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Exploring the Christian Way of Life: The Identity of Jesus Part 3

This is part three of a paper on the identity of Jesus. Here are part one and part two.

We’re getting there in our portrait of Jesus, but we still have more work to do. Mark may provide us with the major brushstrokes, as indeed what we have said could have been drawn from Matthew, Mark, Luke, or Paul (e.g., Rom 1:1-7). What does John have to say? The prologue (John 1:1-18) contains the fullest summary of John’s vision of Jesus. Those 18 verses provide us with several avenues for exploration, but I want to focus on one in particular. First, let’s look at the first 5 verses.

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1-5 NRSV)

According to John 1:1, Jesus is the word, or the revelation of God, his intentionality.[1] In other words, Jesus is God’s fullest expression of himself. The emphasis on illumination is expressed in an apocalyptic term: light.[2] Jesus is the light, the life bringing light. This light brings life both here and now and in the age to come. The light was opposed, but the darkness could not overcome the light. Jesus was victorious. It is also expressed in two other terms in John 1:14, truth and grace. Here, given the emphasis of the rest of the prologue, I believe we are to understand that truth is revelatory; not logical[3] nor purely propositional.[4] This gives the impetus for this paper as argued in the introduction. One must understand God as he is revealed in Jesus, and one must understand Jesus as God has presented him to us, as the first century Jewish Messiah, crucified, raised from the dead, ascended to the right hand of God, and embodied in and by the church. Through those acts God reveals the fullness of his love and grace. God graciously gave the law through Moses, but the grace and light that came with that revelation is surpassed by the light and grace made visible in Jesus. In him God’s mercy, compassion, and – to put it in a Pauline form – paradoxical wisdom are on full display. Jesus reveals God in many ways, but it is in the cross that he is the fullest revelation.

Is that in agreement with Mark? One aspect of the baptism that we have not discussed is the question of divinity. Does the ‘sonship’ language imply some sort divinity? Collins and Collins argue that the term Son of God took on that aspect as time progressed during the second temple period.[5] Mark, in all likelihood, was written to a Gentile audience and they too would have understood both the sonship language and the descent of the dove to imply Jesus' divinity in some sense.[6] In fact they likely would have read it as the moment in which Jesus became divine, a god in disguise.[7] Is that in line with Mark’s intentions? Did Jesus become divine at his baptism? Hurtado argues that Mark is about the unveiling of Jesus' divinity. He is at his baptism proclaimed to be divine. However, he is never proclaimed God’s son by a human until after his crucifixion in Mark 15:39.[8] The motif of the hiddenness of Jesus identity is strong in Mark. His divinity is only fully unveiled in his death on the cross. This aspect of Mark’s understanding of Jesus is consistent with the Johannine prologue. While I think the scales tip against Mark having seen Jesus as merely human prior to his baptism, he has seemed to have picked up on the hiddenness motif from Homer.[9] Perhaps, among other reasons, it is to correct this possible ambiguity that Matthew and Luke add infancy narratives, to stress Jesus' divinity from the moment he enfleshed himself.[10]  As Hurtado notes, this motive is certainly behind the narrative inventions of the second century infancy gospels.[11]

Otherwise the origin narratives in Matthew and Luke are in agreement with what we have seen. France argues that Mt. 1:1-4:11 is an extended argument that Jesus is the messiah.[12] The title, ‘Christ’ is used in 1:1, 16, 17, 18, and 2:4. The genealogy of Matthew is a royal genealogy centered on both David and Abraham. As Davies and Allison point out, Jesus has come to end the exile. This uses a schema of history common to that of the apocalypses.[13] This emphasizes Jesus' role as the delivering king, the one who through whom God would fulfill the promises to Abraham and David, understood eschatologically. This again, is a shared emphasis with Mark. Matthew goes on, however, to fill out the picture a little more in the announcement to Joseph. He is told by the angel, in verse 21, that Jesus will “save his people from their sins.” There is a strong spiritual dimension to Jesus’ activity. He wasn’t there to lead a revolution against Rome, primarily.[14] He came to lead a revolution against evil.

[1] Calvin, ad loc. Similarly Moloney 1999.

[2] This and much of the rest of the analysis is an extension of what is found in Keener 2003 passim.

[3] By this I don’t mean ‘illogical,’ rather simply that John doesn’t care about Lessing’s ditch.

[4] Revelatory and propositional are overlapping categories and not inherently contradictory. My point is that one cannot abstract God’s revelation of Jesus from the mode.

[6] The description is reminiscent of scenes in the Illiad and the Odyssey as argued by Dixon 2009, esp. 765-69.

[7] Ibid. 770.

[8] Hurtado 2003 pp. 288-89.

[9] I wish I could be more definitive, but I have no compelling reason other than the fact that Mark was accepted widely by a proto-orthodox church which clearly believed Jesus was the embodiment of the divine Son and that the narrative does seem to hint at a prior choice and having been pleased with Jesus as noted above. Dixon’s argument is very strong. The reception history, though, cannot be taken lightly and hence I do not follow Dixon at this point. 

[10] Davies and Allison 1988 see a close tie between the virginal conception by Mary and divine Christology. See 200-02. They also urge against an adoptionist reading of Mark 1:9-11 and parallels in their analysis of the baptism, though they do not consider a Homeric background. See 331-34. 

[11] Hurtado 2003, 449 on the Protoevangelium of James, 451 on the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.

[12] France 2007 p. 25.

[13] Davies and Allison 1988 p. 187 note Dan 9:24-7, 1 En. 93:3-10, 91:12-17, and 2 Bar. 67:1-74:4. 

[14] Ibid. p. 210.


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