Musings on Mark: A Brief Response to Erik Manning on Markan Christology

INTRODUCTION

The central question of the Markan Gospel is found near its narrative center in Mark 8:27-30. “Who do people say that I am?” he queries the disciples on their way to Caesarea Philippi (v. 27). A flurry of answers proceeds: people have speculated he is John the Baptist or Elijah or one of the prophets (v. 28; cf. Mark 6:14-16). “But who do you say that I am?” Jesus probes further. The answer – the correct answer – comes from the lips of Peter: “You are the messiah [ho christos]” (v. 29). The central question of the Markan Gospel has its answer: Jesus is the messiah. But what does that mean? 

In December of 2018, Christian apologist Erik Manning wrote a piece on his website entitled “18 Passages From Mark’s Gospel That Prove That Mark Had a High Christology.”[1] It is essentially a response to noted New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman[2] and his views on Synoptic and Johannine Christology. As Ehrman has written (and Manning quotes), his view is that the soaring heights of Johannine Christology are unattested in our earliest sources for the life of Jesus,[3] and that’s a problem, not for scholars for whom the biblical texts serve as data upon which their models for the historical Jesus and early Christian beliefs about him are built. Rather, it’s a problem for evangelicals and fundamentalists, particularly those who subscribe to inerrancy, for whom there can be no disagreement among the Evangelists. Sensing this problem and in firm disagreement with Ehrman’s thesis, Manning offers his readers eighteen places in the Markan Gospel that “taken together present a pretty clear picture: Mark believes Jesus is God.” It is to those texts we now turn, considering them one-by-one. 

Before we do that, we should reexamine the pericope with which I began this piece. To the central question of the Markan Gospel – “But who do you say that I am?” – the answer was not, “You are God.” Peter was a first century Jew and therefore a monotheist. To think that God was a human would have been the farthest thought from his mind. I believe the same is true of the Markan author; he was a monotheist and had not the slightest inclination toward incarnational theology. For Mark, Jesus was an exalted human being but a human being, nonetheless.

MARK 1:1

The superscription[4] that opens the Markan Gospel introduces its audience to the narrative’s protagonist: “Jesus the Messiah, son of God”[5] (my translation). To Jesus are given two appellations: “the Messiah” (christou) and “son of God” (huiou theou). It would no doubt be tempting to consider these to be two unrelated titles whose connection is found only in the singular person of Jesus (i.e. Jesus is the messiah and he is son of God). This view is suggested by Manning who writes, 

There is some diversity of thought of who the Messiah is. Most Jewish interpretations say that he is a great Davidic king who ushers in peace and will fill the earth with the knowledge of God, but many do not go so far as to declare him the Son of God because that would entail equality with God. Mark, at the very outset of his gospel, identifies him as the Son of God.[6]

However, these two ideas – Jesus’ messiahship and his divine sonship – are connected elsewhere in the Markan Gospel. 

As Jesus stands before the high priest, refusing to respond to the false accusations made against him (Mark 14:55-61a), he is asked the question: “You are the Messiah, the son of the Blessed One?” (Mark 14:61b, my translation) In form, the priest’s question resembles Peter’s answer in Mark 8:29,[7] but whereas Peter’s words are a statement of belief, the high priest’s are a statement of unbelief. It also reveals something else: as far as the high priest was concerned, to be ho christos (“the Messiah”) was to be ho huios tou eulogētou (“the son of the Blessed One”), i.e. the son of God.[8] Given what we know about messianism in the Second Temple period, it is historically implausible that the high priest would have anticipated the coming messiah to be God himself.[9] And yet if we are to trust Mark’s report, he viewed the messiah to be God’s son. Thus, it cannot be as Manning asserts that the concept of divine sonship (i.e. “son of God”) entails equality with God. Historian E.P. Sanders concurs, writing that 

[i]n a Jewish context ‘Son of God’ does not mean ‘more than human.’ All Jews were ‘Sons of God’ or even the (collective) Son of God, as in Hosea 11.1 or Exodus 4.22 (‘Israel is my first-born son’). Psalm 2.7 refers to the king of Israel as Son of God; Luke applied this verse to Jesus (Luke 3.21), but there is no reason to say that when he did so he redefined ‘Son of God’ to mean ‘more than human.’[10]

Later, Sanders writes that early Christians “regarded ‘Son of God’ as a high designation, but we cannot go much beyond that….The first followers of Jesus…when calling him ‘Son of God,’ would have meant something much vaguer: a person standing in a special relationship to God, who chose him to accomplish a task of great importance.”[11] And in the case of the Gospel of Mark, this special relationship of “son of God” stands in apposition to Jesus’ role as messiah. But why would they be so connected? The answer to that question will come in our discussion of Mark 1:9-11. 

MARK 1:2-3

Bridging the superscription of v. 1 with the narrative beginning in v. 4 is a composite citation found in vv. 2-3.[12]Though attributed to “the prophet Isaiah” (v. 2), in reality only what is found in v. 3 belongs to Isaian literature. Manning writes that in v. 2 Mark is quoting from Malachi 3:1 “but he changes the wording around” such that, while in its original context God was speaking about himself, here in the Markan context it is speaking of Jesus, which, Manning asserts, “is a straightforward way of saying that Jesus is God coming to visit his people.” This is a bold assertion that rests on very dubious grounds. 

Manning has only correctly identified one of the two texts that comprise v. 2. The first half of the citation in v. 2 belongs not to Malachi 3:1[13] but to Exodus 23:20: “I am going to send an angel in front of you….” At first glance this connection seems tenuous. But we must remember that Mark’s Bible was the LXX (i.e. the Septuagint) and there the connection becomes clearer.


Exodus 23:20 (LXX)Mark 1:2
idou egō apostellō ton angelon mou pro prosōpou souIdou apostellō ton angelon mou pro prosōpou sou

There is near verbatim agreement between these two texts. By comparison, there is less verbatim agreement between Malachi 3:1 (LXX) and Mark 1:2.


Malachi 3:1Mark 1:2
idou egō exapostellō ton angelon mouIdou apostellō ton angelon mou pro prosōpou sou

Because v. 2 begins with a citation of Exodus 23:20 and not Malachi 3:1, Manning’s claim that the Markan author is saying that “Jesus is God” is erroneous. In context, Exodus 23:20 is Yahweh speaking to Israel during the Exodus, declaring he would send ton angelon (“the angel” or “the messenger”) before them on their journey. Mark appropriates these words and applies them to Jesus. 

Neither the creation of this composite citation from three sources, two of which are not Isaian, nor the attribution of them all to Isaiah himself are accidental. Mark quotes from the book of Isaiah directly eight times, more than any other biblical text, and, as Sharyn Dowd explains, Isaian motifs strongly influence the Markan narrative generally.[14]The citation of v. 3 comes from Deutero-Isaiah, a theme of which is a new exodus for God’s people.[15] On some level, then, the Markan Gospel is about a new exodus involving both John the Baptist as the messenger and Jesus as a kind of new Israel or Moses. 

But what of v. 3? Manning asserts that the Markan author’s change of the Isaian “make straight in the desert a highway for our God” to “make his paths straight” is a sign Mark considers Jesus to be more than a “mere human being” and that Jesus himself is “the fulfillment of God’s promise to come to visit his people.” This, too, is dubious. First, in v. 3 the natural antecedent of “his” (autou) is “Lord” (kyriou) in the same verse. This coheres with the parallelism exhibited by the citation. Second, the translators of the LXX routinely replace the divine name Yahweh with kyrios but in so doing they created some ambiguity since kyrios can refer to anyone superior to another (cf. Mark 12:35-37; Psalm 109:1 LXX). Third, the composite citation in v. 2 reveals that Yahweh is speaking to Jesus about the messenger who will go before him. Therefore, Mark alters the language of Isaiah 40:3 such that the kyrios no longer is Yahweh but Jesus, a kyrios of a different kind. Had Mark intended to communicate that the kyrios of v. 3 was God, he could have done so by leaving the language of the LXX intact. The deliberate alteration suggests he is distancing Jesus from divinity.[16] Regarding vv. 2-3, then, Manning’s thesis is left without exegetical support. 

MARK 1:9-11

The Markan Gospel is on one level structured around three important scenes: Mark 1:9-11, Mark 9:2-8, and Mark 15:33-39. In each of these, the climax of the pericope is the declaration by someone that Jesus is God’s son. Mark 1:9-11 is the first of these pericopes and is therefore pivotal for our understanding of Mark’s Christology.

Jesus comes from Nazareth to be baptized by John in the Jordan River (v. 9). As he comes out of the water, he has a vision: “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (vv. 10-11).[17] Manning correctly notes that it is no longer just the Markan author declaring Jesus to be God’s son “but God the Father himself declaring that Jesus is his beloved Son at his baptism.” What Manning fails to point out is that the words of the voice are, like what we found in vv. 2-3, a composite citation of scripture. The first part of the declaration, “You are my Son [Sy ei ho huios mou],” is near verbatim of the words of the psalmist: “The Lord spoke to me: ‘My son you are [Huios mou ei sy], I myself today have begotten you” (Psalm 2:7 LXX, my translation). The second psalm is considered by most scholars to be a royal psalm[18] and its utilization by the Markan author is significant for a couple of reasons pertinent to Markan Christology.

First, in the second psalm the author speaks of “the Lord…and his anointed one [tou christou autou]” (v. 2). Christos is, of course, the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew māšîaḥ from which we get the word “messiah.” In the second psalm, the anointed one is the king as v. 6 makes clear: “I have set my kind on Zion, my holy hill.” The act of anointing a ruler was common among ancient Near Eastern cultures as well as in Israel[19] and we find repeated references to Israelite kings as māšîaḥ in Saul (1 Samuel 24:6), David (1 Samuel 16:6), Solomon (1 Kings 1:39), Jehu (2 Kings 9:3), Joash (2 Kings 11:12), and Jehoahaz (2 Kings 23:30). The concept of anointing, specifically as it relates to Davidic kingship, is foundational to ideas about the messiah in the Second Temple era and beyond.[20]

Second, in the second psalm the author speaks of God’s having “begotten [gegennēka]” the human king. Obviously, God did not literally begat the king; the language is symbolic. What it represented is that the king now stood in a unique relationship with God. Jon Levenson observes that “[t]he effect of the divine ukase is to make the human monarch the adopted son of the divine monarch.”[21] This too was a common feature in the ANE: the king, upon his enthronement, was viewed as a deity’s son. Sometimes this is viewed as a literal sonship, i.e. the king is actually a divine being. In other instances, it is as it was in Israel: a metaphorical sonship.[22]

That the voice from heaven quotes in part from the second psalm is not accidental. In so doing it “hails Jesus in terms which echo the role of the conquering Messiah.”[23] It is therefore not indicative of divinity, to the contrary of Manning’s thesis. Here in this pivotal scene of Mark 1:9-11, it is the veritable inauguration of Jesus’ role as the messianic king, sent to proclaim the coming reign of God (cf. Mark 1:14-15).[24] The baptism of Jesus coupled with both the arrival of the spirit of God and the voice’s declaration of divine sonship point to this moment in the Markan Jesus’ life that he becomes the messianic son of God. 

MARK 1:23-24

Jesus’ first public acts in the Markan Gospel sets the tone for his messianic ministry: he is a teacher and an exorcist (Mark 1:21-28).[25] While teaching in a synagogue in Capernaum one sabbath, he is confronted by a man with an unclean spirit (i.e. a demon). The demon confronts Jesus: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God!” It isn’t as easy to see in English but when the asks Jesus what he has to do with “us” and whether he has come to destroy “us,” the pronouns are plural. This is surprising since the man is said to have been possessed by an unclean spirit not multiple (cf. v. 26). And when the demon identifies Jesus, he uses a verb that is in the first person singular, not plural (oida). The use of the plural is perhaps the demon’s way of speaking on behalf of all the forces of Satan for whom Jesus’ arrival spells certain doom (see Mark 3:23-27).[26] Whatever the reason, the demon recognizes Jesus as “the Holy One of God” and fears its own destruction.[27] It is this fear that Manning infers divinity: “This passage raises an interesting question: besides God himself, who else would have the power to destroy evil spirits?” 

The answer to Manning’s question is found in the Markan Gospel itself. First, in the overall context of the Markan Gospel, the “destruction” of the demonic reign of Satan (which makes way for the impending reign of God) is accomplished through exorcism (Mark 3:23-27). As agents of Satan, the unclean spirits are therefore “destroyed” as Jesus casts them out.[28] In the present text, this is precisely what Jesus does when he orders the spirit to exit the man (Mark 1:25-26). Second, who else in the Markan Gospel has the power to “destroy” evil spirits through exorcism? According to Mark 3:14-15 and 6:7, the disciples have the power to perform such feats: “He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority (exousian) over the unclean spirits” (Mark 6:7). Thus, the ability to destroy demons through exorcism is not solely a divine prerogative. As evidence for Jesus’ divinity it is wholly inadequate. 

MARK 2:5-10

The pericope of Mark 2:1-12 is one those who hold to a high Markan Christology refer to when debating the subject, and for good reason. When Jesus declares the paralytic’s sins to be forgiven (v. 5), the scribes react as they probably should have: “Why does this fellow speak this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (v. 7) Thus, Manning writes, “Jesus forgave the man’s sins, and the meaning of this was not lost on his Jewish audience, as they immediately said he was blaspheming. Only God can forgive sins.” In other words, the prerogative to forgive sins belongs to God and God alone. The logical conclusion is that Jesus must be God. That is, it would be except for what Jesus says in v. 10: “But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority (exousian) to forgive sins….” It is the reference to the “Son of Man” that is key here. 

As Manning observes, the moniker “Son of Man” is Jesus’ favorite way to speak of himself (see Mark 2:28; 8:31, 38; 9:9, 12, 31; 10:33, 45; 13:26; 14:21, 41, 62). Setting aside the difficulty of the term in Greek,[29] it is almost certainly a reference to the figure in Daniel 7:13-14: “As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being [or, “a son of man”] coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One [i.e. God] and was presented before him” (v. 13). In the Danielic context, the “son of man” figure is set in contrast to the monstrous beasts that arise from the wind-stirred sea (vv. 2-8). After they have been subdued by the Ancient One (vv. 11-12), the one like a son of man approaches the Ancient One “with the clouds of heaven” and is “presented before him” (v. 14; cf. Job 1:6; 2:1). To him is given “dominion and glory and kingship” such that all of the world is made subservient to him and his kingdom never ends (v. 14).  Though the figure is likely a reference to the people of God,[30] it is taken in later apocalyptic texts as a singular individual (e.g., 1 Enoch 46:1-2) and obviously is here in the Gospels. So then, what is the import of it with relation to Jesus? 

In the present pericope, Jesus is accused of blasphemy for claiming that the paralytic’s sins are forgiven since, as the scribes declare in a rhetorical fashion, it is only God who can forgive sins. But the scribes are wrong because, as Jesus explains, “the Son of Man has authority (exousian) on earth to forgive sins” (v. 10).[31] That Jesus, as the Son of Man, has the authority (exousia) to perform such a feat is suggested by the Greek text of Daniel 7:14 – “And authority (exousia) was given to him” (v. 14 Old Greek, my translation). Thus, Jesus as the authorized Son of Man, has authority generally and, in this instance (i.e. Mark 2:10), the authority specifically “on earth to forgive sins.”[32] Manning’s suggestion that the scribes are correct is refuted by Jesus himself and there is therefore no need to attribute to divinity what can be attributed to a divinely authorized figure.

But if it is Manning’s contention (in step with the scribes) that only God can forgive sins then he is left to explain the import of John 20:23 where the risen Jesus says to the disciples, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Are we to assume that the disciples are divine because they possess the ability to forgive sins? Or should we rather assume that such an ability is granted to them by their reception of the Holy Spirit (v. 22), akin to Jesus’ own reception of God’s spirit in Mark 1:10? 

MARK 2:27-28

As he and his disciples are wont to do in the Markan Gospel, Jesus draws the ire of the Pharisees because one sabbath the disciples “as they made their way…began to pluck heads of grain” (Mark 2:23), something declared by Jesus’ foes to be “what is not lawful [to do] on the sabbath” (v. 24; cf. Exodus 34:21). Jesus defends his followers, appealing to a story loosely based on one found in the Hebrew scriptures (vv. 25-26; cf. 1 Samuel 21:1-6).[33] The apparent point of Jesus’ appeal to it is that just as David – a figure who loomed large in Jewish culture and tradition – did that which was not lawful when he and his followers were hungry (i.e. eat of the Bread of the Presence), so too Jesus’ followers are justified in doing that which is not lawful when they are hungry (i.e. pluck heads of grain on the sabbath). But at the conclusion of Jesus’ story, he says this: “The sabbath was made for humankind (ton anthrōpon), and not humankind (ho anthrōpos) for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath” (vv. 27-28). Manning asserts that “Jesus is claiming the ability to restore God’s law to its original intent.” 

Let us assume for a moment that this is what Jesus is doing. Does “the ability to restore God’s law to its original intent” entail divinity? Arguably no, it doesn’t. Consider, for example, the institution of the Passover in Exodus 12. Yahweh instructs Moses and Aaron as to what the people must do to prepare for it and to celebrate it in perpetuity (Exodus 12:1-20). But does Yahweh speak to the people directly about this? He doesn’t. In vv. 21-27, Moses relays to the elders what had been commanded by Yahweh concerning this new festival. What right does Moses have to do so? Does his ability to institute a new festival for the Israelites to celebrate entail divinity? Of course not. As Yahweh’s divinely authorized messenger, Moses has the authority to relay to the people what God has instructed. Similarly, as the divinely authorized Son of Man (see the discussion on Mark 2:5-10 above) he has the ability to “restore” the sabbath to its original purpose. 

But there is more going on this passage than what Manning sees with his high-Christology lenses. First, the allusion to David is not simply Jesus quote-mining the Old Testament. David was the king par excellence in Jewish tradition, but the story Jesus cites is from before he is enthroned. David had been anointed (1 Samuel 16:13) long before he ascended to the throne; so too Jesus had been anointed (Mark 1:9-11) long before his ascension to the cosmic throne. A lot had to happen in the intervening time, in particular the crucifixion. Thus, Markan Christology only makes sense through the lens of the cross. Second, in vv. 27-28 Jesus speaks of ho anthrōpos twice and ho huios tou anthrōpou once. The use of the articular anthrōpos cannot be a coincidence; Jesus is saying that sabbath was made for “humanity” and that he is “the son of humanity.”[34] This is, of course, precisely to what the Danielic title refers: the figure is a son of humanity. But if Manning is correct and the title “Son of Man” is a title of divinity then the argument Jesus makes in vv. 27-28 falls apart. The reason Jesus can be “lord (kyrios) of the sabbath” is because he is a human par excellence as the Davidic messiah: “Jesus acts with authority over this world because as the son of man he has authority over the things that are made for humanity’s sake.”[35] Again, there is no need to suspect divinity and, as it turns out, doing so diminishes the force of Jesus’ words. 

MARK 4:39-41

“Who then is this,” the disciples ask, “that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41) This reaction came as Jesus “rebuked the wind” that had stirred up the waves of the Galilean sea that had created panic among the disciples (Mark 4:35-41). The scene is pregnant with allusions: to Jonah,[36] to the exorcism in Capernaum (Mark 1:23-27),[37]and, as Manning points out, to Psalm 107. There the psalmist speaks of those who “went down in ships doing business on the mighty waters” (v. 23) when they encounter a tempest created by Yahweh himself (vv. 24-25). As they are rocked by the waves, they grow fearful (vv. 26-27) and call out to Yahweh who calms the storm and the sea in response (vv. 28-29). Though Manning doesn’t directly state it, the suggestion that early Christians would have “picked up what [Mark] was laying down” suggests that they would have immediately equated Jesus with Yahweh. But there are a number of reasons this is unlikely.

First, as we discussed above with regards to Mark 1:3, the LXX renders the divine name Yahweh with the Greek word kyrios. Since early Christians no doubt considered Jesus to be a kyrios, appropriation of texts in which a kyrios appeared was common. It did not mean Jesus was Yahweh, but it did mean he was a great master. Second, as Mary Ann Beavis points out, Jesus’ archetypes are Elijah and Elisha, two characters in the Hebrew Bible who perform “impressive nature miracles” and who at times appear to be “acting as if on their own authority.”[38] Thus, Jesus’ impressive miracles are not indicative of divinity but rather divinely endowed authority. Third, control of the seas is a prerogative of the Davidic anointed king: “I will set his hand on the sea and his right hand on the rivers” (Psalm 89:25). Jesus, as God’s messiah, has such authority.[39] Therefore, there is no need to assume divinity, only messianic authority. 

MARK 6:49-50 

In another Markan scene on the Sea of Galilee, Jesus performs the incredible feat of walking to the disciples upon the waves with his feet (Mark 6:45-52).[40] But as Jesus approaches them “early in the morning” (v. 48), the disciples don’t know what they are seeing and think he is some kind of phantasm; fear overtakes them (v. 49-50). But Jesus approaches them and says, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid” (v. 50). He enters the ship and the wind ceases. But the disciples don’t understand what had just happened just as they hadn’t in Mark 4:41 (vv. 51-52). It’s all very confusing. 

Manning, however, thinks he knows what’s going on. Quoting from the Amplified Bible (arguably one of the most misleading translations on the market today) “because it does a good job of translation the Greek language here,”[41]Manning believes that Jesus’ self-identification with the words egō eimi in v. 50 is comparable to the Johannine Jesus’ statement, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am [egō eimi]” (John 8:58). This certainly suggests a claim to divinity on some level, but it is not at all persuasive. Here is what I wrote in another post: 

[I]n 2 Samuel 2:20 (LXX), Abner asks his pursuer, “Are you Asahel himself?” to which Asahel replies, Egō eimi, i.e., “I am Asahel.” Similarly, in the Gospel of John, when the Jews are trying to figure out if the one before them who was once blind but has been healed by Jesus was really the one they knew who had been blind from birth, the man replies, Egō eimi, i.e., “I am the one who was healed by Jesus [John 9:9].”[42]

Therefore, the use of egō eimi is not necessarily indicative of divinity. As R.T. France writes, 

The temptation to see this common Greek phrase as a deliberate use of the divine name of Ex. 3:14 or an echo of the Isaian formula anî hû’ should probably be resisted, despite the numinous character of the occasion. A declaration of divinity does not seem appropriate at this point in the narrative where the focus is on the initial failure to recognize Jesus and his consequent self-identification, for which [egō eimi] is normal colloquial Greek….[43]

Jesus has not identified himself as divine; he has merely identified himself so that the disciples would stop reacting in fear. Egō eimi is therefore better rendered, “It’s me!” or “It is I!” 

MARK 7:18-19

In yet another controversy narrative (Mark 7:1-23), Jesus’ disciples get him into trouble with the Pharisees and scribes. The heart of the issue is the Pharisee’ “tradition of the elders” which required them to wash before eating (vv. 3-4) in case they had come into contact with something unclean throughout the course of their day. Ingesting food with unwashed hands risked becoming unclean and thus limited their access to cultic ritual. Jesus castigates the Pharisees for their creation of tradition while ignoring the explicit commands of God (vv. 6-13). Jesus tells first the crowd (vv. 14-15) and then the disciples privately (vv. 17-23) that “whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer” (v. 19). The Markan author interjects into the narrative with his interpretation of his words: “Thus he declared all foods clean” (v. 19).

Manning sees in this text something of divinity. “Who on earth can change God’s law?” he asks. The rhetorical question’s answer is of course “only God.” At least, that is what Manning believes. Setting aside the complexities of the passage,[44] let’s assume that Jesus is changing God’s law. Why should we assume he cannot do so unless he is God? If Jesus is God’s eschatological messiah, he is authorized to act on God’s behalf. For example, Moses tells Israel, “This entire commandment that I command you today you must diligently observe” (Deuteronomy 8:1). But aren’t these Yahweh’s commands (Deuteronomy 6:1)? Should we therefore envision Moses as equal with God? Of course not. Moses is God’s authorized representative and so is Jesus. 

MARK 8:34-38

Following his private teaching to the disciples concerning his fate (Mark 8:31-33), Jesus turns his attention to the crowd and informs them what it will take to follow him (vv. 34-38). They must be willing to risk everything for him, holding nothing back. Why? Because the end is approaching, and the Son of Man will soon come “in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” (v. 38). Manning takes the Son of Man reference with the command to radical loyalty to be indicative of divinity: “This type of sacrifice is reserved for God only,” he asserts. But again, Manning misses the import of the Danielic Son of Man motif. The authority given to the Son of Man in Daniel 7 is such that “all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Daniel 7:14). Thus, this type of loyalty is due to the Son of Man by virtue of his God-given authority. Jesus, then, as the Son of Man, is owed it as well. 

MARK 9:2-7

As I noted in my discussion of Mark 1:9-11, Mark 9:2-7 is one of three passages in Mark in which Jesus is declared to be God’s son. As I pointed out there, the reference to Jesus’ divine sonship is not to his own divinity but rather to his messianic status. The messiah, as Davidic king, is the adopted son of God: “I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth” (Psalm 89:27). So then, Manning’s claim that Moses and Elijah are in this scene able to “see what they couldn’t during their earthly lives – the face of God” since “Jesus is God with a human face” is little more than a non-sequitur. That Moses and Elijah are included in the transfiguration scene may have more to do with eschatological associations than with the desire to see God’s face.[45]

MARK 10:17-21

In Mark 10 we find two discussions on how one may gain access to God’s kingdom. In vv. 13-16, Jesus teaches the disciples that entrance into the kingdom is conditioned on their childlikeness: “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (v. 15; cf. 9:33-37, 42-42). In vv. 17-31, Jesus instructs his followers about wealth and status as it relates to the kingdom. In vv. 17-22, Jesus is entreated by a man who runs up to Jesus, kneels before him, and asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (v. 17) Jesus responds first not by answering the question but addressing the appellation “Good Teacher”: “Why me do you call good? No one is good but God alone” (my translation). This response Manning believes implies Jesus’ divinity: “If Jesus is good, and God alone is good, then who exactly is Jesus?” 

As seemingly airtight as this logic is, it fails to account for the text itself. Neither the man nor the disciples reach this conclusion even though they catch on to Jesus’ words in vv. 25-26. Moreover, in other texts of the New Testament the adjective “good” is applied to humans (e.g., Matthew 12:35). Does that then mean that these “good” humans are divine? Of course not. And this should clue us in as to what Jesus is actually doing in Mark 10:18 – he is drawing the man’s attention away from himself and onto God. This is the reason he focuses his attention onto God’s law (v. 19). It is only after the man states he keeps the law (v. 20) that Jesus then urges him to sell all that he has and follow him (v. 21). But there is no attempt on the part of Mark to present Jesus as divine. In fact, it might be quite the opposite: 

Jesus’ reply that only “the one God” (heis ho theos) is good is a pointed assertion of monotheism (Exod. 20:3; Deut. 5:7; 6:4), possibly directed against christological excesses in the Markan community.[46]

It is not to say that Jesus isn’t good or that Jesus considered himself to be terribly wicked. Rather, Jesus’ words point to God – the greatest good and the one to whom all must look to for their salvation. 

MARK 12:1-9

The parable of Mark 12:1-9 is directed against the Jewish religious establishment. Manning’s summary is apt: the slaves of vv. 2-5 are likely representative of the prophets of old who were often treated harshly when they confronted the sin of Israel and Judah. In the parable, the vineyard owner believes that if he sends his beloved son that they will treat him far better than they did the slaves (v. 6). But he is proven wrong as the son too is killed, stirring the vineyard owner’s wrath against those to whom he had leased the land (v. 9). This, Jesus contends, is what the religious establishment faces for their rejection of him. The reference to Jesus as the “beloved son” is clearly meant to remind readers of Mark 1:11 and Mark 9:7. And as I pointed out in the discussion of those two texts, divine sonship is not indicative of divinity but rather of Jesus’ messianic status

MARK 12:35-37

The conundrum of Mark 12:35-37 that Jesus presents is described by Mary Ann Beavis as an “ancient catechetical riddle” in which the focus is on paradox rather than comparison.[47] As Manning correctly observes, Jesus’ question in v. 37 is not a rejection of Davidic messiahship, especially considering the scene of Mark 10:46-52 wherein Jesus is twice addressed as the “Son of David” without rejecting it. David is rather, in the words of Manning “saying that the Christ is something a lot more – he’s the Lord of David.” Of course, Manning wrote those words believing that Jesus is David’s “Lord” because he is God. But there is nothing in this text to lead us to such a view. As Beavis explains, one possible solution to the paradox is that “David’s son can be his master if he is the Messiah, who exceeds even his renowned ancestor in the destiny of Israel.”[48]

Manning also correctly notes that the messiah’s sitting at God’s right hand “implies co-rulership with God.” Undoubtedly, Manning infers from this the divinity of the messiah. But this inference is wrong, plain and simple. In the second psalm, the divine king Yahweh is pictured as reigning in heaven even as the human king of Israel reigns from Jerusalem (Psalm 2:4-6). Levenson explains,

Thus, the scenario of Psalm 2 takes place upon a split set. God is “enthroned in heaven”; the Davidic king is enthroned on earth (vv 4, 6). But the two realms are linked. The lower is simply the human manifestation of the higher, Mount Zion being the common side of the two tiers of reality. Hence, the Davidic monarch’s installation there lifts him above the arena of ordinary politics and renders his realm impervious to assault.[49]

Part and parcel of being the anointed king is that one’s reign is in tandem with the reign of God. The human king is the physical manifestation – the “human manifestation” as Levenson argues – of the divine rule of God in the heavens. Jesus, as the messianic king, is the physical manifestation of God’s impending reign (cf. Mark 1:14-15). 

MARK 13:31

Toward the closing of the Olivet Discourse (i.e. Mark 13:28-31), Jesus teaches the disciples a lesson from a fig tree. Just as when one sees leaves on the branches of the fig tree summer is nigh (v.28), so too when the disciples see what Jesus has described in v.2 (i.e. the destruction of the temple), they will know that “he is near,” a reference to the coming Son of Man (vv. 24-27). This, Jesus states, will happen very soon (v. 30), contending that “[h]eaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (v. 31). In other words, Jesus’ prediction is sure, even more sure than the continued existence of heaven and earth. Does this suggest divinity, as Manning believes? Not at all. But it does suggest divinely endowed authority as Jesus is the authorized Son of Man, the one whose “dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away” (Daniel 7:14). If his kingdom is forever, would not his words be as well? 

MARK 14:2-9

In a moving scene at the house of Simon the leper (Mark 14:2-9; cf. Matthew 26:6-13; Luke 7:30-50), an unnamed woman takes a jar of expensive ointment and anoints Jesus with it (v. 3), drawing the ire of some at Simon’s house (vv. 4-5). But Jesus contends that what this woman has done is “a good service,” (v. 6) anointing his “body beforehand for its burial” (v. 8). The episode, with its portrayal of an unknown woman who gives what little she has for Jesus, is set in contrast to that which follows wherein Judas, a disciple, betrays Jesus and receives compensation for doing so (vv. 10-11). It is no small irony that despite Jesus’ prediction in v. 9 that “wherever the good news is proclaimed…what she has done will be told in remembrance of her” it is Judas’ betrayal of Jesus that is the far better-known event. 

Manning in discussing this passage contends that Jesus “arguably receives an act of worship” from the woman. But if this is the case, we are left to wonder why no one present in the scene makes a fuss about this. While she certainly honors him, this doesn’t necessarily imply worship, at least not of a divinity. As we’ve already noted, the act of anointing was also part of the ritual for Israelite kings (e.g. 1 Kings 1:38-40). Should we also interpret the enthronement of the Davidic king as worship of him? Not at all. Neither is Jesus receiving worship here. 

MARK 14:61-64

We’ve already briefly discussed the Danielic son of man as it relates to Jesus. Here in Mark 14:62 we find the final reference to it in the Gospel. When asked if Jesus “the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One” (v. 61), Jesus responds affirmatively (“I am”) and then tells all those in earshot that they would “’see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven’” (v. 62). Like what we found in Mark 1:2-3 and Mark 1:11, Jesus’ words are a combination of elements from Psalm 110:1 and Daniel 7:13. Sitting at God’s right hand (“the right hand of the Power”) signifies his co-rulership with God, something that was inherent to the reign of the Israelite king (see the discussion on Mark 12:35-37 above). And “coming with the clouds of heaven” no more signifies divinity than it did in the original context of Daniel 7:13 where the son of man comes on the clouds and is presented to God. Jesus is not “saying he is their divine judge,” as Manning asserts. He is claiming ultimate vindication, that though he is mocked and judged now, he would be exalted at the end when God’s reign finally breaks through. 

CONCLUSION

It was tempting to spill more ink on the passages discussed above but for the sake of my readers I feel this post has become long enough. I hope that I have shown, albeit in a very abbreviated manner, that Markan Christology simply doesn’t soar to the heights of the Johannine. It is only by first reading the Johannine into the Markan that one could think that it does. In the case of Manning, his reading of the texts stems from a well-meaning but malformed hermeneutic. Seeking to read the Gospels as one might a diatessaron often leads to the muting of the individual voices of the Gospel writers. Allowing them to disagree and then wresting with that disagreement is what makes biblical studies enjoyable. A flat reading of the Bible is, frankly, boring. I still can’t fathom how I could abide it for so much of my life. 


[1] Erik Manning, “18 Passages From Mark’s Gospel That Prove That Mark Had a High Christology” (12.27.18), isjesusalive.com

[2] And, in the words of Manning, “his ilk.”

[3] Ehrman notes that the “amazingly exalted claims” one finds in the Gospel of John (e.g. John 8:58, 10:30, etc.) “simply cannot be ascribed to the historical Jesus” for a number of reasons: 1) they are not multiply attested; 2) they appear only in the Gospel of John, the “most theologically oriented Gospel”; 3) they fail to pass the criterion of dissimilarity; 4) they lack contextual credibility. Their absence from the earliest sources for Jesus’ life – the Gospel of Mark, Q, M, and L – is surprising if Jesus actually did say the sorts of things John records. Or, as Ehrman puts it, 

If Jesus went around Galilee proclaiming himself to be a divine being sent from God – one who existed before the creation of the world, who was in fact equal with God – could anything else that he might say be so breathtakingly and thunderously important? And yet none of these earlier sources says any such thing about him. Did they (all of them!) just decide not to mention the one thing that was the most significant about Jesus?

See Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 124-128; cf. Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York: HarperOne, 2012), 231-241.

[4] On the function of Mark 1:1, see Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 145-147; R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), 49-53.

[5] The Greek phrase huiou theou is anarthrous and my translation retains that usage.

[6] Gerald O’Collins argues similarly, writing, “To speak of the people collectively as God’s son or children was one thing. To use ‘son of God’ as a messianic title was another. Such a title for the future messianic king could have been felt to threaten Jewish monotheism” (Gerald O’Collins, Christology: A Biblical, Historical, and Systematic Study of Jesus, second edition [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009], 124).

[7] The high priest’s asks, Sy ei ho Christos ho huios tou eulogētou? Peter answers Jesus’ question by saying, Sy ei ho Christos.

[8] The phrase tou eulogētou is a circumlocution for “God.” Therefore, ho huios tou eulogētou is the same as saying ho huios tou theou (“the son of God”).

[9] As Paula Fredriksen observes, in the literature of the Second Temple period, “none of the details of the cosmic drama were fixed” and therefore we read of kingly messiahs, priestly messiahs, both kingly and priestly messiahs, and sometimes no messiah at all (Paula Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews [New York: Vintage Books, 1999], 124). None of them involved God becoming the messiah. 

[10] E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 161. Similarly, John J. Collins writes, 

The designation “Son of God” reflects the status rather than the nature of the messiah. He is the son of God in the same sense that the king of Israel was begotten by God according to Psalm 2. There is no implication of virgin birth and no metaphysical speculation is presupposed. He may still be regarded as a human being, born of human beings, but one who stands in a special relationship to God (John J. Collins, The Scepter and the Star: Messianism in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls, second edition [Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010], 189).

Thus, ontological status is not in the purview of “son of God,” despite what later Christian authors came to think of the title. 

[11] Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus, 244-245.

[12] On just how it functions as a bridge, including Mark’s use of the adjective kathōs (“just as”), see Joel Marcus, The Way of the Lord: Christological Exegesis of the Old Testament in the Gospel of Mark (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992), 17-18; cf. Robert A. Guelich, Mark 1-8:26, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville, TN: Word, Inc., 1989), 10.

[13] Though cf. Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary, Hermeneia Commentary Series (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 135-136.

[14] See Sharyn Dowd, Reading Mark: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Second Gospel, electronic edition (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2015), 25-28.

[15] See Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, David M. G. Stalker, translator, The Old Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1969), 21-22; Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 40-55: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Yale Bible (New York: Doubleday, 2002), 53, 59, 295-296.

[16] J.R. Daniel Kirk, A Man Attested by God: The Human Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels, Kindle Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2016), 182-183. 

[17] That Jesus has a vision is indicated by the language of the text. “He saw the heavens torn apart” and the voice says, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” See Marcus, Mark 1-8, 164-166.

[18] E.g., Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr., Psalms, New Cambridge Bible Commentary (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 32.

[19] Carol Meyers, “Kinship and Kingship: The Early Monarchy,” in The Oxford History of the Biblical World, Michael D. Coogan, editor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 197; B.S.J. Isserlin, The Israelites (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001), 106.

[20] Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews, 119-120.

[21] Jon D. Levenson, Sinai & Zion: An Entry Into the Hebrew Bible (New York: HarperOne, 1985), 155.

[22] Meyers, “Kinship and Kingship,” 197-198.

[23] France, The Gospel of Mark, 80.

[24] Psalm 2:7 plays a significant role in other New Testament texts as well. For example, the Lukan author applies this text to the resurrection of Jesus, suggesting that Jesus’ adoption as divine son is rooted fundamentally in the resurrection (Acts 13:33; cf. Romans 1:4). Similarly, the author of the epistle to the Hebrews utilizes Psalm 2:7 in demonstrating Jesus’ superiority to angelic beings (Hebrews 1:5) as well as to the Jewish high priest (Hebrews 5:5).

[25] See John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, vol. 1: The Roots of the Problem and the Person (New Haven, CT: Doubleday, 1991), 409.

[26] See Mary Ann Beavis, Mark, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 52; France, The Gospel of Mark, 103.

[27] The use of “Holy One of God” performs two functions in the narrative. First, it sets the “unclean spirit” in contrast with the “holy” Jesus. Second, “Holy One of God” is perhaps a messianic title and therefore demonstrates Jesus’ superiority to his demonic foes as God’s authorized agent on earth (see Max Botner, “The Messiah is ‘the Holy One’: ὁ ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ in Mark 1:24,” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 136 no. 2 (2017), 417-433; cf. Marcus, Mark 1-8, 188-189). 

[28] Mark often uses some form of ekballō to communicate the action of exorcism (see Mark 1:34, 39; 3:15, 22-23; 6:13; 7:26; 9:18, 28). 

[29] See Collins, Mark: A Commentary, 186-187; 

[30] See the discussion in Kirk, A Man Attested by God, 141-149; cf. John J. Collins, “The Son of Man and the Saints of the Most High in the Book of Daniel,” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 93 no. 1 (1974), 50-66.

[31] Robert Guelich explains, “Jesus is not claiming to be God. He does not respond to the scribes’ question by agreeing with their premise…. Rather he answers directly. ‘The Son of Man’ has authority to forgive sins on earth. He leaves his inquisitors to resolve how this might be or whether indeed it is blasphemy” (Guelich, Mark 1-8:26, 91).

[32] On the meaning of “on earth,” see Guelich, Mark 1-8:26, 91; cf. France, The Gospel of Mark, 129.

[33] See my post on the subject entitled “Musings on Mark: Abiathar the High Priest” (2.4.18), amateurexegete.com.

[34] Kirk, A Man Attested by God, 288. 

[35] Kirk, A Man Attested by God, 293.

[36] See the discussion in Guelich, Mark 1-8:26, 266-267.

[37] See the discussion in Peter G. Bolt, Jesus’ Defeat of Death: Persuading Mark’s Early Readers (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 141-143; John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002), 158-159. 

[38] Mary Ann Beavis, Mark, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 92. 

[39] See the discussion in Kirk, A Man Attested by God, 435-436.

[40] Yes, I know: I’m very punny.

[41] I do not know if Manning has any training in Greek but from my interactions with him I do not think he has. So, I’m not sure how he can assess whether the Amplified Bible does a “good job” or not.

[42] Amateur Exegete, “SJ’s Biblical Blunders: Or, First We Do the Reading, Then We Do the Writing” (10.30.19), amateurexegete.com.

[43] France, The Gospel of Mark, 273n71.

[44] See the discussion in Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary, Hermeneia Commentary Series (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 353-356.

[45] See the discussion in Joel Marcus, Mark 8-16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 636-637.

[46] Beavis, Mark, 152.

[47] Mary Ann Beavis, “From the Margin to the Way: A Feminist Reading of the Story of Bartimaeus,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, vol. 14 no.1 (Spring 1998), 32.

[48] Beavis, “From the Margin to the Way,” 32. 

[49] Levenson, Sinai & Zion, 155.


Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

9 thoughts on “Musings on Mark: A Brief Response to Erik Manning on Markan Christology

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  1. Good analysis (and I’ve bookmarked it for future easy reference). But apologists put a lot of emphasis on the high priest’s reaction to Jesus’ reply in Mark 14:61-64, declaring it to be “blasphemy”. So, they argue, his reply must mean that Jesus declared himself to be God. I agree with you that this is not what the question asked can mean, but I’d be interested in your take on why his reply would be considered “blasphemy”.

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    1. I think there the high priest is wrong in his interpretation of Jesus’ words (“You will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power”) just as the scribes were wrong previously in the Gospel (“Son, your sins are forgiven”). Since the Markan Gospel is oriented around misunderstanding, Jesus’ human opponents and his followers fail to grasp the import of his words. At least, that’s where I stand at the moment.

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      1. Okay, but misinterepts his words, how? If the priest isn’t asking “Are you God?”, as you argue, and is actually asking “are you the Messiah?” then the response “I am” is not, technically, blasphemy.

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      2. I agree: the “I am” is not what upsets the high priest. What upsets the high priest is when Jesus says to them, “And you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven.” The high priest hears that and thinks Jesus is claiming some kind of equality with God, even though this isn’t what Jesus intended. As God’s divinely authorized agent, he is able to be seated at God’s right hand. But the high priest thinks Jesus is claiming divinity, perhaps because the idea that Jesus will be seated with God means he will be in heaven with God. I’m not sure (I need to work it all out). I think Adela Collins is closest to being correct on the matter. But I think it’s another example of the high priest’s misunderstanding of Jesus and what kind of messiah he would be.

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  2. This is a great article and I’m interested to see if this discussion continues. It is a bit disappointing that misunderstandings regarding the titles son of man and son of God are still so entrenched.

    I really like what you say about the Lord God/Lord Messiah distinction. It seems perfectly reasonable to think the early Christians pervasively read the Lord Jesus into the LXX—not because they were seen as the same being, but because God’s lordship was expressed through his king’s authority.

    In regards to Mark 2, the idea that Jesus has “authority” to do things, along with the allusion to the Son of Man’s authorization by God, indicates that when Jesus “acts as only God acts” he is doing so by virtue of God’s decree rather than by virtue of his nature/being.

    Your discussion on Mark 10:17-21 is excellent as well. Reformed ideas about human goodness and human evil have probably made it impossible for many to understand what Jesus is saying. The Markan Jesus is obviously a good Jewish man, but he is not the source of goodness—and his very good words are not his own, they come from God. It is therefore critical that all of Jesus’ hearers recognize that what he does and says originate in God.

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    1. This seems to be the most parsimonious way of looking at (at least) the Markan Gospel: Jesus is God’s authorized human agent and where he acts, God is acting (I think a similar, though modified, case could be made for Matthew and Luke). I need to do some more work on the exchange with the high priest in Mark 14. I’m not sure if you saw Tim O’Neill’s comments and questions but as he pointed out it is a text that a many who see deity in Mark’s Jesus appeal to when discussing the subject. Any thoughts on that?

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      1. Well to start, the fact that Jesus distinguishes his role as son of man from “the Power” makes it in my mind impossible for the priest to think Jesus is claiming to be the Power.

        But more than that, blasphemeo has a pretty expansive set of meanings so one possibility is that Jesus is not being charged with formal blasphemy here (i.e. claiming to be God) but is rather being charged with speaking evil against God by (presumptuously in the mind of the priest) speaking for God what cannot be true (i.e. putting words in God’s mouth).

        Looking at the context more closely, it is apparently Jesus’ false “prophecy” about his future status as God’s right hand man that the priests despise (Mark 14:62-65—I think these verses should be read together: the charge of blasphemy brings the onlookers to mock Jesus’ prophetic abilities). So just as the mockers “blaspheme” Jesus (Mark 15:29-30) as a lying prophet (spokesman for God’s will) when he’s on the cross, so too do the priests believe Jesus has lied about God’s intention to make him judge.

        That is to say that blasphemy here has to do with speaking falsely about someone (cf. LXX 2 Kings 19:4, Isaiah 52:5). For Mark, the mockers blaspheme Jesus by mocking his status as prophet; though they think he is presumptuous, Jesus is truly a prophet of God. For the priest, Jesus blasphemes God by pretending to speak God’s will as it regards the temple and the son of man.

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      2. That makes sense.

        I need to do some more reading on blasphemy in the Second Temple period generally as I’m mostly relying on commentaries at this point. I’ll see if ABD has anything on it and go from there!

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