Did Mark Identify Jesus as a ‘Preexistent Heavenly Figure?’ A Response to Michael Bird

235-2There has been quite a fuss on the internet recently (eg., here and here) regarding Michael Bird’s assertion that Mark, our earliest Gospel in the New Testament, presents Jesus Christ as a preexistent figure from heaven. In a rather short blog post, Bird stated the following,

The Marcan Jesus participates in the kyricentricity of Israel’s God. He is identified as a pre-existent heavenly figure who has come to earth, who carries divine authority, who embodies royal and priestly roles; and in his person, words, and deeds he manifests the holy presence, the redemptive purposes, and the cosmic power of the Lord of Israel.

This will be my first interaction with Bird’s work, although Bird himself is not unfamiliar with me as he was actually a reviewer of my latest book The Son of God: Three Views of the Identity of Jesus. I hope to meet Michael one day in person, as I hear that he is a very pleasant fellow. However, I do feel that he is grasping at straws be arguing that Mark presents a Jesus who preexisted in heaven. In this post, I will break down his two sentences with evidence from Mark which I feel runs counter to Bird’s position.

  1. The Marcan Jesus participates in the kyricentricity of Israel’s God. – I can only surmise that this phrase, being a combination of kurios and centricity, is an adjective suggesting the Lord [God] as the center point. Despite my attempts to really get at what Bird is saying this word (which Darth Vader would describe as a “technological terror you’ve constructed”) I cannot seem to lock down what is intended. The correlating indication that Jesus “participates” in this centrality of the Lord God further begs for clarification. All Christians would agree that Jesus participates in the will of God (Mark 14:26) by obediently carrying out his ministry in Mark’s Gospel. It is quite another thing to insist that Mark teaches that Jesus participated with Israel’s God as the second member of the Trinity, a theology wholly absent from Mark (see esp. Mark 12:29). I wonder if this ‘participation’ language is a rehashing of Bauckham’s similar terminology.
  2. He is identified as a pre-existent heavenly figure who has come to earth – I respectfully suggest that there is absolutely no evidence to back up this claim. Jesus in the Gospel of Mark is identified as the descendant of his mother Mary (Mark 6:3), who is called his mother (3:31). Furthermore, Jesus is hailed as the Son of David, a messianic title referring to the promised king among the descendants of David (Mark 10:47, 48; 12:35). To put it plainly, it is impossible for Jesus to be a preexisting figure if he is younger than and originating from Mary and David. Mark makes no attempt to suggest, imply, or hint that Jesus is anyone other than the human Messiah, a lineal descendant of King David carried forth down to Mary, Jesus’ mother.
  3. in his person, words, and deeds he manifests the holy presence, the redemptive purposes, and the cosmic power of the Lord of Israel – Again, the real questions regards what all is meant by these words. As an authorized agent, Jesus could carry with him a delegated and even empowered authority. The redemptive purposes, as admitted by Jesus, seem to be expressed in Mark 14:62 with a combination of Dan. 7:13 and Psa. 110:1. Mark 14:62 presents Jesus claiming to be the ‘Son of Man’ from Daniel 7 (a figure distinct yet empowered by the Ancient of Days), who will be exalted to the right hand of Yahweh as the adoni figure (a nondeity figure in all of its OT occurrences) of Psalm 110:1. In other words, both passages alluded to distinguish Jesus from Israel’s God while simultaneously indicating that Jesus is/will be exalted and empowered by that very God. It is quite another thing to suggest that Jesus is the embodying presence of God with incarnational connotations from the later creeds of 325 and 451 CE. In fact, the crowds understand Jesus as he rides humbly into Jerusalem as the one who rightfully “comes in the name of the Lord” (11:9), indicating an authorized agent of Israel’s God. Does the Markan Jesus embody all of God’s attributes? The answer would have to be no, since Jesus did not know the day of his return (13:32) and since Jesus died (15:37). Jesus also attributes the role of Creator to Israel’s God and not unto himself (Mark 10:6).

In sum, I suggest that Bird’s description of the Markan christology needs further clarification and fails to take into account off of the available data. There is no use presenting a hypothesis that is both unclear and unwilling to take seriously all that Mark has to say to his readers.

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12 thoughts on “Did Mark Identify Jesus as a ‘Preexistent Heavenly Figure?’ A Response to Michael Bird

  1. Does Dunn argue Gjohn presents Jesus as a pre-existent heavenly figure?

    Does Dunn personally hold the christological position that Jesus was actually a pre-existent heavenly figure?

  2. Dustin, you are not right about Dunn on both questions. In Christology in the Making (CIM, 1st ed.) he says: “Jesus was the incarnation of a pre-existent divine being” (p. 44); “for John the pre-existent Logos was indeed a divine personal being” (p. 244); John teaches “the personal pre-existence of the Logos-Son” (p. 249); CIM is “an investigation of the origins of … the doctrine of the incarnation” (p. 251), to which Dunn subscribes. Yet he, as N.T. Wright, says, “there is no indication that Jesus thought or spoke of himself as having pre-existed with God” (p. 254). Dunn ends this book by saying, “In Christmas we celebrate God become man…. In Easter we celebrate man become God” (p. 268). He says in CIM (p. 58), “in the Johnannine writings the divine sonship of Jesus is grounded in his pre-existence.” Dunn writes often of “the divine sonship” of Jesus, to which Dunn subscribes. He also believes the NT has irreconcilable christologies and other teachings. E.g., “the NT writings do not speak with a united voice” (Unity and Diversity, 374).

    Some have thought since Dunn’s Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? that he changed. No, and I show this in my review of this book on my blog. Dunn’s PhD supervisor was C.F.D. Moule. He was most known for his pioneering “developmental theory of christology,” in which he said the incarnation is only embryonic in the NT and was rightly developed by the church in subsequent centuries. That’s what Dunn believes, thus he has always been a Trinitarian even though Moule was a binitarian.

    In 2001, I roomed with Jimmy Dunn at SBL and asked him several questions about this. He said the only NT text that clearly establishes that Jesus is God is Jn 1.14 (he means when comparing it to 1.1). Indeed, in CIM (p. 241) he says of it, “Here we have an explicit statement of incarnation, the first, and indeed only such statement in the NT.” He doesn’t even treat 20.28 in CIM.

    (See my new Solving the Samaritan Riddle in which I partially critique Dunn’s first book.)

    1. Kermit,

      I think you will find that Dunn’s current views have shifted. In this second edition of CIM he offers a new preface where he demonstrates his shift and his reluctance that he did not engage the Fourth Gospel as adequately as he should have. This was also exhibited in “Did the Early Christians Worship Jesus?” and in his 2015 “Neither Jew nor Greek.”

      It is true that his first edition of CIM articulated a particular perspective, but his latest writings, especially in “Neither Jew nor Greek” indicate that he has indeed shifted. 2001 was fifteen years ago…

  3. Shifted to what–that Jesus did not preexist? I think I would know that. I quoted several of his texts above, and you haven’t quoted or cited any. Talk about Jesus having preexisted can be pretty semantical. Jimmy seems to subscribe to Philo’s view of an impersonal logos. But he says of Jn 1 the logos is God’s expression as if not a personal being. In Neither Jew Nor Greek (p. 346), he interprets the typical “descent and ascent” of the Son of Man, which is preexistence (I say in my RJC it should be the reverse). But preexistences does not necessarily indicate deity anyway. The main issue for us is whether or not Dunn still believes Jesus is God/divine and that the church therefore got this right, which is what he has always believed.

    I roomed with Scot McKnight at SBL in Nov. Dunn was his PhD supervisor, and they are close friends. I asked Scot if he had read Neither Jew nor Greek. He had and he said, “There’s nothing new in it.” I just now read some of the GJohn in it, and I don’t see anything changed. I think we could say that in time Jimmy has written less about Jesus being God but that he has not written anything indicating he no longer believes Jesus is God or preexisted.

    1. Having read every page of NJoG, I still feel as if Dunn does not regard Jesus as literally preexisting his birth. That is the impression he left me. I also feel that it is a gross overstatement to say that it adds/says nothing new. Again, one needs to read it in its entirety and compare it with other publications of his to come to their own conclusions.

      John 3:13 is not about pre existence of a literal being in heaven prior to Jesus’ birth but rather regards revealing God fully.

      I’m also not understanding your tone in your response. The question asked what Dunn believes now and I responded with an answer based upon what I have read of his latest writings. I blogged twenty posts on NJoG, so I don’t feel the need to rehash those quotes. I admit that I assume that Dunn believes what he writes, but of course that may not be the case. Furthermore, I have not asked Dunn personally, so I admit that I am drawing my answeres based solely upon his writings. No need to get bent out of shape.

      1. Sorry if I sounded cantankerous; I didn’t mean to. And I didn’t know you’ve read all of NJG and blogged a lot about it. I think in Dunn’s career he has increasingly written letting the biblical text speak without overlaying it with a theological grid. But has he changed his grid regarding Jesus’ identity? Not that I know about. I can see how someone could think he has changed his christology, esp. from reading Did the First Christians Worship Jesus? But if that was the case, I think his main debating partners such as Hurtado, Bauckham, etc. would be saying something about it. And Scot McKnight and James McGrath likely would know as well. Cheers.

  4. Hi Dustin
    I agree wholeheartedly with you here.
    I think Dale Tuggy demolished this ‘sharing in the identity of God’ line, but yet people still take it.
    I commented below his article (20Jan) as follows
    ‘It is a long way from ‘son of man’ and ‘son of God’ to homoousion and the doctrine of two natures.
    On the previous post, people talked about Jesus being ‘son of man’ proving that he is divine. A weak case, if by ‘divine’ it is meant ‘is God’, because the son of man is distinguished FROM God.
    And the ‘Jesus is son of God therefore Jesus is God’ argument is even weaker. ‘Son of God’ is a messianic title in the NT, evidenced eg by Peter’s confession, the high priest’s question and Martha’s statement (John 11:27).
    So Mark’s ‘divine Christology’ is more wish-fulfilment than evidentially based
    Trinitarians (evangelical especially) really need to find Jesus’ deity in the gospels, because it is not taught in the epistles nor preached in Acts.’
    Hence this search for divine christology in Mark.

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