I’m currently apart of a small group that’s discussing Mark’s gospel. I decided to post reflections as we go. I’m leaving out references for the sake of style, but rest assured I’m not very original. Feel free to comment to ask where I’m getting things from.
Mark begins his gospel by proclaiming Jesus to be the Christ and the Son of God. If Mark intended his gospel to build suspense like a whodunit, teasing the reader with the question of Jesus’ identity, then he fails miserably. He spoils the show a measly five words in. Mark’s narrative, however, does not follow the plot line of a mystery novel, building suspense by keeping its secret to the very end, but follows the plot line of Oedipus Rex, revealing the secret at the beginning and creating tension through the failure of the characters to see what was right in front of them all along.
Mark begins by designating Jesus the “Christ,” the promised Messiah, yet throughout the gospel, Jesus is intriguingly hesitant to take up the title, silencing those few who do recognize His identity. Right when you think the disciples finally get it, they don’t even see Jesus as the Christ when He is being the most Christ-like (8:27-9:1). As for Son of God, the only ones to recognize Jesus as such are demons and a pagan Roman soldier after Jesus breathes His last breath (3:11, 15:39).
As Christians, it’s sometimes hard for us to understand how the disciples could be so ignorant. Yet Jewish expectations about the Messiah, as diverse as they were, pointed in a different direction. “Messiah,” after all, simply means “anointed,” designated as king with a dollop of olive oil on the forehead. No one seems to have expected any sort of divine figure, let alone a suffering, divine Messiah. Even the title “Son of God” did not indicate divinity during Jesus’ time.* Israel was God’s son, His “firstborn,” and the king was especially “Son of God” in his role as representative of Israel (See Ex. 4:22, Ps. 2).
At the time of Jesus, the majority of Jews’ hopes were immediate and concrete. They were under foreign oppression and surrounded by corruption. They prayed and expected God to send a new king to liberate them and usher in a new age, the kingdom of God – an age of unprecedented prosperity for Israel when the surrounding nations would finally recognize YHWH as the one Creator God and stream into Jerusalem as pilgrims rather than conquerors; an age of abundance when the poor would receive justice. But as Mark reveals, Jesus is a different kind of king leading a different kind of revolution to usher in the new age.
Ironically, Christian readers criticize the disciples for what we also so often fail to understand, when, for example, we make the gospel about something other than the kingdom of God breaking into the world. Indeed, readers of the gospel often discover that Mark subverts their own understanding as well as ancient Jewish expectations. The gospel of Mark is an invitation to the reader to see more clearly who this Jesus is and so what it means to follow Him.
* Which, I should say to calm any fears, is not to challenge Jesus’ divinity. After the resurrection, as the disciples connected the dots and realized who Jesus would have to be for all this to happen, what phrase would better capture Jesus’ divine identity than “Son of God,” already sitting right there in front of them? Mark probably himself had both meanings – the original Jewish meaning and the later Christian meaning – in mind.