A Crucified Messiah

If we ask who Jesus is in Mark’s Gospel, one of the first answers to come to mind will usually be the Messiah. Indeed, this is the title Mark gives to Jesus in the opening sentence of his narrative. Although the people around Jesus within the story do not have the advantage of that early identification, the turning point in Mark’s Gospel, the beginning of the Way Narrative, comes when a disciple first recognizes Jesus as the Messiah (8:27-30). In a quiet moment on the road near the Gentile town of Caesarea Philippi north of Galilee, Jesus asks the disciples who people believe him to be. The group rhymes off the list of various titles and figures that people in the crowds around Jesus have been suggesting as they try to pin down the identity of this enigmatic sage and wonder-worker. But Jesus’ real interest is not in what other people think. He wants to know what this inner circle thinks. These are his hand-picked followers, the ones who will help to lead Jesus’ movement into the future. Have they understood the significance of Jesus’ powerful and often symbolic actions? Have they understood his cryptic hints about his identity? It is Peter, apparently the natural leader in the group, who works up the courage to say what was likely in the minds of each man standing there: You are the Messiah.

In Mark’s portrait there is an odd tension around the title Messiah. Jesus affirms here that Peter is right. Their teacher is the man who will act out the role of Messiah and fulfill Israel’s hopes. Indeed, when Jesus enters Jerusalem at the end of the “Way Narrative” he seems deliberately to announce his Messianic status, if not in words at least with the symbolism of his riding into the city on the back of a donkey. Yet Jesus never, in Mark, actually says “I am the Messiah.” During the early, Galilean phase of the story, Jesus seems determined to hide his Messianic identity from the crowds. He even silences the demons, who recognize him immediately for what he is, preventing them from revealing his identity to the people gathered around to watch his exorcisms. So scholars have talked about the “Messianic Secret” as a prominent motif in Mark. Why would Jesus want to hide his Messianic identity? The simple answer is that, while Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s Messianic hopes, he is not going to do what they expected.

What kind of figure did most Jews imagine when they heard the term “Messiah?” Most Christian readers assume that the Messiah was expected to be a divine miracle-worker, but in fact neither divinity nor the power to heal were associated with the Messiah figure in Jewish tradition. The term “Messiah” (Hebrew Mashiach) means, literally, “Anointed One.” Several different kinds of people in ancient Israel were anointed (that is, they had olive oil poured over their heads) as part of their appointment to a special task: most commonly priests, prophets, and especially kings. The Messiah was thus expected to be a king who would rise up to restore the throne of David, fulfilling God’s promise in 2 Samuel 7 that David’s dynasty would reign forever in Israel. The rise of this messianic king was also closely associated with Israel’s broader hopes for a future restoration: the expulsion of foreign powers (i.e., the Romans) from the land, the re-gathering of Israelites scattered abroad, and the military subjugation of Israel’s enemies. The specific role to be played by this Messiah varied, depending on which Jewish group told the story. Some even expected two Messiahs, one a royal leader and the other an ideal priest who would restore the temple cult in Jerusalem. Across these variations, though, this anointed leader was expected to be a human being who would change the social and political fortunes of Israel. This is why, when Jesus enters Jerusalem in Mark’s Gospel, the crowds shout “Hosannah!” In Hebrew, this means “Save!” or “Rescue!” The people thronging around the city gates were convinced that Jesus was finally coming into David’s city to sit down on the throne of his ancestor and begin the military liberation of his people.

In this light we can begin to understand why Jesus kept his messianic identity a secret. Yes, he was going to fulfill the prophetic promises that Israel would be set free and the cosmos restored. He was going to carry out that task, however, in a way that no-one had expected. The kingdom which he had come to establish was not, as we saw above, a political kingdom. He would not sit on a throne constructed by human craftsmen. He had come to usher in the re-establishment of God’s rule in creation. Likewise, the conquest which would usher in this divine reign would not be accomplished by a sword’s edge, but by his own gruesome and shameful execution at the hands of the very Roman powers the Messiah was supposed to wipe off the Judean map. There was nothing in Jewish tradition to prepare for this. Even the few hints of some suffering leader in the Old Testament – the “Suffering Servant” of Isaiah 53 and the Davidic sufferer of Psalm 22 – had never yet been read as descriptions of the Messiah’s work. This is undoubtedly why he tells the demons to be silent when they recognize him for who he is (1:24-25). This is also why Jesus tells the disciples not to share their insight that he is Messiah (8:30), and tells Peter, James, and John to keep the transfiguration a secret until after his resurrection (9:9-10). Even Peter, the one who first sees that Jesus is the king Israel has expected, cannot understand how his royal mission could involve his own suffering and death (8:31-33). Jesus spends the whole “Way Narrative” trying to bring this small circle of his closest disciples around to understand his mission, and even then they seem only partially to understand (see 10:35-45). Jesus is indeed, for Mark, the Messiah who will finally fulfil all of Israel’s longings. The shape of that fulfilment, though, is completely unexpected.

The Son of God

Although the text of Mark 1:1 is uncertain at this point, that verse probably introduces Jesus not only as Messiah, but also as the Son of God. The title is not used heavily by the human characters in Mark’s Gospel, and Jesus never applies it to himself, but both at his baptism and at his transfiguration the voice of God speaking from the sky calls Jesus my Son (Mk 1:11; 9:7). Then, in a crucial scene at the climax of Mark’s account, the Roman centurion who watches Jesus’ final breath exclaims Surely this man was the Son of God! (15:39).

Very often, readers of Mark assume that the title “Son of God” identifies Jesus as divine. After all, children usually have the same nature as their parents! In this case, though, common sense leads us astray. If we look back at the Old Testament we realize that many people were called God’s “son” without there being any implication that they were themselves divine. Often the kings of Israel and Judah were called God’s son. This usage may have been influenced by the surrounding Ancient Near Eastern societies in which the king was often thought literally to have been descended from one of the gods. In the Israelites’ hands, though, the title was often used metaphorically to signal the close relationship that (at least in theory) the kings maintained with the heavenly King. The whole nation of Israel could also be called God’s “son.” In Hosea 11 the prophet uses this metaphor to paint a vivid picture of God’s tender love and care for the people, though Israel turns out to be a rather thankless child.

So the identification of Jesus as the “Son of God” would not usually be heard by Jewish ears as a claim that this man was God incarnate. It would suggest, first of all, that Jesus was extraordinarily close to his heavenly Father. The title would also probably suggest that, like the kings and Israel as a whole, Jesus had been chosen by God for some special task. Since Mark also makes it clear that Jesus is the Davidic Messiah, the title would be understood by most Jews in its royal sense, though the hints that Jesus is a representative of Israel could also suggest overtones of the national use of “sonship” language.

This is not to say that Mark intended the title to mean nothing more. The Centurion at the cross is a Gentile (probably Syrian-born rather than of Roman blood), for whom the gods did indeed have children and the Emperors were among them. On this soldier’s lips, the confession that Jesus is “Son of God” would suggest a recognition that this man from Nazareth had been something more-than-human. Still, Mark allows the title to be ambiguous, and whatever hints of deity it might convey are taken up from the more explicit signals the author gives us elsewhere.

Son of Humanity

On the other hand, most contemporary readers do not hear enough of the force of the title Son of Man. We tend to take it as the counterpart of Son of God, indicating simply that Jesus was fully human. This is, again, probably not how the title would have been heard by a first-century Jew. Even more than Son of God, though, the title Son of Man was highly ambiguous.

It is true that the Hebrew expression ben adam and the Aramaic bar enosh could both be used to mean simply “a human being.” It is in this sense that Ezekiel often refers to himself as “a son of man.” The prophet is overwhelmed by his visions of God’s transcendent glory and is made intensely aware of his nature as created, dependent on this awesome being for his very breath. If this is the sense in which Mark’s Jesus uses the title “Son of Man,” then he would seem to be emphasizing, not just his full humanity, but his identification and solidarity with the weakness and struggle of fallen humanity.

Yet there is another important sense in which the expression “Son of Man” was used in the Old Testament. In Daniel 7 the seer is shown a vision of four great beasts rising out of the cosmic ocean, each one greater and more terrible than the last. After the fourth, most hideous beast is allowed to wreak havoc for a while on the earth, the heavenly judge takes his throne and declares that it is time for this destruction to end. God’s intervention takes the form of “one like a son of man” who comes from heaven and kills the final beast, freeing God’s people from its clutches and ushering in an age of eschatological blessing. In the symbolism of Daniel’s visions, animals consistently stand for human beings. Human beings, on the other hand, represent angels and other heavenly beings. So, just as God is represented as a white-haired man with a radiant face, this “one like a son of man” stands for some sort of super-human figure from heaven. The very fact that Daniel says “one like a son of man” emphasizes that this is no mere human being, but a mighty angelic deliverer sent from the court of God himself. This figure in Daniel was then picked up in inter-testamental Jewish thought and enlarged into the “Son of Man” who in the Jewish apocalypse 4 Ezra (ca. AD 95) uses his awesome supernatural power to destroy the Roman oppressors. In the Similitudes of Enoch (also probably first century), the Jewish author even combines this Son of Man figure with traditional Messianic expectation to imagine a pre-existent heavenly king who comes to rescue his people.

What, then, does Mark understand by the title? Through most of the Gospel he lets it remain unclear. At Jesus’ initial trial, though, Jesus answers the high priest’s question with a clear allusion to Daniel 7. Asked whether he is the Messiah, Jesus replies “I am . . . And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mk 14:62). The high priest responds with a charge of blasphemy, suggesting that he understood the allusion and the implicit claim to a heavenly origin (14:63). In this light, when we look back over Mark’s narrative we notice that Jesus often uses the title to refer to himself when he claims some kind of extraordinary authority. When Jesus heals the paralyzed man in chapter 2, he does this to demonstrate that “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (2:10). It would seem, then, that the title is understood consistently by Mark to identify Jesus as someone more than human, someone who has come from God to rescue Israel and usher in the restoration.

Still, the ambiguity of the title “Son of Man” explains both why it is Jesus’ favorite designation for himself in Mark, and why no-one else in the Gospel picks it up. By calling himself Son of Man, Jesus is able to avoid the immediate preconceptions that went along with more common titles like Messiah and Son of God. He could claim to be someone unique, while still allowing the full understanding of his identity and mission to unfold slowly, as his followers were prepared to grasp it. In Mark’s hands, the ambiguity of this title also allows it to bring together this idea that Jesus is our rescuer from heaven with the evangelist’s emphasis that Jesus identifies with our situation and overcomes the powers of sin and death as a human being. There is a sense in which Jesus does appear, in Mark, as a “son of man” in the same sense that Ezekiel is ben adam. Paradoxically, he is able to act as the heavenly Son of Man by identifying with us in our suffering, fallenness, and death. Yet it is because he is the Son of Man, come from God’s right hand, that Jesus is not overwhelmed by the evil of a distorted creation but instead begins the reversal of that evil.

The Presence of God

These three titles tell us a great deal about Mark’s understanding of Jesus. All the same, we often gain our clearest grasp on Jesus by paying attention to the things he does rather than the things he is called. As soon as Jesus steps onto the scene in Capernaum Mark is at work emphasizing the unique authority he can exercise. People begin to say that this Jesus does not teach like the usual Jewish sages and scholars. He is even able to give orders to evil spirits (Mk 1:27). Time and again Mark emphasizes that Jesus’ words and actions “amaze” the people around him (e.g., Mk 1:27). Clearly there is some power and authority present in Jesus which goes beyond the norm.

In some cases, Jesus’ actions and authority are not merely amazing. They are explainable only as the actions of God himself. In chapter 2, when Jesus tells the paralyzed man that his sins are forgiven, the experts in the Scriptures sitting nearby hear this as blasphemy: “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (2:7). When Jesus realizes what they are thinking, he does not deny the clear implications of his act. He simply offers a miracle of healing as evidence that “the Son of Man (note the ambiguous title!) has authority on earth to forgive sins” (2:10).

Jesus’ healings and exorcisms do not necessarily mark him as divine, but there are a few of his miraculous actions which do. In 6:45-56 Mark describes how Jesus walks across the waters of the Sea of Galilee and then seemingly calms the stormy waters. This kind of control of nature is never ascribed to human beings in Jewish tradition. It belongs only to the Creator himself. Moreover, the chaotic seas have great symbolic significance in the Old Testament and later Jewish tradition. They represent the forces of chaos which only God can control and overcome by his creative power. It is God alone who makes his path across the waters. The disciples are, understandably, “completely amazed” that Jesus’ authority extends even this far (6:51).

Finally, the transfiguration scene seems calculated in Mark to identify Jesus with the God of Israel (9:2-9). The evangelist describes the radiant whiteness of Jesus’ clothes, recalling the radiance associated with the heavenly judge in Daniel 7. It is also significant that this transformation takes place on the top of “a high mountain,” since the mountain-top is the site of the two prominent visions of God in the Old Testament: Moses’ encounter on Mt. Sinai, and Elijah’s vision culminating with the “sound of thin silence” on Mt. Horeb. In light of this connection, it is striking that Mark says Moses and Elijah appeared and spoke with Jesus. This is often interpreted to suggest that the Pentateuch (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah) are focused on Jesus. This idea may have been part of Mark’s intention. It seems, though, that Peter, James, and John are here portrayed as joining Moses and Elijah for another mountain-top appearance of the invisible God. Yet the one they all meet is Jesus himself, shining with divine glory.

All of this suggests that, for Mark, Jesus is not merely a human agent of God. He is human, to be sure. At the same time, though, he somehow represents the presence of God himself in the world. This is the source of his inexplicable authority. This is why people throughout Mark’s narrative encounter God’s life-giving reign when they come to Jesus. This is why human beings are called to place their trust in Jesus and follow Jesus when they turn away from their sin and idolatry. In this man from Galilee the Creator of heaven and earth has come to fulfill his mission of restoration.

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