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

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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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Confidence in Christ v2

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

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Did the Apostles Paul and James believe in the same Jesus?

The thesis of Mustafa Akyol’s 2017 book The Islamic Jesus: How the King of the Jews Became a Prophet of the Muslims is basically this:

The first faithful followers of Jesus (who, like Jesus, were Jews) understood Jesus to be the completely human Messiah who the Jews had been waiting for. These Jewish Christians stayed faithful to all of the Old Testament law and their leader was the Apostle James, brother of Jesus.

Then, the Apostle Paul came along. He taught that Christians didn’t have to follow the Old Testament law and that they are saved by faith alone. Furthermore, mixing in some beliefs of the pagan Romans, these Christians proclaimed Jesus to be God in the flesh.

Clearly, according to Akyol, these two branches of early Christianity were at odds with each other, but Paul’s version won out and survives to this day as mainstream Christianity, which is the corrupted version of true Christianity. Akyol seems quite confident in his theory, even stating that it’s “historical fact that the two men had become the originators of two different branches of Christianity.” (P.5) Yes, you read that right; this, according to Akyol, is “historical fact”! According to Akyol, the true Christian faith of the first Jewish Christians “vanished in history,” condemned as heresy.

Akyol isn’t the first person to try to argue that Paul invented Christianity as we know it or that Paul corrupted the pure Christianity of Jesus. Akyol isn’t even the first person to pit Paul against James.

Akyol puts much stock into his idea that the Epistle of James, which is part of the New Testament canon, demonstrates an “implicit divergence from mainstream Christianity.” (P.4) Christians throughout history have noticed what may be a tension between Paul’s emphasis on salvation-by-faith-alone and James declaring “a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (James 2:24), and this has been addressed by many, many Christian theologians and scholars over the centuries (and we’ll take time to address it in a later blog), but Akyol goes even further in suggesting that the letter of James is totally at odds with historical, orthodox Christianity, as if it’s a remnant of the earliest, truest Christianity that has somehow snuck itself into the New Testament canon.

Akyol points out that James’ letter never calls Jesus “the Son of God” (P.3) and elsewhere he states James (and the early Jerusalem Church, which James led) did not believe Jesus was God incarnate (P.35).

If Akyol is right and James’ letter  is representative of the first Jewish Christians – the true followers of Jesus, according to his theory – then the letter would NOT confirm the deity of Jesus. 

Did James believe Jesus was a strictly human messiah? Did James not believe Jesus was the incarnate, divine, second person the Trinity? If the idea of Jesus being divine was foreign to James, we should expect, at least, that he is silent on the issue of Jesus’ divinity in his letter, right?

“LORD” VS. “GOD”

Let’s go to the actual letter of James in the New Testament and see what James has to say himself:

1 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ,

So, as we start with chapter one, we are only one verse in and we already run into an issue with Akyol’s theory. (Yes, we didn’t even get out of James 1:1!) Here, James begins by referring to Jesus as “the Lord.”

Here’s the thing: we modern people see the word “God” and we think – well – “God,” meaning a divine being. And when we see the word “Lord,” we think that could just be a human. For example, Lord Byron was just a man. And those familiar with the Bible likely see “Lord” and think, “Well, that could be God, but it could also be just a human.” And how they determine which “Lord” it is – divine or human – they must look at the context of the writing to figure it out.

But there’s the rub: when we read the New Testament and we see “Lord,” it is a divine title. In other words, “God” means God and “Lord” means God. Thus, when Jesus is called “Lord” in the New Testament, he is being called “God.”

Let’s go back to the Old Testament.

The name of the one, true God of the Bible is Yahweh, as given to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3). This is God’s personal, proper name.

In the Hebrew of the Old Testament, adonia is a title often given to the one, truly divine being, Yahweh, but it is a title that can also be given to people. Adonia is usually translated as “lord.”

The Hebrew word elohim is another title, which is usually given to the one, truly divine being, Yahweh. This is usually translated “god.” But, the thing is, elohim can (though not often) even be a title given to powerful humans. For example, see Psalm 82:1 and 82:6 (and Jesus’ comments about this Psalm in John 10:34-35). Yet over time, as we see in our day, the title “god” came to only refer to divine, supernatural beings, and when someone says “God” today, they are referring usually to a specific idea of a divine being and using it like a proper name for that being.

(Important note: Biblical Hebrew and Greek do not have lower and upper case letters; thus, when reading the original languages, we can’t depend on a word being capitalized or not – like in English – to help us interpret the understanding of certain words. We must look at context.)

In ancient Israel, in order to not accidentally break the commandment to not use Yahweh’s name carelessly (one of the Ten Commandments – Exodus 20:7), the ancient Jews would avoid saying “Yahweh,” even when reading Scripture, and would instead substitute it with adonia (Lord). They would do this in writing as well.

This tradition carried over into the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures – what we call the Old Testament). So, where the original Hebrew reads “Yehweh,” the translators of the Septuagint instead wrote the Greek word for LordKyrios.

This tradition continues into our modern English translations today. If you open up your English Old Testament to a random page, you’ll likely find “THE LORD” written in all small caps. This is to signify that the original Hebrew reads “Yahweh.”

The evidence in the New Testament shows that when Jesus and the first Christians quoted Scripture, they quoted the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament. Scholars confirm this. Thus, the Septuagint was the translation of Jewish Scripture primarily used and read by Jesus and the Apostles, and the Septuagint refers to the only one, truly divine being as Lord (Kyrios).

My point?

Just as “god” became a word to exclusively mean divinity, the word “lord” (kyrios) to the New Testament writers was a word to describe divinity as well. In other words, when the New Testament authors write that Jesus is “Lord,” they are saying Jesus is the God of Israel.

Read the New Testament letters carefully. You’ll notice almost exclusively (with some exceptions), God the Father is called “God” and Jesus/the Son is called “Lord.” (And, yes, sometimes, Jesus is called “God” too!)

So, James 1:1 should be understood as follows:

“James, a servant of God [the Father] and of the [God] Jesus Christ.”

The New Testament writers understood the Father and the Son as two persons (of three) of the Trinitarian Godhead; they were different persons sharing the same divine substance. Thus, they referred to one divine person by the title “God” and the other by the title “Lord,” yet both were titles for divine beings.

If you don’t believe me, let’s let James speak for himself…

 

JAMES SPEAKS FOR HIMSELF

Make a short, short jump from 1:1 to 1:5-8, and we already see this in James’ letter:

5 If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. 6 But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

Here, James first says to ask for wisdom from God. Then, James explains how to ask properly, saying we shouldn’t assume we’ll “receive anything from the Lord.” James is clearly using “God” and “Lord” as interchangeable synonyms; God is the Lord, and the Lord is God. Who did James call “Lord” in 1:1?

Later in Chapter 1, James refers to God as “the Father” (1:17) and also writes “God, the Father” (1:27). Though God is referred to as a father in the Old Testament, referring to God as “the Father” and as “God the Father” are unique titles given to God by the writers of the New Testament, implying the Trinity.

Chapter 3 of James’ letter begins with the famous “taming of the tongue” section, where he warns of the dangers of careless talk. Using the tongue as a symbol of human speech, he writes:

9 With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. (3:9)

Already, we saw how “God” and “Lord” are interchangeable in 1:5-8 and also that “Father” is a title for God. Here in 3:9, we see that “Lord” and “Father” are interchangeable. Not only that, but the whole point of 3:9 is that humans are not to use the same mouth they use to praise God to curse humans, who are made in God’s image. Clearly, the Father, the Lord, and God all share an identity.

Moving on to Chapter 5, we see “the Lord” throughout. Should we understanding these to be references to the strictly human, non-divine Jesus of Akyol’s theory or as references to Jesus, God the Son, second person of the Trinity? Let’s see what the context tells us:

Verses 7 and 8 speak of the end times coming of “the Lord.” If what we looked at above is ignored, a Muslim like Akyol could likely argue that this reference is to Jesus and nothing about it implies divinity; it’s a common Muslim belief that Jesus was a human prophet of Allah who will also return at the End Times. But as we read on in Chapter 5, we see “the Lord” (which is how Jesus is referred to in 1:1) is clearly God, Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament:

10 As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11 Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful. (5:10-11)

Take note, James refers to the prophets (which can only mean the Old Testament prophets) “who spoke in the name of the Lord,” i.e. Yahweh, i.e. God. Next, we have a reference to the book of Job of the Old Testament and Job’s encounter with “the Lord,” which can, again, only mean Yahweh, i.e. God.

Thus, the “Lord” of verses 7 and 8 who will return at the End Times is Yahweh, and both Christians and Muslims agree that it is Jesus who will return at the End Times. Further, again, who is called Lord in James 1:1?

There are other times “Lord” appears in James, but I think you get my point. James calls Jesus “the Lord.” James calls God “the Lord.” Thus, James believed Jesus is God.

 

OK, ONE MORE VERSE

Finally, let’s jump back to James 2:1:

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory.

If this is a proper translation, here we find James explicitly stating that Jesus is God. To a good Jew like James, only Yahweh is “the Lord of glory”! Now, to be perfectly transparent, this is a hard sentence to translate, and other translations do not translate it in the same way as the ESV quoted above. Here are other ways to translate it:

“…faith in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

“…faith in our Lord of glory, Jesus Christ.”

“…faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Glory.”

“…faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.”

Some of these translations may be giving Jesus a divine title more overtly than others, but in David P. Nystrom’s commentary on James, he states, “In any event it seems clear that in this rare case of Christology in the book of James, Jesus Christ is identified with the Shekinah, the visible manifestation of the divine. James believes that in Jesus God is revealed… the very manifestation of God’s glory” (James: NIV Application Commentary, Zondervan P. 114).

In support of this understanding, see 1 Corinthians 2:8, where Paul speaks of Jesus as “the Lord of glory,” and Acts 7:2, where Stephen describes Yahweh as “the God of glory.”  

Ironically, Akyol actually quotes 2:1 in his book to emphasize how Jesus is only mentioned by name twice in Jame’s epistle, not realizing the significance of Jesus being called “Lord” in both passages where Jesus is named and “the glory” in 2:1.

 

WRAPPING IT UP

To wrap up, Akyol makes a mistaken assumption when using James’ letter to argue that James did not believe in the divinity of Christ: he assumes that just because James’ epistle is in the New Testament, that the letter must explicitly declare the divinity of Christ. Think about it: if – for example – a pastor was writing to his church, which he already knew believed Jesus was God, would he need to lay all that out to them again?

Yet, Akyol does not take into account the specific purpose, audience, or even genre of the writing. If James is writing to Christians already familiar with Christian beliefs, why would he need to explicitly declare Jesus’ divinity? Why assume every letter written by an Apostle will lay out the whole of Christian theology?

The truth is, most letters in the New Testament are not theological manifestos. They are written to specific churches about specific topics and issues. With this, James’ epistle more closely follows the genre of Proverbs than the theologically heavy letters of the New Testament, such as Romans or Hebrews.

Finally, as we’ve seen, what Akyol misses is that James does declare Jesus to be God. Does James explicitly proclaim it? No, he assumes it. This implicit proclamation is weaved throughout his letter, and once noticed through careful reading, it is just as powerful as any explicit declaration of the God-man Jesus Christ.