Book Review – “A Man Attested by God” by Daniel Kirk (part 6 – “Son of God” in Mark)

saintmark.JPGThis is post number six in my ongoing series containing my reviews and thoughts on Daniel Kirk’s newest volume, A Man Attested by God: The Human Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels. Today we will start your Labor Day weekend examining Kirk’s second chapter – “Son of God as Human King.” In particular, I will focus on the Gospel of Mark, the first document Kirk discusses in this chapter. As has been my custom in these reviews, I offer a few bullet points covering his arguments along with a few comments of my own in italics.

  • The Christology of Mark needs to be read on its own terms, particularly outside of the lens of the Fourth Gospel. I would be interested in testing Kirk’s idealized human figure hypothesis on the christological claims and statements within the Gospel of John, but that will likely require another 600+ page book from him (here’s hoping).
  • Kirk builds a overall persuasive argument noting the internal structure of Mark in which Jesus is proclaimed as “Son of God” in three key moments of the narrative: at his baptism, at the Transfiguration, and upon the cross by the Gentile centurion. Thematically, these three episodes share, broadly, many elements, actions, and phrases, suggesting that the writer deliberately placed them there for structural and theological reasons. Each of these episodes contain:
    • a voice claiming that Jesus is the Son of God
    • a reference to Elijah
    • the act of ripping (heavens, cloud, temple curtain)
    • a reference to the Spirit/spirit
    • an associated meaning with Jesus’ death
    • a key linking with Jesus’ kingship
  • Mark’s Gospel opens with a YHWH quotation from Isaiah seemingly used with Jesus as “Lord” instead. However, Kirk has already demonstrated in the previous chapter that this manner of using texts from the Hebrew Bible also appears at Qumran without any hint that those persons were claiming to be YHWH himself.
  • Jesus is empowered with the Spirit at his baptism. Many other human figures in the Hebrew Bible were similarly empowered. Furthermore, the voice from heaven proclaiming the sonship of Jesus, if indeed echoing language from Psalm 2, makes Jesus out to be an anointed king distinguished from and wholly subordinate unto YHWH.
  • Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God as gospel and performs deeds/miracles, such as healings and exorcisms, which verify the preaching of God’s rule.
  • Mark places considerable stress in regarding Jesus as the royal king of God’s kingdom, but a king whose path to kingship first involves rejection, suffering, and death. This emphasis, of course, is not initially understood by the disciples. That is why they are called the “duh-sciples” because they just dont get it. =)
  • Jesus is said to one day return “in the glory of his Father” (8:38), indicating a measure of an agent invested in the glory of the one who sends him. This glory, not surprisingly, appears in the following episode’s vision of the Transfiguration. Kirk rightly notes that Dan 12:2-3 regards those who are bodily resurrected to the life of the age to come as shining in luminous glory, and this image is the appropriate way in which to understand the glowing Jesus at the Transfiguration (cf also Moses’ veiled face from God’s glory). Kirk suggests the appearance of Moses and Elijah at this event is indicative that they had been exalted to heaven. I prefer to see the Transfiguration as a vision of the resurrected (per Dan 12:2-3) glory of Jesus accompanied by Moses and Elijah, both bodily resurrected from the grave. Matthew redacts this account and has Jesus clearly stating that it is a “vision” (Matt 17:9) and the fact that the episode subsequently follows a statement about a few disciples witnessing the kingdom of God further points me in this interpretive direction. But I digress…
  • Kirk draws attention to some nice parallels between Jesus at the Transfiguration and Moses ascending to the mountain:
    • Both encountered God on the mountain
    • Both brought three witnesses (Peter, James, John with Jesus; Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu with Moses)
    • Both waited six days before ascending to the mountain
    • Both come into contact with God in a cloud
    • Both appear to be glorified or bearing a piece of God’s glory
  • The titles “Son of God” and “Son of Man” appear to overlap and offer similar roles of rejection before exalted kingship. Furthermore, these are not thinly veiled indicators of divinity and humanity (in the sense of the later doctrine of the two natures of Christ).
  • Plutarch recounts how Caesar’s death resulted in cosmic signs, particularly the sun being blocked. Since Caesar (and his successors) were widely regarded and worshiped by the imperial cult as “Son of God,” Mark’s insistence that Jesus’ death resulted in “darkness falling over the land at the sixth hour” of Good Friday indicates that Jesus is also to be regarded as “Son of God” (perhaps, in my opinion, polemically against the claims of Rome and the imperial cult).
  • Fallen spirits/demons worship Jesus. Yet Kirk has already demonstrated that angels worship Adam in contemporary Jewish literature. Being worshiped does not prove that one is identified as YHWH. See also 1 Chron 29:20.
  • Jesus, far from being the omniscient God of Israel, admits he does not know the day or the hour of his second coming (13:32). In stating this, Jesus differentiates himself from the angels and from the Father, the one who alone knows this information. Mark does not say that Jesus’ humanity didn’t know but that his divine side did know. No, rather only the Father knows (even the Holy Spirit is unaware, if it is to be regarded as a person distinct from the Father, which I doubt).
  • “Abba” does not mean “Daddy” (cf. Rom 8:15 and Gal 4:6). It only further points to Jesus as the authentic Son of God.
  • When Jesus heals the paralytic earlier in the Gospel he is met with opposers who state, “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” God has given authority to the Son of Man to forgive sins, and Jesus later gives that very same authority to the disciples (11:25). If the disciples can truly forgive sins, then they are certainly not divine (and neither is Jesus for that matter).


Mark checks out to fit the working hypothesis that Jesus of Nazareth is best understood as a Jewish idealized human figure (rather than a preexisting divine person or angel). Let me know in the comments below what you think of Kirk’s reconstruction of the Gospel of Mark. Tomorrow I plan to post on Kirk’s arguments in the Gospel of Luke regarding how he depicts Jesus as “Son of God,” so stay tuned!

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.

Book Review (part 16: How Jewish were the Writings of the New Testament?) – ‘Neither Jew nor Greek’ by James D.G. Dunn

Christians-vs-jewsAs we continue through my recap/review of James Dunn’s newest volume Neither Jew nor Greek we turn to the chapter entitled ‘Jewish Christianity.’ This section attempts to survey the manner in which early expressions of Christ-devotion were either characterized as Jewish or self-identified as a continuation of the Judaic heritage. Although this chapter has a lot of weighty arguments regarding how more emphasis needs to be placed upon the influence of James the Just in the Jerusalem Church and the various Jewish-Christian ‘sects’ existing in the second century CE, I wanted to highlight in particular Dunn’s inquiry into determining in what sense the NT documents themselves stressed their ‘Jewishness’ (section 45.4). Since the following chapter in the book deals with the ‘Parting of the Ways,’ it is significant to lay the groundwork regarding in what sense Judaism and Christianity were intertwined prior to their unfortunate divorce. Furthermore, it is common stock in some of the more popular discussions about the Christian faith to regard Judaism and its scriptures (the Hebrew Bible/OT) as passe or old hat. It is therefore prudent to examine in what sense did the NT documents regard themselves as Jewish.


The New Testament Gospels

Mark Dunn regards the Gospel as Mark as the least Jewish of the four canonical Gospels. However, it opens up with pivotal quotations from Exod. 23:20 and Isa. 40:3. It focuses on the Judaean region and Galilee in particular. The climax of Jesus’ ministry is depicted as Peter’s confession regarding the Messiah of Israel’s hopes. Furthermore, Jesus is regarded as the Son of David and the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Jesus honors the Shema of Deut. 6:4-5 as the greatest commandment and selects Lev. 19:18 as the next most important priority. Overall, Mark does not attempt to exonerate Jesus from his context or deny the Jewish character of his mission.

Luke –  The Gentile orientation of Luke-Acts is readily visible. Nevertheless, Luke makes a considerable effort to ensure that the Jewishness of Jesus’ mission and purpose is evident. The opening songs in Luke chs. 1-2 depict the Jewish hope now fulfilled in the respective births of John and Jesus. Luke alone mentions how the young Jesus was circumcised and how the offering for purification was given in accordance with the Law. Jesus himself regards his ministry as a fulfillment of Isa. 61:1-2. He promises his disciples that they will rule over the twelve tribes of Israel. Even after his resurrection Jesus claims that everything written about him in the Law and the Prophets was to be fulfilled in him. In sum, Luke takes for granted the Jewish character of Jesus’ ministry.

Matthew – It should go without saying that Matthew’s Gospel is thoroughly Jewish. It commences with its argument that Jesus is born as the climax of the promises to David and Abraham, tracing his genealogy with some forty Israelite/Jewish persons. Jesus himself insists that he came to preach to the lost sheep of Israel. In the famous Sermon on the Mount Jesus regards the nature of his teachings to be raised higher than those of the Pharisees. It is almost certain that Matthew depicts Jesus as the ‘new Moses’ and the one who reorganizes Israel around himself. Principally, Matthew is deeply-rooted and interested in depicting Jesus as the Jewish Messiah.

John – Although it is common to regard John as something theologically less-Jewish that its Synoptic counterparts, even it expresses a commitment to Israel’s heritage. John’s Gospel is, in fact, the only of the four to call Jesus “Messiah” (1:41; 4:25-26). Along the same lines, it is also the only Gospel to regard Jesus as the [Passover] lamb of God which takes away the sins of the world. It makes reference to Jewish imagery, such as Moses’ bronze serpent and the water from Jacob’s well, and interprets Jesus through the lens of these Jewish symbols. Jesus states that Moses wrote about him, thus arguing for continuity between the Torah and the climactic ministry of Jesus. Although John expresses a deep schism between the local Ephesian synagogue and the Johannine community, it nevertheless regards the Jesus-movement to be the proper fulfillment of Israel’s hopes and dreams.


The ‘Paulines’

The Undisputed Seven Letters – Dunn chose to not deal with these documents in this section, presumably because the scope of his book is limited to the period between 70 and the middle of the second century CE.

Ephesians – Some might be surprised that Ephesians is steeped in Jewish characteristics. It highlights the need to take the Jewish gospel to non-Jews. Its recipients, whomever they were, are regarded twice as “saints” in the opening few verses. In fact, Ephesians regards its audience with the title “saints” more times than any other Pauline epistle. Regular Jewish phrases like, “Blessed are you,” “chosen,” “the beloved,” “the mystery of his will,” and “God’s possession” appear within Ephesians. Although the citations are from the LXX there exist over twenty quotes from the Torah, Prophets, and the Writings. Its audience is comforted by regarding them, not as aliens and strangers, but as fellow-citizens and heirs of the kingdom of God and Christ.

The Pastoral Epistles – In contrast to Ephesians the Pastoral epistles exhibit a lesser degree of Jewish material. The focus seems to be primarily on Paul’s apostleship to the Gentiles. The Jewish Law is still regarded as “good,” “the Law for the lawless,” etc. 1 Timothy speaks of Adam and Eve as common characters familiar with the audience in Ephesus, alludes to Genesis (1:31 and 9:3), and cites explicitly from Deuteronomy (19:15 and 25:4). 2 Timothy in particular regards the Jewish scriptures as inspired/God-breathed and authoritative for life and practice. Titus shows some conflict with Jewish themes (“Jewish myths,” “quarrels relating to the Law,” “those of the circumcision”). However, Dunn suggests that a conflict between Titus’ community and the local synagogue might be the best explanation for these markers.


The Rest of the New Testament

Hebrews – It is hardly necessary to argue for the Jewish character in Hebrew, as it is plainly obvious with its nearly forty references and quotations from the OT/LXX. It arguably regards Jesus as the expression of Lady Wisdom in its opening verses. It depicts Jesus as one who is superior to the angels with an argument built on Jewish references. It possessed an clear interest in the priesthood, sacrifices, the Sabbath rest, the holy of holies, the sanctuary, and the elusive Melchizedek. Chapter 11 of Hebrews paints many of the famous figures from the Old Testament (and come from the intertestimental period) as heroes of faith. Hebrews, overall, is arguably one of the most Jewish text in the NT.

James – Dunn summarizes his arguments from Beginning from Jerusalem where James is depicted as an anthology of Jewish wisdom tradition. Particularly, the Book of Proverbs serves as the foundation for the thought and theme of James. A positive attitude towards the Jewish Law is maintained throughout James. Those who cherished the Book of James certainly valued its Jewish heritage.

1 Peter – Although 1 Peter is written to Gentile believers in the eastern part of the Roman empire, it nevertheless regards the identity of its recipients as ‘Jewish identity.’ It makes a strong claim that Christ is the fulfillment of Israel’s prophecies (1:10-11) and scatters  a variety of allusions to the Torah, Prophets, and Writings in all five of its chapters.

Jude – All of Jude’s warnings are based upon the foundation of particular Jewish warnings, with over a dozen examples cited by Dunn. Furthermore, Jude was certainly influenced by 1 Enoch (seven references noted by Dunn). Jude also makes the claim that he is the brother of James, the former head of the Jerusalem Church.

2 Peter – Dunn follows the majority of scholars in seeing 2 Peter as dependent upon Jude. This means that it carries with it Jude’s Jewish character. Furthermore, 2 Peter chapter three exhibits a thoroughly-Jewish farewell speech, drawing upon Isa. 65. It is also, apart from the Synoptics, the only reference to Jesus’ transfiguration vision.

Johannine Writings – The stress on Jewish themes is quieter in these three documents. There is an insistence on confessing Jesus as ‘the Christ.’ Christ, as a title, is still expressed in these late documents. Jesus is also remembered as “the righteous one.”

Revelation – Like Matthew and Hebrews, the Book of Revelation hardly needs to be argued for its Jewish character. It draws heavily on Ezekiel and Daniel, particularly for its christological expressions of the risen and exalted Jesus.  Jesus is further described as the Lion from the Tribe of Judah, the Root of David, and the Lamb. Dunn interestingly regards Revelation as “a new Ezekiel” in light of its indebtedness to its visions and symbols.


After reading Dunn’s summary I was surprised at the measure of continuity between the Jewish/Hebrew Bible and the NT writings. I always had a strong feeling of connection between the testaments, but Dunn demonstrates that it is stronger than I had originally appreciated. Dunn offers the following summary of his inquiry into the Jewishness of the NT documents:

The core founding documents of what became catholic Christianity were also Jewish through and through, deeply rooted in Jewish scriptures, faith and ethics, so much so that it is not inaccurate to describe mainstream Christianity as directly continuous with Second Temple Judaism, and catholic Christianity itself as Jewish Christianity, since the Jewish character of Christianity in integral to its identity.

What do you think of Dunn’s assessment regarding how Jewish the NT documents were? Be sure to ‘Like,’ share, and subscribe for further updates. Have a safe and happy New Years.

Book Review (part 3) – ‘Neither Jew nor Greek’ by James D.G. Dunn

Mark-LionIn this third installment of my ongoing series of reviews and recaps of Dunn’s newest volume Neither Jew nor Greek: A Contested Identity I will examine the beginning of chapter thirty-nine. This chapter focuses on the first century sources within the NT itself. This post will cover §39.1-2a.

Dunn begins this chapter by citing Helmut Koester‘s remark that in order to reconstruct the historical developments of early Christianity, the student “must learn from the outset to understand the writings of the earliest period within their proper historical context.” This task requires the reader to do his/her homework with a critical and objective perspective. In regard to the number of sources available to a historian of early Christianity, there are many and most of these can be dated to the first century CE. Dunn notes that there are a variety of approaches when it comes to drawing upon these sources for his inquiry. One could easily place them in chronological order or organize them from a geographical standpoint. Dunn, however, chooses to look for broader trends and developments without trying to tie the sources down to particular places or dates. This seems like a wise choice, seeing that it is often difficult to determine precisely the date and location from which these sources were written. We will have to wait until the conclusions to see if this method brings about worthwhile historical fruit.

The first sources which Dunn examines are the Canonical Gospels. He notes that the textual data available to study pertaining to these Gospels is enormous; the fourth century uncials Sinaiaticus (א) and Vaticanus (B), manuscript fragments (some as early as the second century CE), the translations of the Gospels into Latin and Syriac (some as early as the fourth century CE), and quotations by the early Church Fathers (some as early as the second century). Each of these sets of data could be footnoted easily with qualifications to how they should be properly used, such as the need to distinguish an actual direct citation from the early Church Fathers and a mere loose quotation (as a shorthand allusion).

Dunn then begins to examine our earliest Gospel according to the majority of NT specialists: Mark. It is widely acknowledged that Mark was the primary source material for Matthew and Luke’s Gospel. The fact that Mark was used in this manner suggests the possibility that his Gospel was written for an audience in wider circulation rather than for one particular community. The only significant text-critical question regards the ending of Mark, about which most are comfortable concluding that the original Gospel ended with 16.8. Dunn suggests that Mark’s Gospel came to have some form of “Gospel According to Mark” attached to it during the early stages if its circulation (late first century CE). I find it interesting that the earliest written Gospel, which itself is a ‘Christianized’ Greco-Roman biography, was written by someone who was not himself one of the Twelve. Dunn notes that 1 Peter 5:13 links the Apostle Peter to John Mark, and suggests that this might be the key to linking an Apostle to Mark (whose identity is probably the same as the John Mark exhibited in the Book of Acts; Phlm 24; and Col. 4:10). When it comes to questions regarding Mark’s knowledge of Palestinian geography (such as the problem of Mark 7:31), Dunn cites Guelich, Marcus, and Collins as scholars who regard these concerns as exaggerated. When it is all said and done, Dunn  concludes that Mark’s Gospel probably bore the author’s own name from a very early period of circulation in addition to it being regarded as linked with the Apostle Peter.

The chapter then turns to discussing the date of Mark. When one reads typical critical introductions to the NT regarding Mark’s dating, one might wonder what else could be added by such a discussion. I was happy to find that Dunn offers a few interesting perspectives and asks some questions which might allow for some other data to contribute to the discussion. He correctly notes that it is difficult to date Mark in relation to Matthew and Luke (in fact, Matthew and Luke owe their dating to a plausible guess as to when Mark is dated). Dunn moves to the key passage which is most often cited as the most reasonable internal data regarding dating the Gospel: Marks ‘little apocalypse’ in chapter thirteen. This passage records Jesus predicting the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. Dunn carefully notes how Jesus’ prediction as recorded in Mark that “not one stone will be left upon another” could hardly have found fulfillment in 70 CE since the western wall still exists in modern Jerusalem. This could suggest that the prophecy had not found its fullest fulfillment. Either way, more data needs to be examined to ascertain a plausible date. Dunn then notes the Markan editorial comment in Mark 13:14 (“let the reader understand”), a comment certainly not spoken by Jesus. This is Mark’s way to direct the attention of the reader upon this passage and insisting that it requires a critical measure of thinking. Dunn offers a few possibilities as to what Mark 13:14 originally meant. First, he suggests that the earlier crisis involving Caligula (in the 30s CE) in which a statue of the Emperor was placed within the temple. But this does not make sense of Mark’s editorial note, written decades after Caligula’s episode involving the temple. Another option suggested by Dunn is that the bloodthirsty tactics of the Jewish revolutionaries during the Jewish War (66-70) were what desecrated the temple. I personally do not find this persuasive, as Mark offers a masculine perfect participle (“standing”) as the identifier of the neuter Abomination of Desolation in the Greek text. Dunn then suggests that it is not implausible to consider the Gospel as having been written during the wake of the Jewish Revolt, noting how Mark stresses the need for the followers (readers?) of Jesus to endure stress and suffering (Mark 8:34-35; 10:29-30; and esp. 13:9-20). These comments could very well be reflections upon which the dating of the Gospel might rest. In the end, Dunn offers a range between 65-75 CE as a sufficient guess.

Regarding the place of writing, both from where and to whom, Dunn trots out the usual suspects of Rome and Syria. Rome is highlighted as particularly noteworthy due in fact to the various Latinisms in Mark, such as exhibited in Mark 12:42 and 15:16 where the author clarifies the Greek term for coin (lepta) with the appropriate Roman coin (quadrans) and the courtyard of the palace is clarified with the Latin praetorium. However, this may simply reflect knowledge of Latin customs and thus not actually pointing to Rome as the place of authorship. Syria as a possibility is also discussed, pointing to the ‘brigands’ (Greek: lystes) common in the Syrian region, which are also exhibited in Mark’s text (11:17). Josephus too talks about the brigands, using the same Greek word. However, historians possess little to no hard evidence as to what Christian communities in Syria during and slightly after the Jewish Revolt were like, making it difficult to say much with any measure of certainly. Dunn ends up concluding that we cannot say anything with any confidence regarding the location of Mark’s Gospel’s creation. He therefore admits that any theories regarding the location cannot be valued too heavily when considering further questions regarding Mark’s purpose.

Stay tuned and subscribe for further updates on my thoughts of Dunn’s newest volume. Have a blessed day.