The Christ of Mark’s Gospel

Jesse J. Northcutt  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 1 - Fall 1958

Certain fundamental assumptions and convictions are necessary to appraise the teaching of the Gospel of Mark concerning the person of Christ. This study of the Christology of Mark is made on the basis of the following assumptions and convictions.

First, the Gospel of Mark, as tradition has claimed, was written by John Mark, an attendant and interpreter of Peter. The gospel was written from his memory of the preaching of Peter. This theory of authorship has been rather generally accepted. It indicates that the writing of this gospel was closely associated with the preaching of Peter. This gives to the gospel something of the quality of eye witness testimony. We may expect, therefore, of Mark’s Gospel greater historical accuracy and truer christological interpretation.

Second, the Gospel of Mark was the earliest of the Synoptic Gospels to be written and as such represents some of the earliest thinking about Jesus. The question of the priority of Mark’s Gospel has been seriously debated, but the current trend has been toward the reaffirmation of this point of view. Vincent Taylor sets out effectively the arguments for the priority of Mark. Taylor concludes: “Taken together, the foregoing considerations adequately establish the priority of Mark, a view which is almost universally held by New Testament scholars.”[1]Vincent Taylor, The Gospels (London: Epworth Press, 1952), p. 47. This is significant to Christology. It pushes the date of Mark’s Gospel back to a period between 65 and 70 A.D. This means that the record and the christological conception of this gospel developed at a very early period within the life of the church—within the first generation of post-resurrection Christians.

Third, the purpose of the author of the Gospel of Mark was christological: he wrote to teach about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God. “Form criticism has done strange things to the study of the New Testament, but one of its positive contributions is this insight that, we can never get back to the bare Jesus of history, that Jesus was religiously interpreted from the beginning, even before his death and resurrection.”[2]Paul E. Davies, “Jesus in Relation to Believing Men,” Interpretation, XII (January, 1958), 5. The author did not set out to write a strict chronological biography of Jesus. The Papias tradition indicates that Mark did not necessarily record events of the life of Jesus in order. He (Mark) “wrote down accurately whatsoever he remembered. It was not, however, in exact order that he related the sayings or deeds of Christ.”[3]Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (editors), The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I., The Apostolic Fathers – Justin Martyr – Irenaeus (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925), p. 155. He wrote to record the life and work of Jesus, particularly with respect to their impact upon the minds of men. He was actually more concerned with what the events revealed about Christ than he was with the events themselves. “Admittedly, the Gospels are not simple objective history—if ever such a thing was written. They are interpreted history. . . What we find in them is ‘facts plus faith.'”[4]Archibald M. Hunter, The Work and Words of Jesus (Philadelphia: Westminister Press, 1950), p. 16.

This means that the historical Jesus, long sought for by critics, is the supernatural Christ. William Manson recognizes this christological emphasis of the gospels.

Strictly speaking, there is not within the frontiers of the Synoptic tradition any presentation of the person of Jesus which does not keep throughout to his functional significance as Messiah, Son of God, and Son of man….

There is no smallest unit of the tradition (the Synoptic tradition) which is not instinct with christological significance.[5]William Manson, Jesus the Messiah (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1945), p. 94.

The Synoptic Gospels are christological through and through…The very appearance of the Gospel of Mark is an affirmation that the resurrection and its prelude in the Cross, important as they were in the early church, are not enough to account for the faith of the church vested in Jesus Christ; the story of his deeds, Mark says, is vitally important.[6]Davies, op. cit., p. 11.

This recognition of the basic christological approach of Mark does not deny or detract from the historical character of these records. The very nature of Mark’s Gospel is such as to vindicate its character as history. Its realism with reference to the humanity of Jesus confirms this. It lacks the characteristic qualities of myth and legend which tend to erase difficulties and to idealize their object. A. M. Hunter quotes John Stuart Mill, whom he characterizes as “no biased critic” (at least not favorably so) toward Jesus and the Gospels,

‘It is no use … to say that Christ as exhibited in the Gospels is not historical, and that we do not know how much of what is admirable has been super-added by the tradition of his followers. Who among His disciples. . . was capable of inventing the sayings ascribed to Jesus, or of imagining the life and character revealed in the Gospels?”[7]Hunter, op. cit., p. 16.

The quality of Mark’s Gospel is self-validating as history. It must be said, however, that it is a particular kind of history. It might be termed revelational-history, or history through which God was seeking to make himself know through Christ to men. The christological emphasis was a part of the history itself.

What we are saying is that this faith (that of the primitive church in Christ), this trustful response does not obscure our true picture of Jesus. On the contrary this faith was part of the original event. . . Christianity began as Christology in the first encounter when Jesus elicited the response of faith.[8]Davies, op. cit., p. 16.

Fourth, the Gospel of Mark represents the Christology of the primitive church. As indicated, the view of the person of Jesus expressed in this gospel came first from the lips of Peter. Then, apart from any consideration of inspiration, in less than a generation from the time of Jesus’ death, Mark penned this revelational-historical account of his life. It is not a distorted and idealized account, but a factual and perceptive presentation of what transpired.


Jesus of Nazareth

The Christ of Mark’s Gospel is realistically human. The common name for Christ in Mark’s Gospel is simply “Jesus.” This was the human name of the one who in a few instances is designated “Jesus of Nazareth.” Along with this general use of the human name, Jesus, there is a frank and realistic presentation of Jesus as human.

No other evangelist dwells so often on his (Jesus’) human emotions. Now Jesus is grieved and sighs deeply in his spirit (7:34; 8:12); now he is moved with pity (6:34); now he ‘marvels’ at the unbelief of his fellow countrymen (6:6); now he grows ‘indignant’ at the conduct of his disciples (10:14). Once he looked around ‘with anger’ on his critics (3:5); on another occasion he was seized with ‘deadly fear’ (14:33 f.).[9]Archibald M. Hunter, The Gospel According to St. Mark (London: S>C>M> Press, Ltd., 1948), p. 22.

Not only his emotions but often his actions are characterized by humanity. He needs privacy and seeks to get away from the crowds (1:35 ff.). He has a mother and brothers who seek him (3:31 ff.). When the terrible storm on Galilee swept down upon them “he was in the stern asleep on the cushion.” He sought the Father in prayer (6:46). He was lonely (10:32 ff.). He suffered and died. This one who clearly is unveiled as divine is also simply and realistically presented as human. Humanity and deity blend in remarkable harmony in Mark’s Gospel. One is not surprised to discover that the human person is divine, nor distressed to know that the divine person is human.


Son of God

The basic conception of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel is that of Son of God. The gospel begins with this emphasis, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1).[10]All biblical quotations are from the American Standard Version unless otherwise indicated. Some of the ancient manuscripts omit the expression “the Son of God.” For that reason some have questioned the authenticity of this passage. The textual evidence, however, is strong enough to assure its authentic character. The thought expressed in the phrase is the point of view of the gospel. The Christ of Mark is the divine Christ.

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ is identified with the mission of John the Baptist, particularly in the baptism of Jesus. The baptismal experience is emphasized first because it underscores the theme of the divine Christ. The voice from heaven identified Jesus, “Thou art my beloved Son, in thee I am well pleased” (1:11). The initial portion of this declaration is a reflection of the words of Psalm 2, a psalm long recognized by the Jewish people for its messianic significance. The Messiah of the second Psalm was the triumphant Son of God. In his baptism Jesus was identified with this triumphant Son. The Gospel of Mark begins with this graphic emphasis on his divine sonship.

This conception of divine sonship is underscored in chapter 2. When the palsied man was brought to him for healing, Jesus said to him, “Son, thy sins are forgiven” (2:5). The scribes responded to this pronouncement by reasoning within their hearts, “Why does this man thus speak? he blasphemeth: who can forgive sins but one, even God?” (2:7). Their premise was true. It is correct to say that only God can forgive sin. Failing to recognize Jesus as divine, they were convinced that he blasphemed. Mark represents Jesus as perceiving what was in their hearts, and then, to vindicate his pronouncement of forgiveness, he healed the man of his infirmity. By the forgiving of sin and the healing of physical infirmity he laid claim to deity.

In 3:11 “unclean spirits” are said to have fallen down before him “and cried, saying, Thou art the Son of God.” The world of darkness which he had come to destroy recognized and attested his divine sonship. In 5:7 the voice of the demonic world is added to the witness of his deity. The Gerasene demoniac “ran ‘and worshipped him… crying out with a loud voice, ….What have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of the Most High God?” (5:6f.).

The voice from heaven was again added to the testimony at the time of the transfiguration (9:7). Jesus had begun after the confession at Caesarea Philippi to teach his disciples that he must suffer and die. This emphasis startled and frightened them. Mark describes them as following Jesus at a distance, puzzled and afraid. In response to their need in the hour of confusion God gave to them through Peter, James, and John the experience of the transfiguration. The central fact in this experience was their vision of his transfigured person. In Mark’s Gospel it is said that “he was transfigured before them; and his garments became glistening, exceeding white so as no fuller on earth can whiten them” (9:2 f.). What happened is explained to some extent by the divine voice interpreting the experience. “This is my beloved Son: hear ye him” (9:7). The transfiguration was the unveiling of his deity, so that he was seen to be what the voice later declared him to be “beloved Son of God.”

This emphasis on his divine sonship must be understood as the emphasis of Jesus in the parable of the husbandmen (12:1-12). Jesus perceived during his last week that there could be only one end to his offering of himself to his people—rejection and death. To emphasize this he told them the story of a lord who planted and prepared a vineyard and then rented it out to husbandmen. Later he sent a servant to collect the rent. The wicked husbandmen beat one servant and sent him away empty, wounded and shamefully treated the next, killed the next and then others. Finally the lord “had yet one, a beloved son: he sent him at last unto them, saying, They will receive my son” (12:6).

The intent of this parable is clearly indicated in Jesus’ interpretation of it and by the scribes’ reaction to it. Jesus said, “Have ye not read even this scripture: The stone which the builders rejected, The same was made the head of the corner; This was from the Lord, And it is marvelous in our eyes?” (12:10 f.). The scribes responded by seeking to lay hold on him “for they perceived that he spake the parable against them” (12:12). They understood that the lord of the story was God. They were the wicked husbandmen. Jesus represented himself to be the beloved son. This they considered blasphemy.

Jesus in answer to the direct question of the high priest affirmed that he was the Son of God (14:62). “Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” “The Son of the Blessed” on the lips of the high priest meant “the Son of God.” Mark represents Jesus as saying simply, “I am.” This was his affirmation of divine sonship. The high priest so understood it. He rent his clothes and turned to those about him to ask, “What further need have we of witnesses? Ye have heard the blasphemy: what think ye? And they all condemned him to be worthy of death” (14:63 f.). Thus Jesus was condemned to death by the Sanhedrin because he claimed to be “the Christ, the Son of the Blessed.”

Final testimony is added to his sonship in Mark’s Gospel through the words of the centurion at the cross, “Truly this man was the Son of God” (15:39). Some translate this passage “a son of God.” Translated in this way it means that the centurion saw in Jesus only an unusual or possibly supernatural man. But Mark probably means more than this. It is to be understood that the centurion recognized him as “the Son of God.” This would be a fitting climax of the testimony to Jesus as the divine Son of God.

Added to the testimony of the above declarations which affirm his divine sonship is the witness of his deeds and miracles. One does not understand the true spirit of Mark’s Gospel unless he perceives that the Christ of Mark is the Christ of miraculous powers. Mark’s Gospel is a gospel of miracles, miracles in which Jesus demonstrates his power as the divine Son of God. He exercises power over the deranged minds of men and over the demonic world. He casts out unclean spirits (1:23. ff. 32 ff.). He heals the fevered body of Peter’s mother-in-law (1:29 ff.). He heals all manner of diseases and casts out unclean spirits (1:32 ff.). He cleanses lepers (1:40 ff.). He heals the palsied man (2:1 ff.). He heals a man with a withered hand (3:1 ff.). He transforms the Gerasene demoniac (5:1 ff.). He raises the daughter of Jairus and cleanses the woman with the issue of blood (5:25 ff.). He stills the storm on Lake Galilee (4:37 ff.). There are many other such miracles. They demonstrate his power over the demonic world, the world of nature, and the bodies and the minds of men. There is little doubt that Mark intends by the miracles to portray the divine sonship of Jesus.

Was Jesus, as presented by Mark, conscious of his sonship to God? It seems that the whole tenor of Mark’s thought demands that this question be answered affirmatively. It is true that he does not apply the term Son of God to himself. However, he does accept it when it is applied by demonic beings. When questioned before the high priest he unhesitatingly answers “I am” when asked if he were the Christ, the Son of the Blessed. The whole import of his miracles in Mark’s Gospel represents Jesus as presenting himself to the people as one who is divine. The parable of the wicked husbandmen indicates that Jesus conceived of himself as the Son of God in a sense that no one else was or is the Son of God. The baptismal experience and the subsequent temptation have little significance apart from the fact that he knew himself to be the Son of God and was struggling with himself and with his relationship to the fulfillment of the divine mission.



There is no adequate understanding of the person of Christ in Mark’s Gospel apart from Mark’s presentation of the messiahship of Jesus. On one occasion in Mark’s Gospel Jesus is designated “Son of David,” a distinctly messianic term. Blind Barthimaeus twice calls on him for help as Son of David (10:47 f.). It is interesting to observe that Jesus did not repudiate this designation applied to him. It is possible that Jesus by implication applies the title to himself in 12:35-37. Here he asked his enemies how the Messiah could be both David’s Son and David’s Lord.

In the Caesarean confession recorded in 8:27 ff. Jesus’ own disciples, speaking through Peter, declared him to be the Christ. “Thou art the Christ” (8:29). Again Jesus seems to have accepted the designation. According to Matthew’s Gospel he both accepts and commends the answer.

Before the high priest when he was asked, “Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” he answered with a simple “I am.” This was affirmation of the fact of his messiahship, as well as affirmation of the fact that he is Son of God.

It is true that Jesus did not push his claims as the Messiah on the disciples. He waited for them to see some things for themselves. But, when the time came, he gladly welcomed their confession of himself as the Messiah. Perhaps it would not be too strong to say that he eagerly drew the confession from them as soon as the time was ripe for it.[11]W. T. Conner, The Faith of the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1940), p. 158.

The triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem (11:1ff.) has meaning only as it is seen in the light of its messianic significance. Jesus was finally and definitely offering himself to his people as their Messiah. He did not, however, offer himself as a political and military Messiah, but as one who was meek and lowly, riding upon an ass.


Son of Man

To present himself as the Messiah and to do so in his own terms, Jesus adopted as peculiarly his own the title, “Son of Man.” This was Jesus’ favorite designation of himself. This was not only a favorite but a peculiarly private designation. No one else in the gospels uses it of him.

There has been considerable discussion of the origin of the term. Knowing Jesus’ Jewish background, one expects and is not surprised to find that the term has Jewish origins. The term is definitely an Old Testament one. Ezekiel uses it often as the address of God directed toward himself as a prophet of God. It is also used in the Old Testament as a synonym for man (Ps. 8:4; cf. Joh 25:6; Ps. 144:3; 80:17). The term takes on an apocalyptic significance in the Book of Daniel. In Daniel 7:13f. in a series of night visions Daniel says,

There came with the clouds of heaven one like unto a son of man, and he came even to the ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom that all the peoples, nations, and languages should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.

The term Son of Man appears also in the apocryphal books. Its use there indicates its development in Jewish thought of the intertestamental period. Bowman calls attention to the fact that the expression occurs in the Similitudes of Enoch (vs. 35-71) and in II (or IV) Esdras. Both of these books, he says, depend on the vision of Daniel, and in them the Son of Man is clearly to be identified with the Messiah.[12]John Wick Bowman, The Intention of Jesus (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1943), p. 122.

These references constitute the immediate Jewish background of Jesus’ use of the term. Interestingly enough, however, the term Son of Man had not become and was not a popularly used messianic designation in the day of Jesus. Jesus took, therefore, a term which had a rich background in Scripture and in tradition, yet one that was little used in his day, to interpret his significance as Messiah. The term on the lips of Jesus was a term for Messiah. The significance of the term as he used it must be determined from the passages in which it is found.

The term Son of Man is used in Mark’s Gospel about fourteen times. In every instance it is used by Jesus to refer to himself and his ministry. The term Son of Man as used by Jesus is found in the context of different and seemingly contradictory significances. In some passages Jesus uses the term Son of Man of himself to assert and to indicate authority and triumph, and in others to ascribe to himself lowliness and suffering.

There are passages in which the term Son of Man is associated with the idea of authority. It is used to refer to Jesus’ authority to forgive sin: “But that he may know that the Son of man hath authority on earth to forgive sins” (2:10). He then demonstrates this authority by healing the man of his palsy. The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath (2:28). It belongs to him therefore to use the sabbath as he wills for the good of humanity.

The term is also used by Jesus in the context of triumph and glory. It belongs to the Son of Man to be ashamed of those who deny him, “The Son of Man also shall be ashamed 9f him when he cometh in the glory of his Father” (8:38). The Son of Man is thus the arbiter of the destinies of men. The Son of Man is coming in the glory of the Father. This idea of the apocalyptic appearance of the Son of Man in glory and triumph is heard more than once on the lips of Jesus. The Son of Man shall triumph over death in the resurrection (9:9). The Son of Man will be seen even by his enemies “sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (14:62). The Son of Man shall be seen “coming in clouds with great glory and power” (13:26).

But the term is also used of Jesus in the context of lowliness and suffering. At least half of the times in which Jesus uses the term it is employed in this sense. Jesus uses the term in 10:45 to describe the lowly service of his mission in the world, “For the Son of man also came not to be ministered unto, but to minister and to give his life a ransom for many.” Jesus regularly used the term Son of Man to describe his betrayal, suffering, and death. It appears in this manner in 8:31; 9:12, 31; 10:33; 14:21 (used twice in this passage).

Jesus thus poured into this designation of himself a twofold conception of his messiahship, suffering and triumph. He knew himself to be a suffering Messiah, but he also knew that beyond suffering there was triumph.


Servant of the Lord

To understand the idea of the messiahship of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel it is also necessary to observe the Servant conception as it seems to be applied to Jesus. There is a definite strain in Mark’s Gospel of the Servant conception. To appreciate the emphasis more fully, one needs to observe the entire synoptic portrayal of this conception.

The Servant idea appears in the opening verses of Mark’s Gospel and is associated closely with the conception that he is the Son of God. At his baptismal experience the voice from heaven declared, “Thou are my beloved Son, in thee I am well pleased” (1:11). The second half of the expression, “In thee I am well pleased,” is a reflection of the language of Isaiah, “Behold, my servant, whom I uphold; my chosen, in whom my soul delighteth” (Isa. 42:1). In the voice at the baptism of Jesus are joined together the ideas that he is the triumphant Messiah of Psalm 2 and the lowly Servant of Isaiah 40-66. Compare the twofold use of the term Son of Man in which the ideas of triumph and suffering are joined together with this twofold emphasis at his baptism.

As we can scarcely think of the evangelist himself as conflating these two texts for the occasion, the presumption is that it was instinctive or traditional in the community to think of Jesus the Messiah as at the same time the Servant in whom the Lord had pleasure.[13]Manson, op. cit., p. 110.

Jesus says of himself, “For the Son of man also came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (10:45 RSV). In this instance Jesus does not, as he never does, refer to himself as the Servant, but he does describe himself as performing the functions of the Servant. “He who is called to be the Messiah-Son of God sees the way marked out for him by the practice of the Servant, and teaches also that only through the humiliation and self-sacrifice of the Servant is the glory of the Son of Man to be attained.”[14]Ibid., p. 111.

The suffering of the Son of Man becomes peculiarly identified with the Servant conception. The Son of Man is to suffer, be rejected, be killed, give his life a ransom for many (8:31; 10:45). All of this reflects the mission of the Servant. Thus the Son of Man is the Suffering Servant. To appreciate this emphasis fully one needs to see the idea enlarged in Matthew and Luke and then to observe the conception seized upon and used by the early church, particularly in the addresses in the Book of Acts.

Jesus of Mark’s Gospel is the Son of God, Messiah, Son of Man and Suffering Servant. This was the faith of the early Christians. They did not invent this conception of Jesus; they received it. They discovered it in their fellowship with him. It was unveiled to them in revelational-history. This portrait in Mark’s Gospel is the foundation for a well-rounded picture of Christ in the Synoptic Gospels.


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