I was recently asked about my claim that Jesus never calls himself God/a divine being in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Some people have asked me about what they think might be an exception: his trial before the Sanhedrin headed by the high priest Caiaphas in Mark 14, where he is accused of blasphemy. Isn’t the accusation proof that he claimed to be God? In our *first* Gospel, Mark?
There’s a lot to say about this most intriguing of passages (Mark 14:53-62; if you’re a real blog nerd: read it!), but here are the key points.
- The first point to stress is that the question is not whether Jesus in the passage claims to be a divine being, but whether Jesus himself did, the actual man in history.
- There is no question that Jesus in the Gospels claims to be divine. You don’t need Mark 14 for that – just read the Gospel of John (John 8:58; 10:30; 14:5; etc. etc.) The fact that the Gospels claim that Jesus called himself a divine being doesn’t mean the historical Jesus himself did. For that you need to engage in historical (not literary) analysis. Literary analysis can show that in our sources written decades later by people who weren’t there, who never knew Jesus, who lived in different parts of the world from Jesus, who almost certainly never talked to an eyewitness of Jesus, who spoke a different language from Jesus, but who believed he was a divine being, sometimes portray him making divine claims for himself. Historical analysis works to establish whether those claims (or any other of his sayings; or which of his deeds) go back to the man himself.
- To that end, many readers who want to be historically responsible and who know that John may be theologically rich and powerful, but not always accurate historically, appeal to our earliest Gospel, Mark, in order to show what Jesus really historically, said and did. But since William Wrede’s book The Messianic Secret (1901), followed by Schweitzer’s Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906) scholars have realized it’s not that easy. Mark too, just like John, is heavily influenced by later theological developments that affirmed the divinity of Jesus; it is not, therefore, some kind of straightforward nuts-and-bolts description of what really happened in Jesus’ life.
- And so the question is whether any scene in Mark (or in any of the Gospels) – such as the trial before the Sanhedrin in Mark 14 – is being reported accurately, describing what really happened. And to assume so is problematic, for a number of important reasons.