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What Does “Son of God” Really Mean in the Gospel of Mark

Othello croppedI am pleased to welcome Othello Mugugu back as a guest blogger today. He originally hails from Zimbabwe, has a Bachelors from Northpoint Bible College, Serves in the American Army, has completed his Masters in Religious Studies from Providence College in Providence Rhode Island. Today he has allowed me to post a copy of his recent paper on the meaning of calling Jesus the Son of God in the Gospel of Mark. I hope you enjoy it.

 What Does “Son of God” Really Mean in the Gospel of Mark

By tracking the literary development of Jesus’ identity within Mark in light of the labels Christ and Son of God in Mark 1:1, (What Reddish and others regard as the real Title of the Gospel of Mark.)[1] I hope to demonstrate that the author’s main concern is to reveal Jesus as “Son of God” in all that this phrase had come to mean in Jewish tradition and comes to mean through the author’s own narrative.

A survey of resent research on the subject reveals that there are three basic interpretations of Mark’s intentions behind the phrase “Son of God.”[2]

The first has been widely popularized by Rudolf Bultmann, who sees Mark’s “Son of God” as a Hellenistic figure,[3] a Theos Aner (God man),[4] making Jesus a type of Greek mythology hero, with divine lineage. This character was seen by his heroic deeds, mental accomplishments or benefactions to humanity to transcend ordinary human proportions.[5]

The second interpretation sees “Son of God” in light of its traditional Jewish senses drawn from Old Testament usage. Eugene Boring, while ultimately defending another interpretation, admits that “Son of God,” has its fulfillment in the Messianic son of David prophesied in 2 Samuel 7:14 and Psalm 2:7.[6] O. Cullmann points out that the Old Testament uses the expression “Son of God” in three ways:[7] The nation of Israel as a whole (Exodus 4:22; Hosea 11:1); the king of the nation, (again, Psalm 2:7 and 2 Samuel 7:14) and persons with a special commission from God such as angels (Job 1:6).[8] We might also consider the notion of Adam as son of God 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.” This would certainly explain Nathaniel’s early recognition of Jesus as “Son of God” ages before the rest of the disciples come to an understanding of his divinity; John 1:49 reads, “Nathanael answered him, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’” Here Jesus is not two things, God in flesh and King of Israel, but one thing… Messiah.

The third interpretation is the traditional “evangelical,” understanding of “Son of God” as a title of incarnation—divinity itself. Walter Grundman argues that the Christian use of the term Son of God is inexplicable in terms of either contemporary Judaism or Hellenistic thought. The term could have originated only in the teaching and history of Jesus himself,[9] which Eugene Boring acknowledges, claiming that this unique use of the term stems from Mark’s own expansions of it from Jewish traditional uses in the narration of his Gospel.[10]

I do not feel that Mark uses the concept of Son of God in an “either-or” way in regards to suggested meanings for it, but rather in a “both-and,” taking common Jewish uses of the phrase as a starting point, like the planting of a seed, and growing the notion into its fuller theological meaning in a Jesus of truly divine proportions.

Jesus as Son of God at His Baptism

Mark 1:11 points to a divine attestation of Jesus as “son of God.” In the baptism account, (Mark 1:2-13) in a type of heavenly response to Isaiah 64:1ff, the heavens are rent open and the Holy Spirit descends; a voice from heaven, God’s voice, speaks.[11] Here Jesus’ sonship is connected directly with two, and, perhaps, three specific Old Testament figures. “You are my son,” is drawn from Psalm 2:7 connecting notions of son of God with Messianic promises. “In whom I am well pleased,” from Isaiah 42:1, binds the eschatological label, Suffering Servant, to Jesus as well, decorating Him with the full force of at least four lyric episodes from 2nd Isaiah (Isaiah 42:1-5; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13-53:12). Some suggest that the addition of the term “beloved” trailing after “you are my son” in the Greek, matching no known manuscript for Psalm 2, is actually drawn from Genesis 22:2, connecting Jesus with Isaac and the scene of substitutionary atonement connected to him… a theme also found in the servant songs.[12]

Christ from 1:1 to 8:29

If we suggest that, initially, at least in the mind of 1st century Jewish readers, that “Son of God” is appositional to “Christ” in Mark 1:1, we must then recognize that every revelation of the identity of Jesus thereafter, enhances the innate worth of that title. If the impress of Jesus as Son of God develops beyond its strict Christ equation, which I contend that it does, one important development in this regard is the author’s failure to use the term “Christ” for Jesus in the body of the first half of Mark. We find the term Christ in the title, Mark 1:1, and don’t find it again until 8:29 when, having seen all that occurred and hearing all that was said from 1:2-8:28, Peter concludes with his own identification of Jesus, which Jesus confirms, “You are the Christ.”

Sargent, has used the healing of the half-seeing blind man just prior to Peter’s confession as a lens for penetrating its nature. The entire segment in which the confession occurs is dedicated to developing the theme of Jesus’ identity, whether in the Pharisees challenge of Jesus’ identity in Mark 8:11ff,[13] or Jesus’ warning about the “leaven” of these men and of Herod, who tells everyone Jesus is John raised from the dead (Mark 6:16). Before Jesus engages the disciples in the big “who do you say I am” speech, however, the healing of the “half-seeing-blind-man” takes place. The only recorded miracle in which a double touch from Jesus is needed, for while he came to see, he could not see clearly (Mark 8:22-26). What follows Peter’s confession is Peter’s rebuke of Jesus, when, in a radical change of style from Mark 1-8, Jesus begins to speak plainly about the meaning of his Messiahship—He is to be a suffering, dying and rising Christ. Peter, like the blind man, sees… he sees that Jesus is the Christ… but also like the blind man, Peter does not see clearly; he needs a second revelation of Jesus’ identity not in labels, which he has correctly attached, but in substance, which he has yet to grasp, and which the gospel is, and will continue to, develop.[14]

From the Mouth of Demons

Jesus, like David, was an exorcist. Of interest for our part in these encounters, however, is the meaning of “Son of God” in light of its use and expansion on the lips of the demons. Kingsbury notes an alternation between cries of identification by demons and questions of identification by people, establishing a contrasts between spirit entities who know who Jesus is and those around Jesus who can’t figure it out.[15] The use of the term “Son of God,” appears in conjunction with a series of chatty demon passages. In Mar 1:24 when Jesus enters the synagogue we hear, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” We find the explicit phrase in Mar 3:11-12 “And whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, ‘You are the Son of God…’” Again, from the man with the legion we hear in Mark 5:6-7 “And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and fell down before him. And crying out with a loud voice, he said, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?”

The question remains still, however, as to whether or not the demons intend a declaration of divinity, [16] or merely Messiah. One might question the demonic interest in Messiahship vs. an encounter with their creator, but one might also note the demonic calculation of Divine plan and the role of Messiah in that plan.[17] While one might reasonably assumed that the expression ‘the Holy One of God’ is a messianic expression, its other occurrence in John 6:69, is not messianic, but, rather, designates Jesus as from beyond this world and belonging to God. Just so, Son of God in the mouths of the demons seems not merely Messianic, but Messianic plus.

Divinity Unveiled on the Mount

Few passages declare Jesus’ divinity better than his unveiled glory on the Mount of Transfiguration in Mark 9:2-13. Of particular importance is the return of the voice from heaven from Mark 1:11. Here, in Mark 9:7, the voice comes from the cloud saying, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” So we have the repetition of the adoptive son text of Psalm 2 and of the Isaac reference of Genesis 22:2, but we add a quote concerning the Prophet like unto Moses from Deuteronomy 18:15, which introduces another eschatological figure to Jesus’ collection.[18] Of greatest importance, however, is the use of divine imagery in the description of Jesus, saying, “He metamorphasized before them,” and “his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them” which conjures the image of the ancient of days from Daniel 7.[19] This same passage will be intoned again in Jesus’ declaration before His reluctant disciples in Mark 8:38 and Mark 13:26 and before His accusers in Mark 14:62, in which he casts himself as the Son of Man, the divine cloud-rider.[20] The Disciples have a typical fear response to this glory theophany; they are struck with terror and blithering chatter.

The Centurion’s Confession

Reddish considers the centurion’s confession in Mark 15:39 the climax of Mark’s Christology.[21] He certainly had no interest in Messianic hopes, but witnessed at Jesus’ death events too magnificent to be earthly. Kingsbury has concluded that the centurion’s confession is pivotal because it constitutes the first time in Mark’s gospel that anyone other than Jesus, God, and the demons fully understand who Jesus is.[22] Taylor states “the centurion sees what no one else can perceive, that Jesus truly is the Son of God in the fullness of that phrase.[23]


Much more could be said in points of detail to further develop narrative proof of my claim that Son of God in Markian Theology builds from the Jewish conception of Son of God as a Messianic title expanding to incorporate true deity. The point is well made, here, however, in a consideration of the enlarging of it in: 1. The voice from heave at Jesus baptism, which links Messiah, The Suffering Servant, and Isaac imagery to the term Son of God, 2. The demand for an expanding understanding of Jesus as a suffering, dying, and resurrecting Christ in Peter’s “half-seeing-blind-man” confession, 3. The ongoing profession of demons who have little interest in earthly Jewish Messianic hopes, 4. The theophanic unveiling of Jesus on the Mount in terms of the ancient of days from Daniel 7, which corresponds to numerous appeals to Jesus as a Son of Man divine cloud rider, 5. The confession of the Centurion at the foot of the Cross who sees these events as proof of Jesus’ divine nature. Son of God, then, is both a Messianic title, and a vessel for a Markian Christology of Jesus as incarnate deity.

[1] Reddish, 89; R. T. France 50

[2] The debate over the text critical evaluation of “son of God” in Mark 1:1 is both long and ultimately inconsequential to my thinking on Mark’s use of this phrase. My position is strengthened if we conclude with C.E.D. Cranfield, (The Gospel According to St. Mark, (Cambridge: University Press, 1963), 38.) that the phrase is original, but not unseated if we conclude with Paul M Head (“Text Critical Study of Mark 1:1, New Testament Studies v. 37(1991): 1):225, 621) that it is not.

[3] Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, (New York: Scribers & Sons, 1951), 130ff.

[4] Karl Holladay, Theos Aner in Hellenistic Judaism: Ph.D. Dissertation, Missoula, Montana: Scholar Press), 1977.

[5] Bultmann, New Testament theology, 130. Also, Leonard Goppelt, theology of the New Testament vol. 2. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Michigan, 1982.

[6]Boring, “Mark,” In this verse, the human David King is called God’s Son, in a non- metaphysical sense.

[7] Reddish also recognizes these associations 85

[8] Cullmann, Christology, 275.cf.

[9] W. Grudmann, “Die gotteskindschaft in Der gechichte Jesu und Ihre religionschichtlichen” qt. in Lewis hay, the Son of god Christology.

[10] M. Eugine Boring, “The Christology of Mark,” Semeia 30(1994):130. 131

[11] William lane, Mark in New International Commentary of the New Testament (Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1974).55.

[12] Christ and Son of God might also absorb the emotional sweep of Israel imagery in the 40 days of wilderness, Job imagery in the testing by Satan, and Daniel in the combination of angelic help amid wild animals.

[13] They, of course, as a group have already declared him possessed of Satan himself (Mark 3:22ff).

[14] Andrew D. Sargent, “Lecture notes: Meeting the Jesus of Mark, an introduction of inductive study.” (2013); drandrewsargent.com

[15] Demonic cry in (1:24), question in (1:27), demonic cries (1:34) question (2:7), demonic cries (3:11), question in (4:41), demonic cry in (5:7), question in (6:3). Kingsbury, Christology, 86.

[16] Cranfield, Christology, 77

[17] Paul Achtemeier, “He taught them many things: Reflections in Markan Christology,” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 42(180):476.

[18] See also, John 1:21, 25, 6:14, 7:40.

[19] Reddish, 86

[20] T. Longman, Daniel NIVAC, 186-88; S. Kim The Son of Man as the Son of God (1985) 69.

[21] Reddish,

[22] Kingsbury, Christology, 128-134.

[23] Taylor, The Gospel According to St Mark (London: McMillan &Co, 1950), 597.

One thought on “What Does “Son of God” Really Mean in the Gospel of Mark

  1. Josephus says:

    I’m surprised you did not explore “Son of God” as an anti-Caesar term. Since both of the word “gospel” and the phrase “son of god” are common expressions about the emperor, I lean toward this understanding. And several of Jesus’ miracles impinge on the supposed powers of Caesar.

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