Mark’s Divine Christology According to Bauckham

Never afraid to go against the scholarly grain Richard Bauckham contends that for too long we’ve been reading the NT through categories that are foreign to it, namely ‘ontic’ and ‘functional’ categories.  Bauckham opts rather for what he calls a “Christology of divine identity.”  According to Bauckham’s scheme “we can see that the so-called divine functions which Jesus exercises are intrinsic to who God is.” (Jesus and the God of Israel, x)  For those not familiar with Bauckham’s program he argues that to best understand the monotheism of Second Temple Judaism in which the earliest Christology is set we need to understand what made Israel’s God YHWH unique.  The categories that he employs in making this identification are:

  1. YHWH’s relationship to Israel
  2. YHWH’s relationship to all other reality, i.e., as Creator and Sovereign Ruler

God’s self-revelation to Israel as YHWH is important because it “names the unique identity of God.” (JGI, 7)  Bauckham continues, “In addition to his name, God’s identity is known to Israel from the recital of his acts in history and from the revelation of his character to Israel.” (JGI, 7-8)  So this, for example, includes the act of God delivering Israel from bondage in Egypt and the character traits of God as “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex. 34:6, NRSV).  While Bauckham certainly doesn’t underplay the significance of this data I think it’s fair to say that it takes a backseat to his discussion of God’s relationship to all other reality as Creator and Sovereign Ruler.   

In his discussion of intermediary figures Bauckham divides them into two categories: (1) principal angels & exalted patriarchs, and (2) hypostasized or personified divine attributes.  The question he seeks to answer is whether or not these figures are “intrinsic to God’s own unique identity as the one God, or are they creatures and servants of God no matter how exalted?” (JGI, 13)  He sees the literature of Second Temple Judaism as unequivocally excluding figures from the first category from inclusion in the unique divine identity while unequivocally including figures from the second category within it. 

Having briefly summarized Bauckham’s general position we can turn to his treatment of Jesus’ divine identity in Mark’s Gospel, which unfortunately spans a scant two pages in the final chapter to JGI.  It’s worth noting that these are the best two pages of the chapter.  Bauckham begins by saying that “[a] purely functional account of Jesus’ divinity in this Gospel is not adequate; rather Mark shares with early Christian writers in general what I have elsewhere called a Christology of divine identity. This is already clear in the carefully crafted conflated quotation from the prophets that form the prologue to Mark’s narrative (1:2-3).” (JGI, 264-5)  He sees the application of the divine name in Isaiah 40:3 to Jesus as significant since “God’s name refers, not to divine functions, but to the unique divine identity.”  He continues, “Jesus, according to Mark, participates in the unique identity of the God of Israel. Mark is often credited with a messianic secret, but his narrative, in fact, contains a more profound secret: that of Jesus’ divine identity.” (JGI, 264) 

He doesn’t see support for the contention that Jesus “merely act[s] on God’s behalf, as the messianic king might be expected to do” (JGI, 264) because of various references throughout Mark’s Gospel which he believes bear witness to Jesus’ inclusion in the divine identity, e.g., 2:7; 4:41; 6:50; 10:18; 11:27-33; 12:37; 14:62.  Bauckham notes how this is really only perceived by demons through the Gospel and how Mark implies rather than states outright the “true implication of what Jesus or others say.” (JGI, 265)  In one of the more substantial footnotes Bauckham says:

There is the fact that in his teaching, exorcisms and healings, Jesus never appeals to any authority beyond himself (cf. 1:27; 2:10, 28). There are the almost rhetorical questions: ‘Who can forgive sins but God alone?’ (2:7); and ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?’ (4:41). There is the theophany scene in which Jesus tramples the sea and uses the self-identification, ‘It is I’ (egō eimi), apparently innocuous words that in fact correspond to a formula of divine self-identification in the Old Testament (6:50; cf. 14:62). There are Jesus’ words, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone’, which seem actually to disclaim divine identity, but for competent readers mean precisely the opposite (10:18). There is Jesus’ cleverly evasive refusal to disclose the source of his authority (11:27-33), and his exegetical question about the Messiah: ‘David himself calls him [the Messiah] Lord. So how can he be David’s son?’ (12:37). (JGI, 265, n. 41)

Of course he makes reference to Jesus’ statement to the high priest at his trial in 14:62 which he claims “can only be, from a Jewish theological perspective, a claim to share in the unique divine identity of the God who alone rules over all things.” (JGI, 265)  Also noteworthy is Mark’s use of the title ‘Son of God’ which indicates Jesus’ unique relationship with God.  A section earlier he examined briefly the three revelatory events where the title is used, i.e., Jesus’ baptism, transfiguration, and death.  For this final scene the Greek is ambiguous and the centurion might mean ‘a son of God,’ but Bauckham finds it unlikely that Mark would have “placed this christological confession at the climax of his narrative in order to highlight no more than this weak pagan sense of divinity.” (JGI, 266)  

I’ll offer my final reflections on Bauckham’s work in the final post of this series.  To be continued…

B”H

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21 thoughts on “Mark’s Divine Christology According to Bauckham

  1. Of course he makes reference to Jesus’ statement to the high priest at his trial in 14:62 which he claims “can only be, from a Jewish theological perspective, a claim to share in the unique divine identity of the God who alone rules over all things.”

    I thought Bock made a pretty good argument that from a Jewish theological perspective, Jesus was making a claim to exultation. It seems to me that Bauckham is rather loose in the use of phrases like “can only be” regarding theories about which reasonable minds can and do differ.

  2. Michael: After reading Fee and Wright you’ll definitely want to get into Bauckham (and Hurtado who’s the best of them all if you haven’t already read him!).

    Vinny: Within Bauckham’s framework of ‘divine identity’ the usage isn’t as loose as it might first appear. The question to ask is whether or not his classification is quite so tidy as he’d like it to be. Plenty of folks think not.

  3. Since his framework of divine identity is itself a theory upon which reasonable minds can and do differ, I don’t think that tightens things up.

  4. Hi Nick. On Mark’s use of Isaiah 40:3, is there any reason why the “Lord” has to be identified with Jesus? Could Mark mean that John was preparing for a work of God, of which Jesus was part? The original context of Isaiah 40:3 seems to be about preparing the way for a work of God, the Jews’ return from exile.

  5. Vinny: To be honest I don’t see anything controversial about Bauckham’s claim, even if reasonable minds do differ. He need not accept that their differing views are correct or even possible.

    James: Yes. Mark’s Context. John prepares the way for Jesus (1:7ff.) Also, Mark’s substitution of αυτου for του θεου ημων is significant as most commentators note, and was most likely changed to refer to Jesus (See e.g., R. T. France’s The Gospel of Mark [NIGTC], 64; William Lane’s The Gospel According to Mark [NICNT], 46; Larry Hurtado’s Mark [NIBC], 23).

  6. Nick,
    Good post!
    By the way Have you read James McGrath’s work “The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context”? I’ve been told that McGrath’s argument is compelling. If you have read this book it would be nice to post a review here and perhaps compare McGrath and Bauckham (in “Jesus and the God of Israel: God Crucified and Other Studies on the New Testament’s Christology of Divine Identity”) christology. This is just a suggestion.

    Hope all is well with you.

  7. He need not accept that their differing views are correct or even possible.

    A scholar thinks other views are incorrect. An apologist thinks other views are impossible

  8. Then what is he saying about the relative merits of other interpretations of Mark 14:62 when he says it “can only be, from a Jewish theological perspective, a claim to share in the unique divine identity of the God who alone rules over all things”? He doesn’t seem to be suggesting that any other interpretation other than his own can be plausible.

  9. Vinny: Go back to my original response. Within his framework (which is that YHWH’s relationship to Israel & all other reality is what marked YHWH out as unique) Jesus’ claim can only be understood as a claim to share in the unique divine identity.

  10. Vinny: The whole book is a qualification of that statement. Re-read my post and the summary I’ve given. He thinks that NT scholars have been operating according to the wrong categories. And on that note I won’t be carrying on this conversation (about three words that Bauckham) since it’s ultimately pointless.

  11. It sounds to me like what Bauckham really means is “Based on my novel understanding of the Jewish theological perspective on monotheism, Jesus’ claim in Mark 14:62 can only be understood as supporting my novel understanding of the Jewish theological perspective on monotheism.”

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