“Who is this guy?”: The Gospel of Mark on the identity of Jesus (NT 1.3)

One among the many academic or historical approaches to studying gospels such as Mark is narrative analysis. One asks literary questions like: What is the overall plot of this story and how does it unfold? Who are the main characters in the narrative and how do they relate to one another? What story-telling techniques does the author use to move the narrative forward or to build tension? How does this author portray the main protagonist, Jesus?

As ancient biographies (“Lives”, bioi), all of the gospels are very much concerned with the question of who was Jesus. Still, the Gospel of Mark in particular has issues of identity at the heart of the unfolding of the plot in a way that is somewhat different than the other gospels. (For a translation of Mark, which was written about 70 CE, go here. For online resources go here. For more on the gospels as ancient biography, see the recent reviews of Richard A. Burridge, What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Greco-Roman Biography, 2nd edition, 2004). From the outset, the reader (or hearer) of this story is very much aware of who Jesus is: the first sentence says that this work is the beginning of the good message about Jesus, “the Son of God“, after all. Yet, from this author’s perspective, the human characters in the story generally do not know who this Jesus is until key moments in the narrative. Not only that, but Jesus himself is portrayed as not wanting his identity revealed, as when he tells non-human forces — demons who do know who he is — not to tell anyone (see, for instance, the exorcism in Mark 1:23-26). This is the so called “messianic secret” that is characteristic of Mark specifically and less so the other gospels that likely used Mark as a source (Matthew and Luke). This gap between what the reader knows and what the characters in the story know about Jesus’ identity is what makes the overall story ironic in a literary sense.

Throughout, just about everyone is asking “Who is this guy” (Beezelbub? Elijah? John the Baptist returned?) and it’s only at several key moments, which I want to just briefly mention here, that this identity is revealed more openly to some of the characters in the story. Up to the middle of the story, only demons know clearly who Jesus is (“Holy One of God”, “Son of the Most High God”), and he tells them to be quiet about it. But at about the mid-point of the story (Mark 8:27-33) one of his misunderstanding disciples finally outright recognizes and says who Jesus is (namely what we readers knew all along). But immediately after, the same disciple misunderstands what that identity means: Peter proclaims “You are the Messiah” but then attempts to stop Jesus’ talk about suffering and dying as the “Son of Man”, with the result that Jesus rebukes Peter as the ultimate Adversary, Satan. So the identity is now momentarily revealed to the disciples of Jesus alone, but even they are not completely on to the whole project yet. So Jesus repeatedly states to the disciples what the “Son of Man” has to do (9:12-13, 9:31-32; 10:33-34) — namely suffer and die — often with continued misunderstandings (the disciples are consistently portrayed as not getting things or as lacking “faith” in Mark). They just don’t get it, right to the very end, when they deny or desert Jesus after his arrest.

The next key identity revelations take place in the passion narrative, and these happen in a more public setting (rather than among only the disciples). They represent the culmination of Mark’s story in many respects. After his arrest, Jesus is brought before the highpriest and other Judean authorities, where he is accused of threatening to destroy the temple. More importantly here, Jesus is publicly asked “Are you the Messiah (Christ)?” and, in an unprecedented manner (for Mark’s narrative), he openly proclaims “I am”. The secret is out. Then, when he is brought for another hearing before Pilate, the Roman governor, the issue of identity is at the fore: “Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ He answered him, ‘You say so'” (15:2 [NRSV]) — which likely amounts to a “yes” here (or a qualified yes — see the update below). Finally, as Jesus passes away on the cross, a Roman (Gentile) soldier proclaims, “Truly this man was God’s Son” (15:19). So the issue of who is Jesus is fundamental to the unfolding of Mark’s Gospel, and the final character to openly proclaim Jesus’ identity is a Gentile (non-Judean / non-Jew). Scholars generally point out that Mark’s gospel was likely written by a Gentile for a primarily Gentile audience (see, for instance, Mark 7:3-4, where the author needs to explain what any Judean [Jew] would know). This post touches on only a few important factors in the narrative of Mark; much more could of course be said.

(Jan. 28): Over on NTGateway, Mark Goodacre comments on this present post and points out that the “you say so” (σὺ λέγεις) before Pilate may be a “no” (Mark Goodacre is an expert in the gospels specifically in a way that I am not, I should mention). And this is indeed a possibility here. To further support this, he draws attention to parallel passages in the trial narrative of the gospel of John. Mark Goodacre feels that this is one of those times when the gospel of John may offer a helpful guide for interpreting the gospel of Mark.

One thing to note is that in John there are other clear incidents that show that Jesus (in John) is uncomfortable with the crowds’ notion of making him a “king” specifically, as they understand that term. Thus, when Jesus miraculously feeds the crowds, “they were about to come and take him by force to make him king” with the result that “Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself” (John 6:15). Then, in response to Pilate’s question in the gospel of John, this hesitancy in accepting kingship is further developed when Jesus says that “‘My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.’ Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. . . ‘” (John 18:36-37).

I don’t think we have further, specific evidence in the gospel of Mark itself that the author particularly objects to the use of “king” for Jesus (though the title does not recur outside of the trial and passion, I believe). The title king would nonetheless match up quite nicely with the notion of an anointed one / messiah (kings were anointed in the Judean way of thinking), which is definitely what Jesus is titled in Mark. One option here that may address what Mark Goodacre raises is that the answer to ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ in the gospel of Mark is a “Yes, in a way, but I think you may have in mind a different idea of what kind of king I am”. This is the sort of corrective approach to Jesus’ identity that is characteristic of Mark, who presents a Jesus who nuances what it means to be the Son of God or Son of Man or Messiah (Christ). The disciples in Mark’s narrative can’t get their minds around these nuances (especially the suffering and dying).

If Mark Goodacre had taken the gospel of Matthew (instead of John) as a guide to interpreting the gospel of Mark, then he might have come up with an opposite conclusion, since in Matthew Jesus answers the questions of the high-priest (“are you the Messiah, the Son of God”) and of Pilate (“Are you the king of the Jews”) using very similar phrases: “You have said so” (σὺ εἶπας in Matthew 26:64) and “You say so” (σὺ λέγεις in 27:11). In the former case, there is no doubt that Jesus is the Messiah (Christ) in Matthew’s narrative, that this is a “yes”. I’m not advocating using one gospel to interpret the specific narrative features of another in this case, though. (It is worth noting that, if one holds the view that Mark was used as a source by the gospel of Matthew, Matthew is among the first of Mark’s interpreters, who nonetheless spins things his own way and has his own story and portrayal of Jesus). The absence of any other passages (beyond the passion narrative) in Mark regarding the title “king” specifically makes it difficult to be definite on the matter.

(Jan. 28):
Loren Rosson now has a post on this issue (and he also mentions another post by Wayne Leman). Loren comes to the conclusion that the answer to Pilate (in the gospel of Mark) is a “yes” of some sort, as do I. Loren also attempts to place this issue of identity in relation to ancient Mediterranean modes of identity formation or expression (using Malina et al), and in a useful way. To some degree, Loren’s discussion begins to waver into the issue of what did the historical Jesus himself — that obscure Jewish peasant — think or say about himself, which was not my focus at all here in this post. I would suggest that historical methods are quite limited in their ability to get at that obscure Jewish peasant from Galilee (the “historical Jesus”), let alone detailed questions of how he would express his own identity in the trial setting. We can, however, know quite a bit about what specific followers of Jesus (early Christian authors) thought about that peasant’s significance in the decades following Jesus’ death. And we can compare these portrayals of Jesus, which also provide us with glimpses into the worldviews of particular Christians or Christian groups.

After re-reading a work by Herzog, Loren now has a second post on the subject where he begins to doubt that the answer to Pilate is a “yes” and tends to the “no” side. But he seems more focussed on the historical Jesus than on the Markan narrative specifically.

(Feb. 2):
Stephen Carlson now weighs in on this topic, citing Morton Smith’s interpretation of Jesus’ answer to Pilate in Mark.

(Feb. 4):
Mark Goodacre now has another nuanced and well-expressed post in reaction to some of the discussion.

7 thoughts on ““Who is this guy?”: The Gospel of Mark on the identity of Jesus (NT 1.3)

  1. Pingback: Better Bibles Blog

  2. Loren Rosson

    Hi Phil,

    Yes, I’ve been trying to cover the historical Jesus and gospel narratives at the same time. Insofar as the historical Jesus is concerned, the question hinges on how accomodating a prophet could have been with the word “king” vis-a-vis messiahship. A text like Mt 19:28/Lk 22:29-30 suggests kingship indeed, though even E.P. Sanders prefers that Jesus envisioned himself more as a “viceroy” than a “king”. What would “king of the Judeans”, as put by Pilate, have suggested in the minds of most? Probably popular kingship, which Jesus rejected.

    If Pilate had used the term “messiah” (as the priesthood is reported doing), Jesus’ “you say so” would then easily be interpreted as “yes”, as I suggested in my first post. But I’m on the fence with what “you say so” means in answer to the specific charge of kingship. I can go either way.

    Thanks for intitiating all of this.

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  4. Stephen C. Carlson

    Hi, Phil.

    Thanks for linking to my post. I am curious, however, how it could seem that I was “more focussed on questions relating to the historical Jesus, rather than Mark’s portrayal of Jesus” from my own comment about what “Mark’s audience would have expected.”

  5. Phil Harland Post author

    Point well taken, Stephen. I think that what I was trying to say is that you and Loren seem motivated by questions relating to the historical Jesus rather than by the question of how Jesus functions in Mark’s narrative. You certainly did deal with the latter however, which is where my comment would be in need of revision. Phil

  6. tony prost

    it may be useful, in explicating this passage, to see the Paraphrase of the Gospel of John by Nonnos of Panopolis, on this text. Written in greek verse, approximately 450 AD in ALexandria.

    If you are intested, I can email you the text.

  7. Phil Harland Post author

    Hello Tony. That would be great if you could either quote the appropriate section right here (if you have an English translation) or send it as an email. Phil

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