Wednesday, May 3, 2017

A Preexistent Christ in Mark?

Just been reading a fun little article with an approach to Jesus' preexistence in Mark's Gospel that I haven't come across before. I think there are some holes in it, but on the other hand it is quite refreshing to see the usual arguments and texts turned on their heads!

The fact that Mark begins his Gospel with the baptism scene has often been taken to indicate his espousal of adoptionist christology which excludes any attribution of intrinsic divinity. On the whole, this proves to be untenable. Mark specifically identifies John’s baptism as the beginning of the gospel, not of Jesus; there is no denial of Jesus’ personal preexistence, a necessary corollary of divinity. On the contrary, even though the ascription of sonship in 1.11 is phrased in terms of Ps. 2.7, the specifically adoptionist element of that verse is omitted. Instead of ‘this day I have begotten you’, we read, ’with you I am well pleased.' The aorist probably indicates that God’s pleasure in Jesus is already established and does not arise as a sudden whim; Mark began his Gospel with one of his rare biblical citations in order to show that the events he narrates are part of God’s longstanding plan (1.2-3). This leaves us with twological alternatives for the origin of God’s pleasure: Jesus’ preexistence; or his uniquely pleasing earthly life before his baptism.

Clearly, the former is to be preferred. If Jesus’ adoption at the baptism was the reward for his previous deportment, how could Mark refrain from describing that meritorious early life? More importantly, Mark’s divine-human dichotomy is too radical to allow for the implication which arises from adoptionism, which is that the gulf could be bridged from the human side (8.37f.). Finally, given the wide attestation of divine-human christology in Christian sources earlier than and contemporary with Mark, any espousal of adoptionism would need to be quite pointed; but this we do not find.

We do, however, find that Mark’s references to Jesus’ relationship to God lend themselves to the suggestion of intrinsic divinity. They issue largely from supernatural beings, either God (1.11; 9.7) or demons (1.24; 3.11; 5.7), implying that these are supernatural revelations about a supernatural person. Mark’s handling of the transfiguration as a whole raises Jesus above Elijah and Moses, emphasizing that he alone is the Son of God, to whom human beings must listen; he alone overcomes the dichotomy. Further, the parable of the vineyard (12.1-11) contains enough evidence of allegorization that the sending of the (already existing) beloved son in 12.6 is most plausibly understood as implying Jesus’ personal preexistence, much like Gal. 4.4.

Philip Davis, "Mark's Christological Paradox," JSNT 35, 1989, 3-18, 12-13. 

Let me know what you think :-)


  1. Why would "preexistence" be the best conclusion to draw based on this narrative logic, rather than "unmerited election"?

    But arguably the still more natural option to consider is that Jesus' exaltation to the status of "son of God with power" is granted based on his obedience unto death. It has been argued that adoptionism based on the baptism is already part of the process of shifting Jesus' exalted status earlier than his exaltation to sit at the right hand of God. Then again, it would be wrong to drive a wedge between "chosen king" and "enthroned and crowned king."

  2. Hi James, thanks. I must admit I enjoyed the quote because it was so surprising and unexpected! I don't think it is convincing, but it does point out some pertinent textual features that are worth a second look.

    "Son of God with power" isn't a Markan term though is it? In Mark Jesus is the son of God at least from the baptism, if not before. His exaltation to power and glory is as the son of man 13:26, 14:62. Would be an interesting study to juxtapose that with Rom 1 and Acts 7:56, etc.

    Does anyone advocate for "Unmerited election" in print? I'd love to follow that one up. :-)

  3. Son of God is an important term in Mark, but I was of course using what seems to be a pre-Pauline phrase embedded in Romans, which is definitely earlier than Mark.

    I think that "son of God," especially if understood royally, can have the same multi-staged aspect that kingship has. At what point did David become king? When God chose him? When Samuel anointed him? When he actually took the throne and ruled over all Israel after the death of Saul?

    It would indeed be interesting to explore a radical Protestant "Jesus was elected by grace and not because of works" Christology and see what happens to our understanding of Jesus in the Gospels, and then also in turn of Paul's letters! :-)

  4. Thanks James, interesting thoughts! You're certainly right that if son-of-God is meant purely as a royal term that could comfortably have a multi-staged aspect to it.

    However, Mark's narrative would seem to contradict that as Jesus' coronation is also the place of his desertion by God, he is least "son" (why have you forsaken me?) when he is most "king of the Jews". If only we had Mark's last chapter to see where he was going with it all! ;-)