“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 more on the gospels as ancient biography, seeĀ  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.