Friday, 12 December 2008

Richard Bauckham on Divine Identity in Mark

This is the third blog on this colloquium; scroll down for the first two.

Prof. Bauckham, if he doesn’t already assume this matrix (i.e., as outlined by Don Lewis here) certainly does reinforce it. He emphasises first the assumed monotheism of the earliest Christians and then traces how they incorporated Old Testament language and characterisations of God in their assessment of Jesus’ own identity. As such, Bauckham argues more for a Christology of divine identity rather than divine nature.

Prof. Bauckham himself suggested a matrix for understanding God: 1) God is the sole creator, and distinguished from the creature; 2) he is the sovereign ruler, and distinguished from his subjects; 3) he will achieve his eschatological rule; 4) he has his unique name YHWH; 5) he alone may be and should be worshiped.

This interpretive framework for understanding divine identity was applied to Jesus as the earliest Christians sought to understand his own identity. Jesus was not identical to God, but uniquely shares his identity or is included therein. The whole of Prof. Bauckham’s paper shows how this was worked out in Mark’s Gospel.

One of Prof. Bauckham’s important points was the insistence of the early Christians to apply Ps 110 to Jesus: “The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet’” (the most quoted Old Testament text in the New Testament). The early Christians took the inviolable Old Testament principle that God’s rule cannot be asserted by the creature, yet Jesus is the one who ushers in the kingdom. This has implications for not merely Jesus’ pre-existence, but also for his eternality. If Jesus shares the divine identity, he must have shared it eternally. Along these lines, Prof. Bauckham debunks the low Christology of the old adage which stated that Jesus merely functions as God by asserting that in order for Jesus to function as God, he must truly be God.

Six Passages
Prof. Bauckham commented on six passages in Mark, as quickly outlined below….

In the exorcism of 1:21-27, the striking element is the new authority which Jesus displays. He casts out the demon not by some technique or by prayer to God, but by his own striking authority.

In the healing of the paralytic (2:1-12), Jesus is accused of usurping the divine prerogative to forgive sins. His accusers appear to have made a correct deduction. After all, the psalmist says, “Against you alone have I sinned” emphasising that sin has a personal effect toward God, requiring his personal forgiveness. This is reinforced by the Marcan reference to the Shema (Deut 6:4-6) in the Pharisee’s rhetorical question, Who can forgive sin but God alone? “But God alone” rendered literally is “God is one.” Moreover, the text does not say, “Your sins have been forgiven,” as some have (customarily?) suggested that a priest perhaps might have said in connection with Temple prerogatives, but rather, “Your sins are forgiven.” Indeed, Simon Gathercole suggests that there may be no example in extant literature that a priest ever said, “Your sins have been forgiven.”

In the stilling of the storm (4:35-41), the question of Jesus’ identity becomes an open question, one which is not explicitly answered until late in the Gospel. The motif of rebuke and obeying is found in this text, and is part of a constellation of passages which appropriate divine prerogatives to Christ’s own identity: 1:25, 27; 4:39, 41, 42.

Walking on Water (6:47-52): ego eimi (cf. 14:62).

In Jesus’ conversation with the rich man (10:17-22), monotheism is again reinforced with the same Shema formula as found in Mark 2:7: God is one. Jesus’ reply about God alone being good is not a radical disassociation of himself from the divine identity, but rather a provocative irony.

Only in Jesus’ answer to the high priest (14:61-64) is the question of Jesus’ identity explicitly answered. It comes as a climax to the whole narrative of Mark’s Gospel. It is then reinforced by the centurion at Jesus’ death who declared that Jesus was the Son of God. Strangely enough, however, Prof. Bauckham seemed to deny that the Old Testament text behind this passage (Dan 7) has implications for divine identity, a point which Prof. Hays rightly pressed him on.

Thus, questions regarding Jesus’ identity arise in 1:27; 2:7; 4:41; 10:18; which are finally resolved in Jesus’ answer to the high priest’s question, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed” (14:61). I would argue that Jesus’ reply claims more for himself than the High Priest could have imagined, but I’m not sure that Prof. Bauckham himself made this point.

My Reflections
Prof. Bauckham’s background contrasts greatly from my own. He says he used to be perfectly happy with the old template that the New Testament documents began with a low Christology, but evolved over the centuries into Trinitarianism. This all changed, he says, as he looked more carefully at the New Testament documents himself.

In contrast, I have fundamentalist roots, and at Free Will Baptist Bible College, we examined the deity of Christ primarily from the standpoint of prooftexts but also through occasional good exegesis. Certainly the good exegesis was reinforced at Regent College, especially with an appreciation of the appropriation of Old Testament theological concepts by the New Testament writers. Consequently, I’m not surprised at Prof. Bauckham’s conclusions.

In many ways, what Prof. Bauckham presented today is a more nuanced and sophisticated version of the understanding of the deity of Christ that was taught to me back at Free Will Baptist Bible College. Perhaps the most striking difference is in the personalities. On one hand, fundamentalists from Bob Jones University taught me the deity of Christ in the early 1980s. On the other hand, yesterday, a scholar highly respected by everyone, who is at the absolute apex of academia, stood up at the lectern at the University of Cambridge and declared, “Mark’s Gospel portrays Jesus as sharing in the divine identity,” which, as far as I can tell, does nothing less than affirm the deity of Christ. If he had done so at Free Will Baptist Bible College, the crowd would have shouted, “Amen.”

A final comment in this regard, I’m not sure I share Prof. Bauckham’s concern to distinguish the issue of Jesus’ nature as being divine and the issue of Jesus’ divine identity. It seems that the emphasis on Jesus’ divine identity leads nowhere else except to Jesus’ full deity in nature.


Jc_Freak: said...

Good post, but you mispelled YHWH early on. You might want to correct that.

Rev. James M. Leonard said...

Yes, indeed, a couple of glaring mistakes, including an omission of "no" which ended up making Simon Gathercole say that there were examples of priests declaring a person's sins forgiven.

On this last point, private email discussions between the speakers and others suggest that Sanders has argued assuredly that not only is there no extant example of a priest declaring a person's sins forgiven, but that texts are silent in the matter when we would expect them to say something if the case were otherwise.

Apparently, the notion of a priest declaring a person's sins forgiven is an example of scholarly myth mistakenly becoming entrenched as fact.