Do the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke discreetly but clearly imply that Jesus is God? This has become a popular reading lately among evangelicals, thanks in large part to the work of Dr. Richard Bauckham.
A popular argument strategy has been to focus on the earliest gospel, and the one which arguably has the least material from which to argue that Jesus is presented as divine. Even this gospel, it is argued, in its very first chapter, hints that Jesus is God himself, when this passage is said to be fulfilled:
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” (Isaiah 40:3, NRSV)
Clearly, in Mark Jesus is the one for whom a way is being prepared; so, by referencing this text, the author is telling us that Jesus is God, right? Wrong, according to Dr. Kirk. As he explains here (starting at around 15:13) and argues at length in the book, this is a misreading of Mark 1. When we pay careful attention to the texts and how the author is using them, it seems that he’s deliberately avoided calling Jesus “God” here. What is actually in Mark 1 isn’t exactly what is above, but rather, filling in the names of the three characters involved according to this gospel:
“See, I [God] am sending my messenger [John the Baptist] ahead of you [Jesus], who will prepare your [Jesus’s] way; the voice of one [John] crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord [Jesus], make his [Jesus’s] paths straight’”
As Dr. Kirk explains, here we are presented with three characters: God, Jesus, and John the Baptist.
Dr. Kirk’s overall thesis in this book is that in the first three gospels Jesus is presented as an “idealized human figure,” a category which he explains using numerous ancient Jewish texts, biblical and extra-biblical. In our conversation here, he focuses on the interesting case of Moses. In light of this whole ancient Jewish context, Dr. Kirk says that
…everything that is said about Jesus in the synoptic gospels has been said about other glorified, idealized human figures in the story of Israel. …we see these as stories about a messiah, a surprising messiah…
One surprising aspect of Jesus’s ministry is his authority to forgive sins. But as Dr. Kirk explains (18:25), the text itself (Mark 2:10) presents Jesus as an extraordinary man who has been granted this authority by God. Throughout the book Dr. Kirk distinguishes identifying Jesus with God fromidentifying Jesus as God. We discuss this distinction and Dr. Kirk’s contention that the synoptics frequently do the former but, contra Bauckham and others, never do the latter.
Dr. Kirk contrasts the christologies of the synoptics with that of the fourth gospel. In part 2 of our discussion next week, we’ll talk about this, and about the fact that in the synoptics people sometimes worship Jesus.