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.