Missing the Mark:
Unveiling Mark’s High Christology of Divine “Inclusion”
Mark’s Christology is a high Christology, as high as any in the New Testament, not excluding that of John.1 – Vincent Taylor
A purely functional account of Jesus’ divinity in this Gospel is not adequate; rather Mark shares with early Christian writers in general … a Christology of divine identity.2 – Richard Bauckham
... Marcan Christology is by no means ‘low’ or ‘adoptionist’ …3 – Larry Hurtado
The explicit use of God-language for Jesus by later NT authors and the classical creeds is in continuity with the Christology already present in Mark.4 – E. Boring
[Jesus for Mark is] not primarily a human but a divine figure…. He is not merely endowed with the power of God, but is himself divine as to his nature; not only are his word and work divine but his essence also.5 – E. Lohmeyer
The following article seeks to show a stunning way by which Mark identifies Jesus as the divine Son of God and heir of all things.
Though many noteworthy scholars say otherwise, a small sampling of which appears above, it is commonplace to hear that Mark’s Gospel does not embody a high Christology, and this in spite of the fact that the thesis statement at the incipit of the book, one that is explicated in the course of the narrative in a way that is patently divine, boldly declares that Jesus is the Son of God.6
The Beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. (Mark 1:1)
Whereas many unbelievers arbitrarily or errantly assume that Mark means nothing else in calling Jesus the Son of God than what holds true in the case of angels (Genesis 6:2, 4; Job 1:6, 2:1, 38:7), Israel (Exodus 4:22-23; cf. Deuteronomy 14:1, Jeremiah 31:20), and Israel’s kings in the Old Testament (e.g. 1 Chronicles 17:13, 22:10), or even Adam (Luke 3:38) and all believers according to the New Testament (Matthew 5:9; Luke 20:36; Galatians 3:26; et al), and whereas many unbelievers view Christ’s death as a (if not the) definitive proof that He is not the Son of God in a divine or transcendent sense that goes well beyond what may be said of any and all creatures who were made and/or redeemed through Him and in Him as God’s unique Son, the facts are demonstratively otherwise. Even if the facts were not otherwise it should be seen that such a flatfooted and reductionistic (mis-)understanding of Mark’s use of the title “the Son of God” for Jesus would still leave Islam in the lurch and present it as a heretical and damnable innovation or departure from what was taught by the OT prophets and NT apostles given that Muhammad,7 his companions, and the whole of the Muslim Ummah from the past to the present, being brothers without a heavenly Father, are necessarily nothing more than cosmic orphans and slaves unlike Jesus, Israel, Israel’s kings, and all believers. Nevertheless, Mark’s use of the title for Jesus, as will be shown, is clearly elevated and every bit commensurate with how the apostle John, whose high Christology few scholars have been bold enough to deny, uses the title. Furthermore, the masterful way that Mark frames his narrative presentation of Jesus as the Son of God shows that the death of Christ itself, another truth of Scripture and fact of history that Islam has departed from, is not only no basis for arguing against Jesus’ divine Sonship but is rather a most potent argument or illustration for it, particularly when read against the redemptive-historical backdrop of the Old Testament.
A Brief Survey
The meaning of the title Son of God, broached already at the head of the book, is unpacked in the ensuing narrative which makes it quite clear that Jesus is God’s Son in a unique and exclusive sense (1:11, 9:7), one that sets Him quite apart from angels and men (13:32)8. – even if the latter happen to be God’s servants the prophets (12:1-12) – and thus from all creatures. Because He is the unique Son of God Jesus is to be obeyed (9:7), has the authority and power to silence (1:34), cast out (1:21-28), torment and destroy the demons (1:24, 5:7), is the owner/heir of all things (12:7) and the judge of all men (14:61-62).
That Jesus is the Son of God is attested in the narrative by the demons that encounter Him (3:11, 5:7), by the centurion at the foot of the cross (15:39), by Jesus Himself (13:32, 14:61; cf. 8:38, 12:6), and also by God the Father (1:11, 9:7).
Identifying Jesus as “the Son of God” isn’t the only way that Mark’s Gospel teaches Christ’s deity, a fact that only exacerbates the culpable failure of many to see the infinite gap between Him and all others, but it is certainly one way that it does so, and it is a most significant way at that.
Although more will be said in what follows about what Mark means when he identifies Jesus as “the Son of God,” since it isn’t the purpose of this article to go into all the evidence for the deity of Christ from Mark but to bring to the foreground a special way that Mark presents this great truth, the reader may wish to consult the following articles that discuss the wider range of evidence available in his account:
This is My Beloved Son
Two passages that identify Jesus as the Son of God in Mark are particularly noteworthy, at least for the purposes of this article. The first is found in Mark’s account of Christ’s baptism, where it is written:
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:9-11)
While it is no doubt true that this revelation and declaration of Christ’s sonship is intended to bring passages such as the following to mind,
I will surely tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to Me, ‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You.’ (Psalm 2:7)
Behold, My Servant, whom I uphold; My chosen one in whom My soul delights. I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the nations. (Isaiah 42:1)
and thus to identify Jesus as the long promised Messianic King and Servant of Yahweh, it is not a direct or exact quotation of either and clearly has more in view in any case. This conclusion follows from the observation that the Father identifies Jesus not simply as “My Son” or the One “in whom My soul delights” but as “My beloved Son.” This phrase, every bit as much as the context in which it is uttered – i.e. the heavens being torn, the Spirit descending, and the Father speaking from heaven – bespeaks the fact that Jesus is no ordinary son but the Son of God in a unique sense, a sense that does not apply to anyone else. Furthermore, as William Lane explains, it is precisely Jesus as the unique Son of God who is chosen to fulfill the Messianic office rather than merely being the Son of God as a consequence of His Messianic calling or investiture:
In the voice from heaven62 God addresses Jesus as his unique Son, the object of his elective love. In this expression of unqualified divine approval there is recognition of Jesus’ competence to fulfill the messianic task for which he has been set apart. It is common to find in the pronouncement a reflection of Ps. 2:7 and Isa. 42:1, but it is not a quotation and it is legitimate to hear within it other echoes.63
The declaration provides a unique appraisal of Jesus. The designation “Son” is enriched by the concept of the Servant of the Lord of Isa. 42:1, but the primary emphasis is upon sonship. In this context “Son” is not a messianic title, but is to be understood in the highest sense, transcending messiahship. It signifies the unique relationship which Jesus sustains to the Father, which exists apart from any thought of official function in history:64 Jesus is God’s unique65 Son. The first clause of the declaration (with the verb in the present tense of the indicative mood) expresses an eternal and essential relationship. The second clause (the verb is in the aorist indicative) implies a past choice for the performance of a particular function in history. The thought may be expressed in the formulation, Because you are my unique Son, I have chosen you for the task upon which you are about to enter.66 The relationship between the two clauses is exactly paralleled in the declaration of Ch. 9:7, where the pronouncement of the first clause, “This is my beloved Son,” furnishes the ground for the second, “listen to him.” Jesus did not become the Son of God, at baptism or at the transfiguration; he is the Son of God, the one qualified to bestow the Holy Spirit. The rending of the heavens, the descent of the Spirit and the declaration of God do not alter Jesus’ essential status, but serve to indicate the cosmic significance of Jesus’ submission to the Servant-vocation and affirm God’s good pleasure in his Son. As such, the passage marks the high point of revelation in the prologue to Mark’s Gospel and provides the indispensable background for all that follows.9 (Emphasis original)
62 On the concept of the voice from heaven (בַּת קוֹל), see S-BK I (1922), pp. 125-132; II (1924), p. 128; J. Kosnetter, Die Taufe Jesu (Freiburg, 1936), pp. 140-190; H. Traub, TWNT V (1954), pp. 530-532.
63 E.g. G. Vermes, Scripture and Tradition in Judaism (Leiden, 1961), p. 233 finds in the pronouncement an allusion to Isa. 42:1 and Gen. 22:2, “Take your son, your only son Isaac whom you love.” On pp. 193-227 he has shown that Isaac was viewed in Judaism as the type of the beloved son and willing sacrifice. The thought of the passage would then be that Jesus fulfills all that is implied in the offering of Isaac. P. G. Bretscher, “Exodus 4:22-23 and the Voice from Heaven,” JBL 87 (1968), pp. 301-311, points to the description of Israel as God’s son in Ex. 5:22f.
64 Cf. N. B. Stonehouse, op. cit., pp. 16-21; J. Bieneck, op. cit., passim.
65 Mark’s term ἀγαπητός can signifiy “only” or “unique” (e.g. Gen. 22:2, 12, 16 LXX), and this thought may be present in Mark’s mind. See C. H. Turner, “ο υιος μου ο αγαπητος," JThS 27 (1926), pp. 113-129, 362.
66 Cf. N. B. Stonehouse, op. cit., pp. 18-20; T. A. Burkill, op. cit., pp. 19f.; M. D. Hooker, Jesus and the Servant (London, 1959), pp. 68-73.
In essential agreement with the above, George Eldon Ladd states:
At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was acclaimed by a voice from heaven to be the Son of God and the chosen Messiah: “Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased” (Mk. 1:11). In what sense is Jesus here designated God’s Son? Some would interpret it in terms of the filial love toward God that dawned on Jesus at his baptism. Others interpret this in terms of an adoptionist Christology. At his baptism Jesus was appointed to be the Messiah, the Son of God, and was installed in that office. This has been a very influential interpretation, identifying sonship and messiahship. Jesus became God’s Son because he was chosen at his baptism to be the Messiah.
However, if this declaration means inauguration into messianic office expressed in terms of sonship, we would expect different language. The verse is an allusion to Psalm 2:7, which reads, “You are my son, today I have begotten you.” These words would be much more suitable to designate installation into the messianic office of sonship. However, instead of quoting Psalm 2:7 in its entirety, the voice conflates the first half of the verse with the words from Isaiah 42:1, “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights.” The Greek word translated in Mark 1:11, “I am well pleased,” might be rendered, “On whom my good pleasure has settled,” involving the idea of choice. What is meant is God’s decree of election, namely, the election of the Son, which includes His mission and His appointment to the kingly office of Messiah. As huios ho agapētos Jesus is the recipient of this elective good pleasure.”
Furthermore, the Greek word agapētos, translated “beloved,” is sometimes a synonym for monogenēs: “only.” The heavenly voice may therefore be rendered, “This is my only Son; him I have chosen.” Sonship and messianic status are not synonymous. Rather sonship is the prior ground and the basis of Jesus’ election to fulfill his messianic office. … “This is my only Son” describes the permanent status of Jesus. He does not become the Son; he is the Son. Sonship is antecedent to messiahship, and not synonymous with it: “Messiahship is not … the primary category here, nor is the ‘Son of God’ to be explained in terms of messiahship. The voice is … a confirmation of His already existing filial consciousness.2710 (Emphasis original)
27 C. E. B. Cranfield, “A Study of St. Mark 1:9-11,” SJTh 8 (1955), 62.
So also John Iwe:
On the occasion of Jesus’ baptism, God, the divine voice from heaven, confirms that Jesus is his beloved Son: Σὺ εἶ ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἀγαπητός ἐν ὦ εὐδόκησα - <<You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased>> (1:11). And this is addressed to Jesus himself, adding audition on top of vision to heighten Jesus’ awareness. It is generally accepted that ἀγαπητός (<<beloved>>) can also mean <<only>> or <<sole>> (יָחִ֖יד in Hebrew), and may be because an only son is naturally beloved36. Thus, <<he is not just Son of God in any way, but he is the only Son, whose relation with God is unique in its kind, and to whom goes all the love of the Father. God speaks from this relation>>37. Here then we are not concerned about a function, but a relation; not about an event but a state. On the other hand, <<”well pleased” corresponds with the Markan “only/beloved (ἀγαπητός) son” which underscores the primary motif of affection, delight and pleasure inherent in εὐδόκεἱν>>38. There is thus a new and vital relationship to God which transcends Messiahship as it was understood in Jewish thought. In fact, <<the fundamental note in the saying is the filial status of Jesus; and the words are best understood as an assurance, or confirmation, of this relationship, rather than a disclosure or revelation>>39. Thus, the words of the divine voice in Mk 1:11 (as against Ps.2) stands on itself and expresses a state, a stable relation, the relation of Jesus to God, which one presents as the personal relation of <<son-father>>40. Hence God enters into Jesus’ story, as a character, to confirm the special and unique relationship existing between himself and Jesus, before he begins his messianic mission.11
36 One would ask: what is the difference between υἱός θεου and ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἀγαπητός? In the first place, <<my beloved Son>> is the way God addresses Jesus (1:11; 9:7; 12:6); while others (demons, the centurion and the evangelist) address him as <<Son of God>> (1:1; 3:11; 5:7: 15:39). Both have to do with a quality of relation that is personal. <<Beloved>> stresses the personal and cordial character of the relation; while Jesus as the Son of God, as others testify, means a close and personal relation of Jesus with God. As the beloved Son, Jesus is the unique or only Son of God.
37 K. Stock, <<La conoscenza dei demoni>>, 106 (trans. Mine).
38 R.A. Guelich, Mark, 34.
39 V. Taylor, Mark, 162; C.E.B. Cranfield, Mark, 55; R.H. Gundry, Mark, 50. Often this saying is commonly traced to a combination of the phrases from Ps 2:7 and Isa. 42:1, which leads to its interpretation as an <<adoption formula>> - that is, that at this very point he was <<made>> Son of God, as is the king in Psalm 2. On the contrary, Mark interpretated these words simply as a declaration of Jesus’ identity; and moreover for him <<Jesus is by nature the Son of God and the voice at the Baptism declares him to be such>>. Cf. V. Taylor, Mark, 121; E. Pinto, <<Son of God , [sic] 78; M.D. Hooker, St. Mark, 48. Likewise <<the advancement of σύ, “you”, to the front shifts the point from adoption and enthronement (so Ps.2:7) to identification and acknowledgment>>. Cf. R.H. Gundry, Mark, 53, cf. 49.
40 E. Pinto, <<Son of God>>, 90, observers that the examination of the text of the Gospels shows that Jesus is constantly using the images of the Father and the Son to describe his relationship with God.
Something of the force of the term beloved as it is being used here in Mark is brought out in the NET translation, which renders the phrase: “You are my one dear Son.” The following explanation, which brings the meaning out more fully, is provided in a footnote:
24tn Grk ‘my beloved Son,’ or ‘my Son, the beloved [one].’ The force of ἀγαπητός (agaphtos) is often ‘pertaining to one who is the only one of his or her class, but at the same time is particularly loved and cherished’ (L&N 58.53; cf. also BDAG 7 s.v. 1). (Emphasis mine)
As Ladd pointed out above, the word that Mark uses to point up the unique Sonship of Christ is roughly synonymous with the term that John uses, monogenēs, to make the same basic point.
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son (δοξαν ωσ μονογενουσ), who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14, NIV)
No one has ever seen God. The only one (μονογενὴς), himself God, who is in closest fellowship with the Father, has made God known. (John 1:18, NET)
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son (τον υιον τον μονογενη εδωκεν), that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son (του μονογενουσ υιου του θεου). (John 3:18)
This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world (οτι τον υιον αυτου τον μονογενη απεσταλκεν ο θεοσ) that we might live through him. (1 John 4:9)
That these two words are often synonymous – in fact, both are alternately used in the Septuagint to translate the same Hebrew word – is widely recognized by scholars. J. A. Fitzmyer’s comments are representative:
2. monogenēs means only, one of a kind, unique (derived from monos and genos)…
4. That unique is the actual meaning of monogenēs can be seen in Heb 11:17, where it is used of Isaac, whom Abraham was ready to sacrifice, even though God had promised Abraham abundant descendants. The word here means only (son) of his kind, i.e., the only son of the promise (Gen 21:12). Abraham in fact had already begotten Ishmael through Hagar (Gen 16:3f.; 17:22-25) and later had six other sons by Keturah (Gen 25:1). Monogenēs here reflects Heb. yachid of Gen 22:2, 12, 16, which the LXX prefers to translate as agapētos, “beloved” (Aquila uses monogenēs in Gen 22:2, as Symmachus does at Gen 22:12). Likewise, Josephus uses monogenēs in Ant. i.222 in the sense of unique; he expresses the idea “born” with a separate partc. (ὑπερηγάπα μονογενῆ ὄντα καὶ ἐπὶ γήρως οὐδῷ κατὰ δωρεὰν αὐτῷ τοῦ θεοῦ γενόμενον).12 (Bold emphasis mine)
Indeed, this is the way agapētos is used in the Septuagint (LXX), an ancient Jewish translation of the Old Testament into Greek:
“The final word in the statement, agapētos (‘beloved’), is generally used in the Septuagint to designate an only child. Consequently, it speaks not only of the Father’s love for the Son but also of Jesus’ unique status as the Son of the Father which in several New Testament texts is presented as an eternal status.”13 (Emphasis mine)
The Hebrew word that agapētos often serves as a translation of is yahid, which means “only one.”
ho agapētos (9:7, 12:6) ‘the beloved’: used in the LXX (and classical Greek as well) of ‘favorite’ ‘only’. In the LXX agapētos seven times out of fifteen translates yahidh ‘only one’. Lagrange comments: “in the O.T. there is no great difference between ‘beloved’ and ‘only’.” Turner devotes a lengthy study to the phrase (Journal of Theological Studies 27.113-29, 1925-26) and concludes: “From Homer to Athanasius the history of Greek language bears out, I venture to think, the argument of this paper that agapētos huios is rightly rendered ‘Only Son’.” The majority of translations, however, have ‘beloved’ rather than ‘only’, which is in the nature of an interpretation (see BFBS).[United Bible Societies, A Translator’s Handbook on the Gospel of Mark (Netherlands: 1961), p. 31.] (Bold emphasis mine)
Furthermore, in most cases where the word yahid is not translated by agapētos the term that is used is monogenēs, the very term that is used by the apostle John. So Mark and John, though they use two different Greek words when speaking of Christ’s sonship, use the very terms that are predominately used in the LXX to translate one and the same underlying Hebrew term, yahid. So Horner: “In both, Jesus is Son of God, and his relationship to the Father is described in similar terms – ‘beloved’ (agapētos, used especially of an only child) in Mark, ‘only’ (monogenēs) in John.”14
Hence also the following comment from Kostenberger and Swain:
While the precise term [monogenēs – AR] is unique to the Fourth Gospel, there may be a parallel in the Synoptics in the language ‘beloved Son’ (huios agapētos), which is applied to Jesus at his baptism (Mark 1:11 par. Luke 3:22) and transfiguration (Mark 9:7 par. Luke 9:35) and is implied also in the parable of the wicked tenants (Mark 12:6 par. Luke 20:13).
The prologue [of John – AR] refers to Jesus as the monogenēs or ‘one-of-a-kind Son’ from the Father (1:14) and stresses his unique relationship with him (1:18). The predominant OT usage is ‘only child’ (Judg. 11:34; Amos 8:10; Jer. 6:26; Zech. 12:10; Prov. 4:3). Being an only child, and thus irreplaceable, makes a child of special value to its parents (cf. Luke 7:12; 8:42; 9:38; Pendrick 1995: 593-594). Hence the LXX often uses agapētos instead of monogenēs (Gen. 22:2, 12, 16; Amos 8:10; Jer. 6:26; Zech 12:10; cf. Prov. 4:3; in Judg. 11:34, both are used).15
To fully confirm the above, the following are all the passages of the Hebrew text that have yahid which are translated in the LXX by agapētos:
He said, “Take now your son, your only [yə·ḥî·ḏə·ḵā] son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.” (Genesis 22:2)
He said, “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only [yə·ḥî·ḏə·ḵā] son, from Me.” (Genesis 22:12)
and said, “ By Myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this thing and have not withheld your son, your only [yə·ḥî·ḏə·ḵā] son, (Genesis 22:16)
When Jephthah came to his house at Mizpah, behold, his daughter was coming out to meet him with tambourines and with dancing. Now she was his one [yə·ḥî·ḏāh] and only child; besides her he had no son or daughter. (Judges 11:34)
O daughter of my people, put on sackcloth and roll in ashes; mourn as for an only [yā·ḥîḏ] son, a lamentation most bitter. For suddenly the destroyer will come upon us. (Jeremiah 6:26)
Then I will turn your festivals into mourning and all your songs into lamentation; and I will bring sackcloth on everyone’s loins and baldness on every head. And I will make it like a time of mourning for an only [yā·ḥîḏ] son, and the end of it will be like a bitter day. (Amos 8:10)
“I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only [hay·yā·ḥîḏ] son, and they will weep bitterly over Him like the bitter weeping over a firstborn. (Zechariah 12:10)
And here are all the passages of the Hebrew text that use yahid which are translated in the LXX by monogenēs:
When Jephthah came to his house at Mizpah, behold, his daughter was coming out to meet him with tambourines and with dancing. Now she was his one [yə·ḥî·ḏāh] and only child; besides her he had no son or daughter. (Judges 11:34)[Codex Alexandrinus uses both agapētos and monogenēs in this verse; hence the reason it appears in both lists.]
Deliver my soul from the sword, my only [yə·ḥî·ḏā·ṯî] life from the power of the dog. (Psalm 22:20)[This passage is arguably better translated as
Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely [yā·ḥîḏ] and afflicted. (Psalm 25:16)
Lord, how long will You look on? Rescue my soul from their ravages, my only [yə·ḥî·ḏā·ṯî] life from the lions. (Psalm 35:17)
The only exceptions to the above are the following two passages:
When I was a son to my father, tender and the only [wə·yā·ḥîḏ] son in the sight of my mother, (Proverbs 4:3)
God makes a home for the lonely [yə·ḥî·ḏîm]; He leads out the prisoners into prosperity, only the rebellious dwell in a parched land. (Psalm 68:6)
In both of the latter two cases the Hebrew text has yahid. For the former the LXX uses agapomenos, and for the latter it uses monotropos.
John P. Maier, who also recognizes the background usage of the term agapētos in the LXX, makes an additional tantalizing observation:
Behind agapētos in this text may lie the Hebrew yahid. The Hebrew word strictly means “only,” “only one.” But in a context of family relationships, when applied, e.g. to a son, it may mean “only beloved” or “uniquely beloved.” This seems to be the sense when it is applied to Isaac (Genesis 22:2, 12, 16), since Abraham (at least according to the canonical form of Genesis) did have other children by other women, notably Ishmael by Hagar. The sense of love contained in yahid is underlined in the first verse that uses it of Isaac: “Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac” (Genesis 22:2). . . . Interestingly, in the LXX, in every instance where yahid in the Hebrew text is translated by agapētos, it is used of an “only” or “only beloved” son or daughter who has died or who is destined for death: Isaac in Genesis 22:2. 12. 16; Jephthah’s daughter in Judges 11:34; mourning as for an only son in Amos 8:10 and Jeremiah 6:26; and the mysterious “pierced one, who is mourned as an only son in Zechariah 12:10.16 (Bold emphasis mine)
This observation is also made by others. The following source even throws in references of the same sort from the New Testament:
The LXX [of Genesis 22:2 – AR] reads ton huios mou ho agapeton, and Matthew and Mark have ho huios mou ho agapētos, the only differences being the case and the substitution of pronouns for the article. It is striking that in the LXX agapētos, “beloved,” is used instead of monogenēs, “one and only” or “only begotten,” where focus is on mourning for an only child (Jer 6:26; Amos 8:10; Zech 12:10), as is the case in Genesis 22:2, 12, 16. In both OT and NT, narratives about an only child involve mortal danger or death (e.g., Jephthah’s daughter, Judg 11:34; the widow’s son, Lk 7:12; Jairus’s daughter, Lk 9:42; see De Kruijf, 112-116). The voice seems to be comparing Jesus to Isaac, the only and beloved son, who embodied the hope of the covenant (cf. Acts 3:25; Heb 6:13-15). Isaac willingly went to the place of sacrifice and “figuratively speaking” (Heb 11:19) was received back from death. Moreover, an allusion to Isaac brings into focus the father who offered him (for which act of faith he is cited in Heb 11:17-19; cf. Jas 2:21), whose willingness to sacrifice his son forms a background for Romans 8:32 (“He who did not spare his own Son…”). God, in speaking of his beloved Son, may also indirectly speak of himself.17
The first (Genesis 22) and last (Zechariah 12:10) examples of agapētos being used in the OT to translate yahid are especially poignant here since the first is an easily discernible and well-known typological foreshadowing of God the Father offering up Christ as the true sacrifice for sin, and the latter is a direct prophecy of the crucifixion. One may well say that these two passages, then, serve as bookends in a way similar to what we will observe is the case in the way Mark frame’s his entire narrative about Jesus as the Son of God. Given the significance of these two passages, some relatively brief comments will be said about them before proceeding.
A great deal could be said about Genesis 22. Suffice it to say here that Abraham is told to take Isaac, his only son, the son of the promise, the one born by the power of the Spirit, the one through whom God promised all families and nations on earth would be blessed, and offer him as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah, the place where Jerusalem and the Temple would later be situated. Along the way Abraham makes a number of incredible statements showing that he believed this event would not be the final end of Isaac and which also show his awareness that Isaac was not in the final analysis the sacrifice God desired. For example, Abraham tells his servants at the foot of the mountain, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. WE will worship and then WE will come back to you” (v. 5). As well, when Isaac observes that they have fire and wood for the offering but no lamb, Abraham replies, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son” (v. 8). Such words on the part of Abraham who was told by God to sacrifice his only son, the latter of whom is even portrayed as carrying the wood for his own sacrifice (22:6), show that Abraham believed that this would not ultimately end in Isaac’s death and that he would receive Isaac back, and that the provision for the true sacrifice would be made by God Himself. As it turns out, at the critical moment when Abraham was on the verge of sacrificing Isaac, God stayed his hand, telling him not to harm Isaac, whereupon Abraham looked up and saw a "thorn-crowned" ram caught in a thicket. At that point Abraham offered the ram as a substitutionary sacrifice for his son. And then, as if to show the prophetic nature of what transpired, we read:
So Abraham called that place The Lord WILL Provide. And to this day it is said, “On the mountain of the Lord IT WILL BE provided.” (Genesis 22:14)
As the author of the inspired book of Hebrews put it:
By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death. (Hebrews 11:17-19)
All of this served as a foreshadowing of what God the Father was going to do when He provided His only Son, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
In the last passage of the OT that uses the expression we find not only that the word is once again used in the same way, i.e. to speak of the death of a one and only son, but also this time the idiom is used to describe the response to Yahweh Himself suffering a mortal blow from His own people:
I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him like the bitter weeping over a firstborn. (Zechariah 12:10)
The speaker in this passage is incontestably Yahweh as appears from the wider context:
The burden of the word of the Lord concerning Israel. Thus declares the LORD who stretches out the heavens, lays the foundation of the earth, and forms the spirit of man within him, “Behold, I am going to make Jerusalem a cup that causes reeling to all the peoples around; and when the siege is against Jerusalem, it will also be against Judah. It will come about in that day that I will make Jerusalem a heavy stone for all the peoples; all who lift it will be severely injured. And all the nations of the earth will be gathered against it. In that day,” declares the LORD, “I will strike every horse with bewilderment and his rider with madness. But I will watch over the house of Judah, while I strike every horse of the peoples with blindness. Then the clans of Judah will say in their hearts, ‘A strong support for us are the inhabitants of Jerusalem through the Lord of hosts, their God.’ “In that day I will make the clans of Judah like a firepot among pieces of wood and a flaming torch among sheaves, so they will consume on the right hand and on the left all the surrounding peoples, while the inhabitants of Jerusalem again dwell on their own sites in Jerusalem. The Lord also will save the tents of Judah first, so that the glory of the house of David and the glory of the inhabitants of Jerusalem will not be magnified above Judah. In that day the Lord will defend the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and the one who is feeble among them in that day will be like David, and the house of David will be like God, like the angel of the Lord before them. And in that day I will set about to destroy all the nations that come against Jerusalem.
“I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him like the bitter weeping over a firstborn. In that day there will be great mourning in Jerusalem, like the mourning of Hadadrimmon in the plain of Megiddo. The land will mourn, every family by itself; the family of the house of David by itself and their wives by themselves; the family of the house of Nathan by itself and their wives by themselves; the family of the house of Levi by itself and their wives by themselves; the family of the Shimeites by itself and their wives by themselves; all the families that remain, every family by itself and their wives by themselves. (Zechariah 12:1-14)
It is also plain from the immediate context that the speaker is Yahweh since He identifies Himself as the one who will pour out the Spirit, a divine work never ascribed to anyone other than God in the prophetic Scriptures:
I will not hide My face from them any longer, for I will have poured out My Spirit on the house of Israel,” declares the Lord God. (Ezekiel 39:29)
It will come about after this that I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind; and your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. “Even on the male and female servants I will pour out My Spirit in those days. (Joel 2:28-29).
Since then it is the speaker, contextually identified as Yahweh, who said they would “look upon Me whom they have pierced,” it is for Yahweh that they will mourn “as one mourns for an only son.”
It is of significance to note not only that Yahweh says here that He is the one who was going to be pierced and mourned over as one mourns for an only/beloved son, but the pierced one also identifies Himself as the one who would at the appointed time pour out the Spirit of grace. This is the very thing John the Baptist said Jesus would do in Mark 1:8, a passage that comes immediately before Jesus is referred to as the only/beloved Son of God the Father: “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Furthermore, in the near context of Zechariah 12:10 the pierced one is identified by the Lord as “My Shepherd” and “My Fellow,” and the striking of Yahweh’s fellow, associate, companion or equal, as the latter phrase indicates in Hebrew, eventuates in the scattering of the sheep:
Awake, O sword, against My Shepherd, and against the man [Heb. geber], My Associate [Heb. amiti],” declares the Lord of hosts. “Strike the Shepherd that the sheep may be scattered; and I will turn My hand against the little ones… (Zechariah 13:7)
Jesus, who identifies Himself as the Shepherd who will be struck down, quotes this passage in Mark’s gospel:
And Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away, because it is written, ‘I will strike down the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered.’
So the pierced one identified as Yahweh in Zechariah 12:10 is also distinguished from Him in Zechariah 13:7, a passage that not only indicates He will be a man, geber, a necessary prerequisite to Yahweh being pierced, but that He is also equal to God, amiti. It is this one whose death is here foretold, and whose death was to be, once the Spirit of grace was finally poured out, the subject of their mourning, even as one mourns for an only son.
For more on Zechariah 12:10 and 13:7, see the following series:
Truly This Man Was the Son of God
With the previous comments relevant to Mark 1:9-11 in view it is now time to look at the second noteworthy passage in Mark before tying it all together. The other passage is found in the account of Christ’s death recorded in Mark 15, which tells us:
And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.” And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” There were also some women looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the Less and Joses, and Salome. When He was in Galilee, they used to follow Him and minister to Him; and there were many other women who came up with Him to Jerusalem. (Mark 15:33-41)
Here at the end of the book is the first time in the narrative portion of Mark’s Gospel that any human being confesses that Jesus is the Son of God. Elsewhere in the narrative the Father identifies Jesus as His Son. The demons also recognize Jesus as the Son of God. Significantly enough the latter even know that Jesus is the Son of God on sight without being told who He is. But no human being in the narrative of Mark is yet reported as confessing that Jesus was the Son of God until this moment, the moment of Christ’s crucifixion. Mark has reserved that word for a gentile centurion at the end of his account.
With these two passages in view, we come now to the remarkable way that Jesus is identified as the true Son of God in Mark.
To get the point that is going to be made in what follows it is necessary at this juncture to be apprised of a literary device known as an inclusio. An inclusio is a literary way of bracketing certain material in a narrative, thereby highlighting the meaning and/or significance of what appears in between and giving structure to the entire work. An inclusio states something at the beginning of some block of text and then repeats it later at the end, often times bringing out further the meaning of what was originally intended. It is a powerful mnemonic, pedagogical and rhetorical device that occurs many times over not only in Mark but also in other New Testament writings. By means of this literary device the reader is alerted at the outset as to what s/he is supposed to see and understand in what will further be said, and s/he is reminded again at the end what they were supposed to have seen. In short, everything in between or included within an inclusio is to be read in light of it. Not to do so is to miss the point; the very point this literary device is intended to help make sure the reader does not miss.18
That the two passages surveyed are strategically located at the beginning and end of Christ’s ministry and form an inclusio is discernable from several notable factors. The most obvious parallel between these two “Son of God” texts is that both speak of something being torn. In Mark 1 it is the heavens; in Mark 15 it is the veil of the temple. That the “tearing” of the heavens and of the veil are supposed to stand out to the reader is made apparent by the fact that the verb Mark uses, σχιζω, skidzo, is an unusual one that is only used in his gospel in these two places and is not the word chosen by the other Gospel writers when they speak of these events.
Several other verbal echoes and conceptual resonances of Mark 1:9-11 cluster around this tightly woven pericope and reinforce the fact that these two passages are intentionally being brought together by Mark under the superintendence of the Spirit of God. The following are among them:
(1) Both of the above concern Christ being baptized: the former by John in the Jordan; the latter at Golgotha when the wrath of God was poured out on Him (which Jesus in Mark 10:38-39 referred to as His coming “baptism”).
(2) Both passages involve some reference or allusion to Elijah: in the former in the person of John the Baptist, already identified by Mark as the forerunner of the Lord who was foretold and referred to as “Elijah” by the prophet Malachi (Mark 1:2; cf. Malachi 3-4), something that Jesus Himself confirmed in Mark 9:9-13; and the latter in the cry of Christ from the cross, which the bystanders mistook as a reference to Elijah.
(3) Both passages speak or allude to the Spirit: in the former passage the reference to the Spirit is explicit; in the latter it is implicit in the word “breathed” or “expired,” ἐξέπνευσεν, exepneusen, which is a cognate word in Greek for “spirit,” πνεῦμα, pneuma.
The intentionality of this correspondence is reinforced by the atypical word choice used by Mark to refer to Jesus’ death.
The term normally used for dying in the LXX, the New Testament, and Mark is the Greek [apothnesko]. Later the aorist ἀπέθανεν [apethanen] will also be normally used for the death of Jesus (15.44). It is even found in the phrase Χριστός ἀπέθανεν ([Christos apethanen] ‘Christ died’), which was probably derived from the old creedal formula of 1 Cor. 15.3-5. The Roman readers of Mark had so often come across the phrase in Paul’s Letter to the Romans that they must have regarded it as a standard combination. The use here of another and quite unusual term attracts attention. The verb [ekpneo] means ‘to breath out’, ‘to expire or breathe one’s last’. It does not occur in the LXX, and outside the New Testament is sometimes used as a euphemism for dying. It is difficult to see why Mark should have substituted this rare euphemism for ἀπέθανεν [apethanen], which had long since become current. Actually, the verb form ἐξέπνευσεν [exepneusen], used in 15:37 and repeated in 15.39, evokes the word πνεῦμα [pneuma], which is related to it in sound and meaning (wind, breath, spirit). A second key is the opposition between ‘out’ (ἐξ [ex]) and ‘in’ (εἰς [eis]), which takes the reader back to the beginning of the story, where the Spirit—descending from heaven like a dove—entered Jesus (1.10). Here, in 15.37, the opposite happens: at the moment of his death Jesus breathes out, with great and audible force, both the breath of life and the Spirit that has been active in him since the beginning of his ministry,”19
(4) Both passages speak of a voice, φωνὴν, phonen: In the former it is the voice of the Father from heaven; in the latter it is that of the Son from the cross.
(5) In both passages something is described as descending: in the former it is the Spirit; in the latter it is the veil of the temple, “from top to bottom.”
(6) In both passages mention is made of Jesus being or having been ministered to: the former passage refers to angels; the latter refers to Christ’s women followers.
What makes the tearing of the veil when Jesus cried out all the more remarkable, and accounts for the centurions spontaneous confession that Jesus is the Son of God, is that the outer veil of the temple, i.e. the veil before the entrance to the holy place rather than the second veil separating the holy place from the holy of holies, bore a symbolic representation of the heavens.20 As Josephus tells us in his description of the temple in the first century:
… it had golden doors of fifty-five cubits high and sixteen broad. Before these hung a veil of equal length, of Babylonian tapestry, with embroidery of blue and fine linen, of scarlet also and purple, wrought with marvelous skill. Nor was this mixture of materials without its mystic meaning: it typified the universe. For the scarlet seemed emblematical of fire, the fine linen of the earth, the blue of the air, and the purple of the sea; the comparison in two cases being suggested by their colour, and in that of the fine linen and purple by their origin, as the one is produced by the earth and the other by the sea. On this tapestry was portrayed a panorama of THE HEAVENS, the signs of the Zodiac excepted…. The innermost recess measured twenty five cubits, and was screened in like manner from the outer portion by a veil. In this stood nothing whatever: unapproachable, inviolable, invisible to all, it was called the Holy of Holies.21
For these reasons scholars and commentators have increasingly recognized that these two passages in Mark form an inclusio, and recognition of the significance of this Son-inclusio has not been far behind. As Daniel Gurtner states:
In each of the Synoptics the velum scissum occurs in the passion narratives in close relation to Jesus’ death. David Ulansey, building on the work of Stephen Motyer, shows that Mark uses the velum scissum to bracket his entire gospel with the splitting open of heaven (Mark 1:10), creating a “cosmic inclusio”: Mark associates the splitting (σχιζω) of the heavens (Mark 1:10) with the splitting (σχιζω) of the veil (Mark 15:38). Indeed, Paul Lamarche has argued that the association of the rent heavens (Mark 1:10) with the rent veil (Mark 15:38) suggests an apocalyptic, or revelatory, function of the velum scissum. What is revealed is that Jesus is, in some sense, “son of God” (the Centurion’s [huios theou], Mark 15:39). Previously in Mark’s Gospel, only God (Mark 1:11) and “evil spirits” (Mark 3:11) identify Jesus as God’s Son. Even in Mark’s account of Peter’s confession there is no mention of divine sonship (Mark 8:29; cf. Matt 16:16). Only subsequent to the velum scissum is [huios theou] used in Mark as a confessional assertion. Mark has then brilliantly revealed Jesus as “Son of God” at the splitting of the heavens at Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1:10-11) and at the splitting of the veil at the “baptism” (Mark 10:38-39) of Jesus’ death (Mark 15:38-39).22
Although with a growing consensus of scholars I would disagree with his view that the veil Mark speaks of is the second rather than the first, the following words from Christopher Tuckett, by no means a conservative scholar, are worth noting:
However, it may be that what is in mind is the veil inside the Holy of Holies in the Temple. This is the veil that symbolically hides and separates God from all human beings. If then it is this veil that is symbolically destroyed in the death of Jesus, then Mark’s narrative becomes an extraordinarily powerful piece of theological writing. For the narrative implies that, in the death of Jesus, the barrier preventing human beings from seeing God has been removed. God is now seen – but seen precisely in this figure of the dead Jesus hanging on a cross. It is then this that seems to be reflected in the centurion’s confession of Jesus as Son of God.
Jesus qua Son of God is the one who enables God himself to be seen. (In this then Mark is perhaps closer to much later Christian claims about Jesus’ divine sonship than others.)… Mark’s Jesus is perhaps closest to the ‘CRUCIFIED GOD’ of some modern theologians.23 (Emphasis mine)
The number of significant things that are entailed by the tearing of the veil is manifold,24 but suffice it to spotlight here for the purpose of this article, it is evident that anyone who reads Mark’s Gospel in such a way that s/he gets a low-Christology out of it has completely misread Mark’s account. Failure to see that Jesus is the unique Son of God who was to give up His life for the life of the world is to miss Mark’s point both coming and going. It misses the inclusio and everything included in it, which is just to say, everything.
With the centurion, then, let us agree with the Father’s own testimony in Mark 1:11. For truly this man was and is the very Son of God who in His death has opened the heavens so that all, Jew and Gentile alike, may come to the Father.