of the high Christology Boring finds in Mark, he therefore sets the mode of Markan Christology as one revealed through juxtaposition and paradox.

I, too, disagree with the chronological mode of Markan Christology (when presented in the way that Boring does) as I believe that the divine nature of Christ was present from the beginning and known by Christ, but only gradually revealed throughout the narrative. However, I believe this progressive revelation was accomplished in a chronological-type manner. It is because of this that I would like to present another mode of Markan Christology not explored by Boring: a progressive revelation of Christ’s identity as Son of God.

Within the narrative of Mark, one does encounter a gradually developing revelation of Christology, at least to the participants within the narrative. Since Mark establishes the identity of Christ as Son of God at the outset, it is clear to the audience who Jesus is, but only to them; those characters within the story (other than those of the spiritual realm) do not have this special knowledge. This revelation of Jesus’ identity is one that is to be unfolded in the course of the narrative, and in a progressive way as the disciples develop the capacity to receive it. Beginning with such a radical declarative statement that Jesus is the Son of God, “The reader can, to be sure, anticipate that Mark will utilize the flow of his story to elaborate the meaning of the title Son of God.”[17] Thus, Christ’s identity, available to the reader but blind to the disciples, is revealed in a progressive manner, allowing the disciples to come to this truth of Jesus’ identity gradually through His sayings and deeds.[18] Then, and only after so much has been revealed in this manner, are the disciples allowed to hear the utterance from heaven, “This is my beloved Son; Hear him” (Mk 9:7).[19] This revelation from the Father to the disciples has been granted only after the disciples have come to a certain understanding of Jesus’ person and power, finally resulting in the full disclosing – to the disciples and to the audience – of a high Christology of Jesus. He is presented, ultimately and through a careful and intentional development, to be the divine Son of God with authority over even the Law and Prophets. I may, therefore, argue for a fully-developed and high Christology from the outset (which includes Christ’s own self-knowledge as divine), but then a progressive revelation of Christology to the audience and the participants within the narrative.

In conclusion, taking then the view of a high Christology of Mark, it does appear that the title “Son of God” equivocates to identifying Jesus as divine, the true Son of the One God, and thus is a key to Mark’s Christology. I am hesitant, however, to say that it is the key, as there are many things beside this title that lend themselves to the fullest picture of Christ. Indeed, it is only by taking into account these various auxiliary evidences that one can understand what ‘Son of God’ means in Mark’s story. Tannehill, ever the helpful framer of the relationship between the title, commission, and narrative, says, “Since this title does serve especially to announce Jesus’ commission, its full meaning for the author can only be understood in light of the complete Markan narrative.”[20] Therefore, I maintain (and repeat) that there is no one single ‘key’ to Mark’s Christology, but rather that it is through an entire examination of the gospel of Mark and an accumulation of the multifarious examples of Christ’s words, deeds, and prerogatives that one comes to the fullest picture of Christ – a more complete Christology. This will be our undertaking on this blog for a while, so let us keep our eyes open for these various aspects of Markan Christology.






[1] M. Eugene Boring, “Markan Christology: God-Language for Jesus?” New Testament Studies, Volume 45, Issue 04 (October 1999): 451 – 471. 452-453.

[2] Citing J. C. Naluparayil, “Jesus of the Gospel of Mark: Present State of Research,” CBR 8: 191-226.

[3] Daniel Johansson, “The Identity of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark: Past and Present Proposals,” Currents in Biblical Research 9, no. 3 (2010): 364-393. 364.

[4] Johansson, 370-371.

[5] Boring, 471.

[6] Boring, 463-470

[7] Boring, 471.

[8] Boring, 452-453, emphasis mine.

[9] Robert C. Tannehill, “The Gospel of Mark as Narrative Christology,” Semeia 16 (1979): 57-95.

[10] Ibid, 75-76, emphasis mine.

[11] Ibid., 88.

[12] Ibid., 89.

[13] Boring, 461.

[14] Ibid., 460, 465. Boring’s preferred model is a Christology which is developed through the use of the ‘fully human’ yet ‘fully divine’ paradox.

[15] So Bultmann, Heitmuller, Bousset.

[16] Boring, 461.

[17] Jack D. Kingsbury, The Christology of Mark’s Gospel (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress, 1983), 158.

[18] Also within the narrative is displayed a progressing blindness of opponents who scramble to assign some sort of identity to Jesus themselves. This case of constant mistaken identity (2:6-7, 3:21-22; 6:3,14-15) adds to the growing tension of the narrative as certain groups are failing in their understanding while the disciples are learning more of Jesus’ power, authority, and nature as their understanding of who Jesus’ true identity is being developed.

[19] This marks one of the high revelation passages in Mark (with 1:1, 1:11, 15:39), and situated where it is, it may give cause to reevaluate the turning part of Marks gospel in favor of this moment rather than the oft-held Confessio of Peter in 8:29.

[20] Tannehill, 61-62.


Secrecy Elements in Mark; A Fresh Look at the ‘Messianic Secret’ in Mark’s Gospel

Introduced by Wrede in 1901 in his Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelien,[1] the idea of Jesus’ “Messianic Secret” has had far-reaching implications and applications in the field of biblical studies. While taken by Wrede to bespeak a later development of the messiahship of Jesus (a messiahship not held by Jesus himself according to Wrede[2]), the notion of a Messianic secret has been developed far beyond this, with its primary benefit being that it has opened up the important consideration of a motif of secrecy in Mark. This form of the ‘Messianic Secret’ is one that has Jesus holding his identity as Messiah in reserve, not announcing it openly, requesting a silence regarding some of his miracles, and not allowing his identity to be revealed by those who seemed to know of it (namely the demonic forces as in 1:34, 3:11-12, etc).

That Jesus wished his identity or deeds to remain quiet is certainly clear from scripture. Jesus did command demons to be quiet and he did command silence regarding some of his miracles. Morna Hooker notes, “Secrecy and disclosure are a theme which pervades the whole of Mark’s gospel.”[3] Whether this amounts to a pervasive ‘Messianic secret’ motif in Mark, however, is (though widely assumed today) still debatable and could still stand a little closer scrutiny and perhaps revision. It is this scrutiny and nascent thoughts of revision that will be explored here.

Let us begin with the scrutiny. First, to apply the term ‘Messianic secret’ to all the instances of secrecy in Mark would be a misnomer, or maybe better, a ‘miscategorization.’ Strictly speaking, the only time that a command to secrecy accompanies any mention of ‘Messiah’ occurs in 8:30 when Jesus acknowledges his he identity as Messiah and then quickly “charged them to tell no one about him.” This is the only time is secrecy linked with Jesus’ messiahship; with the demons, it is connected with him as being the Holy one of God (Mk 1:24), the Son of God (3:11, 5:7), or just because “they knew him” (1:34). The commands of silence to demonic forces do appear closely linked with Jesus’ identity, though not specifically with his identity as ‘Messiah.’ Other instances of injunctions to secrecy accompany instances of healings in which Jesus commands the healed to tell no one of what has been done (1:43-45, 5:43, 7:36, and 8:26). Wrede still calls these “injunctions to keep the Messianic secret,”[4] even though there is no apparent messianic revelation in these passages. So when one examines all of the cases of secrecy in Mark and their particular settings, they will see that the injunction to secrecy is not consistently (or often) linked with the idea of Jesus’ identity as Messiah.

Further inconsistency appears when it is noticed that Jesus did not always command the healed to silence, nor did he silence demons who spoke accurately of his identity. After the crossing of the sea in chapter four, Jesus and his disciples are met once again by a demon possessed man, and again the demons identify him as “Jesus, Son of the Most High God” (5:7). However, at this point, though it says that Jesus rebuked the demons, it does not explicitly say that he commanded silence from them. If a strict messianic secret motif was Mark’s intent, it appears that he missed an opportunity to again show Jesus’ reticence to have his identity revealed. Here, however, no such command to secrecy is issued. Rather, actually, Jesus commands the healed man to “Go… and tell…” (5:19). Regarding instance of healings, of the fourteen individual healings recorded in Mark, only four receive commands to be silent concerning them (1:44, 5:43, 7:36, 8:26).[5] Again, missed opportunities to secrecy. Mark, then, does not appear to be consistent in this theme others have foisted upon him. Donahue and Harrington said it well: “What are often lumped together under the heading ‘messianic secret’ are quite disparate phenomena.”[6]

What, then, might be the true purpose of these commands to secrecy? Wrede himself acknowledged that “nowhere is a motive expressed for these instructions.”[7] Hooker posits that one such motive for the messianic secret is that it may have been presented as an apologetic for a lack of recognition of Jesus as Messiah – by both the disciples and the Jewish leaders.[8] She also notes that it may arise from a desire to conceal his messiahship “for fear that it would have been misunderstood as a claim to political kingship.”[9] With this sentiment, we begin to move into the territory of exploring our own thoughts of revision regarding the motive behind the instances of  the supposed messianic secret.

To begin with, even the elementary exegete will notice that in many of these encounters, other motivations for the secrecy are quite plausible. For instance, post-healing commands to secrecy are often seen in the context of ministry, in which shortly after the healing or revelation of his work, Jesus is unable to enter the city (1:45), or the environment around his ministry has become incredibly crowded (2:2; 3:9-10, which is also linked with the motif of secrecy in vv. 11-12). So it’s quite possible that these particular instances are not connected in any way to the messianic secret, but the request of secrecy is simply for the practical application of ministry.

Perhaps most poignant is the account of the healing of the leper in Mark 1:40-44 in which Jesus heals the leper and then commands him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest.” However, it says, the leper “went out and began to talk freely about it, and to spread the news, to that Jesus could no longer openly enter a town” (45). At the beginning of verse 45, we see the disjunctive use of the conjunction, δὲ, and how it draws a contrast between the command and the man’s actions. It is then followed in the same sentence by the resultative conjunction, ὥστε, showing the “outcome or consequence of an action,”[10] in this case the result of the man’s inability to remain silent was that Jesus could no operate as freely in ministry. The command, followed by the disobedience, then followed by the result seems to draw the reader’s mind to the result and conclusion of the matter, showing their relation, rather than to speak of any desire to keep his identity from being made known. Mark, it appears, gives us Jesus’ motivation in this passage. Shortly after this, and perhaps in relation to it, Mark says that when it was reported that Jesus was in the area, “Many were gathered together, so that there was no more room, not even at the door” (2:2). Thusly, that Jesus’ motive was to conceal his messiahship is not directly evident from the text and its context; that the revelation of miracles was a hindrance to his ministry is. We may wish to side more ardently with the latter.

Another interesting possibility for some instances of requested secrecy is Jesus’ desire to forestall people from seeking a set pattern for their healing. We see this possibility presented together in context with 7:24-30 (with the secret in v. 24), 7:32-37 (secret in v. 36), and 8:22-26 (secret in 23, 26). In the first instance, a Syrophoenician woman approaches Jesus for healing of her daughter but is turned away until she presses Jesus for healing. While there are many applications that can be drawn from this passage, one perhaps consists of Jesus’ desire to see her push forward in genuine faith rather than a set method or assumption. A key to this might lie, perhaps (if you’ll allow me to step outside our Markan scope), in Matthew 15:22 when we see the woman call Jesus the “Son of David.” How does this non-Jewish woman know to address Jesus as the Son of David if she is not a Jew? Assuming that she is not a Jewish convert schooled in the Torah (an assumption, granted), she likely heard this from others begging Jesus’ hand of healing (e.g. Mark 10:47-48). Therefore, rather than pressing in on her own in genuine fashion, she appeals to patterns she has seen from others. Jesus moves to break her of this pattern in a search for genuine faith. In 7:32-37, a deaf man is brought to Jesus and those who brought him “begged him to lay his hand on him” (32), again observing the way Jesus had healed others and seeking that same pattern (Mark 5:23, 6:5, 8:23). Jesus, however, takes the man aside (a secrecy element according to Wrede[11]) and heals him in a most unorthodox manner, breaking, it seems, any previous pattern that had been observed. Then, finally, in 8:22-26, a blind man is brought to him and those bringing him “begged him to touch him” (22). Jesus then takes this man aside as well, creates mud with spittle, and proceeds to heal the man, with another apparent command for secrecy. But again, we see Jesus performing a healing in an unorthodox manner, outside of the people’s requests and outside of the previous pattern of healing. Again, while a greater observation may be drawn from this passage (particularly the progressive aspect of this man’s healing in comparison with the disciples’ progressive understanding of Jesus’ identity), the point still stands that there very well may be other valid reasons for Jesus’ secret actions and imperatives.

One final potential revision to the messianic secret to be explored here is the idea (mentioned parenthetically above) that the secret was withheld from the disciples for the purpose of gradual and progressive development. Wrede writes that “there can be no doubt about it that [Mark’s] objective was indeed to describe and demonstrate Jesus as God’s Son through what he wrote,”[12] and I believe we see this objective, description, and demonstration gradually and increasingly played out throughout the story. This is where I agree with Wrede’s assertion that “we are not to suppose that the narrative here is telling us so much about a moment in the life of the disciples as that it is telling us what Jesus is and yet cannot be in public.”[13] This revelation of Jesus’ identity as Messiah and Son of God is an identity that cannot be revealed in its fullness without some development of the idea (and the disciples) first. Hooker sums up the messianic secret in how Jesus’ identity is “deliberately concealed from the characters of the story,”[14] but I want to take it a step further to say that his identity was deliberately concealed for its development. This, I believe, is the main impetus behind the messianic secret.

Why would this idea need development for the disciples? For two reasons: to correct their misunderstandings and expectations of the plan and purpose of the Messiah, and, having torn down the edifice of their preconceptions, to lay a new foundation of understanding and to give to them a revelation of what the Messiah was to truly be. Tannehill pays particular attention to the development of Jesus’ disciples, to their “failure to identify Jesus correctly,”[15] and to their progression as disciples who seek to ascertain who Jesus is. The Messianic Secret is to be revealed to the disciples as they, themselves, are developed – once he has corrected their misunderstanding about who Messiah is to be. Even in the great confession of Peter, in which he professes Jesus to be the Messiah, we still see the disciples’ lack of understanding quickly follow. In Peter’s rebuke of Jesus, who had just announced a key element to his ultimate role and purpose of the Messiah (death), we see “the conflict between the desires, expectations, and actions of the disciples and the authoritative instruction of Jesus.”[16] For these disciples to understand who he is, and for them to join him in him mission, he must slowly reveal to them his messiahship while at the same time shaping their understanding of who the Messiah was to truly be.

So then, might the ‘messianic secret’ actually be a purposeful and calculated unfolding of Jesus’ identity, perhaps through his displays of authority? I believe this can be answered in the affirmative and this is an idea that I hope to flesh out in the near future. As for now, and across the board of scholarly hypotheses, “Perhaps Luz had it right more than thirty years ago: the messianic secret is still a mystery.”[17]



[1] William Wrede, Das Messiasgeheimnis in den Evangelien (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1901); tr: J.C.G. Greig, The Messianic Secret (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1971).

[2] Schweitzer, Quest of the Historical Jesus, 303

[3] Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991), 68. Emphasis mine.

[4] Wrede, 34.

[5] Admittedly, many of the other healings occur in public view, thus rendering an injunction nonsensical.

[6] John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002), 71.

[7] Wrede, 37.

[8] Hooker, 69.

[9] Ibid, 67.

[10] Daniel B. Wallace, The Basics of New Testament Syntax (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 301.

[11] Wrede explores this idea of location as pertaining to the messianic secret in pp 132-136.

[12] Wrede, 126.

[13] Ibid, 119; emphasis mine.

[14] Hooker, 20.

[15] Robert C. Tannehill, “The Disciples in Mark: The Function of a Narrative Role,” The Journal of Religion, Vol. 57, No. 4 (Oct., 1977), pp. 386-405, p. 400.

[16] Ibid., 401-402.

[17] Gregg S. Morrison, The Turning Point in the Gospel of Mark: A Study in Markan Christology (Cambridge: James Clark & Co., 2015), 213 citing Luz, “Secrecy Motif and Marcan Christology,” ZNW 56 (1965) 9-30.

A Side-Journey with the Desert Fathers; Exploring Unceasing Prayer. Part Two: Beginning…

That prayer should be unceasing is a continuing theme throughout early monastic literature and is drawn from Paul’s aforementioned injunction to the Thessalonian church. In apothegm six, Bishop Epiphanius uses this foundational verse to address the laxity that routine can encourage. In this encounter, the abbot of his monastery in Palestine relayed that they “carefully observe the offices of terce, sext, none, and vespers” (12.6), but Bishop Epiphanius recognizes the iterative nature of their prayers and responds that they are “failing to pray at other times. The true monk ought to pray without ceasing” (ibid). Epiphanius does not leave them with no instruction, however, and offers the suggestion that they always sing psalms in their heart, thus creating a bridge between these points of corporate prayer to sustain them throughout the day. This is a very important and foundational principle to unceasing prayer, and one that is communicated in the Greek word itself.[1] The word here translated “unceasing” is the Greek contraction, συνεχής [sun-echēs], which means a “having together” or “holding together.” In this way, then, one might consider unceasing prayer to be that continual prayer which holds together the various punctuated moments of more intensive, prolonged prayer throughout the day. Epiphanius offers the praying of the Psalms as a means of praying continuously. In saying ten, Macarius advises his students to carry with them a simple prayer of help to the Lord and in both distraction and distress to offer this prayer and thus re-center the mind on God Himself and unceasing prayer.

Abba Agatho also emphasizes the importance of unceasing prayer but recognizes that it is the most difficult to acquire and calls it “the great struggle” (12.2). Fortunately, within this section are given many means by which one can develop this discipline. To begin with, an unnamed hermit says, “No one can see his face reflected in muddy water; so the soul cannot pray to God with contemplation unless it is first cleansed of harmful thoughts” (12.13). The first step is, as mentioned above, the necessary ascesis to bring the passions and logismoi under control and to calm the waters of the soul so that θεωρία is possible. Yet while the ascetic life has often been misinterpreted as a regula by which one must work to attain this end, this was not the idea of those pursuing the contemplative life. For the monk, it is a cooperation with God’s work, enabled by God’s grace, and given at God’s discretion. The ascetic life was only the discipline and preparation of the body, soul, and mind to receive that gift. With contemplatio being a grace and gift of the Lord alone, and being a passive reception on the recipient’s part, oratio (prayer) takes one to the doorstep of contemplation and kindly asks admittance.

In addition to the necessity of proper spiritual posture, this section makes much of physical posture as well. The first apothegm of this section relays the posture of Abba Arsenius during his prayers on Saturday night and how he would stand with his back to the sun and remain there until the sun rose on his face at dawn. This is important for many reasons. First, hands outstretched (seen in 1, 10, and 11) is a physical representation of surrender and submission. Just as the novice monk would prostrate himself before the doors of the monastery to plead for admittance, so too the monk continues to prostrate himself before the doors of the throne room of God, begging for the admittance that God may grant as a grace. In addition, this discipline of body in posture greatly aids in discipline of the mind by creating a focus and stillness of thought. In Benedictine monasticism, stability in one’s community is imperative[2] and is perhaps representative of a progressive stability conducive to contemplation: stability of location, body, mind, and finally soul.

Stability, both in life and in the posture addressed here, also serves to free one from distraction, better aiding in the reception of God’s gift of contemplation. Having set out some of the foundational principles for walking in unceasing prayer here, we will examine how the Desert Fathers address dealing with these distractions in our next post.


[1] Though these sayings were originally spoken and transmitted in Coptic, the language of Egypt at the time of the Desert Fathers.

[2] Cf. Rule of St. Benedict, 1.8, 11; 4.78.

A Side-Journey with the Desert Fathers; Exploring Unceasing Prayer. Part One: Introduction.

Saint Anthony the Great is widely known as the “Father of Monks” for his witness and example of the earliest Christian monastic practice in the Egyptian desert. Yet even Anthony himself went out to the desert and met those who were already practicing the ascetic and eremitical life. He inherited a tradition of the pursuit of communion with God, the bios angelica, and transmitted this tradition to others through his life and teachings.[1] Just as Anthony received this tradition, the modern reader may also be brought into the presence of the earliest witnesses of the monastic life through the lives of the Desert Fathers. The sayings and deeds of the Desert Fathers are collected in two different collections, one arranged alphabetically according to the names of the sage (referred to as an abba or amma) and another collection of apothegms that are arranged according to twelve different themes. These texts bring to life the sayings, ascetical practices, and theological views of the earliest monastic tradition through small pericopes that display their teaching and practice. It is the latter collection, the Apophthegmata Systematica, from which our examination of the practice of unceasing prayer will come.

To understand the preeminent role that prayer plays in the monastic life and the way in which it aids in a reditus to God in the contemplative life, it is important to have at least an introductory knowledge of monastic methodology. While developed and elucidated in varying ways throughout its early history, the purpose of monastic life is the practice of ascesis (discipline) in order to overcome vice, to put one’s thoughts (logismoi) and passions (pathos) in their right order, and to grow in virtue and communion with God. The first steps of ascesis, known as the purgative way, lays the foundation for one to continue on toward the illuminative way in which one, having attained a control and order of their logismoi and pathos, sets in proper order the matters of the world, thereby reaching a state of apatheia in relation to matters of the mind and of the world.[2] Through this co-operation with God’s grace, one may reach the unitive way (contemplatio; Greek: θεωρία) in which they may participate in the divine life of contemplation, the bios angelikos. If contemplatio is the telos, then apotheia is the skopos by which one arrives.

The Apophthegmata, then, is a collection of stories and teachings of how the earliest eremitic Christians would travel this path from the purgative way to the unitive way in pursuit of contemplatio, which is itself a divine and unmerited grace. Central to this path and the last precipice for one to crest in reaching contemplatio was prayer. Yet simple prayer performed at certain hours is a far cry from the biblical mandate to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17), a mandate that was central to the monk’s pursuit of contemplatio. Cassian would later say that “the whole purpose of the monk and indeed the perfection of his heart amount to this – total and uninterrupted dedication to prayer” (Conferences, 9.2). It is this particular difficulty of unceasing prayer that we will examine in the next post – along with how it may be done and what hindrances arise.


[1]  Apophthegmata and Athanasius’ The Life of Antony.

[2] For a more thorough understanding of apatheia, see Evagrius, Praktikos, 57ff.

Miracles, Parables, and the Kingdom of God

Miracles, Parables, and the Kingdom of God


In the Gospel according to Mark, the first words of Christ are, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (1:15). The following chapters of Mark lay out the initiation and preaching of this kingdom that is being ushered in through Christ and His work. In their commentary on Mark in the Sacra Pagina series, Donahue and Harrington bring forth the important observation that when speaking of the Kingdom of God, there is a difference between rule or reign vs. mere geographical region.  They rightly note that the connotation present in “Kingdom of God” is one not of stasis and location, but one “that is more active and dynamic, with the nuance of the ‘reigning’ of God as well.”[1] Morna Hooker agrees, noting that this puts an “emphasis on kingship of God”[2] (emphasis mine), not just the Kingdom of God. Therefore, we may take it to mean that Mark gives “Kingdom of God” a particular meaning that is marked not by a region or locality, but the aspect of the sovereignty of God.

Following this proclamation that “the Kingdom of God is at hand,” miracles, then, serve to establish the initiation of the Kingdom of God among men, revealing the authority and power of God over the present occupants: the demons and their lord (1:23-27; cf. Mk. 3:23-27). In an excellent article that reviews much of the history of scholarship regarding Jesus and his miracles and identity, Andrew Kelley sees miracles as being deeply connected to the Kingdom of God as well as being closely linked to Jesus’ identity, saying, “The miracles of Jesus reveal his identity as God himself at work.”[3] Twelftree, he says, “builds a cumulative case that the primary use of miracles in Mark is to reveal the identity of Jesus” largely through the fact that “Jesus seems to act with his own power and in his own authority.”[4] This idea of the identity of Jesus, as well as the relationship of this identity with His authority, will be a theme that we explore often in the coming months here.

This ‘power and authority’ that Twelftree speaks of was both the power and the authority to usher in the Kingdom of God, and it is boldly displayed in the first three chapters of Mark in particular. There we see four pointed displays of authority over demons, sickness, leprosy, paralysis and sin (1:21-27, 29-31, 40-44, 2:1-12), all along accompanied by a constant mention and display of His authority over demonic forces (1:32, 34, 39, 3:15) who might be characterized as the ‘present occupants’ (Mk. 3:23-27) of the ‘current kingdom’ that is soon to be bound and overthrown. Miracles emphasize and establish this new rule, showing the authority of God, the sovereignty of God, the kingship of God in their present situation. Thus miracles both reveal the identity and the authority of Christ as representative of God while giving pronouncement and initiation of rule to the Kingdom of God on earth.

After these four miracle stories display Christ’s power to usher in the new Kingdom (and, one might say, begin the process), the description of the extent and the nature of the Kingdom of God is revealed through Jesus’ response to four questions, followed by Jesus’ teaching in four parables. The questions asked reveal that the extent of the kingdom extends beyond the physical to the spiritual (2:7, 10-11), that this Kingdom is open to even sinners and tax collectors (2:16-17), that it is something new, outside of the current restrictive tradition (18-22), and that it offers a flexibility that used to be present but has since been abandoned (24-27). Then in one final, additional question asked by Jesus Himself, we see how this new kingdom was unlike their rigid interpretation of the law regarding the Sabbath observance which had become restrictive to the point that it prevented them from caring for others and doing God’s good work on the Sabbath (3:1-5). Jesus was introducing a gospel of grace that offered the flexibility of new wineskins for situations that needed flexibility to accommodate ‘new wine.’

This is then followed by four parables (4:1-34) which are Jesus’ teaching concerning the Kingdom of God, its program, and its nature. The Kingdom is grown through the sowing and receiving of the word of God (4:1-8, 14-20), it is meant to be shared and revealed by those who are a part of it (21-25), it is ultimately a work of God who causes the growth (26-29), and it will be successful, grow, sprout, and become a haven for many more than anticipated (30-32). So we see that while miracles pertain largely to the initiation of the Kingdom, the parables that Mark records (primarily in 4:1-34) are the teaching concerning the Kingdom of God, its program, and its nature. Both worked together as complements, as a display and as teaching concerning the Kingdom of God.




[1] John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002), 71.

[2] Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel According to Saint Mark (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1991), 55.

[3] Andrew J. Kelly, “Miracles, Jesus, and Identity: A History of Research regarding Jesus and Miracles with Special Attention to the Gospel of Mark.” Currents in Biblical Research, 13 (2014): 82-106. 97. He follows and cites Witmer, the Galilean Exorcist: His Exorcism in Social and Political Context (JHJS, 459; London:T&T Clark, 2012), 2-5.

[4] Kelley, 97, citing Graham Twelftree, Jesus the Miracle Worker (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 343.

Mark: Audience and Purpose

Considering the environment and multifarious plights of various Christian groups throughout the mid-first century, it is safe to say that whatever community Mark wrote for was written for was familiar with some level of suffering. In attempting to hone in on the identity of this audience, one must consider the date of the writing in relation to the Jewish revolt and destruction of the Temple by the Roman General Titus in 70 AD. Joel Marcus makes the argument for a post-Revolt writing of Mark saying that “it seems likely that the prophecies of false messiahs, war, persecution, and betrayal in vv. 6-13 (cf. vv. 21-22) are part of the present experience of Mark’s community.”[1] However despite Marcus’ bold assertion that he has solidly proven the post-Revolt dating of Mark and that the “decks are cleared,”[2] the matter is hardly resolved, or in his favor. Hengel, in his excellent Studies in the Gospels of Mark, sets forth a decent case of his own for a Markan sitz im leben grounded firmly in pre-revolt Judea, convincingly citing Mark’s apparent familiarity with and proximity to events that were disrupted only after the Revolt,[3] something the later Gospel writers did not have to such a degree as Mark apparently did.

With many scholars recognizing the presence of some sort of suffering within the Markan community, the question of what sort of suffering are they enduring arises. It very well could be suffering at the hands of Nero in a mid-60s Rome, as dramatically relayed by Tacitus in 115 AD. It is also quite possible that the suffering of the Markan audience was due to the warring factions of Jews and Gentiles in the unrest following Nero’s granting Caesarea to Gentiles, which resulted in a slaughter of Jews and a subsequent reprisal against the Gentiles in the region surrounding Galilee. If this is the case, one might cite this as a reason for Mark’s Galilean focus and emphasis. It is also possible that the suffering was that which occurred in the events leading up to the Jewish revolt and destruction of the Temple, a suffering that also included fear and an uncertainty of the coming events of their time.  It has also been considered that the ‘suffering’ of the audience of Mark might be due to the presence of false prophets and false teachers spreading heresy among the early church, and thus is was of concern to Mark and the major impetus behind his writing (so Weeden[4]). And there are others (Marcus) who consider it a suffering that has occurred because of the Jewish revolt as these Christians are now living lives in exile, in a new world without Jerusalem and the Temple.

While it is my view that Mark was written before the Jewish revolt to a community that was experiencing some form of persecution and experiencing the tumultuous events that led up to the revolt in 66 AD, many points of a post-70 writing are worth considering. On salient one being that if Mark were writing to a post-70 audience, it would be to an audience who was bereaved of a temple and hopes of a Messianic savior figure. Mark’s gospel account, therefore, offered to the Jewish nation a new, different sort of Davidic Messiah that offered them a new, intangible kingdom – the “Kingdom of God” – in the stead of their old, earthly kingdom that had recently passed away. This lends a certain appeal to a post-temple dating, one that would offer hope to the reader despite present helpless and hopeless circumstances. In this case, then, Mark is certainly writing to a suffering community, and is offering them the hope of being part of a heavenly, eternal kingdom.

I believe that we do see that the Markan audience was a ‘suffering community,’ at least in some regard. With this, Mark addresses the plight of his audience quite well, constantly reminding them of the authority of Christ in every encounter and endeavor. At the beginning of his account, Mark reminded his audience that Christ was the one foretold of by the prophets (1:2) and then at the end, reminded his audience that the suffering of the Messiah was part of God’s eternal plan (14:49). Throughout Mark’s account, Christ showed His mastery over every event that caught the disciples by surprise (4:35-41, 6:47-51). He displayed His power and authority over sickness, demonic agents, disease, the laws of nature (6:36-44), nature itself (4:35-41), and even death, the greatest and most powerful of foes (5:35-43; 16:5-7). Christ repeatedly predicted His own death (8:31, 9:9, 9:31), showing mastery over the circumstances of even such an abysmal event as this. Shortly before His betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus confidently rose from prayer and roused His disciples to go out and meet His betrayer head on (14:42). Christ even told His disciples (and by proxy, Mark’s audience) of the sufferings that they, themselves, would endure before the end (chapter 13), preparing them for persecution and for the fall of Jerusalem.

Through such wonderful acts and exhibitions of power and authority, therefore, Jesus displays for Mark’s audience that there is nothing outside of His power and control, that there is nothing that has caught Him off guard, and that He is sufficient to meet their needs and to see them through their trials, as difficult as those trials may be. I believe this is a major theme of Mark, one that influenced his writing greatly to an audience that lived in a world that seemed to be falling apart at the seams. He wrote – and Jesus spoke – to give comfort to the afflicted and to let them know that there is nothing outside of God’s plan and purpose, and to the point that He would even forfeit His life for that same plan and purpose, while being in full command of the entire situation. This theme of God’s continual purpose and sovereignty is one that is pervasive throughout the work, and we will see this as we begin to work through Mark together.






[1] Joel Marcus, “The Jewish War and the Sitz im Leben of Mark.” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 111, No. 3 (Autumn, 1992): 441-462. 447.

[2] ibid, 446.

[3] Martin Hengel, Studies in the Gospel of Mark (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2003), 9-10.

[4] Theodore J. Weeden, “The Heresy That Necessitated Mark’s Gospel.” Zeitschrift die Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche, (Jan 1, 1968): 145-158.

Let Us Begin – What is Mark?

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Any study of a book of the Bible must begin by addressing the issue of Genre. One of the most elusive aspects of Mark, and indeed of the Gospels in general, is identifying and assigning to them a specific genre by which they might be best interpreted. Many suggestions have been set forward, including the idea that the genre of Gospel (εὐαγγελίον) was a new, independent invention by the gospel writers. Aside from this idea, however, most of the theories regarding the genre of the Gospels – and Mark in particular – place it somewhere in the realm of biography or narrative history, with the former being the most common.

One of the greater objections to considering the Gospel of Mark to be a biography is that the author has no intention of including a history of Jesus’ birth, childhood, or early adulthood. These aspects appear to be important as per the definition presented by David Aune, that “biography may be defined as a discrete prose narrative devoted exclusively to the portrayal of the whole life of a particular individual perceived as historical”[1] (though he places Mark as a sub-genre of Greco-Roman biography[2]). According to Collins, Vielhauer concluded as well that “Mark is not an example of a Greco-Roman ‘life’ because, unlike the typical ancient biography, it shows no interest in the origins, education, and inner development of Jesus.”[3] So on these two counts (and more), the Gospel of Mark does not appear at first glance to be a simple biography written in the same mode as traditional Greco-Roman biography.

However, many advancements have been made in the comparison of the Gospel accounts with variations of biographies in antiquity, resulting in a broader definition and structure of biography. Burridge took this opportunity to reinterpret Greco-Roman ‘biography’ as βιος, rather than biography, granting more flexibility to this ancient genre.[4] With this reinvention or expansion of possibilities of this genre, one finds many examples which would allow for a more forgiving understanding of biography, one that would allow Mark to be classified as such. Many have therefore begun to understand Mark as a “historical biography,” βιος, or even an “apocalyptic historical monograph” (so Collins).

It is a point of interest, however, that without these elements of early biographical material, Mark has famously been described as a “Passion narrative with an extended introduction.”[5] This description is telling, for it recognizes the purpose of the work as primarily theological, as it is focused on Jesus’ Passion and resurrection, with these things, themselves, being instrumental to the implementation of the Kingdom of God. Mark (as is evidenced not only throughout the book or at its end, but in its very prologue) is theological in nature, with the narrative serving the purpose of 1) establishing the events in a historical context, and 2) driving the story along to reach its theological conclusion. Vielhauer believed the motivation for the writing of this gospel to be based in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ,[6] which we see evidenced through Mark’s special attention to the last week and even more so to the last hours of Christ’s life, as time slows steadily at that point (a rather deft literary device to draw attention the emphasis of the work).

Taking these things into account, then, and with purpose and genre being inseparable, I would argue that Mark’s purpose was to assemble his received material in a way that displayed a particular theological point that he wanted to convey. Mark, therefore, is a collection of events of the life of Jesus constructed around a theological purpose. And so, answering the original question, I would not classify the Gospel of Mark so much as a “life” of Jesus, but as a “theological biography,” for the author’s intent is clearly theological, and at the center of this theology is the person of Jesus Christ. It is truly so much more than the life of a man, but includes what theological and eschatological implications were brought into the realm of humankind through the life of Jesus of Nazareth while constantly challenging his audience to wrestle – alongside the characters in the story – with the identity of who this man really is and with what authority He has to institute this sort of divine kingdom among men.




[1] David E. Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co, 1988), 29.

[2] Ibid, 46-76.

[3] Adela Yarbro Collins, Is Mark’s Gospel a life of Jesus? (Milwaukee, WI: Marquette University Press, 1990), 10. Vielhauer also held the view that “the gospel form itself is something new” (ibid).

[4] Richard A. Burridge, What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Greco-Roman Biography. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 233-255.

[5] Martin Kähler, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic, Biblical Christ, trans. C. E. Braaten (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1964), 80.

[6] Philipp Vielhauer, Geschichte der urchristlichen Literature (New York, NY: de Gruyter, 1975), 350.