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Jesus as the Messiah in Mark’s Gospel

In this thread within a thread within a thread I’m discussing the portrayal of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark as the Son of God whom no one knows.  For background, see my preceding post on the topic.  One of my overarching points is that Mark goes out of his way to portray Jesus as the Son of God, even though the title does not occur very often in the Gospel – but only at really crucial points of the narrative, in the first episode of Jesus’ life (his baptism), in the final episode of Jesus’ life (his crucifixion), and at the very middle of the Gospel (the transfiguration).

My other point is that even though both Mark and God himself, in the narrative, declare straightforwardly that Jesus is the Son of God, no one understands it.  And when they do start to understand it, they misunderstand it.

That no one “gets” it is obvious if you read the first eight chapters carefully.   Everyone around Jesus – his townsfolk, his family, the leaders of his people, and even his own disciples – show they have no clue who he really is.  In exasperation at one point, Jesus asks his disciples, “Don’t you understand yet?” (Mark 8:21)

That begins to change precisely …

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Readers’ Mailbag on Revelation: November 6, 2015
Jesus as the Son of God in Mark



  1. Avatar
    godspell  November 2, 2015

    Jesus did not believe he was Messiah–he knew he wasn’t. That’s what I think. He had a more open-ended conception of his role. When he asked “Who do you say I am?”–he’s really asking. He knows he’s important, but he’s not precisely sure why–to proclaim the Kingdom, obviously–but what else?

    When Peter says he’s the Messiah, Jesus treats it as a temptation to temporal power, which he believed belonged only to God (or, until the Kingdom comes, Caesar). I believe these conversations really happened. I think the memory of Jesus denying that he was the Messiah had endured, and Mark–believing Jesus was Messiah–had to change what that meant. Which meant that there’d be a growing gap of understanding between Christians and Jews who held to the more traditional interpretation. ‘Mark’ was quite certainly a Jew, and you don’t find the hostility to unconverted Jews that appears in the later gospels in him. But this is where it really starts. Because there’s no way to reconcile these two visions of the Messiah.

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    Gary  November 2, 2015

    Do you think that Jesus believed he was God, Yahweh himself, the God of the OT, the Creator?

    When I discuss Mark’s Christology with Christians they point to the passage where Jesus tells the man let down through the roof that his sins are forgiven. Christians say that Jews believed that only God could forgive sins, therefore in that passage, Jesus is saying (indirectly) that he is Yahweh. What do you, and what do the majority of NT scholars, say about this very high Christological claim for this passage in Mark?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 4, 2015

      No way. See my book How Jesus Became God, where I give a full explanation.

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    RonaldTaska  November 2, 2015

    I look forward to the next posts on these questions. Thanks.

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    Steefen  November 3, 2015

    Jesus was the messiah but something horribly went wrong.
    The wicked tenants of the land (the Holy Land) killed the Son of God–God who said in the parable, surely, they won’t kill my son.

    There are two parts to Jesus’ ministry as the Jewish messiah: before and after the wicked tenants concluded no matter who the owner of the Promised Land would send, the wicked tenants were going to kill the messenger, and likely the owner too, had he shown up.

    Similar to the way God put the tree in Eden with inevitable consequences, if the Temple authorities came to the point where they would kill him, the Messiah’s life, ministry, and anointed kingship of the Kingdom of Heaven/Righteousness would have a horrible turn. In Platonic fashion, the reality (the thought) happened before it manifested. Once the reality, the thought was concluded, then it could be picked up by God and by Jesus. Then, Jesus turns from the Kingdom of Righteousness and Heaven to the reality of the Jewish Messiah under a death sentence, rejected by Jewish authorities. The free will of Jewish authorities overrules the plans of God and the messianic aspirations of Jesus.

    Jesus started off as the Messiah but the tenants of the Holy Land, Jewish authorities, killed him.

    Transforming Jesus from one issuing in a theocratic victory to soley a spiritual messiah is not that for which Jesus campaigned in the first half of his ministry.

    • Avatar
      Steefen  November 3, 2015

      (Singing) … for one brief shining moment that was known as–the Kingdom of Righteousness/Heaven.

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    Joseph  November 3, 2015

    Is it anachronistic for Jesus to say “take up your cross”?
    Or did this expression mean something prior to Jesus’s crucifixion?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 4, 2015

      Yes, that is clearly a later insertion onto Jesus’ lips.

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    dragonfly  November 3, 2015

    Did all jews believe there would be a messiah? I’m talking about during Jesus life. And did gentiles generally have a concept of a messiah? It seems a very jewish thing, yet so many gentiles converted and belived Jesus was the messiah.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 4, 2015

      Nope — see my post today. (Gentiles had no concpet at all of the messiah)

      • Avatar
        dostonj  November 4, 2015

        Right, Gentiles did not have a schema for the Messiah as the Jews did. However, Gentiles did embrace the concept of a “personal savior” diety, which is quite different from the Jewish Messianic concept. This might explain, at least in part, why many Jews repudiated the notion of Jesus being the Messiah while Gentiles embraced Paul’s “personal savior” version of Jesus. To the extent that Jewish communities did embrace Jesus, there was much less Christology in their beliefs. Rather, Jesus was viewed as a revelatory/apocalyptic figure who would soon usher in the kingdom of God. This “flavor” of Jesus was *closer* to the Jewish Messianic schema.

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    dragonfly  November 3, 2015

    Do you think Jesus thought he was the messiah? I have been under the impression he probably did, but I don’t see how we could say either way.

  8. Avatar
    Wilusa  November 3, 2015

    Hmm. I started thinking about this…how the term “messiah” had come, by Jesus’s time, to mean different things to different people. Military leader, awe-inspiring high priest, archangel coming in the clouds…but in the most general sense, “savior.” And it occurred to me that among Jews who believed in a “messiah” at all, *every* preacher *or political insurgent* who acquired a “following” may well have been called that by his followers, if he didn’t tell them to stop.

    Can’t resist making guesses here, based on things you’ve already told us…

    Jesus’s followers, in his lifetime, thought he was a “messiah” proclaiming the coming of God’s Kingdom on Earth…and would doubtless be rewarded with an exalted role in it. They didn’t expect him to die.

    After they believed he’d been raised from the dead, they convinced themselves that had actually been prophesied. The “messiah” was *required* to die and be resurrected! Perhaps, to be the “first fruit” of the coming “general” resurrection…to show his disciples what it would be like, in a glorified, invulnerable new body.

    What did Mark mean by it? If you believe that “ransom for many” line involves the idea of atonement, he meant the “messiah” had to “die for the sins of others,” thereby enabling those others to be “saved” through their belief in him. If you *don’t* interpret “ransom for many” that way – if you take it as a noble sacrifice, letting himself be captured and executed when his escape might have resulted in reprisals against his followers – he’s a “messiah” whose *character* is beyond reproach. And his resurrection is still of critical importance: it shows that God *rewards* heroic virtue.

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    Stephen  November 3, 2015

    Isn’t it a tangential but interesting indicator of the historicity of Jesus that the gospel writers spend so much time having to demonstrate that Jesus was the Messiah even though he really didn’t “fit the profile”? And couldn’t you say that the subsequent development of the Christian movement was a creative improvisation necessitated by the admission that things didn’t turn out as planned?

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    dostonj  November 4, 2015

    Dr. Ehrman, I don’t know whether or not you will concur (I suspect you might challenge my view), but in light of Mark 4: 10-13, and as demonstrated throughout the narrative itself, I think the whole gMark is one huge metaparable – a religious literary text in which the author constructs a parabolic narrative of Jesus (macro-parable) comprised of individual parable anecdotes and pericopes, many of which are allegorical yet placed in a historical context for the stated purpose of conveying a specific *theological* message, as opposed to a literal *historical* account. Mark chapter 4 signals this to the astute reader. The gospel of Mark is a religious literary text (and a rather impressive text) that uses “historical fiction” to convey hidden or mysterious theological truths to adherents. Again, Mark chapter 4 explicitly states as much. This view of Mark becomes even more apparent when you compare many of the themes and motifs and even the structure of the narrative to other ancient Greek works of literature that employ historical fiction as a literary tool. The similarities are striking and appear to be more than coincidence. gMark’s use of mimesis and the presence of what are now known as “Markan sandwiches” readily illustrate that the author’s focus was literary/theological and not necessarily historical/documentary. New Testament scholars John Dominic Crossan and Dennis Macdonald have done an excellent job of examining this dynamic in Mark’s gospel.

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    madmargie  November 4, 2015

    I would assume that they thought he was the one to redeem Israel and deliver them from the Romans…nothing supernatural.

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    Phrygia  April 13, 2016

    Dr Ehrman, in pre-Christian Judaism, was the Son of Man figure considered the Messiah? I ask this in light of that (I gather) Jesus historically thought of himself as the Messiah but not the Son of Man, while Mark thought he was both.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 14, 2016

      In 1 Enoch the Son of Man is identified as the messiah, but it’s a rare identification.

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    Temujin  May 16, 2017


    It seems you argue that Mark does not profess that Jesus was GOD (the Father) but rather that Mark considers Jesus to be the Messiah or Son of God, which is different. How do you reconcile that with Mark 1:1’s quotation of Isaiah 40:3, which clearly references God (referring to Jesus)?

    Or did I misunderstand you, and you think Mark believes Jesus was GOD?

    • Bart
      Bart  May 17, 2017

      Yes, I think Mark believes that Jesus is in some sense God. Not God the Father, but a divine being. I talk about all this in my book How Jesus Became God.


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