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Jesus had an Identity Crisis: Christ & Son of God in Mark 1:1

Hello my name is  Jesus sxc hu smallI had a professor once, gifted in languages, but not in relationships. He could not only read more than his fair share of languages even for a scholar, but he was also a fluent conversationalist in several. He decided that he wanted his wife to learn to speak Hebrew with him… wanted to stay fresh; you know how it goes… use it or lose it. He announced one day that he would only speak in Hebrew to her until she figured it out. He purchased little sticky note pads and began going around the house labeling things in Hebrew. A note on the lamp might read “נוּרָה” one on the fridge might say, “מְקָרֵר” Unfortunately, try as she might, she couldn’t find the proper Hebrew words for Divorce Attorney, so she eventually learned.

I think of this story every time I consider the literary relationship “Identification.” Identification happens when a writer attaches a label to someone or something. These labels are important statements about a thing’s reality or reputation. An observant reader pays careful attention to them. Mark 1:1 has two overt labels… two plainly stated identifications which may or may not be synonymous. These labels are Christ & Son of God.[1]

It reads, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

The first thing to recognize is that Christ is not Jesus’ last name. If you met him at a party no one would introduce the two of you saying, Jane Smith, this is Jesus Christ… Jesus Christ, this is Jane Smith… even if your name isn’t Jane Smith, but something else like Engelbert Humperdinck, or Fifi-Trixibelle Geldof (No, I didn’t make up either name.) Ancient names just didn’t work like ours do today in the western tradition. Unfortunately, our way of giving names plays so naturally into the habit of saying Jesus Christ as a single phrase that it can be easy to overlook this phrase as identification.

The next thing to recognize is that the label Christ automatically attaches a host of Old Testament hopes to the person of Jesus. It’s like saying, “Hey, remember all those prophecies about Messiah?”—Christ is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew term Messiah. See John 4:25—”Well, this guy, Jesus of Nazareth, is the person all those promises are about.”

Rule: Always keep one eye on the Old Testament when reading the New Testament. (Warning: If you follow all my interpretive rules, you eventually need more than two eyes… start shopping around for a good extra pair now so you’ll have them when you need them.)

A third thing to consider is the actual meaning of the phrase “Son of God.”

Many Evangelicals have a habit of seeing the phrase and thinking, “This means that Jesus IS God!” This is not necessarily a true statement, however, even if Jesus is God… which I believe with my whole heart and soul.  The phrase “Son of God” has various meanings to the Jewish community of Jesus’ day.

Consider Nathaniel’s use of it in John 1:49 where he declares Jesus the Son of God because he demonstrates prophetic power of secret knowledge. Do we really imagine that Nathaniel knows of Jesus’ deity this early in their meeting, when throughout the gospel witness all the disciples are perpetually confused about his true identity?

For a clue to this phrase’s meaning in Jesus’ day, keep an eye on the Old Testament. Who is called “Son of God” in the Old Testament?

The Old Testament uses the expression “Son of God” in four ways:

  1. The nation of Israel as a whole (Exodus 4:22; Hosea 11:1);
  2. Entities whom many reference by their job title, Angels (Job 1:6) are usually referenced in the plural “sons of god.”
  3. Adam is the son of God as represented in Genesis by repeating “the image” language of man’s creation when Adam creates a son in his own image. (Genesis 5:3) This is picked up in Luke’s gospel lineage declaring, in Luke 3:38, “the son of Enos, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.”
  4. The Davidic King (Psalm 2:7 and 2 Samuel 7:14)

This final category is quite suggestive. Son of God was often used to reference Messiah.

The question of its meaning in Mark 1:1 remains, however. Is Christ and Son of God somewhat synonymous or does the addition of Son of God to Christ intend something more? Is it possible that these terms are both used in what some believe to be the title of the book because they will each be filled out out in the narrative to include more than they initially entailed for the Jewish community? Is it possible that the identifier, the label, Son of God, will expand through the unfolding narrative to absorb divinity into it? YES!!! a thousand times YES!!! but we will have to watch carefully to see how Mark might do this; it cannot be assumed without evidence simply because we want to take the term that way. Stay tuned.

[1] There is some text critical discussion about the legitimacy of “Son of God” in Mark 1:1. I will work with a basic acceptance of the traditional inclusion of the phrase here. My purposes center around inductive method so I will leave more technical discussions for another venue.

[2] The media pic is originally taken from sxc.hu

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