Out of the 4 Gospel accounts, Mark is generally believed to have been written the earliest (c. AD 66-70, or potentially earlier). In the Gospel of John, the divinity of Jesus is emphasised in particular, but is the same evidence for Jesus’ self-understanding also present in the synoptic Gospel of Mark?
Here are three paradigm-shifting passages on Jesus’ self-understanding as God Incarnate from Mark:
1) The Baptism of Jesus – Mark 1:9-11
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Given how subtle the general narrative of Mark is, the strong nature of this experience is very significant – literally a direct affirmation that Jesus is the very Son of God, in a literal sense. This would later cause an extremely hostile reaction at Jesus’ trial:
2) The Trial of Jesus - Mark 14:61b-64
Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus said, “I am; and
‘you will see the Son of Man
seated at the right hand of the Power,’
and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’”
Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?” All of them condemned him as deserving death.
Here Jesus directly affirms what was proclaimed at His baptism – it is a testament to His humility that Jesus decided to wait to this crucial moment. Three points are very interesting here:
A) Significantly, Jesus claims to be seated at the right hand of God, a position affirming unique closeness to God, indeed reigning with the rule of God.
B) According to Leviticus 21:10, “The priest … shall not dishevel his hair, nor tear his vestments.” The High Priest was forbidden by Mosaic Law to do the very thing he does here – tear his clothes in disgust. Leviticus 10:6 reiterates this. Fascinating is the fact that the very moment that Jesus affirms His status is the very moment when the high priest invalidates his. Clearly this is not without significance – an affirmation that, in some sense, the Son of God replaces the ministry of the High Priest, implying a unique status that Mark clearly was portraying as very different to the prophets that had come before, none of whose presence had invalidated the very Levitical priesthood that was held so dear.
C) Even more significantly, the very high priest calls Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God “blasphemy”. In this, Judaism, unlike the Greeks, had no concept of a ‘semi-God’ or the like – only God was divine, and everything else created and very much not divine. It is thus as though this claim to be the Son of God in some sense implied equality with God, being of the very Being of God Himself.
3) Jesus Heals a Paralytic – Mark 2:1-13
When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?”
Why does Jesus bother to create controversy here by declaring “your sins are forgiven”? If He could have healed the man, why did He need to offend the scribes? Jesus gives the answer:
Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”
This is just before Jesus successfully heals the man. He, then, is saying by the success of His miracle here, that this demonstrates God’s vindication of the truth of His proclamation of forgiveness. Otherwise, it would have simply been an empty statement – by the associated miracle, Jesus turned it into a demonstration of the evidence of His “authority on earth to forgive sins”.
Why is this relevant? The scribes claim such a statement as “your sins are forgiven” is not simply offensive, but actual “blasphemy”. Why? They state clearly – “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” They view Jesus’ proclamation of forgiveness as a statement that He is God.
Two reasons why this is particularly significant:
A) The fact this interaction was recorded by Mark is very meaningful. It did not have to be included. The early Christians, readers of Mark, were not stupid – they could see that this passage is primarily intended to demonstrate Jesus’ “authority on earth to forgive sins”, which then, as the scribes are recorded to have pointed out (which didn’t have to be recorded!) implies that Jesus is claiming to be God. This indicates that the idea of Jesus’ divinity as an inherent idea of His ministry was very much present at the time of the writing of Mark’s Gospel.
B) Unlike John the Baptist, who readily denied being the Christ when asked in order to prevent misunderstanding, Jesus never denied what the scribes were claiming. Instead, knowing their accusations, deliberately heals the man as evidence of their truth. By this, Jesus clearly (yet characteristically subtly) affirms that their claims about Him were correct.
What does all this mean?
In contrast to some contemporary critics, who claim that the idea of Jesus’ divinity was a later development, and that Mark had a much lower view of Jesus, we see the idea of Jesus claiming identity as God as interwoven with the very message of Mark. This implies an understanding of Jesus as God existed, at very least, well within 30 years of Jesus’ death, within the lifetime of many who had been with Him (and, crucially, would have been the first to correct any later misunderstandings).
Not the earliest!
This is not to include the even earlier Pauline references to Jesus’ status, one of the earliest of which is in Philippians 2:5-11, a hymn from which Paul quotes (the very fact Christians sung hymns to Jesus this early on is a bit of a giveaway!), and which both directly states that Jesus has “equality with God” and that He has a name “that is above every name.” Indeed, given how strongly the Old Testament insists that “you shall have no other gods” and the consequences when this is not the case, these statements are utterly remarkable. The highest Name was, unequivocally, that of God. Equality with God, then, was impossible unless, in fact, Jesus was God Himself. It even states that “Jesus Christ is Lord”, with “Lord” being a word used by Jews very reservedly indeed, to only refer to God.
Philippians was written around A.D. 60, and the hymn would have thus come from the 50s or perhaps even earlier. Then, the well-developed beliefs contained therein were earlier still. The strength of these statements both in Paul and Mark, some of the earliest documents of the Church, is striking, and makes any claim that Jesus’ divinity was a later invention by the Christian church categorically false, according not to out-of-context prooftexts, but the natural conclusions of the evidence.
In short, the evidence points very strongly to the idea that early Christians indeed believed Jesus was God!