Some Thoughts on Mark's Opening Line and Jesus' Divinity
I have written elsewhere that the early Christians wrote about Jesus as if he was divine -- but in very Jewish terms that adhered to the Jewish belief that there is one God.
Although my prior studies have focused on the early Christian epistles, I recently learned something of interest while reading Ben Witherington's socio-rhetorical commentary on the Gospel of Mark. This caused me to delve further into the very first words of the Gospel of Mark.
Does the author start his Gospel in such as way as to inform his readers that Jesus is divine? Not just a Messiah, but a deity? THE deity? I think so. The very first line of Mark is:
The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Keeping in mind that Mark's audience was largely Greek speaking and Gentile, would this opening statement remind them of anything?
There is an ancient inscription from 9 BC. It is called the "Priene inscription" and it is about the Emperor Octavian (Augustus). It states:
Because providence has ordered our life in a divine way . . . and since the Emperor through his epiphany has exceeded the hopes of former good news, surpassing not only the benefactors who came before him, but also leaving no hope that anyone in the future will surpass him, and since the birthday of the god was for the world the beginning of his good news [may it therefore be decreed that] . . . .
Many commentators (for online examples look here and here) have noticed that both the inscription and the Gospel of Mark use the phrase "good news." There is also the focus on the "beginning" of that good news. For Mark, the beginning is Jesus' ministry. For the inscription, it begins at the birth of the emperor.
Was Mark familiar with this inscription? Or one very like it? It seems likely. In fact, it seems that Mark is adopts it intentionally almost as a literary device to make his point to a Greek-speaking largely Gentile audience. If so, there is one other part of the inscription that is not noted as often by commentators -- the inscription refers to the Emperor as "the god." He is a divine entity that is the beginning of the good news for the empire. Of course, the cult of the emeperor had gained much prominence by then and the idea of a divine emperor was common.
But does Mark have a parallel to the inscriptions' reference (or the common belief) to the emperor being a god? Yes, in the last phrase of Mark's statement he writes that Jesus Christ is "the Son of God."
The emperor is called a god, and we are informed that his birth or advent on the human scene already augurs good things for the world. If Mark has in mind such familiar inscriptions (which became increasingly common throughout the empire as the emperor cult spread in the first century A.D.), then it would appear that he is making a parallel claim about the divinity of Jesus. The combination of the reference to "beginning" plus "good news" plus the reference to the comoing of a "god" fines clear analogies in Mark 1:1 . . . . Mark, then, from the outset, is announcing not merely a coming of a teacher or even just a human messianic figure (though that is also part of the truth), but the epiphany or advent of a deity who will reveal himself in various and sundry ways during his life on earth. The latter is surely how a largely Gentile audience would have heard this opening salvo, since it so clearly echoes the more familiar inscriptions like that quoted above.
Ben Witherington, A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on the Gospel of Mark, pages 69-70.
Although the phrase "Son of God" can refer to the divine, it need not always be used in such a way. The question of whether Mark so uses it is answered, at least in part, by his writing with the inscriptions (and/or emperor cult) in mind. He well knew that his audience would read the opening line with the purported divinity of the emperor in mind. (See Robert H. Gundry, Mark's Apology for the Cross, page 34 ("Gentiles would certainly respond to 'Son of God' with thoughts of divinity . . . and Mark writes for Gentiles"). This conclusion is reinforced by how Mark uses the phrase to refer to Jesus elsewhere in the Gospel when Jesus is engaging in divine behavior (such as forgiving sins himself, 2:10, as the Lord of the Sabbath, 2:28, sitting at the right hand of God, 8:38, and commanding the angels, 13:27). These feats are directly linked to Jesus' title as "Son of Man."
So it appears that Mark wastes no time in challenging his readers with the Good News that a diety -- Jesus Christ -- has arrived. Yet he does so in a non pagan way, immersing Jesus and his ministry in the Jewish scriptures and fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. He at no times abandons the doctrine of monotheism or accepts any notion of a pantheon of divinities. Jesus, therefore, comes not just as a divine being, but THE divine being. In essense, Mark has added some points of reference for his Gentile audience, but retains the idea found in the epistles that Jesus is divine in a way that is consisten with Jewish monotheism.