INTRODUCTION TO THE CHRISTOLOGY OF MARK'S GOSPEL
by George Amoss Jr.
Copyright © 1979, George Amoss Jr.


Author's note: This article, written in 1979, is dated, but I hope it still offers some useful insights into Mark's view of the true meaning of Jesus' messiahship and our discipleship. The paper does not include endnotes; however, a bibliography is provided.


Christology is a very important -- if not the most important -- element in the Gospel According to Mark. Mark himself indicates this in the way he opens his Gospel: "Here begins the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." Jesus the Christ is himself the gospel (good news), and by reading Mark's book we may encounter him and learn, with the disciples, the mystery of who he is.

Critical study, especially redaction analysis, has shown that the Markan Gospel is a carefully constructed piece of theological writing in the form of a literary narrative. It is not a historical or biographical work (at least not in the modern senses of those terms), but rather a theologically-motivated proclamation which aims to bring us into relationship with the real Christ. As Martin Kelber points out, Mark's use of "beginning" in 1:1 is not fortuitous; the Gospel is but our introduction to Jesus Christ. Once we have met Christ and been met by him through Mark's proclamation, we must deepen our relationship with him and enter on his "way," the way of the cross. In showing us the true identity of Jesus, Mark also demonstrates the nature of genuine discipleship.

Mark begins and ends his story of the earthly ministry of Jesus with the Christological title "Son of God." But framed within these two passages (1:1 and 15:39) is the evangelist's narrative which explains and gives content to that title. Perrin felt that Mark sought to "teach the Christians of his day a true Christology in place of the false Christology that he felt they were in danger of accepting." Kelber agrees in principle with his teacher but feels, as does Weeden, that the false Christology was already established in Mark's community. Indeed, for Kelber it had been the Christology of the prestigious church of Jerusalem, which had been dispersed or destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. It is possible that the false Christology which Mark addressed was a Hellenistic "divine man" Christology, similar perhaps to that which Paul opposed in Corinth, which (to paraphrase Weeden) saw Jesus as a superhuman savior, endowed with miraculous powers and supernatural knowledge which he passed on to his followers. Thus, Mark's opponents may have represented an elitist type of Christianity, proud of its esoteric knowledge and miraculous powers and filled with the conceit of knowing itself to constitute the elect. In any event, it may not be too far off the mark (if the reader will pardon the pun) to describe Mark's Gospel as a definition, or re-definition, of the meaning of "Son of God" as applied to Jesus.

For Mark, "Son of God" can only be understood in the light of another title, "Son of Man." Although, as Perrin and others have shown, Jesus may not actually have used the term in reference to himself, "Son of Man" appears in Mark's Gospel in the words of Jesus, who uses it as a self-designation. Furthermore, the Markan Jesus seems to employ this title specifically as a corrective to the common, erroneous understanding of "Son of God." For example, in 8:27-38, Jesus' reply to Peter's confession of him as messiah is that the Son of Man must suffer. Similarly, while Jesus' answer to the high priest's question, "Are you the messiah, the son of the Blessed One?" is "I am," he immediately qualifies that response by adding, "And you will see the Son of Man seated upon the right hand of God...."

Mark's point seems to be that we cannot understand who Jesus is, and cannot, therefore, be his disciples, until we realize the centrality of suffering in his mission -- and in ours. Jesus is not a messiah of earthly glory, but of self-emptying, suffering love of God and humankind. Mark prepares us for this realization in subtle ways in the first half of the Gospel. This section could almost be, as Weeden notes, a "divine man" story, concentrating as it does on Jesus' "mighty deeds" and his imparting of esoteric information to his disciples. Perhaps this is why there has been some confusion over Jesus' rebuke of Peter in 8:33: from the foregoing material in the Gospel, it is not difficult for the reader to assume that Peter's confession is correct. Yet Jesus finds it not only inadequate but even demonic. It appears that Mark has "set up" his readers. Up to this point in the Gospel, they have been nodding their heads, comfortable in their understanding of Jesus, feeling confirmed in that understanding by Mark. But now Mark delivers the blow: they are condemned, not by Mark, but by Jesus himself.

Yet it seems to me that Mark has not left the critical reader totally unprepared for the development in 8:33. Throughout the first section of the Gospel, we see Jesus identifying himself with those who suffer: the poor, the sick, the hungry, the sinners and outcasts. We see him bridging the gulf between Jew and Gentile. And in Chapter 4 we have a glimpse of what is to come, as the disciples, to whom "the secret of the Kingdom of God has been given," are likened to outsiders in their inability to understand Jesus' parabolic teaching. Mark is beginning, in a subtle and creative way, to expose the un-Christian errors of elitism and triumphalism. From 8:33 on, those errors will be repeatedly condemned and corrected by Jesus.

Although the climax of Mark's Gospel is often considered to be Peter's confession, the Gospel's high point for me is the confession of the Roman centurion at the foot of the cross. Here, Mark's Christology and its implications are embodied in an unforgettable scene in which Mark's narrative style of presenting theology reaches its dramatic height. Misunderstood and finally deserted by his disciples, and seemingly abandoned even by God, Jesus dies in anguish of body and spirit. He speaks no fine words from the cross (as in later Gospels); he can only cry out his desolation to God before he dies with a loud, inarticulate cry. And it is only then that a human being -- not one of the "saved," but a hated Gentile oppressor and idolater -- can call him "Son of God."

This, then, is the essence of Mark's Christology: Son of God = Suffering Son of Man. Mark's conception of Jesus certainly includes power and authority implied in the Son of God title (the miracles and exorcisms, the setting aside of the Sabbath, the imminent judgment); but for Mark the power and authority are hidden in Jesus and will not be fully revealed until the parousia, the return of Jesus in glory. In the meantime, we must not attempt to appropriate Jesus' future glory to our present, but must follow him in the way of the cross. The gnosis which he has left us is not the esoteric, power-bestowing knowledge of the "saved" elect, but the secret of a hidden Kingdom born in weakness, a Kingdom which must grow through suffering and opposition so that the divine will may be fulfilled. It is not those who boast of their salvation, who prophesy, and who perform miracles who will be saved, but those who "endure to the end" by "doing the will of my Father," that same will which Jesus accepted at Gethsemane. Jesus, the "suffering servant of God," must be not only our savior but our model. We cannot share in his resurrection unless we have also shared in his ministry of suffering love. This was Mark's message to the Christians of his day; it is a message that Christians today still need to hear and heed.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Kelber, Werner, Mark's Story of Jesus,  Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979.

Malley, Edward J., S.J., "The Gospel According to Mark." In The Jerome Biblical Commentary,  ed. Brown, Fitzmeyer, and Murphy. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.

Perrin, Norman, A Modern Pilgrimage in New Testament Christology.  Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974.

Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Mark.  (Trans. by Donald H. Madvig) Richmond: John Knox Press, 1970.

Weeden, Theodore J., Mark -- Traditions in Conflict.  Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971.


Click here to return to the Quaker Electronic Archive's Main Page.