Does Mark Really Present Jesus as God? A Response to James McGrath

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

October 16, 2013

In my most recent post, I argued that Mark 1:2-3 presents Jesus as the fulfillment of OT passages that discuss the coming of God himself.  These verses, therefore, have tremendous implications for Mark’s Christology, namely that he views Jesus as “the Lord” of the OT.

James McGrath has responded over on his website here.  Let’s have a look at McGrath’s two main complaints. Here is his first one:

When I was a conservative Evangelical, I confess that I too made similar arguments, and never noticed how odd they are. Mark apparently believes that Jesus was God come in the flesh, and yet he expresses this not by saying it directly and expressing explicitly what a marvelous and astonishing thing this is, but by making it implicit in a few word changes in his quotations from the Jewish Scriptures.

Leaving aside the condescending tone of this complaint, it entirely misses the argument that my previous article made.  The argument Mark makes is anything but implicit.  He is explicitly applying OT texts about the coming of “the Lord” to the coming of Jesus. McGrath even concedes that these verses are applied to Jesus by Mark, but then avoids the obvious implications by suggesting an alternative interpretation (more on this below).

Of course, in my original article I discuss how Mark makes some word changes that are designed to bolster his point.  These word changes (e.g., changing “me” to “you”) simply reinforce Mark’s point that these verses apply to Jesus.

McGrath’s second complaint is as follows:

Which seems more likely? That for the author of the Gospel, Jesus embodied the coming of God – but was not to be identified as God? Or that the author of the Gospel actually redefined what it meant to be a monotheist, a rather major development, and then decided to make the pointers to that meaning so subtle that it is not at all obvious the text is saying that?

Notice here that McGrath offers his alternative interpretation of what Mark is doing here, namely that “Jesus embodied the coming of God.”  Of course, McGrath leaves this concept conveniently vague.  What in the world does it mean to “embody the coming of God”?  And why should we think that Mark means this, as opposed to the fact that Jesus is, in fact, the coming of the Lord? It is almost like McGrath wants to get as close to saying that Jesus is God without actually saying it.

McGrath tries to argue his view is preferable by suggesting that if Mark were really presenting Jesus as the Lord of the OT, then this would be a major redefinition of monotheism, and therefore unlikely.  But, McGrath would do well to re-read the works of Larry Hurtado and Richard Bauckham on early Christology and Jewish monotheism.  Hurtado in particular makes it clear that devotion to Jesus as God was very early within the Christian movement–indeed significantly earlier than Mark’s gospel.

If so, then Mark would not be initiating some massive shift in monotheistic belief, but merely reflecting what Christians were already doing, namely worshiping Jesus as God.

Moreover, it should be mentioned that this understanding of these passages is not out of sync with other major biblical commentators.  Take as one example, William Lane in the NICNT series.  Lane argues that the word changes in Is 40:3 indicate that this “text becomes applicable to Jesus, who was known in the early church as ‘the Lord'” (46).

Another example is R.T. France in the NIGTC series who also sees the word changes in Is 40:3 as something that “allows the Christian reader to understand the kurios of the previous line to refer to Jesus” (64). Thus, France, like Lane, understands Mark to be presenting Jesus as the same “Lord” that is mentioned in Is 40:3, who is none other than Yahweh.

Joel Marcus, in his book The Way of the Lord, also points out that there is a rich interpretive history behind this view, including scholars like K. Stendahl and R. Pesch. Moreover, he points out that Mark’s presentation of Jesus as “Lord” in 1:2-3 fits quite well with Mark’s presentation of Jesus as “Lord” throughout the rest of his gospel (38-39).

In the end, there is no reason to think that McGrath’s approach is preferable here.  He might not agree with what Mark is doing with these OT texts, but Mark seems to be doing it nonetheless.