Markan Christology: Blasphemy, I Am, John’s Gospel, and the Rhetoric of Parallelomania

jesuses_header16Published on the Jesus Blog…”a weblog dedicated to historical Jesus research and New Testament studies”. An interesting piece by James Crossley, Professor of Bible, Society and Politics at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, London

The Markan Christology debate continues. I will repeat some points that I think need addressing and then address Mike Bird’s non-argument about parallelomania in his latest instalment.

1. Blasphemy. As I previously pointed out, ‘blasphemy’ can cover accusations of different sorts, including legitimacy to serve in the priesthood (Ant. 13.293-295; cf. Lev. 21.14), with one side (in this case a Pharisee) calling for the high priest to step down and the other (in this case a Sadducee) calling blasphemy. As we will see, blasphemy can involve making divine claims in the strongest possible sense. But it does not have to be.

Let’s take the case of Mark, again. In Mark 2.1-12 it is about forgiveness or release (the Greek has a wide semantic area, and note we are dealing with a man unable to use limbs or speak) of sins which, as has long been pointed out, can be a divine passive (‘your sins have been forgiven/released by…’). It talks about the son of man having authority on earth. In Mark 3.22-30 we have another, bitter debate over ‘blasphemy’ and it is about the source of Jesus’ authority to carry out exorcisms: God or Satan? The theme of authority continues in the Temple scenes (11.27-33) and when we get to the ‘blasphemy’ in Mark 14.61-64 could it be the culmination of a theme about the source of Jesus’ authority? Almost certainly. Does it mean Jesus is divine in the strongest possible sense? Not necessarily, or at least it is very difficult to know how it would have been perceived. We know the concept of blasphemy could stretch beyond claiming equality with God. And this is where those texts about various exalted figures and concepts are likewise important in confusing matters: we know other figures from Moses to Wisdom could be constructed in highly elevated terms.

2. ‘I am (he)’. As I previous pointed out, we should be cautious given that elevated figures can take on attributes of YHWH. What’s more, the phrase can be used in a banal sense by human beings and so context is crucial. Some points worth observing here. In Mark 6.49-50, it is used by Jesus to inform the disciples that he is not a ‘ghost’. Contrast John 18.5-6 where people step back and fall to the ground when Jesus says ‘I am (he)’. This use is not quite what we find in Mark. Are not the disciples awestruck in Mark 6.49-50 because the elements obey Jesus rather than his use of ‘I am’?

3. John’s Gospel. I have no easy answers to the question of Mark’s Christology and it may be ambiguous as Chris Keith and others have suggested. But those who claim divinity in the strongest possible sense need to have an answer to why nothing prior to John has passages like this where the construction is far more explicit and causes controversy with ‘the Jews’:

“But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.’ For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.” (John 5.17-18)

“‘The Father and I are one.’ The Jews took up stones again to stone him. Jesus replied, ‘I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you going to stone me?’ The Jews answered, ‘It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.’ (John 10.30-33)

And so to Bird’s take on parallelomania:

it is possible to contest this reading by pointing to texts where human/heavenly figures do things that others take as a divine thing that the Marcan Jesus does, e.g., forgive sins, walk on water, judge the wicked, etc. This is purported to be evidence that the Marcan Jesus is a divine agent rather than a divine person. While I do not dispute the value of using ancient texts to illuminate a given text (see Michael Kok‘s great summary), nevertheless, the issue is what is Mark trying to communicate about Jesus, and the effort to mute his claim by appealing to parallels simply runs afoul of Samuel Sandmel’s famous warning against parallelomania! Parallels are good for mapping how readers familiar with a given text might understand the story – reading after all is matter of context and prior reading experiences – but parallels cannot determine purpose or over power the narrative sweep of a text. Everyone go and re-read Sandmel!

This is simultaneously both accurate and inaccurate, or at least can lead us to some absurdities if we believe the rhetoric. The parallels do not have to be used in the sense Bird claims and he gives no example highlighting such behaviour. In this debate, at least as I would use ‘parallels’, such texts are not used to say ‘Jesus was exactly like this or that figure because a non-Markan text says so’ but to establish what people might have understood when they heard or wrote about someone walking on water or when the term ‘blasphemy’ was used, or why John contains details about equality with God and conflict with ‘the Jews’ in his narrative sweep. Bird needs to deal with these arguments and not resort to comparatively meaningless rhetoric about ‘parallelomania’ just because such texts are inconvenient details.

But what if we accepted Bird’s use of parallelomania as he has viewed it applied to the Christological debate? Well, we’d have to discount his arguments elsewhere (which regularly cite Jewish texts just like everyone else) if he were consistent. For instance, here is a different argument from Bird elsewhere: ‘Jesus’ action in preaching a gospel and his work of healing and exorcisms correspond with the messianic vocation as spelled out in the Messianic Apocalypse from Qumran’. What happened to parallelomania? Why cite DSS or Jewish texts if they are merely parallels? As Bird knows, it’s what you do with the text that matters, not just listing texts. Bird uses the example from Qumran to explain that Jesus was making messianic claims. In other words, they are texts which helps us understand context and reconstruct perceptions. And the principle underlying this sort of thinking is exactly what is happening when at least someone like me (and I presume plenty of others—Bird, recall, gives no examples so it is difficult to assess) uses examples which could lead to conclusions that Bird does not necessarily want. ‘Parallelomania’ is not a Get Out of Jail Free Card when confronted by problematic data.

And then there’s this nagging suspicion I have. It’s almost as if scholars are using Jewish texts as a Good Thing when they support their presuppositions and a To Be Neglected Thing when they do not.

Categories: Bible, Biblical scholarship, Christianity, God

5 replies

  1. quote :

    “By contrast, in the REAL WORLD of early Judaism, as far as it can be reconstruct-ed, the phrase ‘Your sins are forgiven’ cannot possibly have been taken as a blasphemous violation of God’s prerogative, 29”

    Within the Gospel of Mark itself, the reaction of the scribes serves to bring out a ‘high’ Christology. Mark certainly intends his audience to interpret Jesus’ announcement along the same lines as do the scribes. For Mark, Jesus does not forgive in the secondary sense of that word, but in its primary sense, thus implying a unity between God and Jesus that surpass-es every instance of prophetic intimacy with the divine.
    In the narrative world of Mark , then, ‘to forgive’ invariably means to forgive in the prima-ry sense, and any one who does so claims to do what only God can do.

    By contrast, in the REAL WORLD of early Judaism, as far as it can be reconstruct-ed, the phrase ‘Your sins are forgiven’ cannot possibly have been taken as a blasphemous violation of God’s prerogative, 29
    and any ‘authority to forgive sins’ would naturally have been understood as an authority to for-give in the secondary sense. To argue for the
    historical realism of the scribes’ criticism (which is how I understand the objective of Johansson’s article) by pointing to the uniquely controversial nature of Jesus’ bestowal of forgiveness is in fact to engage in circular reasoning, since the narrated controversy is entirely dependent on the dichotomy implied by Mark 2:7 itself.
    If we refrain from letting this historically improbable accusation influence our interpretation of Jesus’ offering of forgiveness, then, we find that both Samuel and Jesus forgive sins in the secondary sense of averting the punishment for them – in the case of Jesus, by ‘sending away’ the paralysis of the man brought to him.

    29 E. P. Sanders,
    Jewish Law from Jesus to the Mishnah: Five Studies
    (London: SCM Press, 1990), 63; Maurice Casey,
    The Solution to the ‘Son of Man’ Problem
    (LNTS, 343; London: T & T Clark, 2007), 157, conclude similarly

    williams, your thoughts on this quote i have quoted above?

    Liked by 1 person

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