Monday, March 29, 2010

Mark's Christology and theology of atonement.

Here's another section of my book. This deals with the Gospel of Mark.

In discussing the synoptic Gospel, we will first begin with Mark.[1] Mark begins his Gospel by announcing his intention of informing us concerning the “Gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God" (Mk 1:1). In that Jesus brings a “Gospel,” he must necessarily be divine, for as Ben Witherington III comments:
Only a god is really able to bring world-changing and lasting good news and benefaction and hope. Mark, then, from the outset, is announcing not merely a coming of a teacher or even just a human messianic figure (though that is part of the truth), but the epiphany or advent of a deity who will reveal himself in various and sundry ways during his time on earth.[2]

Similarly, Simon Gathercole has pointed to Jesus’ citation of Psalm 110 in his question concerning whether the Christ is David’s Son or David’s Lord later in the Gospel (Mk 12:35-7). Though the Hebrew in the third verse is somewhat difficult to translate, but the LXX version of the text is translated by Gathercole as: “With you is the rule on the day of your power, in the radiance of your holy ones; From the womb, before the morning star, I gave you birth.”[3] This definitely points to pre-existence and would certainly have been understood as such by Mark’s original readers, who were likely familiar with the LXX. Similarly Martin Hengel[4] has suggested that Mark’s citation from Isaiah in 1:2-3 (“I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way" Emphasis added) is highly suggestive of an inter-Trinitarian conversation before Jesus’ earthly advent. Mark also gives other indications at the beginning of his Gospel concerning Jesus’ pre-existence. The citation of “a voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight paths for him” is an allusion to the Second Temple Jewish eschatological expectation of the return of YHWH to Zion.[5] In light of the fact that Jesus’ mission is finally fulfilled by his Passover journey to Zion, Mark and the other Synoptists use of this verse suggests their intent to portray him as God returning to Zion to end the universal state of exile.
Though the claim Mark understands Jesus to be divine contradicts many popular presentations[6] of the Synoptic Gospels as possessing ascending Christologies rather than a descending one, as we shall see, there is a great deal of evidence that appears to negate this widely held presupposition. Simon Gathercole[7] has argued that although in recent years this position has been widely popularized in English-speaking scholarship by James D. G. Dunn’s Christology in the Making[8] it in fact was held by few interpreters in the earlier part of the last century.[9] In light of these already noted features of Mark (shared by the other Synoptic Gospels) our treatment in this section will be from the perspective that the Synoptic Gospels share a high and descending Christology with the rest of the New Testament and historic orthodox Christianity.
Returning to the text of Mark, we discover that the Gospel begins with Jesus as the Son of God and YHWH returning to Zion, identifying himself with his people Israel by choosing to be baptized with them as a sinner. Peter Leithart[10] has noted the priestly connotations of Jesus being baptized. In the old covenant, a priest was baptized at his ordination as a sign of purification, but also to place him in a role wherein he became a sin bearer. As a sin bearer, the priest confessed the sins of Israel while placing his hands upon the scapegoat, as we saw in the previous chapter. He also made a blood offering for the sins of the people. In portraying Jesus as a priest, Mark makes him a confessor of the sins of the people at the beginning of the Gospel (at his baptism) and as a bloody sacrifice at the end (at his death on the cross).
Mark gives other hints of Jesus’ priestly role. Fletcher-Louis has also observed Jesus’ forgiveness of sins[11] and the giving of his life as a “ransom” (a term taken from the substitution of monies for the life of the firstborn in Numbers 3)[12]are suggestive of a priestly identity. One might also point to the fact that Jesus as the true high priest, institutes the Eucharist in which his body and blood are given to the disciples. As we may recall, propitiatory sacrifice for the Levitical cult was understood of the draining of blood, and thereby the separation of body and blood. Joachim Jeremias comments that Jesus “is applying to Himself terms from the language of sacrifice . . . [e]ach of the two nouns [“body” and “blood”] presuppose a slaying that has separated flesh and blood. In other words: Jesus speaks of himself as a sacrifice.”[13]
It is also a meal that confirms and enacts the new covenant or diatheke[14] that is, a last will and testament: “This is my blood of the covenant [or more accurately diatheke=testament]” (Mk 14:24). As we might recall, covenants were always confirmed by blood in the Old Testament. The farewell address as the pronouncement of a covenant as a last will and testament is not uncommon throughout the Old Testament is not uncommon as the cases of Jacob in Genesis 49, Moses in Deuteronomy and David in 2 Samuel 24 demonstrates.[15] Jesus is by the separation of his body and blood as a sin offering for Israel and humanity confirmed a new testament. God must do this because Israel’s sin had kept it in exile and therefore prevented God from fulfilling the covenant of blessing that he had promised to Abraham. He is therefore good to his promise and fulfills the covenant by suffering the consequences of its previously non-fulfillment by his death on the altar of the cross. He confirms his unilateral self-giving as a sin offering in his diatheke by willing himself, that is, his very body and life-blood to the Church as a sign of the covenant’s fulfillment. On the cross, he fulfills the promise made by God in Genesis 15 to Abraham, that he should be split in-two if he fails to bless Abraham. He does this by being split in-two by the separation of his body and blood in a final and universal sin-offering.
Beyond the priestly implications of Jesus’ baptismal scene, there are also kingly and prophetic ones as well. When Jesus is baptized in the Jordan by John, the heavens are "torn" (σχιζομένους) open and God’s voice speaks to Jesus saying: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (Mk 1:11). This speech echoes the royal Psalm 2 (which we have discussed earlier) that designates the Israelite king as God’s Son, and promises him the nations as his inheritance. That Jesus is a messianic king who is also a priest is strongly suggested, Fletcher-Louis notes by Jesus’ multiple citations of Psalm 110.[16] When Jesus is baptized and God speaks to him, the Holy Spirit then descends upon Jesus and he is "driven" out into the wilderness (Mk 1:10, 12). The reception of the Spirit is reminiscent of the commissioning of the Servant in Isaiah 61, a connection made by Jesus himself as reported by Luke 4:18-9. That is suggests a prophetic office is confirmed by Mark’s summary of Jesus’ preaching concerning the coming of the kingdom of God and the end of the universal exile in 1:15.
In light of this evidence it is clear that Mark portrays Jesus as the eschatological fulfillment of these other mediatorial roles. Nonetheless, the basic structure of his Gospel suggests Jesus’ priestly vocation is most prominent in his mind. S. Moyter has argued that there is a fairly obvious inculsio that brackets the material in Mark’s Gospel.[17] This inclusio occurs between Jesus’ baptism (1:9-11) and his death on the cross (15:36-39). S. Moyter notes the mention of Elijah, the rending of the veil of heaven and the Temple (the same Greek word is used σχιζομένους, ἐσχίσθη) and the voice designating Jesus as the Son of God (by God the Father and then later the Centurion). Since, as we have previously observed there is a strongly (though obviously not exclusively) priestly background for Mark’s treatment of the work of Jesus, there is a certain amount of justification for seeing the Gospel’s structure here is being reminiscent of the ritual of the Day of Atonement.
The echoes of the Day of Atonement come out very strongly in the peculiar and interesting parallel between the rending of the veil of the Temple and that of heavens. As David Ulansey[18] has demonstrated, the Temple at the time of Jesus possessed a veil that symbolized the heavens, something also suggested by the description of the Tabernacle in Exodus 26:31-35 as well. Ulansey’s argument that Mark must be referring to the outer veil of the Temple (based on the fact that Josephus describes a sky-pattern woven into it[19]- also on the basis of his extremely unusual claim that the Centurion at the cross must has been able to see the veil) is not very convincing because he fails to recognize that both the inner and outer veil of the Temple possessed this design.[20] It is more likely that Mark means the inner veil, where God’s gracious presence rested segregated from the rest of creation. The renting of the outer veil would suggest an incomplete fulfillment of the work of Christ (i.e., one barrier down, one remaining!), something that Mark and the entire New Testament would not want to suggest.
As we have seen, within the context of the many Edenic traditions of the Old Testament, Israel’s cult was viewed as a restoration of the original vocation and estate of humanity. Nevertheless, it may also be inferred from those traditions that the Levitical cult was something of a half-way restoration. Whereas humans had once lived directly in God’s gracious presence, only one person could enter into this presence once a year (the high priest on Yom Kippur) by way of bloody sacrifice, that is, the fulfillment of the law through the expatiation of sin.
Mark’s Gospel therefore presupposes that Jesus’ priestly activity reverses and fulfills the Day of Atonement. When Jesus is baptized with sinners, heaven and earth’s segregation from one another due to human sin ceases. They cease because as God returning to Zion to save and judge Israel, Jesus does not merely stand apart from his people, but associates himself with their sin and designates himself a sin bearing priest-king. This means that in Jesus’ Incarnation and death, it is not the high priest who comes to God (as on Yom Kippur), but is God who comes out of his segregation to unite himself with his people. This also means that he unites the glory and righteousness proper to himself as God (and the sinless second Adam) with the degradation, sin and death of his people. In this he is in a sense both the goat sacrificed to YHWH and the scapegoat carrying the sins of Israel and humanity.
This is shown by the fact that the Gospel follows a pattern of the glorification of Jesus, followed by Jesus’ suffering by being “cast out” (ἐκβάλλει) much like the scapegoat. In fact the Greek word used in the LXX in the account of the Day of Atonement (εξαποστελεί) is very similar, though not exactly the same as the one used in Mark. If anything use of ἐκβάλλει is more harsh, in light of the fact that it is also used in Mark's description of exorcisms (See 1:39). Such a pattern mirrors, as we have observed earlier, the nature of Levitical sacrifice which according to its symbolism represented the victim and the priest as being a unity of sin and purity, reprieve and condemnation, judgment and glorification. At his baptism, Jesus is united with sinners and designated as God’s Son. He is glorified, and then cast into the wilderness.
After Jesus’ return from the wilderness, the entire first half of the Gospel follows Jesus mighty deeds of power. This narrative of Jesus’ glory culminates in his transfiguration. Not only does Jesus glow with divine glory. As Gathercole correctly notes, there is no indication that such glory is borrowed, meaning that Mark envisions Jesus as the incarnate divine kavod. [21] but he is accompanied by Elijah and Moses, both of whom, as Donald Juel notes,[22] were witnesses to theophonies on mountains (Exod. 33, 1 Kgs 19). He is encompassed with a thick cloud, (which as we have seen is a sign in the Old Testament of God’s presence) and God’s voice declares him to be his own Son.
Before the final revelation of glory, there is a revelation of suffering that must accompany Jesus’ messiahship and the second half now follows the pattern of rejection. From chapter 8 onward, Jesus does very few miracles and speaks concerning destruction of Jerusalem and the Last Judgment (Mark 13). His passion, beginning in Gethsemane, again possesses much of the imagery of the Day of Atonement. Andrei Orlov has noted that in Ezekiel 11:23, we are told that when the glory of the Lord left the Temple it rested on the Mount of Olives, which Gethsemane is at the base of.[23] In this sense, Jesus’ prayer and arrest in Gethsemane occur in the true Temple. In the true Temple, he offers himself up to God and does not attempt to escape those who would arrest him.
Nevertheless, before Jesus’ arrest in this true Temple, he asks for a reprieve. The voice that came to him on the Mt. Tabor and at his baptism is missing and there is no response to his plea, but only silence. Jesus now enters into the darkness of the Father’s abandonment. This does not mean that he has lost his faith in the words spoken at his baptism or at the transfiguration. Before the high priest, Jesus’ initial silence is not a sign of unbelief, but rather suggestive of his identity with the Servant of Isaiah who "did not open his mouth" (Isa 53:7), as R. T. France notes.[24] He must finally answer the high priest regarding his identity and thereby confesses that he is the one whom he has been designated to be by the Word of God at his baptism and on the mountain of transfiguration. He is, according to his confession, the human one whose divine identity will be revealed by his sharing the divine throne and glory cloud.[25] The question has been frequently asked concerning whether Jesus’ “I AM” in this confession constitutes a claiming of the divine Name. Even if this were not the case, (we do not have the space to enter the debate here), Gathercole notes that within later rabbinical circles the claim to have a heavenly throne was considered to be blasphemous because only God could claim to have such a throne.[26] Therefore, if such a belief was held at the time of Jesus (Gathercole thinks that it was) then the claim to possess a throne would necessarily make him divine. It should also be noted that in this confession of himself as the Son of Man who shares YHWH’s glory cloud and throne, Jesus combines Daniel 7 with Psalm 110’s description of the Melchizedekiah priest-king whom Jesus identifies himself with in chapter 12. As Fletcher-Louis notes, the Son of Man in Daniel 7 though exalted to the divine throne is not the one who sits “at the right hand of the Mighty One” (Mk 16:64). Rather such a description of exaltation is only made of the priest-king of Psalm 110.[27] This allusion bolsters Gathercole’s interpretation of the statement as a confession of divinity in that Jesus’ earlier comment on the Psalm implies that the Melchizedekiah priest-king is divine (“David himself calls him “Lord.” How then can he be his son?” Mk 12:37). It also suggests that Jesus according to Mark understands his role as one of both priestly and kingly mediation.
This confession stands as Jesus unconquered faith in the previous Word of God over against the silence with which he has suffered in response to his desperate prayer. The irony is of course that Jesus fidelity to God’s Word and humbleness in obeying the Father’s command is hidden under the image of the original sin of Genesis 3, that is, the desire to be divine. Jesus’ righteousness is a hidden righteousness. Not only is he one who has identified with sinners throughout his career and therefore appears to be a sinner, his humble and receptive adherence to God’s Word makes him appear to others as the ultimate embodiment of human sin.
Jesus is then cast out of the city much like the scapegoat. He allows this to occur to him, just as he offered himself up in obedience in Gethsemane (the true Temple) as the goat for YHWH. He unites the two goats in himself in that his death as the first goat occurs upon the altar of the cross after being cast out of the community of Israel. This is not the only series of sacrifices that Jesus appears to fulfill. It might also be suggested that Mark alludes to Jesus’ fulfillment of the daily practice of sin-offerings in the Temple. We are told that Jesus is nailed to the cross at nine o’clock in the morning (Mk 15:25) and dies at three o’clock in the afternoon (Mk 15:33). Arthur Just has noted that according to later Jewish tradition, sin-offerings occurred in Temple at exactly nine o’clock in the morning and three in the afternoon.[28]
Now again we must return to the inclusio of the ripping (σχιζομένους, ἐσχίσθη). As Jesus dies, the curtain is torn in the Temple from top to bottom. The significance of this has of course been frequently debated. More often than not it has been interpreted as signifying that sinners now have access to God.[29] In light of the fact that through blood atonement, the sinful high priest was able to move into the Holy of Holies through the veil (which in Mark has now been permanently torn), this interpretation does not appear far off the mark. Nevertheless, there also appears to be more to the tearing than this. Donald Juel offers two suggests that are consistent with our earlier argument about the ripping of the heavens in relationship to the revelation of the Incarnation. First, Juel claims that because God is segregated in the Holy of Holies, the torn curtain signifies his unwillingness to stand apart from humanity. He wills to identify with humankind into the very depths of sin and death.[30]
This interpretation stands as highly consistent with Jesus’ activity throughout the Gospel as one who identifies with sinners culminating in his crucifixion. In this final scene of his crucifixion, quoting Psalm 22, Jesus cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” There is a recognition here of God’s condemnation and abandonment of Jesus. Jesus calls out to God, but is greeted with silence on God’s part. This second cry to God directly corresponds to God’s two previous designation of Jesus as his Son, in whom he was well pleased. But if he is to be condemned now, how is it that God is well pleased with him? What should be remember though, is that all the Psalms were the liturgy of the Temple[31] and therefore are in a sense all concerned with the praise of God for his goodness. Psalms of lamentation also assume the existence of and trust in divine goodness. One does not lament if one does not consider God to be gracious and good. Lamentation is faith’s response to appearances that contradict its trust in God’s goodness and graciousness. Those who do not believe God is good and gracious do not lament because the world is precisely as a non-existent or malevolent deity would have it. Therefore, Jesus in his lamentation maintains his faith in God’s Word to him, in spite of divine hiddenness and condemnation.[32]
In connection with the inclusio of ripping, we must also discuss the Temple’s coming destruction. Juel connects the tearing to Jesus’ prediction of the destruction of the Temple in Mark 13. By the Temple’s curtain being torn, prediction of the Temple’s coming destruction becomes a present reality.[33] People mock Jesus on the cross by saying that this is the fate of the one threatened to destroy the Temple (Mk 15:29), (actually Jesus only predicts the destruction of the Temple, Mark insists all threats of destruction are false testimony before the Sanhedrin, Mk 14:57-9). It is ironic then, that it is by his death and his weakness that he begins the Temple’s destruction by the tearing of the curtain. This incident also suggests that Mark understands Jesus to taken over functions of the Temple by his expatiation of sins and his renewal of creation. As we have seen, Jesus is the true divine priest-king who enacts the universal Day of Atonement by way of his death on the cross. He is both the priest and the two goats. He also brings about the renewal of creation by his resurrection. The Temple is in fact a microcosm of creation and is intimately tied to the well being of creation insofar as it continuously renews creation, a function now taken over by Jesus. The enactment of the new creation through a new and permanent sacrifice and liturgy of atonement cannot exist alongside the realities of the old creation in a neutral fashion. Jesus bears the sins and destructive realities of the old creation in his flesh on the altar of the cross. Therefore, the destruction of the curtain, and the destruction of the Temple represent the beginning of the new creation ruled by God’s movement towards humanity from beyond the veil, rather than by humanity’s movement towards God through the veil. In this sense, the old creation and the old cult must be judged and destroyed in order make room for the new narrative and liturgy of creation enacted by Jesus.

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