In orthodox Christianity, Jesus is both human and divine. At least in part, this belief is based upon what is written in the New Testament. Mark, the earliest canonical Gospel (see “The Priority of Mark,” by Peter Kirby), has been interpreted as conforming to this view; but does it?
Mark’s Jesus is certainly human, but is he divine? The title “Son of God,” which is used often in Mark, does not necessarily suggest divinity, as is often thought. Its use is introduced in Mark 1:11 in a citation from Psalm 2:7, which speaks of a non-divine and fully human king being enthroned. If Mark is using this title in a way that corresponds to its original meaning, then it does not suggest that Jesus is divine. It might simply mean that Jesus is a kingly Davidic Messiah.
Since Mark does not explicitly affirm or deny Jesus’ divinity, we will have to look for less obvious clues. One clue might be to ask if Mark’s Jesus has any characteristics that expressly exclude divinity? Does he have any qualities that a human would have but that God would not? One feature that would suffice is sin. While sin is characteristic of humans, it is not associated with the Jewish God (Mark 10:18). If it could be demonstrated that Mark’s Jesus is a repentant sinner, this would mean that he is not divine. That Jesus is affirmed to be sinless elsewhere in the New Testament (2 Cor 5:21, Heb 4:15; 1 Pet 2:22, and 1 John 3:5) does not mean that Mark has this view as well.
Sinlessness is not a staple ingredient of Messianic expectations in the non-Christian Second Temple milieu. While some texts believed the expected Messiah was to be a sinless being (Psalm of Solomon 17:36, and maybe the Testament of Judah 24.1), this view is not common.
The opening of Mark’s Gospel can be read (independent of the issue of sinlessness) as suggesting Jesus experienced a divine adoption and became the Messiah at the baptism. Speaking of “adoption” as a developed theological doctrine is anachronistic for the Markan narrative. Nevertheless, something like adoption coheres nicely with the narrative. It also corresponds with a Markan Jesus who is a “real” (non-divine) human being.
Explicit affirmations of Jesus’ moral status are rare in the Gospel. For example, there are many instances when the Markan Jesus defends himself against various charges of wrong-doing (See Mark 2:6-11, 13-17, 18-20, 23-28, 3:1-6, 22-30, 31-35, 4:38-41, 7:1-23, 8:11-13, 10:1-12, 13-16, 11:27-33, 12:13-17, 18-27; 28-34, 14:3-9, 48-49). All these passages affirm is that Jesus was right and his opponents wrong – not that Jesus is sinless. The fact that God is “well pleased” with Jesus in 1:11 may be a moral affirmation of sorts, but does not require (or suggest) sinlessness. Jesus regularly demonstrates obedience and fidelity (1:44, 8:31-33, 10:45, 11:15-15, and 14:21), but again this does not require or suggest sinlessness. Perhaps the most salient example of Jesus’ moral worth is the obedience he demonstrates in going to his death. This is poignantly narrated in the Gethsemane episode (14:32-42). But even here, rather than suggesting Jesus’ sinless status, Mark emphasizes the struggle required to achieve faithfulness to God’s will (14:32-42). And finally, what are we to make of Jesus’ cry of dereliction upon the cross? Even at the very moment of Jesus’ greatest achievement in the Gospel, Mark has not presented his readers with a figure filled with strength, faith, and moral perfection, but rather one who apparently doubts God’ faithfulness. The arc of Mark’s narrative does not traverse an ideal of sinlessness, but rather fidelity to God and God’s will.
Furthermore, the first thing Jesus does when he comes onto the stage of the Gospel is to submit to a baptism of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). Why would Jesus submit to this rite if he was sinless? While this passage has been interpreted in a number of ways that maintain Jesus’ sinlessness, there is nothing is the text that differentiates what Jesus does in Mark 1:9 from what everyone who comes to John does in Mark 1:5. This suggests that Jesus is doing the same thing they are doing – confessing sins, repenting, and receiving forgiveness.
To suggest that Jesus is a repentant sinner is not actually a radical claim. In Mark’s world (as in ours) saying that someone is without sin is what is extraordinary. There was (and is) a common belief in the time of Mark that every human being sins, and therefore everyone needs to repent of sins (1 Kings 8:46, Isa 59:20, 4 Ezra 7:46, Rom 3:23, Mark 10:18, James 3:2, and 1 John 1:8). None of the great heroes of faith within Mark’s Jewish tradition (such as Abraham, Moses, David, and Elijah) were without sin. Hence, to say that Mark’s Jesus was a repentant sinner really says little more than that he was a “real” human being. The emphasis, then, is not on the nature or degree of Jesus’ sin, but rather the simple fact of its existence. Ostensibly, it is enough that the reader acknowledges that Jesus shares the common sinful lot of all humanity. It is presumably enough for Mark that Jesus be understood generally as a “normal” person (hence, a sinner) who receives forgiveness, is chosen by God elected to be Son, and then passes that forgiveness along to others. While this stands in tension with other New Testament Christologies, it does justice to the narrative of Mark as we find it.
And if Jesus is sinless, why does he say to the rich man “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (Mark 10:17-18)? Why would a sinless Jesus deny that the word “good” applies to him? Again, while this passage has been interpreted otherwise, in my view the most obvious sense is that Jesus denies that he is good, along with everyone else (except God). It is impossible to conceive of sinlessness lacking goodness. Hence, Jesus’ response to the rich man identifies him as one who shares the common sinful lot of humanity.
When all this is put together, a cohesive picture emerges. Jesus is not “good,” just like everyone else, and needs to repent. He submits to the baptism of John (which is defined as a baptism of repentance unto forgiveness). He receives forgiveness through John’s rite, is chosen by God to become God’s son and Messiah, and then becomes a conduit of divine forgiveness for others (2:5-10). One certainly need not be sinless to preach forgiveness. Indeed, it is arguable that someone can better offer that which he has first received himself.
One implication of the demand to “Follow me!” (Mark 1:17, 2:14, 8:34, 10:21), or to “take up one’s cross” (Mark 8:34), is that Jesus’ fidelity to God provides an example of the sort of obedience to God that the disciples are to aspire to. Just as Jesus repents from sin, and struggles to maintain fidelity, so must his follower likewise do. If Jesus is sinless in Mark, then the example he leaves is almost a mockery. He “shows” others how to overcome sin, which is something he never had to deal with within himself. Hence, a Jesus who repents, and overcomes sin provides a more meaningful example.
If Mark’s Jesus is not sinless, he is also not divine. Within the Jewish milieu of Mark’s time sinlessness is an essential quality of God. If Mark’s Jesus is fully human and not divine, this means that while Mark stands close to the source of the river of history that leads to Nicaea, he also stands at odds with this trajectory. By way of contrast, other Gospels, such as John, sit comfortably within this Nicaean trajectory. What are we to do with this? What is lost if we embrace Mark’s non-divine suffering Messiah? Does it mean we must therefore reject John’s divine incarnate Word? I would say no, and that we can have both. I would suggest it is possible to embrace a diversity of perspectives, and that doing so can enable us to develop a more nuanced complexity within our theological discourse. Furthermore, it can enable us to better engage the diversity of opinion we encounter every day.
Do you agree? What do you think?