Does Mark, the Earliest Gospel, Have a Divine Jesus? (Responding to Mustafa Akyol’s The Islamic Jesus)

Mark

Muslim writer Mustafa Akyol in his 2017 book The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims makes a common claim of those who want to challenge the traditional Christian understanding of Jesus. Akyol claims that the belief that Jesus is God was a later development that was not held by the first Christians.

According to Akyol, as Christianity spread from the Jews to the pagan Romans, Jesus’ status was raised to divine. He writes, “…the more Christianity moved away from its Jewish roots and planted itself on Hellenistic soil, the more it perceived Jesus as divine. This was no preplanned scheme, but the natural result of transferring monotheistic Jewish concepts to a polytheistic Gentile setting” (P.47).

Since the Gospel of John is understood to be the last gospel written and the gospel that most explicitly teaches that Jesus is divine, Akyol argues that Jesus’ divinity was a later development. He writes, “Among the four gospels, the one that has the least allusions to Jesus’ divinity, if any, is Mark [the first gospel to be written]… Yet when we come to Matthew and Luke… the emphasis on Jesus as a suprahuman being increases,” finally evolving into the more obvious teaching of Jesus’ divinity in John’s gospel (P.48).

Akyol is right that Mark is considered by most scholars to be the earliest gospel (though some make good arguments that Matthew is the earliest), and the majority of scholars agrees that John was written last, as well as John focuses the most on the divinity of Christ.

But is Jesus’ divinity NOT found in Mark, the earliest gospel? 

In our last article, we already saw how Akyol is wrong about the Epistle of James not holding to the divinity of Jesus, and James is one of the earliest – and likely thee earliest – work in the New Testament, a fact Akyol himself emphasizes.

So, how about the earliest historical narrative of Jesus’ ministry, the Gospel of Mark? Let’s look at Mark’s gospel and see what it has to say for itself.

 

Jesus’ Divinity in Mark? You Don’t Have to Look Long

If we look at Mark, we don’t have to look far to find Jesus’ divinity. In fact, we only need to look at the first three verses:

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” (Mark 1:1-3)

Right off the bat in 1:1 we have an expression to describe Jesus that Muslims do not like: “Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” Yet, even Christians may understand this not as a divine title but as a title that can be applied to the Jewish, strictly human Messiah. So, let’s put that phrase “Son of God” aside for now and look at the rest of 1:1-3.

It’s interesting that Mark chose to begin his account of the ministry of “Jesus Christ, the Son of God” by quoting the Old Testament (OT). Mark conflates two OT passages: Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3. As you read on, it’s clear that Mark is applying these OT passages to John the Baptist. Thus, John the Baptist is “the messenger… who will prepare your way.”

So, we have to ask: who is “your” a reference to?

Let’s continue on to 1:3 to find out: John is the one to “prepare the way of the Lord.” Now, no one can read any of the four gospels and come to any conclusion other than that John the Baptist is preparing the way for Jesus. Thus, Jesus is the Lord.

Further, when we turn to Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3 in the OT and read them in context, who is the messenger of these passages preparing the way for? God. The LORD. Yahweh – the “I AM” of Exodus 3:14. The God of Abraham and Moses. There is no controversy about this; it’s a plain as day. In Malachi 3:1, the Lord Yahweh is speaking: “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me.” Isaiah writes in 40:3: “…prepare the way of the LORD [literally: Yahweh]; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

So we see, not even four verses into Mark’s gospel, Akyol’s argument is already destroyed. Mark begins his gospel by telling his audience that John the Baptist is preparing the way for God, Jesus Christ. 

 

Did Jesus Claim to Be God?

Another claim Muslims like Akyol like to make is that Jesus himself never claimed to be God. Thus, Mark – the author – may have claimed Jesus is God, but Jesus never did. Yet, when we read Mark’s account carefully, we see Jesus claimed divinity by both his actions and words. Let’s look at three examples of this:

And 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 man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:5-7)

Akyol may not understand the significance of what Jesus is doing, but Jesus’ fellow Jews certainly did because God is the only savior (Isaiah 43:11, 25). For a man to claim to forgive sins, something only God can do, is blasphemy – as Jesus’ 1st Century audience clearly understands. By claiming he has the authority to forgive sins, Jesus is claiming divinity.

But he remained silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death. (Mark 14:61-64)

In 14:62, Jesus claims to be the Son of Man (Jesus’ favorite way to refer to himself) of Daniel 7:13-14. This Son of Man is described as a being who comes into the presence of God without being destroyed; yet, no sinful human can come into God’s perfect presence without being destroyed. Further, this being is also given glory in God’s presence. Can anyone be given glory other than God is God’s presence? God shares his glory with no one! (See Isaiah 42:8; 48:11; also see John 17:1-5.)  Again, Jesus’ fellow Jews understand that he is making a claim of divinity, as we see by their strong reactions and accusations of blasphemy.

And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:36–41)

Now, ask yourself, when the men in the boat witnessed Jesus calm the storm with a verbal command, how would they – all first century Jews, let me remind you – answer the question Mark ends this episode with: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Jesus was showing these men something, and these men where NOT Roman pagans or twenty-first century Westerners, but Scripture-reading and -believing Jews; thus, they would understand this “something” as first century Jews.

So, how would they understand this?

First, in the very first words written in the Jewish Scriptures (which we call the Old Testament) God creates all things by simply speaking them into existence. Take note that Jesus does not pray to God to calm the storm; he simply speaks.

Furthermore, Psalm 107:23-32 tells of God controlling a storm at sea. Verse 29 reads, “He made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.”

Finally, one cannot read the details of this account and not think of the Book of Jonah. Jonah unwisely attempts to escape God’s commission by fleeing by boat to a faraway land. Because of this, God sends a storm, which Jonah sleep through, only to be awoken by the crew of the ship in a panic. Jonah knows the storm was sent by God because of his disobedience and, thus, tells the pagans to throw him overboard to save their lives. Once Jonah is overboard, the storm immediately stops. The pagans, in turn, worship Jonah’s God.

So, again, I ask: how would a 1st Century Jew answer: “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

The answer is clear: God.

Akyol’s Big Mistake

As we discussed in an earlier article on Akyol’s understanding of the NT letter of James, Akyol makes the mistake of assuming every work in the NT was written to convey the same message to the same audience, and every NT writing should cover the entirety of Christian theology. This is not the case.

For instance, Matthew is the most Jewish of the Gospels, so it appears his primary audience were Jews, so he focuses primarily on Jesus being the Jewish Messiah. Yet, even Matthew portrays Jesus as God in the same ways Mark and Luke do, and at the end of Matthew we have the unignorable Trinitarian proclamation by the resurrected Jesus to baptize in the singular name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

To be fair, Akyol does quote historian Larry Hurtado, who writes “a remarkable level of devotion to Jesus erupted in the earliest years of the Christian movement,” and Cambridge professor Richard Bauckham, who states, “the earliest christology was already the highest.” But other than these cursory mentions, Akyol ignores any historical scholarship contrary to his theory and quickly moves on.

Yet, let me point out that Akyol himself says that the Gospel of Mark has “the least allusions to Jesus’ divinity, if any.” Thus, even Akyol seems to begrudgingly admit that Mark may contain a divine Jesus.

Finally, isn’t even just ONE reference to Jesus’ divinity in a gospel enough to establish it? If I, for instance, only mentioned once in a story that a woman is pregnant, wouldn’t that be sufficient to establish for the whole of the story that the woman is pregnant? As we saw, Mark begins his gospel by making it clear that John the Baptist is preparing the way for God.

To try to invalidate the witness of the gospels to Jesus’ divinity by arguing that earlier gospels contain less about Jesus’ divinity is like arguing that you’re “kind of” pregnant. You’re either pregnant or you’re not, and you are either God or you’re not. All four Gospels witness to Jesus’ divinity. The amount of space each gives to it is irrelevant to the discussion.

Read: James Vs. Paul: Did James Not Believe in Jesus’ Divinity? (Responding to Mustafa Akyol’s The Islamic Jesus)

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The Joy & Angst of Four Gospels – Part 2 – Basic Principles: Understanding the Gospels as Literature, History & Theology

Four Gospels give us the story of Jesus — four Gospels that are both similar & different. Are these differences a reason for angst or joy? Are these differences really contradictions?

SERIES INTRO: Often skeptics point to differences in the four Gospels of Jesus Christ and claim they are contradictions.This series will cover some general principles that you can use when you do come across a Gospel difference. Using these principles, many of these perceived differences can be easily explained. On the other hand, this series is not simply to defend the Gospels, but to positively show that having four Gospels brings our understanding of the life and work of Jesus Christ deeper than any one piece of writing can do.

 ** Read Part 1 HERE. **

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3 Basic Principles

To start, here are 3 basic principles to keep in mind when we come across a Gospel difference:

1. Different does not = contradiction.

Yes, contradictions are always logically impossible (for example, a square can’t be a circle; a bachelor can’t be married), but differences are not necessarily contradictions.

  • Ask yourself when you come across a difference: Is this a true contradiction? Is there a way to logically harmonize this?

2. Different Perspectives = Unique details.[1]

As any police officer or newspaper reporter will tell you, when you gather several witnesses to an incident, each account given will generally have the same major details, but will most likely differ in minor details. Where the overall story will match, each account will have unique details because individuals tell of events from their unique perspectives.

  • Do the Gospels differ in major details or minor details?

3. Different Focuses & Styles = Still God’s Word

Like Jesus was both God and man, the Bible is also a joining of God and man. Thus, though the Bible is God’s Word, it doesn’t mean it’s absent of human influence.[2] And though the Holy Spirit inspired the writing of Scripture, God allowed the writers of the Bible to still use their own unique abilities and personalities while writing the Gospels. This is evident in the different styles of writing seen in different books of the Bible by the different authors.

 

Much More than Newspaper Reporting

The Gospels aren’t just dry reports; they involve the theological interpretation[3] of the Spirit-led writers. Each writer is emphasizing what we should understand about these events concerning God and salvation, and what these events mean both for us individually and for humankind as a whole.

 

Each Gospel has specific ATM:

    • A – Audiences
    • T – Themes
    • M – Messages

 

Because of different focuses in audience, themes, and messages, different Gospel writers focus on different details, emphasizing different aspects of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

 

Each Gospel is also a “HLT sandwich”* — a combination of:

  • H – Historical writing,
  • L – Literary writing, &
  • T – Theological writing.[4]

(*Sorry for the cheesy pun on a BLT — bacon, lettuce, tomato — sandwich, but I find the more corny the joke, the better it is as a memory device.)

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Again, the Gospels are not just dry, newspaper article-like historical reports. They are historical recordings of actual events, but they also contain creative literary, story-telling elements and theological elements, meaning the Gospel writers are teaching us specific lessons about God in a specific style of writing. Understandably, many of these theological lessons overlap between the Gospels, but one of the Gospel writers may focus on one aspect of theology more than another.

Vern Sheridan Poythress writes in his book on inerrancy and the Gospels, “…the differences between the Gospels are an integral and significant part of the Gospels. The differences are there for a purpose: they help us. All the Gospels are talking about the events in ways that help us to grasp their significance and their theological implications. We do not need to feel as if we have to ‘roll back’ the significance and the implications in order to get to ‘bare’ events.”[5]

So, when we take into account ATM (Audience, Theme, and Message) and HLT (History, Literary style, and Theology), what stands out as unique in each Gospel? Here is a brief, helpful overview of the unique focus and style of each of the 4 Gospels:

 

Matthew

“Jesus the Jewish Messiah brings salvation history to its climax, saving his people from their sins.”[6] Noteworthy for its Jewishness, its compression, and the subtle hints of significant importance.[7]

 

Mark

“Jesus the mighty Messiah and Son of God obediently suffers as the Servant of the Lord to pay the ransom price for sins, and as a model of suffering and sacrifice for his disciples to follow.”[8] Noteworthy for fast-paced action and for concentration on the main points.[9]

 

Luke

“God’s end-times salvation predicted by the prophets has arrived through the coming of Jesus the Messiah, the Savior of the world, and this salvation is now going forth to the whole world.”[10] Noteworthy for care in historical research.[11] Where Matthew focuses on Jesus being the Jewish Messiah, Luke focuses on Jesus being the savior of all mankind.

 

John

“Jesus is the divine Son of God who reveals the Father, providing eternal life to all who believe in him.”[12] Noteworthy for theological depth in interpreting the significance of events.[13]

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Putting ATM & HLT to Use

Can understanding the Gospels as theological and literary works help to resolve perceived historic issues?

Let’s look at an example:

In both Luke and Matthew, we find a genealogy of Jesus’ family tree. One does not have to look closely to see major differences:

 

Jesus’ genealogy: Luke 3:23– 38; Matthew 1:1–17

  • Matthew: Covers Abraham to Jesus (41 generations)
  • Luke: Covers Adam to Jesus (76 generations)
  • The lists are identical from Abraham to David.
  • But they are different from David to Jesus; only 2 names are shared after this.

 

There are a few proposed theories for this. The strongest says Matthew follows King David’s royal line to Jesus’ adopted earthly father, Joseph. (Notice Matthew focuses on Joseph in the birth narrative.) Luke follows King David’s blood line to Mary. (Notice Luke focuses on Mary in the birth narrative.) Both Mary and Joseph are distant descendants of King David, and Jesus is the inheritor of both David’s royal line and blood line, as the Messiah was predicted to be.

Much more can be said about these genealogies, but we won’t go into all of it here; we simply want to look at if literary style and theological focus can effect how a Gospel writer reports historic events.

So, understanding the focus of the Gospel of Matthew and Luke, their styles, and a little information about ancient Jewish literature will help here:

  • Matthew lists the genealogy in 3 sections of 14 names: Abraham to David, David to the Babylonian exile, the exile to Christ.
  • 14 may represent seven times two (seven is the number of completion/perfection in Jewish culture due to God creating everything in 6 days and “resting” on the 7th; 14 would be completion/perfection doubled!) or 14 is a numerical value of the Hebrew name “David.” The Hebrew language assigns certain numbers to certain letters and “David” equals 14. [14]
  • Matthew is the “most Jewish Gospel” and focuses on Jesus as the Jewish Messiah; thus, he starts with Abraham, the father of the nation of Israel.
  • Arranging Jewish genealogies in memorable structure or to emphasize certain individuals was common practice in ancient literature. Basically, not all genealogies were complete; many took acceptable literary liberties to emphasize the author’s purpose. [15]
  • Luke focuses on Jesus being the savior of the whole world, so he starts with Adam, the first man, the physical father of all of mankind.
  • Matthew regularly uses compression (basically, meaning he shortens things — more about this later) and organizes his Gospel both thematically and topically, not necessarily chronologically, more than the other Gospel writers.

Ancient Literature

The Gospels share similarities with other ancient histories and literary genres. For instance, ancient Greco-Roman biography or bios – sometimes called “lives” or “popular biographies” – did not strive to tell the whole life story from birth to death of its subject, but to highlight a certain aspects of the subject’s life or character.[16]

The Gospels also share similarities with ancient Jewish Midrash (books of scripture interpretation) because it includes religious/theological explanations of the events reported.[17] Though many scholars have concluded there is “no known parallel to [the Gospels] in the ancient world,” and the Gospels are unique in many literary and historical ways, the Gospels still have much in common with other ancient writings.[18]

Something to think about until next time: Mark Strauss has a book titled Four Portraits, One Jesus. How is having four Gospels similar to having four painted portraits of Jesus?

NEXT: Differences in Jesus’ words

 ** Read Part 1 HERE. **

*All 5 books cited below are highly recommended*

Good reading...

Good reading…

 

[1] Jonathan T. Pennington, Reading the Gospels Wisely, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), Loc 1245, Kindle edition.

[2] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 50.

[3] Vern Sheridan Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 32.

[4] Ibid., 39.

[5] Ibid., 32.

[6] Mark L. Strauss, Four Portraits, One Jesus, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 214.

[7] Poythress, 74.

[8] Strauss, 172.

[9] Poythress, 74.

[10] Strauss, 260.

[11] Poythress, 74.

[12] Strauss, 298.

[13] Poythress, 74.

[14] Strauss, 223.

[15] Strauss, 223.

[16] Paul Rhodes Eddy and Gregory A. Boyd, The Jesus Legend, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 312.

[17] Eddy and Boyd, 343.

[18] Ibid., 320.

*All 5 books cited above are highly recommended!*

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