A report on a paper given by Richard Hays (Dean and George Washington Ivey Professor of New Testament at Duke University in Durham, NC), 17 January 2012. Professor Hays is delivering this year’s Gunning Lectures at New College, University of Edinburgh, on the topic “Israel’s Scripture Through the Eyes of the Gospel Writers.”
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Professor Hays’ lecture series continued with a closer examination of the way allusions to Old Testament passages in the Gospel of Mark portray Jesus as mysteriously but directly embodying the presence of God, contrary to a certain tendency in New Testament scholarship to posit an early low Christology (evident in the Gospel of Mark, among other places) which evolved into a higher Christology (evident in, for example, the Gospel of John). He began with a reflection on the insufficiency of certain terms to encompass all that Mark’s Gospel asserts about Jesus. There is a kind of elusiveness about Jesus’ claims about himself in the Gospel, traditionally identified as the Messianic secret, which makes certain traditional and theologically laden terms applicable to but incompletely descriptive of who precisely Jesus is. Labels like “Prophet” and “Messiah” only go so far in communicating the truth, partially because they reference a collection of ideas and expectations which overlap with Jesus but do not define him.
This leads to Jesus’ use of the term “son of man” in reference to himself. While there has been an ongoing scholarly discussion about meaning of “son of man” as used in the Gospels, Jesus’ words in Mark 14:62 are clearly a reference to Daniel 7, where a mysterious figure comes with the clouds of heaven, is presented to the Ancient of Days, and receives from him an cosmic and everlasting dominion. While even “son of man” does not appear to fully capture Jesus’ identity in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ preference for the term throughout the Gospel and his invocation of the term at the sub-climactic moment of 14:62 ties the overall Christology of Mark to the mystery of who is Daniel’s “son of man?”
This elusive and indefinable quality of Jesus is part of Mark’s overall strategy in revealing the disturbing truth about Jesus, that Jesus is in some way to be identified with the one God of Israel. Unlike John’s Gospel, Mark avoids overt ontological statements, preferring circumlocution, allusion, and evasion. The way this is accomplished is through depicting Jesus at several points as having characteristics or playing roles associated with God in the Old Testament.
Hays gave six examples to illustrate this point. In Mark 1:2-3, a collage of references to Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40 in the characterisation of John the Baptist places Jesus in the role of God returning to the Temple in Jerusalem. Mark 2:1ff tells the story of Jesus’ healing of the paralytic and the debate over the forgiveness of sins, where the question is asked “Who can forgive but God alone?” – a question which may contain an echo of Deuteronomy 6:4 (“God alone” = YWHW ʾeḥad). In many places in the Old Testament, sins are characterised as offences against God alone, so only God has the authority to forgive them, and Exodus 34:6-7 ties forgiveness of sins to the very identity of the God of Israel. The question asked by the bystanders in Mark 2 is never directly answered but left open. The same is true in Mark 4:35-41 where Jesus calms the sea. This passage is strongly reminiscent of Psalm 107:23-32, especially 28-29, where sailors cry out to Yahweh and he stills the storm, hushing the waves. It also recalls, to a lesser extent, biblical and ancient near-eastern creation imagery, where a deity (Yahweh, for example) subdues the primordial waters of chaos (as in Psalm 89:9-10). The unanswered question that closes the story, “Who is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?”, can only have one answer.
Professor Hays skimmed over the last three examples, two of which he had discussed in the previous day’s lecture (the walking on water episode echoing Job and the withered fig tree event echoing Jeremiah 8:13 – in both instances Jesus’ activities parallel those of God himself, not of a human character). The other is in Mark 6 where Jesus feeds the 5,000, having compassion on them because they are like sheep without a shepherd. This recalls Ezekiel 34, an oracle against the shepherds of Israel where God takes some of the shepherding duties onto himself but then in verses 23-24 assigns them one shepherd, his servant David, who will feed them.
These passages point to a much deeper presence of God in Jesus than an early low Christology would anticipate. Nevertheless, Hays pointed out that Mark does not solely unite the identities of Jesus and the God of Israel. Consistent with Daniel 7, Jesus depicts his own eschatological exaltation in terms of being at the right hand of God (14:62). There is a difference of knowledge between Son and Father as to the time of the end (13:32). Jesus’ prayer reveals a difference of will (14:36). From the cross, Jesus cry of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” implies a distinction. Two facts then are held in tension in the Gospel of Mark: God is present in Jesus and at the same time distinct from Jesus. Furthermore, Mark offers no conceptual resolution for this tension. The mystery is simply allowed to stand.
Hays then transitioned into a discussion of Mark’s scriptural hermeneutics as revealed in some unique features surrounding Mark’s version of the sower and lampstand parables and his understanding of the purpose of parables. There is a tension in the parables concerning whether they are instruments of concealment or clarification. Whereas Matthew and Luke contrast between present concealment and future revelation, Mark highlights the intention of concealment leading to revelation (Mark 4:22 “Nothing is hidden except in order to be made manifest” versus Matthew 10:26 and Luke 8:17 “Nothing is covered that will not be revealed”). Mark has reshaped the statement about the purpose of parables into a Christological statement. Truth/Christ is hidden so that it can be revealed through that hiddenness.
Hays concluded with some thoughts on this idea of truth communicated through concealment and its converse, untruth achieved through openness. Metaphor, for example, states a truth through a concealing image. The central mystery of Jesus’ identity in Mark’s Gospel resists simple statement but relies on story and image. This kind of truth when articulated in the mouths of others risks becoming untrue through the meanings attached to those statements by others: hence, Jesus’ resistance to contemporary labels and ideas like Messiah (one may note here that Hays’ ideas are representative especially of popular post-modern thought in American Christianity inasmuch as he is expressing a scepticism concerning the unqualified validity of propositions as bearers of truth). Because of the way labels and “truth statements” can corrupt truths impossible to fully articulate, Mark’s Gospel presents Jesus as the truth of God which can only be revealed through concealment, and this concealment and its revelation reach their fullest power and expression in the image of Jesus as the crucified one, God’s victory both concealed and revealed in defeat. Hays asked the question implicit in the Gospel: what does this mean about God?
University of Edinburgh