Michael Kruger again on Jesus as God in the Gospel of Mark

Michael Kruger again on Jesus as God in the Gospel of Mark October 16, 2013

Michael Kruger has written a rather unhelpful response to a post of mine, which was in turn a response to an earlier one of his. He offers a condescending suggestion that I ought to “reread” Hurtado and Bauckham, as though I had not written a book of my own interacting with their views (The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context), as well as having blogged in detail about them. But perhaps this just confirms two things that ought to have been already clear: that Kruger has at most informed himself about one scholarly point of view that he happens to agree with, when it comes to Christology and monotheism in early Christianity, without exploring the wider field of scholarship on the topic; and what he has found conducive to supporting his own viewpoint, he has embraced uncritically – not just ignoring criticisms from the wider academy, but also not coming up with them himself. Being at most superficially acquainted with a field, and then only with works that seem to support your conservative assumptions, is itself problematic. But it becomes all the more disturbing when it is coupled with an unjustified air of arrogant condescension.

Kruger might want to inform himself about the range of views that later rabbis sometimes labeled as “two powers” heresy, and the way those who ascribed to those views read texts, which often distinguished between two figures who could be referred to as Yahweh or the Lord or God. One was often thought to be a principal agent, who bore the divine name as part of their investiture with divine authority. We see such ideas applied to Jesus in Philippians 2:6-11 (upon his exaltation, the divine name is bestowed upon Jesus) and the Gospel of John (the name Jesus bears, which allows him to say “I am” and yet at the same time that he does only the will of the Father who sent him, is said to have been given to Jesus by the Father, whom Jesus addresses as “the only true God” – hence the title of my book). What the Gospel of Mark is doing at this point seems not unrelated to these strands of Jewish and Jewish-Christian interpretation of Scripture, as well as being related to ancient notions of agency whose relevance to Christology has likewise been explored in detail by scholars. But either way, that the early Christians took texts which had in their original contexts applied to the one God, altered their wording, and in the process applied them to Jesus can scarcely be taken as evidence that those early Christians made some sort of simple identification between Jesus and God. If they reworked the wording of those texts, then why should we think that they left their meaning and reference unmodified?

I also find Kruger’s selective appeal to scholarship on the Gospel of Mark troubling. At the end of the passage in Joel Marcus’ book The Way of the Lord: Christological Exegesis of the Old Testament in the Gospel of Mark which Kruger refers to, Marcus writes (pp.39-40):

If he did not smooth out the discrepancy between ‘your way’ and ‘his way,’ perhaps this roughness reflects a desire to preserve, along with a strong impression of the relatedness of Jesus to God, also a measure of acknowledgment of the distinction between them. This distinction coheres with several Markan passages that imply Jesus’ subordination to God (10:18, 40; 13:32; 14:36; and 15:34.

The Markan view of the relationship between Jesus and the κύριος, then, subtly combines a recognition of the separateness of the two figures with a recognition of their inseparability. Perhaps the best way to express this complex relationship is to say that, in Mark, where Jesus acts, there the Lord is also powerfully at work…

Mark thus establishes an identity between the two ways, that of Jesus and that of the Lord, without simply identifying Jesus with God, for the distinction between them is maintained in that Jesus’ apparent defeat is the occasion for God’s victory (cf. 15:33-39).

I find Kruger’s suggestion that this somehow supports his own reading of the Gospel of Mark to be quite frankly astonishing. But perhaps the conclusion to draw is this: if he can misread or misrepresent even modern authors writing in his own language this badly, then I suppose I should be neither surprised nor very much troubled when he interprets the Gospel of Mark in ways that seem equally at odds with what that text actually says.

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    • brianleport


  • Just Sayin’

    I like Hurtado and Bauckham. ‘Eyewitnesses’ is awesome. I like Dr. McGrath too.

    • Me too! But I wouldn’t limit my sources to any one or two in particular.

  • Jaco van Zyl

    Goodness, I share your sentiments, Prof. McGrath. Keep in mind that adhering to the notion of “divinity of Christ” is in Kruger’s mind a necessity for salvation. As soon as a reward contingency requires one to accept a certain position, even the most evolved mind tends to regress into lower forms of heuristic thinking. It’s simple cognitive dissonance. But we both know it.
    Anyway, among the many issues I have with the “divinity of Christ” arguments advanced by You-better-believe-this-or-else fundamentalists, is the vagueness of the phrase. Can a person be divine while being nothing else but human? Of course! But that’s not what they mean. Can it mean that Christ is identical to the God of Israel? Yes! And others are cautious to take it that far also. Even Oneness Pentacostals believe in “the divinity of Christ” which obviously means something totally different from what heresiphobes mean by it. Dale Tuggy wrote an excellent piece on Bauckham’s novel “Christology of divine identity,” pointing out the many issues with the phrase, the concept and its implications. It is, in fact, nothing short of a logical mess, this “divine identity” proposal. Then, fundamentalists slickly describe Jesus in terms which implying inherent ability and being, such as with the word ATTRIBUTES. It has inherent ability as a central nuance to its meaning, while none of Jesus’ recorded abilities or characteristics by necessity means that he was inherently different. Not even to say different in category.
    Sometimes, if I get as far as reading through a painful piece of shoehorn theology, my only response to such amusing scholarship is *facepalm*…

  • Joshua Smith

    I’d say Kruger has misread Hurtado, who seems to view the early Christian reverence of Jesus as being much more complicated than Kruger suggests. Jesus is not worshiped as God, but worshiped like God; he is given the same kind of holy adoration as that reserved for YHWH—which is indeed a remarkable paradigm shift—but there is definitely a distinction between the two.

    As for how this relates to Mark’s understanding of the nature of Jesus, I’m not as certain. But I do find the subtle switcheroo in 5:19-20 curious. Perhaps Mark sits at the literary and doctrinal crossroads of the evolution of Jesus into God? In any case, he is definitely depicted as God by the time John rolls around…

    • Jaco van Zyl

      Depicted as God by the time John rolls around? As ALSO God? ANOTHER God? or God by intention? I think even saying that is rather reductionistic. What does it mean?

      • Joshua Smith

        Compared to the Jesus of Mark’s gospel, the Jesus in John basically floats six inches off the ground throughout the entire story. John says that the Word was God and became flesh. That, plus a lot of hippy-dippy “I AM” statements that illustrate John’s ludicrously high christology suggest that Jesus was not only God’s Son, the Christ (as in Mark), but was also God incarnate. Didn’t mean to derail the discussion of Mark, though.

        • That’s one possible way to understand the Gospel of John. But even there, it is made clear that the divine name is given to Jesus by the only true God. And so there is clear development from the Synoptics to John, or at least clear differences. But it is still possible to read still later developments into the Gospel of John, even as many read John into the Synoptics.

          • Joshua Smith

            I don’t disagree, James. In fact, after re-reading my post, I think that I should revise my statement to clarify that I don’t believe John to present Jesus as God, per se. However, John does more to move ancient Christian theology toward a theology of Christ-as-God than Mark does. But John also draws from Mark. So there is a vaguely discernible line of development, as you say, from the Synoptics to John to early credal Christianity.

            René Such-Schreiner presented a fantastic paper at the Central States SBL meeting in February 2013 that explored Jesus’ relationship to God in the Gospel of John. She argued that the feeding narrative in John 6 presents the Christ (the Logos) as the signifier of the Signified. The bread is not Christ, but signifies Christ, the Bread of Life. So too Christ is not God, but is the signifier that represents the image of God. It’s the religious equivalent of Rene Magritte’s “The Treachery of Images”. Of course, this does place some postmodern categories on Jesus that some may not feel comfortable with, but I still think her thesis is a reasonable one.

          • Jaco van Zyl

            I agree with what you say here, as well as what Such-Screiner said. Christ signified a lot of things; “intentionality” in the philosophy of mind. Intentionality, although formally coined relatively late, still captures a universal phenomenon since ancient times. That said, and considering the “signifier of the Signified” phrase above, it is still a FAR cry from ontologically identifying the signifier AS the Signified. Vague and ambiguous language, equivocations and messy logic (particularly Bauckham’s divine identity Christology) tend to be also thought terminating among the not-so-weary.

          • Jaco van Zyl

            Prof. McGrath, I’m increasingly coming to a different conclusion than many very eminent scholars have regarding the I AM statements of Jesus in GJohn. Much has been writting on Jesus’ evoking the Name from the OT, but I see a few flaws in this position. Firstly, is self-identification not implied, rather than identification as another? In other words, why not the more naturalistic use and understanding of “I am the [intended] one” rather than, I am the I AM? For self-identification, ego eimi was after all the expression used in ancient Greek. Secondly, was “Ani Hu” the way ancient Jews identified God? Was it “EGO EIMI?” Wouldn’t O WN be a more natural way of referring to the Almighty, the Existing One? Christological studies are saturated with this “Self Identification as the I AM” stuff, hardly ever addressing another alternative understanding of the expressions. As religious positions become popular and people default to these, I’m aware that this very thing can happen in scholarship too. I see too much defaulting to a position here which deserves to be challenged instead.

          • The LXX actually has both: ego eimi ho ōn – “I am the existing one.” There is certainly double entendre in John – ego eimi can mean “That’s me” (as, on one level, in the Gethsemane story) as well as be an allusion to the divine name or divine self-revelatory formulas in Exodus and Isaiah (as it surely is, given the reactions to it). But the name of God is explicitly said to have been given to Jesus by God, and so I think that is the key to understanding how Jesus can say “I am” and “I do nothing of myself, but only the will of him who sent me” in the same breath.

          • Jaco van Zyl

            Yes, I got that. That is also the line of reasoning followed by most theologians (save the understanding of agency where the agent bears the Name of the One represented). And even though I see nothing in principle wrong or inconsistent in the allocation or bestowing of God’s Name onto his representatives, I do recognise the premises to this conclusion from John 8:58: 1) The enemies’ response; 2) similar usages in Exodus and Isaiah; 3) customary practice in sending out an agent. This could be a passing phase or something that might grow in elaboration, but the premises above seem to me less and less compelling, since the necessity of the conclusion tends to lose weight in my mind. The “Jews” or Jewish enemies could have responded that way without necessarily understanding Jesus to apply divine authority to himself (cp. John 11:46-53). To these Jews, it would have been equally preposterous for this man to claim that Abraham saw HIS day and that he has been the intended one since before Abraham was born as it would have been for him to claim divine authority. 2) I tend to think that the I AM statements in Exodus and Isaiah were naturalistically understood, in other words, not as names or titles but conveying real semantic meaning. I am unaware of the phrase, I AM, being used as a Name identifying YHWH in other Jewish writings. 3) It just feels odd that Jesus would use such a sentence to declare his bearing the Name. The writers of GJohn present Jesus as claiming elevated status elsewhere in ways much different from the way he does so here. Like I said, this may be a passing phase. I’ve read your one book on the Only True God and I loved every piece of it. I suppose I need to read your other book on JOhn too…

          • Well, I definitely think you should read my other book! 🙂

            If it were not for the explicit references to “the name you gave me” in John 17:11-12, I might draw a similar conclusion to the one that you do. But since we do have that reference, I think it is appropriate to ask where we encounter Jesus bearing that name or using that name. And in light of that, the prayer that the disciples be kept safe through the name God gave to Jesus seems to find its fulfillment when Jesus utters “I am” and ensures the escape of the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane.

          • Jaco van Zyl

            Thanks for the discussion, Prof. Always great to interact with you, even if only briefly.