One of the more challenging claims against the Christian faith is the historical claim that the earliest writings about Jesus don’t even claim that Jesus was God.
After all, if the earliest biographers didn’t worship Jesus as God, why, the question goes, should we? If Jesus’ divinity is a later, legendary, and mythological development, then there’s no point in maintaining that fiction.
In this post, let’s consider, first, Dr. Bart Ehrman’s statement of the problem, and then, a rebuttal of this claim from the opening lines of the Gospel of Mark.
Bart Ehrman’s Objection:
For instance, in his book Did Jesus Exist?, Dr. Bart Ehrman claims in at least three places that the Gospel of Mark never mentions that Jesus is God. Most emphatically, Ehrman states, “In Mark Jesus is certainly not God.”
Did Jesus call himself God? It seems a rather important issue because if he did, one would have to figure out what to make of his claim. Was he crazy? Hopelessly self-important? Or possibly right? It is striking, however, that of all the Gospels, only John, the last to be written, reports that Jesus called himself God.
If the historical Jesus really did spend his ministry revealing his divine identity to his disciples, as he does in John, isn’t it a little strange that Matthew, Mark, and Luke never get around to saying so? Did they think it was unimportant? Or did they just forget that part? (Kindle Location 2801-2803).
It is striking that none of our first three Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—declares that Jesus is God or indicates that Jesus ever called himself God. Jesus’s teaching in the earliest Gospel traditions is not about his personal divinity but about the coming kingdom of God and the need to prepare for it. This should give readers pause. If the earliest followers of Jesus thought Jesus was God, why don’t the earliest Gospels say so? It seems like it would have been a rather important aspect of Christ’s identity to point out (KL 3566-70).
And so we have traditions that arose indicating that Jesus became the Son of God at his baptism. That may be the view still found in our earliest Gospel, Mark, who begins his narrative with Jesus being baptized and hearing the voice of God from heaven declaring him his son. In Mark Jesus is certainly not God. In fact, in one passage he clearly indicates that he is not to be thought of as God (Mark 10:17–18; a man calls Jesus “good,” and Jesus objects because “no one is good but God alone”) (KL 3686-3690).
Instead, Ehrman thinks history leads to a fundamentally different conclusion about the nature of Jesus. He writes,
Moreover, I agree with Schweitzer’s overarching view, that Jesus is best understood as a Jewish prophet who anticipated a cataclysmic break in history in the very near future, when God would destroy the forces of evil to bring in his own kingdom here on earth (KL 176-178).
Before looking at our rebuttal, we should note that Ehrman affirms that Mark was the first gospel written (and that other documents were written before Mark). As he says, “Scholars typically date these Greek compositions to the end of the first century, with Mark probably being the first Gospel, written around 70 CE or so” (KL 716-717).
A Rebuttal: Mark’s Prologue
Despite Ehrman’s claims that nowhere in the entire Gospel of Mark can we find evidence to indicate that Jesus is God, as a matter of fact, the opening lines of the Gospel of Mark suggest otherwise.
We will see at least fifteen distinct ways that Mark identifies Jesus with the highest of honors and, in multiple, interlocking ways, identifies Jesus as God. And keep in mind, we are primarily examining only the first thirteen verses of Mark!
So in what follows, I won’t, for instance, mention the story in Mark 2 where the scribes ask, “Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” and Jesus immediately demonstrates this divine ability to forgive sins by miraculously healing a paralyzed man (Mark 2:1-12).
Despite other clear statements in the gospel which indicate that Mark believes Jesus to be God, I will diligently work to establish this important point only from the first thirteen verses of Mark’s gospel.
Here’s the first thirteen verses of Mark’s gospel, from the ESV translation:
1The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,
“Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
who will prepare your way,
3 the voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’”
4 John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey.
7 And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
12 The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.
How the Prologue Points to Jesus’ Divinity:
In the following argument, I am seeking to build a cumulative case. That is, I think each piece of the following evidence contributes a bit more rational support for the conclusion that Mark understood that Jesus is God, even if none of the individual pieces is conclusive. For some background cultural information, I’ll be quoting from Dr. David Garland’s commentary on the Gospel of Mark.
What is the evidence?
Mark is writing a “gospel”:
As Garland reminds us in his commentary on Mark, quoting C.E.B. Cranfield, “most of the inhabitants of the Roman empire would have associated the word with the emperor cult” (19). As Garland says, before he quotes from an ancient inscription:
A frequently cited inscription from the Roman province of Asia decrees that the birthday of the emperor Augustus (September 23) would now mark the beginning of the year when persons assumed civil office. It was filled with exaggerated praise:
…by sending in him, as it were, a saviour for us and those who come after us, to make war to cease, to create order everywhere … and whereas the birthday of the God [Augustus] was the beginning for the world of the glad tidings that have come to men through him (19-20).
If Mark’s audience was accustomed to understanding that a “gospel” was about the Roman Emperor, a man also thought to be God, then what does it suggest that Mark writes a “gospel” about Jesus? This is a strong hint that Mark wants us to believe that Jesus is the true, divine king of all the world.
Mark associates Jesus with the term “Christ” or “anointed one”:
As Garland explains,
For the Greek-speaking Jews of Jesus’ day, however, Christ (= Messiah) was a title of the one anointed by God to carry out specific tasks related to the liberation of Israel. The term probably evoked a constellation of hopes for different Jews. Views about the role of the Christ, when he would come, how he would be recognized, and what precisely he would do, varied. A few well-situated Jews were quite satisfied with the status quo and probably cared less about such speculation except as it threatened their power base.
Among the rest, there was general agreement that the Messiah would be Moses-like in delivering the nation of Israel, that he would establish his throne in Jerusalem like David, that he would smash those who made the people suffer, as did the saviors of old (Neh. 9: 27), and that he would rule with justice and restore the lost fortunes of the nation…
[In light of Jesus’ crucifixion, for] Mark to say without apology that Jesus was the Christ, the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes, her liberator, the one who ushered in the reign of God and who reigns triumphantly at the right hand of God, was and should still be startling if not incredible (21, 23).
While the use of this term is not definitively pointing in the direction of Jesus being God, we at least have a very high regard for Jesus. He is described in terms like the greatest figures of the Old Testament.
Mark calls Jesus “the Son of God”:
Garland notes, “The title emerges at pivotal junctures in the story: the baptism (1:11), the transfiguration (9:7), and the crucifixion (15:39)” (23). But most importantly, the term reappears at Jesus’ trial. Read the following closely (Mark 14:60-64):
And the high priest stood up in the midst and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?”
But he remained silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?”
And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”
And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death.
In this passage, as Nabeel Qureshi pointed out during the 2013 RZIM Summer Institute, Jesus invokes the “I am” (in Exodus 3:14, God says to Moses, “I am who I am”), his identity as the Son of Man (a reference to Daniel 7:13-14, where the Son of Man is given an eternal, worldwide kingdom and universal worship), and says he will be seated “at the right hand of Power” (by sitting with God, the statement indicates that Jesus will be reigning with God).
So the term “Son of God,” as used in the Gospel of Mark, is linked with pivotal events in the life of Jesus, including at the life-or-death moment when Jesus claims to be God in three unique, independent ways. Further confirmation of this understanding is the Sanhedrin’s response: they agree that Jesus has blasphemed God (by claiming to be God) and give him the death penalty.
The best understanding of the term “Son of God,” from within the theological context of Mark itself, is that this term is used to identify Jesus as God.
Mark cites sections from the entire Old Testament to explain the significance of Jesus’ ministry:
Mark 1:2-3 is a series of Old Testament references. Garland explains the context of each:
This passage is the only place in Mark where the narrator tells us that Scripture is being fulfilled (the others are spoken only by Jesus). It comprises a mixture of texts from Exodus 23:20; Malachi 3:1; and Isaiah 40:3.
Exodus 23:20 contains God’s promise to send his messenger before the Israelites on their exodus through the desert to Canaan. Isaiah 40:3 speaks of a second exodus through the desert to the final deliverance prepared for God’s people. Malachi 3:1 warns that God will send a messenger to prepare the way before him prior to the coming of the day of judgment…
By quoting these verses, Mark certifies that the Torah (Exodus), the Major Prophets (Isaiah), and the Minor Prophets (Malachi) confirm what he is about to tell (43, 44).
The key point: Mark understands the entire Old Testament as pointing to and finding their fulfillment in both his gospel and in the ministry of Jesus, who John the Baptist prepares the way for.
Again, while this is not necessarily an indication that Mark believes that Jesus is God, it is an incredibly exalted status for Jesus.
Mark says that John the Baptist’s role is to prepare the way of “the Lord”:
In the Old Testament passages that Mark cites, whose way is being prepared by John the Baptist? The term used is “kurios” or “Lord.” According to Dr. Philip Comfort, the senior editor of Bible reference at Tyndale House Publishers,
Josephus remarked that the early Jews refused to call the emperor kurios because they regarded it as a name reserved for God (Jewish War 7.10.1). In short, Greek-speaking Jews both wrote and spoke kurios in place of YHWH (Encountering the Manuscripts, 209).
In other words, Mark is telling us that the role of John the Baptist is to prepare the way for God to come.
Mark tells us Jesus’ baptism took place at the Jordan River:
What is the significance of the Jordan River? To modern readers, very little. But the cultural background for Mark’s original audience is crucial for interpreting this passage. Garland notes:
The Jordan River was also evocative. It was more than simply a river to Jews; it represented the border between the desert and the Promised Land. When John refers to a more powerful one who is coming, his audience would naturally understand it to refer to God, since God is the Mighty One in the Old Testament, who comes in judgment and pours out the Spirit. This biblical imagery evokes the expectation that God is about to liberate Israel again. But Mark emphasizes that God now acts through his beloved Son (53).
Through the tiniest details, even the location of Jesus’ baptism, Mark suggests that we should understand Jesus as a supremely important part of God’s plan of restoration.
Mark presents John the Baptist as a prophet in the style of Elijah:
Mark tells us John the Baptist wore distinctive clothes. Garland explains the significance:
The original auditors of Mark’s Gospel were schooled to recognize symbolism. In our culture, we would pick up the allusions if a character were wearing Daniel Boone’s coonskin cap or Abraham Lincoln’s stovepipe hat and beard. This description of John is reminiscent of Elijah, which may explain his huge success. The crowds presumably believed that he was Elijah reappearing for his second career, to prepare for the imminent coming of God (Mal. 4:5-6; see Mark 9:11–13) (46).
If the prophetic ministry of John the Baptist indicated, by his practice and his clothing, that he was the second coming of Elijah, we need to be clear on the Old Testament backdrop. What does Malachi 4:5-6 read? In the ESV translation:
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.
Because Mark understands John the Baptist to be fulfilling this prophecy, then Mark is saying that Jesus’ coming represents the arrival of the “day of the LORD” (that is, of God).
Mark tells us that Jesus is greater than John the Baptist:
Mark quotes John the Baptist as saying that the one who comes after him – that is, Jesus – is mightier than he is. In fact, Jesus is so much greater than John the Baptist, that John does not deserve to untie his sandals! Further, John can only baptize with water, but Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit.
Remember, in this context, it was a slave’s work to untie someone’s sandals. John the Baptist has been identified as the second coming of Elijah, one of the greatest prophets in the Old Testament. Even so, Jesus is so much greater than John, that John is not worthy to be Jesus’ servant.
The role of a prophet is to faithfully serve God. And in fact, Elijah is commended for faithfully serving God. He is the prophet who provoked the dramatic showdown with the prophets of Baal! But if one of the greatest of God’s prophets is unworthy to be a servant to Jesus, then who is Jesus?
And if one of the greatest of God’s prophets can, at best, prepare God’s way with water, who is it that is able to provide a baptism by the Holy Spirit? Who but God is able to direct the power of the Holy Spirit?
By telling us that even the greatest of God’s prophets are unworthy to serve Jesus, when the reader will already understand that God’s prophets serve God alone, Mark is giving us very strong reasons to think that Jesus is so superior to the prophets that he is in fact God.
Mark tells us that at Jesus’ baptism, the heavens were torn:
As Garland points out,
The opening of the heavens occurs in the calling of Ezekiel in exile: “The heavens were opened and I saw visions of God” (Ezek. 1:1). It is usually a sign that God is about to speak or act and that one will get a quick peek at God’s purposes. But Mark does not use the word “open” (anoigo), as some translations render it. Instead, he describes that the heavens are torn (schizo), as one might imagine a bolt of lightning tearing its fabric. It is a significant difference. What is opened may be closed, what is ripped cannot easily return to its former state…
The hope of Isaiah, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you!” (Isa. 64:1) has come to pass (48).
If you read Isaiah 64 (remember, Isaiah is the prophet Mark names in his introduction), the hope is that when God comes down, he will “make his name known” (v. 2) in a time when “we have all become like one who is unclean” (v. 6). Given the context of John baptizing the people of Israel, as they confess their sins, Mark’s introduction contains multiple textual and symbolic allusions back to Isaiah 64.
So what does Mark wants us to understand about Jesus? Nothing less than that Jesus is God come down to earth, making his name known.
Mark tells us that God’s Spirit descended on Jesus:
Garland states that, “The Messiah was said to possess the Spirit of God (Isa. 11:1-2; Tg. Isa. 42:1-4; Pss. Sol. 17:37; 18:7)” (48), so perhaps the descent of God’s Spirit upon Jesus is nothing more than a confirmation that Jesus is the promised Messiah.
At a minimum, Mark is communicating with every detail that he understands Jesus to have an exalted status.
Mark tells us that God spoke directly to Jesus
Not only is Jesus in exceedingly rare company to hear so directly from God, but the words themselves are of great import: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11).
The announcement conveys several things to a reader attuned to the Old Testament.
(a) In the Old Testament, God is delighted in Israel when Israel is obedient. What the Scriptures ascribe to Israel, Mark transfers to Jesus…
(b) Some suggest that this phrase may be an allusion to another biblical “beloved son”— Isaac, whom Abraham offered up (Gen. 22:3, 18). The beloved son reappears in the parable of the vineyard (12: 6) and this time is killed.
(c) Mark’s language recalls Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1. Psalm 2 is an enthronement psalm, which celebrates the enthronement of the king to rule over God’s people. “My son” is a title for the Davidic kings of Israel (see 2 Sam. 7:12– 16). One can interpret the voice at Jesus’ baptism as God’s announcement that Jesus has been chosen to rule over his people and that he assumes royal power as king (49).
Who can represent all Israel? Be the Lord’s substitute for Isaac (Genesis 22:14)? Serve as the king of Israel? Perhaps Garland’s reading of Mark is too strong, but if any or all of these interpretations are sound, then once again, Mark is placing Jesus in the highest realms of honor.
We have to reckon with God directly telling Jesus that he is God’s own beloved Son.
Mark tells us that Jesus defeats Satan and is served by angels:
In Mark 1:13 we are told, “And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.”
What is the significance of this verse? Turning to Garland again for the cultural background:
The beasts are malevolent and are the natural confederates of evil powers (Ps. 91:11-13). The desert represents the uncultivated place of the curse, Paradise lost, and the realm of Satan (50-51).
Mark is, therefore, emphatically telling us that Jesus triumphs over Satan. The victory is so overwhelming that it requires no sustained comment. The Spirit sends Jesus into Satan’s realm, Jesus defeats Satan, and he emerges from the desert to proclaim the kingdom of God.
But who is Jesus if he can overcome Satan?
Mark also tells us that the angels serve Jesus. Who deserves the personal service of angels?
Again, Mark is emphasizing the divinity of Jesus.
Altogether, there are at least fifteen clues in these opening verses as to who Mark believes Jesus to be. To summarize:
- Mark writes a “gospel” of Jesus, an honor typically reserved for the divine Emperor of Rome.
- Mark identifies Jesus as “the Christ,” a term indicating, “the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes, her liberator, the one who ushered in the reign of God and who reigns triumphantly at the right hand of God” (Garland, 23).
- Mark calls Jesus “the son of God,” a description later used by Jesus at his trial to indicate his own divine self-understanding, and on the basis of which the religious leaders accused him of blasphemy and condemned him to death.
- Mark understands the entire Old Testament as pointing to and finding their fulfillment in the ministry of Jesus.
- Mark uses the term “Lord” for Jesus, a term his contemporaries regarded “as a name reserved for God” (Comfort, 209).
- Mark tells us Jesus was baptized at the Jordan River, evoking “the expectation that God is about to liberate Israel again. But Mark emphasizes that God now acts through his beloved Son” (Garland, 53).
- Mark explains, through identifying John the Baptist as a prophet like Elijah, that Jesus’ coming represents the arrival of the “day of the LORD” (that is, of God).
- Mark says that John the Baptist, one of the greatest of God’s prophets, who is called to serve God alone, is unworthy to be a servant to Jesus.
- Mark quotes John the Baptist as identifying Jesus as the one who has the ability to provide a baptism by the Holy Spirit.
- Mark says that at Jesus’ baptism, the heavens were torn open, recollecting Isaiah 64, so that we understand Jesus is God come down to earth, making his name known.
- Mark states that God’s Spirit rested on Jesus, confirming Jesus’ Messianic status.
- Mark believes that God spoke directly to Jesus.
- Mark reports God’s words to Jesus, which identifies Jesus’ identity from God’s perspective, as God’s beloved Son. This leads to allusions of understanding Jesus as Israel, God’ substitute for Isaac, or as Israel’s king.
- Mark tells us that Jesus decisively defeats Satan.
- Mark lets his readers know that angels served Jesus.
In light of this evidence, looking primarily at just the first few verses of the Gospel of Mark, I believe that the best conclusion is that Mark believed that Jesus was God.