March 2010 - Vol. 38
Questions regarding the identity of Jesus swirl throughout the Gospel of Mark. Readers pore over the details of his ministry and notice that no one around Jesus can figure out who he is. Adding to the mystery, Jesus generally resists the various identities foisted on him, be it from devotee or demon. That curious fact invites them to look to the narrative “corners” of the Gospel of Mark and to reconsider what came before and after his public ministry. Here I will focus on those literary fragments and suggest that the Gospel of Mark beckons the reader to a particular theological understanding, a Christology that later tradition call the munus triplex [Latin for “threefold office”]. That identity centers around three roles: prophet, king, and priest.
There are three events that inaugurate the public life of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark: his baptism, his time in the wilderness under the power of the Spirit, and his emergence into the public eye with the announcement of the kingdom of God.(1) There are also three events that mark the end of his public life in the episode of the crucifixion (Mark 15:33-39): the crowd’s association of Jesus with Elijah the prophet, the tearing of the veil at his death, and the royal title given to him by the Roman centurion, “son of God.”
I will propose that what is otherwise unknown to the audience of Jesus [the people observing and listening to him as he was among them] can be known to careful readers of the Gospel of Mark. Readers are supposed to discover and uncover the identity of Jesus for themselves, based upon a thoughtful reconsideration of the aforementioned triads of events outside of the day-to-day ministry of Jesus. They point to a threefold identity of Jesus, the munus triplex of prophet, king, and priest. Similar “christologies” of late Second-Temple Jews and early Church Fathers point to a common messianic matrix(2) that informed and shaped the theology (and literary strategy) of the Gospel of Mark.
In order to accomplish this goal, I will divide my topic into two basic questions. First, how do the three events at the beginning and the end show parallelism, and how should this parallelism be interpreted? Secondly, how do these triads of events at the beginning and the end show Jesus as prophet, priest, and king, respectively?
the Triads of Events
There are other literary correspondences that point to the parallels between the triad at the beginning and the triad at the end of events. For example, in the introduction leading up to the baptism, there is a proliferation of titles climaxing in the voice from heaven that he is beloved Son: Christ, Son of God, one more powerful (than John the Baptist), one who is coming, baptizer with the Holy Spirit. A similar litany builds up to the death episode, climaxing in the centurion’s statement that he is son of God: he is builder of the temple, Christ, Son of man, prophet, King of the Jews, and Elijah-like. Thus, “son” is repeated in the introduction (1:1, 11) and in the ending of the life of Jesus (14:60-61; 15:39).
The first collection of titles, however, provokes an immediate challenge to the reader to think deeply about the identity of Jesus, while the second collection is spoken mostly in mockery, and the readers know it. Note, however, that it is only the narrator and John the Baptist who articulate these titles in the beginning, and no one except the reader (and the author) has an inkling about the person they refer to. Even in the baptism and the wilderness, the supernatural events are reported to the reader only, that is, they are confined to experience of Jesus and not of the others. In contrast, fourteen chapters on the public life of Jesus later, the events of the crucifixion are seen by all, and the responses of the bystanders and the centurion give a response based on what they have seen. In some sense the characters now have had the chance to observe Jesus both in the passion narrative and, more broadly, in the public life of Jesus, and the question Mark 15 raises for the reader is whether their assessment of his identity is accurate.
Yet in terms of literary privilege, it is only the reader who can make an assessment of Jesus at the beginning and the end. No one in the story sees the supernatural events of the baptism and wilderness, and no one of his selected and trained disciples stands with Jesus at the cross. But the reader is present intimately at both events.
Nonetheless, I will argue that that the readers are not given a simple formula or black-and-white Christology about Jesus. Instead they are to work out the identity of Jesus over the course of the Gospel of Mark, building on the early clues that the narrator and John the Baptist give, evaluating the assessments of the others in the narrative, and understanding theological insights that come at the end. Although there is a wealth of material throughout the Gospel that would support my thesis, I will focus on the triads of events that open and close the public life of Jesus. I will argue that the Gospel of Mark presents a literary strategy of ambiguity or shrouded terminology that forces the reader to make a profoundly theological assessment about Jesus.
Jesus as Prophet
Jesus was such a prophet. R. E. Brown proposed that the Elijah-Elisha typology exerted a formative influence on all the gospel narratives(3) and that Elijah and Elisha were heroic models for the Gospel writings about Jesus. For example, just as Elisha and Elijah roamed around in the Northern Kingdom, so Jesus did itinerant ministry in Galilee. The miracles of Elisha (and Elijah) often seem to be prototypes for Jesus’ works. Such miracles include the cure of leprosy (2 Kings 5), the multiplication of loaves (1 Kings 17:8-16; 2 Kings 4:42-44), and the raising of the dead (1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:18-37).
The Gospel of Mark alludes to the Elijah-Elisha story early on in the description of John the Baptist and in the reference to Jesus being controlled by the Spirit and driven into the wilderness. What is the literary connection between Jesus and prophets like Elijah? Like the prophets, Elijah and Moses, Jesus stays in the wilderness for 40 days. Moreover, the wilderness is a place of desolation where prophets must reckon with wild beasts and angels. No better example comes to mind than Elijah, who retreats into a lonely world and was fed by birds at the Wadi Cherith, then by angels under the broom tree.
With a little more of the readers’ concentration, the narrative conjures up a hint of violence and death, for it reads that Jesus “was with the wild beasts” (1:13a). In the wilderness the prophet must do battle with Satan and with the beasts. The wilderness is a place where there is no human companionship and no cities to provide refuge against the harsh spiritual and physical elements. While there is no exact parallel in the lives of the canonical prophets, the Gospel of Matthew (4:6) hints that Psalm 91 is the background for this condition. Here, God promises angels for those who must struggle against the hostile spiritual forces, and that his protected ones will tread upon lions and vipers. This is the context for Mark 1:13a - the wilderness inhabited by Satan and wild beasts, as well as angels who visit and wait upon Jesus. An interpretive key for this ambiguous reference to satanic forces, wild beasts, and angels will appear in the final stages of Jesus’ life.
The reader also can notice another ominous detail of violence in the form of a reference to John the Baptist’s arrest (1:14a). The reader starts to sense that John’s prophetic fate will be Jesus’ fate, and this parallel becomes clear in Mark 6 when John’s martyrdom is recapitulated. Prophets and violence often go hand-in-hand in the biblical literature, as any cursory sampling of the canonical and non-canonical writings will show. Prophets must pay dearly for their prophetic testimony,(4) and later scriptures explicitly link martyrs and prophets (Rev 11:18, 16:6, 17:20, 24). Thus, the reader’s reflection about Jesus the prophet is partially fulfilled in the announcement that another “messenger” who had been sent into the wilderness had been imprisoned (Mark 1:14). The reader knows (or will soon know) that Jesus will be rejected and surrounded by animal-like tormentors before succumbing to a prophet’s doom.
I have suggested elsewhere that the passion narrative deliberately raises the specter of Elijah as a strategy for identifying and clarifying Jesus’ role as an eschatological prophet.(6) From beginning to end the prophet Elijah casts a broad shadow on the Gospel of Mark. Elijah is linked with John the Baptist from the opening lines of the Gospel. When Herod hears about Jesus, he concludes that John the Baptist has been raised from the dead (6:16). But some voices held that Jesus was Elias redivivus [Elijah come back to life], others that John the Baptist’s powers were active in Jesus (6:14-15). The same opinions were voiced in a later discussion of Jesus with his disciples (8:27-30).(7) Many people in the narrative audience therefore believed that Jesus was some incarnation of Elias redivivus according to the Gospels.(8)
The Gospel of Mark, however, is quick to correct this misinterpretation. In fact, the opening scene of the preaching and lifestyle of John the Baptist present John, not Jesus, as the new Elijah. Later, in the part of the Gospel often thought to be an early “recognition and reversal” scene, Peter declares that Jesus is Messiah and not Elijah; then Jesus goes on to demonstrate the validity of Peter’s confession by being transfigured and holding audience with Elijah and Moses (9:2-8). The eschatologically subordinate role of Elijah is explained immediately after the Transfiguration (9:9-13).
The reader is to infer that John the Baptist has played the role of
Elijah and that he has suffered the very fate awaiting Jesus (9:12-13).
This is the background to the misinterpretation of Jesus’ cry on the cross
before he died that “Jesus was calling on Elijah.” What plays out
in the Gospel before the passion narrative is in part a debate between
those who believed Jesus was Elijah and those who believed that John the
Baptist was Elijah.
When it comes to the last articulate words of Jesus on the cross, the Gospel of Mark makes a negative statement about Jesus’ identity. Jesus is not to be identified as Elias redivivus. The reader’s attention is drawn to quotation of Psalm 22:1 by the fact that is not in Greek but apparently in Jesus’ own language. Scholarly interest has tended to focus on the confused transliteration, which reflects a quotation that is neither pure Aramaic nor pure Hebrew. But it is the misunderstanding of the crowd, not the accuracy of the transliteration, which rivets the reader’s attention. It may be presumed that the (Greek) reader of the Gospel of Mark simply regards the original language of Jesus’ quotation as a foreign (and inscrutable) tongue. If the narrative implies that the two words were confused, the reader is in no position to contradict the inference that that “my God” (Eloi) and Elijah (Elias) sound the same.
What can be deduced from the Gospel of Mark’s portrayal of the bystanders’ puzzlement about the last words of Jesus? The reader must keep in mind that the audience of bystanders within the narrative thought that Jesus was a prophet comparable to Elijah. The reader must also be aware that the Gospel of Mark promotes the understanding that John the Baptist carried out Elijah’s role as the precursor of a messianic or eschatological event. The bystanders, however, do not seem to have been persuaded that John the Baptist was Elijah and the precursor of Jesus. Instead of hearing Psalm 22’s drama about a man surrounded by persecutors and beasts, they think he is invoking the identity of Elijah. Unlike the reader, they do not know the earlier drama with Satan and wild animals. Nor do they have the literary privilege of witnessing the angels around Jesus in the wilderness and in the resurrection.
The public confusion about these last words of Jesus provokes a dramatic effect on the reader. Now the reader encounters for the last time in all clarity a question that has persisted throughout the crucifixion narrative. Is Jesus, even now on the cross, a prophet like Elijah? How does Jesus take on Elijah’s character while transcending him? How has his life fulfilled the shrouded clues given in Mark 1:12-14?
Jesus as King
By the end of the story in the Gospel of Mark, the reader has abundant opportunity to reflect on Jesus as a kingly figure.(10) Six times in Mark 15 (Mark 15:2, 9, 12-13, 18, 26) there are references to his royal status, abused and mocked. The narrative sketches a mock coronation, foisted upon Jesus by his antagonists.(11) Yet the repetition and ferocity of their attack only rivets all the more the question of his royal status and amplifies the irony of their actions. Irony is a common literary device in the passion narrative of the Gospel of Mark. How does ambiguity contribute to the message of Jesus as king as it did for Jesus as prophet?
The final assessment of the life of Jesus comes when the centurion calls him “son of God.” But what does the centurion’s statement mean?(12) Does it relieve the irony of the narrative for the readers, or does it raise another ambiguity only the reader can resolve? A first-century Roman understanding of “son of God” would most likely reflect a background of the imperial cult, a claim to a divine identity thought to rest upon the Caesar.(13) The centurion may not be mocking Jesus as his comrades did in their mock coronation of him, but he also shows no recognition like the other supernatural voices earlier in the narrative (1:11, 3:11, 5:7, 9:7). There is no apparent conversion or discipleship. The ambiguity is only increased because of the (deliberate?) omission of the article before “son of God.” Whatever his intention, there is no reason to believe that the Roman escapes the irony that echoes throughout the passion narrative.(14)
What the reader encounters here is the same literary strategy that surrounded the identity of Jesus as prophet. The ambiguity of the centurion is meant to challenge the reader to think more deeply about what the characters think they see and know about Jesus. We are to take our cues from the words of the centurion in this case, but not be confined by them. Like the disciples (4:40, cf. 8:32) and like those who understood him as an Elijah-like prophet, even the centurion is not sure about what his words mean.
The attention given to this theme in the passion narrative also makes the reader re-evaluate the episodes that precede Jesus’ ministry. The literary seeds for the passion narrative’s irony and ambiguity come early. The earliest recognition of “son” comee in 1:11, an ambiguous cultic reference I will discuss below. In the context of Jesus as king, one strong signal is Jesus heralding the Kingdom of God (Mark 1:15). His first words speak of the need for the audience to rethink the current world order, for a new one is on the horizon. Obviously the proclamation carries with it news about another king and another reign, even if it is ambiguous about what role Jesus himself plays in its coming. The arrival of a new king is usually announced by an ambassador or a military legate who warns the city or nation that surrender is the best response to the oncoming king or general. The vocabulary plainly announces that Jesus “proclaims” “the kingdom,” and both of these words have long-standing royal connotations.(15) Perhaps the best late Second-Temple model for this dynamic can be found in the Qumran documents 4Q385 and 11QMelch, where a preacher comes in advance of Melchizedek, the angelic king of Genesis 12. For the Gospel of Mark, John the Baptist would be the preacher and Jesus would be King Melchizedek.(16) This pattern parallels John the Baptist as Elijah and Jesus as the eschatological prophet, as shown above in the section “Jesus as Prophet.”
Jesus as Priest
Many recent commentators have pointed to the scene of the baptism of
Jesus as a parallel to the tearing of the temple curtain at Jesus’death.(17)
The table below shows some of the literary elements that connect the two
The parallels seem to be present, but how both scenes portray Jesus as priest is harder to show. The stronger case for priestly theology is found in the tearing of the temple curtain, which serves as a synecdochical reference to the Jerusalem cult, temple, or priesthood. Once this curtain rending event is described at the end of the life of Jesus, it becomes more plausible to look for an antecedent clue in the ritual and divine action that begins his public life, the baptism in the Jordan River.
The report of the tearing of the temple curtain is so stark that the reader can only pause and wonder about its implications—and speculation has only multiplied over the centuries from Church Fathers to Scholastics to historical critical interpreters.(18) Yet in spite of a myriad of possible meanings, it is safe to assume that the Jerusalem cult is at stake for two reasons. First, the signals are unmistakable to the first-century reader, who would be familiar with temples whether they were in Jerusalem or the agora of the polis. The Jewish or Greek temple precinct would have been divided into areas designated for the general public and the cultic officials, and thus the sanctity of the place depended on the separation between spaces. The curtainearing would have compromised the sacral quality, the prescribed order of the cult. Second, the sense of divine intervention is evident in the passage itself, where the curtain is supernaturally torn, signified by the divine passive and the direction of the tear from top to bottom.
The crucifixion of Jesus also connects with the profaning of the sacred temple space: he dies and the Gospel of Mark immediately reports that the curtain is torn. Though the passage does not specify how or if Jesus serves as new priest or new sacrifice or even new temple, there is clearly a nexus between the two. In addition the immediate context turns up several other cues for the discerning Jewish reader that Jesus and cult are tied together. Twice the Gospel of Mark says that the crucifixion is at the ninth hour, the same time as the priestly Tamid service (1 Kings 18:36; Dan 9:21; Jdt 9:1; Acts 3:1; A.J. 14.4.3 §65; 3.10.1 §237).(19)
Finally the death of Jesus comes at a key moment in the unfolding of the narrative. The reader already knows, for example, that the Jewish temple is under a cloud of judgment and awaiting radical reform or displacement.(20) The “cleansing” of the temple has already occurred (Mark 11:15-19) crystallizing a negative critique of its operation in the mind of the reader. The impression is driven home when the temple cleansing episode is framed by the cursing of the fig tree (Mark 11:12-14) and its later interpretation (Mark 11:20-24).(21)
When the passion narrative begins, this message can be detected when Jesus is accused before the priests of threatening to destroy the temple (14:58), and it surfaces again in the crowd’s and priests’ mockery of Jesus on the cross (15:29-31). When the curtain is mentioned, Jews and Greeks have a synecdochical reference to the old institution of sacrifice, priest, and temple. When it is said to tear, it undoubtedly signifies change. Whatever the reader makes of the hermeneutics, the episode plays upon cultic imagination.
The wonder induced by this latter divine intervention, the tearing of the curtain, brings the reader back to the first divine intervention at the Jordan River because it resonates so well on a number of levels illustrated in the table above. Does the baptism episode correspond to the cultic allusions of the crucifixion passage? If the tearing of the curtain was synecdochical in its application and depends in part on a wider context, the reader must search for another synecdoche and be prepared for wider historical and literary contextin which to interpret the baptism.
Here there is a singular candidate for the synecdoche in the descending dove. The evidence for its application to Jesus as a priestly figure is more tentative(22) and perhaps more anachronistically interpreted than the tearing of the temple curtain.(23) Casting a wider literary net, there are several other symbols in the baptism scene that present subtle but compelling evidence for a cultic milieu. For example, baptism itself and the words of the heavenly voice issue a shrouded reference to sacrifice and temple.
Baptism is almost associated in the Gospel of Mark (esp. 10:38) and in other New Testament documents (e.g., Luke 12:50; Rom 6:3) with suffering and death.(24) Combined with the passion narrative’s allusion to cult, in other words, readers might envision the baptism as Jesus’ participatory ritual in his own passion and voluntary sacrifice. Three other cues confirm this interpretive insight. First, just as the death of Jesus is connected with the tearing of the temple, here the baptism—if it is the prefigurative death of Jesus—is connected with the tearing of the heavens. In other words the divine presence is paying close attention to this symbolic performance. Second, there is a report of a voice that immediately assures Jesus (and the reader) of divine approval. If it is God who tears the heavens, and God who blesses Jesus vocally, the readers naturally assume that the baptism of Jesus causes this blessing. Third, for the reader familiar with Jewish traditions, the words uttered by God allusively (ambiguously?) paraphrase Gen 22:2, where the “beloved son” refers to Isaac, the aqedah offering associated with the foundation of the Jerusalem temple.(25)
The overall message presented by the baptism and the tearing of the temple curtain is not meant to draw out a well-defined priestly Christology.(26) The events of the baptism in the Jordan River and the tearing of the temple curtain are shrouded in the same ambiguities that marked the identity of Jesus as prophet and Jesus as king. The Gospel of Mark does not speak conventionally about Jesus, as if he were simply another Jerusalem priest or sacrifice or temple replacement. The Gospel of Mark shows how all these conceptions of Jesus fall short, and the disciple and the reader are supposed to struggle to reconcile these conceptions with the events recorded in the narrative.
[Dr. Whitters is a member of The Servants of the Word, an ecumenical brotherhood of men living single for the Lord. He leads the Servants of the Word household in Detroit, Michigan, USA, which serves urban youth and seeks to foster racial dialogue in the inner-city. Dr. Whitters is a lecturer in ancient history and religion at Eastern Michigan University and a regional coordinator for a scholarly guild called the Society of Biblical Literature.]
(1) I refrain from calling these events “the introduction” for literary reasons. Instead they form what Leander E. Keck (“The Introduction to Mark’s Gospel,” NTS 12 [1965-66] 352-70, esp. 367-68) considers the climax of the introduction (1:1-15). Keck specifically rejects a Christological interpretation for these three events (p. 364), and this theological presupposition prevents him from noticing the parallelism between the inauguration and denouement of Jesus’ public life, though he does strive to find a message that unites the introduction with passion narrative..
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