Archive for the ‘Historical Jesus’ Category

Was the Author of the Gospel of Mark an Adoptionist?

January 18, 2008

A reader who calls himself “Hokku” on David’s Blog suggested that the Gospel of Mark teaches an adoptionist Christology and that this can be argued for exegetically. Adoptionism is the view that Jesus’ divinity is to be understood in terms of a man being adopted, due to his virtue and moral excellence, into the divine life. Jesus did not pre-exist his birth as God or anything else; rather he was born as a man (some adoptionists deny the virginal conception) and raised to deity.

As someone who believes in Incarnational Christology, I disagree with this view, and I was interested in whether or not there are textual reasons for denying it, considering Hokku’s claims that it can be argued from the Gospel of Mark. Here are the comments that argued for adoptionism and my proposed responses. For those interested in reading this, I would appreciate evaluation/criticism.

Hokku wrote:

“And what we do see in Mark is Jesus being declared son of God at his baptism when the heavens open and the Spirit descends into him (note that it is as though Jesus becomes possessed by the Spirit — we see later in Mark that the Spirit “casts him out” into the wilderness, a violent term that Matthew and Luke change to “led”). The voice from heaven declares “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased,” which is a reflection of Psalm 2:7: “You are my son, today I have begotten you.” On his elevation, the ancient king of Israel was believed to become the son of God, and in Mark, Jesus becomes the son of God at his baptism, thus no need for or interest in birth stories and virgin births, both things Matthew and Luke added to the Markan text, which again is why their two stories are so divergent and discrepant — they had no Markan model to follow, as they do with the rest of Mark up to the point where the women run from the tomb in fear and say nothing to anyone.”

“If there is no virgin birth in Mark (and there is not), no birth narrative in which Mary is impregnated by the Holy Spirit (and there is not), no pre-existent Logos who becomes flesh (as in John), and Mark’s “heavenly” declaration that Jesus is/has become God’s son takes place and is emphasized at his baptism — and Mark states the “beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ” to be at the appearance of John and his baptism, then that alone provides substantial evidence. But further, we have the evidence of early Jewish Ebionite Christianity, as already mentioned, which held to a form of adoptionism, so we have extra-biblical evidence for this understanding as well.”

I wrote:

Hokku–-

Here are a couple of possible problems that came to mind when I was thinking about the possibility of a Markan adoptionist Christology. I didn’t assume biblical inspiration or inerrancy or anything in making the arguments; I just tried to assume that the Markan narrative is somewhat internally consistent and had an audience of some kind. None of these is an argument that Mark’s beliefs were correct, just that its hard to see how we could claim that he had adoptionistic beliefs. None of the arguments is adequate by itself, but I think that taken jointly they make the adoptionist interpretation unlikely. Then again, Im not a biblical scholar, so I’d like your feedback. Tell me what you think:

1. When John speaks about the coming of Jesus in the prologue, he speaks of him as “The one who is more powerful than I” and says that he is not worthy to stoop and tie his sandals. This is hard to mesh with the idea that Jesus was not considered to be divine by the author of the Gospel of Mark prior to his baptism . How does an adoptionist exegesis explain Mark’s putting these words in John’s mouth in a way that isn’t ad hoc?

2. The language of John becomes even more problematic if we try to read it adoptionistically because if adoptionism is right, then Jesus had to prove his worthiness of divinity through effort and therefore to have had some kind of special life prior to his exaltation. This follows from the definition of adoptionism; after all, its not just any mortal who is worthy of becoming divine. This implies some kind of backstory that the readers of Mark would be familiar with. The existence of this backstory also seems to be implied by the total lack of clarification as to who Jesus is or where he comes from at the start of Mark’s narrative–something that other Jewish writers afford their readers when they are introducing an important character in their so-called salvation history. But if this assumption is granted–that according to the Christian story, Jesus had an incredible, powerful, or unusual life prior to baptism that made him worthy of somehow partaking of divinity–then invoking a virginal conception and Incarnation as being part of Mark’s background information becomes a lot more credible. It becomes one of many acceptable ways to explain Jesus’ worthiness to be given divinity (another way would be that he had some kind of incredible human virtue, a story that may have narrative difficulties of its own). But of course if he had divinity before the baptism via a virginal conception and Incarnation from pre-existence, then the argument for adoptionism collapses.

3. The actual events of the baptism and what immediately follows are peculiar if read through the lens of adoptionism. One big problem is where the author sees Jesus becoming exalted to divinity. Is it the Holy Spirit’s descent? This would be a strange place to identify the exaltation because the Holy Spirit seems to remain distinct from Jesus (the Spirit drives him into the wilderness in 12, implying a kind of distinction). If we were looking for evidence of exaltation, we would want to locate something that has specifically changed about Jesus’ position on the hierarchy of beings; but identifying the Spirit’s descent as embodying this is odd because of the subsequent distinction between the Spirit and Jesus. Also, there was a precedent in Jewish teaching for the descent of the Spirit being a royal anointing–giving a king rule over Israel–when accompanied by a washing in the river by a prophet; but its a huge stretch to see this as an enactment of divinization. Especially when we take into account John’s acknowledgment of the prior power and authority of Jesus, this is very awkward. Is the voice of the Father the point that we look to to see divinization happening? This is strange because the voice merely acknowledges, it doesn’t actually *do* anything from what we can tell. All the transformation that the author wants to get across seems to have already happened once the Holy Spirit comes down and rests over him. So where’s the exaltation to divinity from a previously non-divine state?

4. If we try to argue that the words “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased” are an acknowledgment of present exaltation to divinity, then this sits very awkwardly with Mark’s account of the transfiguration later on, where similar language is used. With the transfiguration we have to grant that the voice from the cloud is recognizing a status that has been in Jesus’ possession at least since the time of his baptism. It is thus an acknowledgment of a state that Jesus has had for awhile–not recognition of something that has just been obtained, much less an actual act of conferring authority or power verbally. But if we are willing to grant this with respect to the transfiguration account, then why not assume that Mark’s meaning is the same in both cases? This is simpler. Is the only reason that we should prefer your exegesis of Mark 1:11 that the phrase “you are my Son…” here occurs for the first time? At this point the argument has become a stretch.

5. Your arguments from the lack of an Incarnational narrative or a virginal conception narrative seem to assume that these ideas weren’t in the b
ackground of the minds of the readership, and that Mark’s choice not to include them implies that he didn’t believe in them–two assumptions that I don’t see any good reason to grant. The argument from the baptismal proclamation is awkward for reasons I’ve explained above. And your argument from how Mark positions “the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” seems unpersuasive because (a) Mark could just mean that this is the beginning of his telling of the Gospel (which seems in no way problematic as a read) and (b) as I argued above, Mark seems to assume his audience has some prior knowledge of the story of Jesus, which would include supplemental material about how Jesus confers salvation, etc.–more Gospel.

6. Finally, there may be arguments available that Mark believes in Jesus’ divinity in a sense that is stronger than that of adoptionism–a pre-existent sense, or a fully-divine sense. If you would like, I can attempt to locate these for you.

Thanks.

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