Musings on Mark: Markan Christology – Jesus is God’s Son #1

Series Introduction


The very first scene wherein Jesus appears is one in which he is baptized by John in the Jordan River (cf. Mark 1:4-8): 

And it happened in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And then as he came out of the water he saw the skies torn open and the spirit as a dove descend into him, and a voice came from the skies, “You are my son, the Beloved;
in you I am well pleased”
(Mark 1:9-11, my translation).[1]

Mark’s language and style is deliberately biblical. Not only does he consistently use a paratactic style similar to that of Hebrew prose (e.g. Genesis 1), his use of kai egeneto en ekeinais tais hēmerais would remind literate members of his audience of biblical narratives (e.g. Judges 17:6 LXX; 1 Samuel 4:1 LXX; etc.). This use of “scriptural-sounding language,” Mary Ann Beavis observes, suggests to the Markan audience that “Jesus is a figure of ‘biblical’ significance.”[2] Additionally, the Markan author draws upon apocalyptic imagery in the vision Jesus experiences as he comes “out of the water.” 

Apocalyptic Vision

First, Jesus sees “the skies torn open [schizomenous],” paralleling, if not recalling, the words of Trito-Isaiah: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” (Isaiah 64:1, NRSV).[3] In the context of Trito-Isaiah, this apocalyptic language is intended to evoke images of judgment in which Yahweh’s enemies (and, therefore, Israel’s) are defeated and the fortunes of his people restored. Specifically, as Claus Westermann has noted, this is the language of epiphany and, for the wicked, epiphany equals judgment (cf. Psalm 18:8-15).[4] Though Mark has apparently appropriated the imagery for something more benign than fiery condemnation, the sense of epiphany remains. Furthermore, the opening of the skies has on a literal level separated the boundary between earth and heaven, thereby allowing what happens next.

Second, Jesus sees “the spirit as a dove” descend to him. “Spirit,” of course, renders the neuter noun pneuma, and while Christian iconography often depicts this pneuma in dove-form, it isn’t entirely clear that this is what Mark intended.[5] As titillating as it would be to speculate, the salient point is not how the pneuma appeared but rather that it appeared. In Mark (as in other biblical and extrabiblical literature), “the skies” (hoi ouranoi) is a circumlocution for “God” (e.g. Mark 8:11) and therefore the pneuma of v. 10 is the pneuma of God. In some biblical narratives, God’s pneuma (Hebrew, rûaḥ) gives those it inhabits extraordinary ability: 

  • “Pharaoh said to his servants, ‘Can we find anyone like [Joseph] – one in whom is the spirit of God [rûaḥ ʾĕlōhîm]?” (Genesis 41:37)
  • “The spirit of the LORD [rûaḥ yhwh] rushed on [Samson], and he tore the lion apart barehanded as one might tear apart a kid” (Judges 14:6; see also 14:19 and 15:14).
  • “When they were going from there to Gibeah, a band of prophets met him; and the spirit of God [rûaḥ ʾĕlōhîm] possessed him, and he fell into a prophetic frenzy along with them” (1 Samuel 10:10; cf. v. 6).

Dream interpretation, extraordinary strength, prophetic insight: these are all the byproduct of God’s rûaḥ coming upon a person. And in these texts which reference rûaḥ, the translators of the LXX speak of God’s pneuma. Possessed, as it were, by God’s pneuma, Jesus performs incredible feats: he exorcises demons, heals the sick, controls nature, and more. 

Underlying the Markan text seems to be another passage from Trito-Isaiah: 

The Spirit of the Lord [pneuma kyriou] is upon me, on account of which he has anointed me [echrisen me]; he has sent me to bring good news [euangelisasthai] to the poor, to heal those who are crushed in heart, to announce release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord and the day of repayment,
to comfort all who mourn
(Isaiah 61:1-2 LXX).[6]

Though subtext in the Gospel of Mark,[7] Isaiah 61:1-2 serves as a prooftext for the Gospel of Luke (Luke 4:18-19), a sign that the author of the Lukan Gospel was sensitive to Markan subtlety. In any event, the key for the time being is that God’s pneuma has been given to Jesus such that he is seemingly possessed by it.[8] It is with it that Jesus is able to fulfill his mission.[9]

Third, a voice is heard from the sky declaring that Jesus is God’s “son, the Beloved [ho huios…ho agapētos]” in whom he is “well pleased [eudokēsa].” Like the citation of “Isaiah the prophet” in vv. 2-3, the words of the heavenly voice are composite, alluding to two texts: Psalm 2:7 and (unsurprisingly) Isaiah 42:1. The first reference is a near-exact quote from the LXX which, in context, is a reference to the enthronement of the Israelite king. Though not the purview of this essay, it should be noted that Psalm 2:7 becomes an important text in both the New Testament (e.g. Acts 13:33; Hebrews 1:5, 5:5; cf. Luke 3:22 in Codex Bezae)[10] and extrabiblical literature.[11] More important for the present discussion is Isaiah 42:1 in which Yahweh refers to Israel as “my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.”[12] In v. 2, Yahweh declares, “I have put my spirit upon him,” mirroring Trito-Isaiah’s “[t]he spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me” (Isaiah 61:1 MT).[13] Thus, there is a direct connection between the descent of God’s pneuma into Jesus and the declaration that he is God’s son – explicitly by the Markan sequence and implicitly through scriptural allusions. 

The declaration that Jesus is God’s son is the climax of the baptism scene. It informs the reader of Jesus’ status with relation to the god of Israel. And as the first scene featuring Jesus, it is intended to set the tone for the rest of the narrative. But if this wasn’t clear from Mark 1:9-11, the point is certainly made by the final scene wherein Jesus appears.

Photograph by Deisenbe of a stained-glass window at Church of our Savior (Boynton Beach, FL). Notice the Trinitarian framing of this image: Jesus in the water, God’s pneuma on the upper left, the invisible voice of the Father on the upper right. The “Trinity Knot” is also at the center (Wikimedia Commons)

The Death of God’s Son

Then Jesus, giving a loud cry, breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. When the centurion who was standing in front of him saw how in this way he breathed his last, he said,
“Truly this man was God’s son”
(Mark 15:37-39).

Readers will no doubt recognize elements that parallel Mark 1:9-11. 

First, twice the Markan author states that Jesus “breathed his last,” a phrase that renders the aorist verb exepneusen. The root verb, ekpneō, is a compound from the preposition ek (“out of”) and pneō (“I blow”). Thus, ekpneō means “I breathe out” and, in this context, is a euphemism for death. The verb pneō should be familiar: it is a cognate of the substantive pneuma. Thus, just as God’s pneuma entered Jesus at his baptism, so now it seems it has left him as he expires.[14]

Second, following Jesus’ death “the curtain of the temple [to katapetasma tou naou] was torn in two from top to bottom [eschisthē eis dyo ap᾽ anōthen heōs katō].” Since the temple had two curtains – one separating the Holiest Place from the rest of the temple and another separating the temple itself from the outside world – it isn’t clear to which Mark is referring. Joel Marcus notes that katapetasma usually refers to the inner curtain and naos (“temple”) to “the inner shrine” (i.e. the Holiest Place). Additionally, he notes that of the two curtains 

the inner one was more significant theologically, since it screened the holy of holies, in which God’s radiant presence was believed to dwell, from profane sight or access (see Exod 26:33; 40:3, 21; Heb 10:19-22) and protected those outside from potentially disastrous consequences of an irruption of divine power
(cf. Exod 19:20-23).[15]

But as Marcus observes and David Ulansey forcefully argues, the curtain separating the temple itself from the rest of the world was also quite impressive.[16] According to Josephus, this katapetasma was fifty-five cubits high and sixteen wide (roughly 82’x24’) and 

was a Babylonian curtain, embroidered with blue, and fine linen, and scarlet, and purple, and of a contexture that was truly wonderful. Nor was this mixture of colors without its mystical interpretation, but was a kind of image of the universe [eikona tōn holōn]; for by the scarlet there seemed to be enigmatically signified fire, by the fine flax the earth, by the blue the air, and by the purple the sea; two of them having their colors the foundation of this resemblance; but the fine flax and the purple have their own origin for that foundation, the earth producing the one, and the sea the other. This curtain had also embroidered upon it all that was mystical in the heavens, excepting that of the signs, representing living creatures
(Jewish War, 2.211-214).[17]

Ulansey contends that if Mark 15:39 is intended to mean that the centurion was awestruck at the tearing of the veil following Jesus’ boisterous death, then the katapetasma must be the outer curtain, not that which separated the Holiest Place from the rest of the temple: the centurion “could only have seen this event if it was the outer veil that tore, since the inner veil was hidden from view inside the temple.”[18] Moreover, Ulansey remarks that Josephus’ description of the outer curtain as “one huge image of the starry sky” parallels the baptismal scene in which the skies are similarly torn open, using the exact same Greek verb. He writes, “This can hardly be coincidence: the symbolic parallel is so striking that Mark must have consciously intended it.”[19]

Third, the centurion watching over the crucifixion responds to Jesus’ death by saying, “Truly this man was God’s son.” This is arguably the climax of the death scene, as what follows in vv. 40-47 sets up the empty-tomb narrative of 16:1-8. The import of the centurion’s words have been debated by scholars with some arguing that it represents genuine confession[20] and others asserting it is biting sarcasm.[21] Whatever the case may be, in terms of the sequence of events in Mark, it is commentary on the sonship of Jesus. That is, Jesus is the kind of son of God who, though deserving of honor and respect,[22] is instead crucified on a Roman cross. It is also noteworthy that the centurion is the first human character in the Markan narrative to declare Jesus is God’s son. In all the chapters prior, none of Jesus’ followers are able to grasp this fact. Indeed, it is only the voice from the sky and the unclean spirits who see Jesus for who he is. 

Master of the Die (1532): An engraving showing the centurion embracing Jesus as lord (Wikimedia Commons)

What Kind of Son?

The parallels between the first and final scenes of Jesus’ life in the Markan narrative are striking: 

  • in the first, the skies are torn open to allow the arrival of God’s pneuma into Jesus; in the second, the curtain of the temple is torn open as Jesus dies;
  • in the first, the pneuma descends and enters Jesus; in the second, the pneuma appears to leave him as he dies (expneō);
  • in the first, a heavenly voice affirms Jesus’ sonship; in the second, an earthly voice confirms it. 

Together, these texts form veritable bookends for the Gospel of Mark, framing the entire narrative and informing us what exactly is meant by Jesus’ divine sonship. It is a sonship that can only come from above and yet is found in the most unexpected place: suspended between heaven and earth on a cross.


[1] Unless otherwise noted, all translations of the New Testament are my own. Also, this translation represents a change in how I have previously rendered the text of Mark 1:9-11. See my post “Mark 1:9-11, AEV” (6.18.18), Part of the problem is my wrestling with egeneto in v. 11 and how to best render it in English. My translation is in line with the NRSV, but it feels unsatisfactory given the structure of the text and that readers in English might think that the verb underlying “came” in v. 11 is the same as that of the word “came” in v. 9 (ēlthen). I doubt I’ll ever find a suitable translation.

[2] Mary Ann Beavis, Mark, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 36.

[3] Unless otherwise noted, all citations from the Hebrew Bible are from the New Revised Standard Version.

[4] See Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library, translated by David M.G. Stalker (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1969), 395. 

[5] Rodney Decker (Mark 1-8: A Handbook on the Greek Text [Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014], 13) notes that the phrase hōs peristeran (“as a dove”) could be understood as an adjective modifying pneuma (“spirit”) or an adverb modifying katabainon (“descending”). Therefore, if it is the former then the iconography is correct; if the latter, then Mark is describing the pneuma’s descent, leaving the subject of its appearance unstated. Whatever Mark intended, the Lukan author interpreted him as meaning the former: “the holy spirit descended in bodily form as a dove upon him” (Luke 3:22). 

[6] Unless otherwise noted, all translations of the LXX are from The Lexham English Septuagint

[7] The author of the Gospel of Mark demonstrates a tendency to refer, either explicitly or implicitly, to the book of Isaiah. Isaiah’s primacy is clearly visible from the outset: the composite citation of Exodus 23:20, Malachi 3:1, and Isaiah 40:3 in Mark 1:2-3 is attributed to “Isaiah the prophet.” Two other pieces of evidence attend to the primacy of Isaiah: 1) texts from Isaiah are quoted more than any other book of the Hebrew Bible, and 2) Isaiah is the only prophet named by Mark (see Mark 1:2, 7:6). For a fuller discussion of the importance of Isaiah to Mark, see Sharyn Dowd, Reading Mark: A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Second Gospel, electronic edition (Smyth and Helwys, 2015), 40-51.

[8] Some may object to the word “possessed” but I think it captures quite adequately the nature of the endowment of God’s pneuma to Jesus. The language of Mark 1:12 coheres with this view: “And then the spirit [pneuma] cast him out into the desert.” The words translated “cast…out” render a form of the Greek verb ekballō, used repeatedly in the Gospel of Mark with reference to Jesus’ exorcism work. Consequently, with the pneuma as the subject and Jesus as the object, the sense is that it is the pneuma that is in control, not Jesus. For an excellent overview of this, particularly in relationship to Matthew’s redactional activity, see “He Could Do No Mighty Work” (6.10.19),

[9] Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary, Hermeneia Commentary Series (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 149.

[10] The reading found in most English translations of the voice’s words in  Luke 3:22 (“You are my son, the Beloved, in you I am well pleased”) coheres with Luke’s source in Mark and is attested in a number of manuscripts including the third century manuscript P4. In Codex Bezae (fifth century), the voice declares, “You are my son, today I have begotten you,” a direct citation of Psalm 2:7. Though the earliest attested reading in the manuscript evidence is the former, it is the latter which is frequently quoted in patristic sources. For more on this, see Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, fourth edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 128.

[11] See examples in Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 162.

[12] On the identity of the servant as Israel, see Richard J. Clifford, Fair Spoken and Persuading: An Interpretation of Second Isaiah (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 92-93.

[13] In the Matthean baptism scene, the pneuma is said not to descend into him (eis auton) as in Mark but rather “upon him” (ep᾽ auton). In both Isaiah 42:1 LXX and Isaiah 61:1 LXX the pneuma is said to be “upon [epi] upon the one endowed with it. Matthew seems to be depending less on the Markan interpretation of the baptism scene with these words and more on the actual wording of the LXX. Further evidence for this can be seen in his extensive quotation of Isaiah 42:1-4 LXX in Matthew 4:14-16. 

[14] Howard M. Jackson, “The Death of Jesus in Mark and the Miracle from the Cross,” New Testament Studies, vol. 33 (1987), 27. Jackson asserts that the pneuma of Mark 1:10 is that which tore open the skies and that Jesus’ pneuma is that which tore the veil. While I am obviously sympathetic to the general connection between pneuma and the use of ekpneō, I fear this connection by Jackson takes things too far. Moreover, not all commentators are convinced that this connection between pneuma and ekpneō is valid. For example, Adela Yarbro Collins (Mark, 763) refers to Jackson’s view as a “strange hypothesis” and cautions against reading too much into Mark’s use of ekpneō. Cf. Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2001), 508-509.

[15] Joel Marcus, Mark 8-16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 1056-1057.

[16] Marcus, Mark 8-16, 1057; David Ulansey, “The Heavenly Veil Torn: Mark’s Cosmic Inclusio,” Journal of Biblical Literature vol. 110 no. 1 (1991), 124. 

[17] All references to Josephus are taken from The New Complete Works of Josephus, translated by William Whiston (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1999).

[18] Ulansey, “The Heavenly Veil Torn,” 124. For my part, I believe the centurion’s reaction is to Jesus’ death cry, not to the tearing of the curtain. 

[19] Ulansey, “The Heavenly Veil Torn,” 125. 

[20] See, for example, Darrell Bock, Mark, New Cambridge Bible Commentary (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 373; Mary Ann Beavis, Mark, 232; John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2002), 449. 

[21] See, for example, Sharyn Dowd, Reading, 374; Mark Goodacre, The Case Against Q: Studies in Markan Priority and the Synoptic Problem (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2002), 160n28; L. Michael White, Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite (New York: HarperOne, 2010), 288.

[22] This is a point made by Jesus himself in the parable of the vineyard (Mark 12:1-12). 

Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.

2 thoughts on “Musings on Mark: Markan Christology – Jesus is God’s Son #1

  1. Superb article. Sparked a lot of ideas for me.

    1) Maybe we have a Markan Pentecost of a sort at the cross. The spirit exits Jesus and enables a Gentile to confess Jesus as God’s son (1 Cor 12:13)… But that sounds like classic over-interpretation too.

    2) I think the idea of Luke as careful and creative interpreter of Mark is useful. Mark says Jesus “expired” so Luke has Jesus say “into your hands I commit my spirit.”

    3) When we read Mark with these bookends in mind, it is remarkable just how much this is God’s story, not Jesus. God’s spirit is the protagonist which moves the plot forward.

    4) I love Psalm 2 and that you highlighted it here. I just wish people would read without all the Trinitarian baggage. As you say, early Christians applied it to Jesus not in order to demonstrate that Jesus was God, but to demonstrate that Jesus was God’s anointed king. And this, of course, not in reference to some kind of spiritual kingship, but kingship over those rebellious kings and kingdoms that caused Israel grief. Political concerns pressed early Christians to gravitate toward Psalms 2 and 110, not theological ones.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I like the Markan Pentecost idea! I may end up stealing it 🙂


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