Markan Christology and the Messenger of YHWH

There have been several discussions floating around about Mark’s christology and the following putative summary of the same from Michael Bird:

The Marcan Jesus participates in the kyricentricity of Israel’s God. He is identified as a pre-existent heavenly figure who has come to earth, who carries divine authority, who embodies royal and priestly roles; and in his person, words, and deeds he manifests the holy presence, the redemptive purposes, and the cosmic power of the Lord of Israel.

A roundup of some posts is here. It’s been noted already that Bird’s blithe assertion of a Markan identification of Jesus as pre-existent seems to draw from the problematic conceptual trigonometry that Gathercole uses to try to suggest that pre-existence is implicit in the synoptic gospels, but I’d like to address a related claim that Bird published in How God Became Jesus (his response volume to Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God).

Bird says above about Jesus that, “in his person, words, and deeds he manifests the holy presence,” which I suggest is not incorrect, but is misconstrued by Bird and others to mean that Jesus is God. An agent can manifest the presence of their patron without actually participating in that patron’s being or ousia. We see it, in fact, in the Hebrew Bible’s messenger of YHWH. In How God Became Jesus, Bird rejects the notion that the messenger of YHWH provides a conceptual template for Jesus’ relationship with God. He first points out that,

the angel not only represents God but even embodies God’s presence, which explains why the angel of the Lord who appeared to Moses in the burning bush said, ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob,’ and was the one who revealed the divine name to Moses (Exod 3:2, 6, 14). Paradoxically the angel of the Lord both is YHWH and is not YHWH.

Despite acknowledging that just like Christ, the messenger of YHWH is paradoxically identified with and distinguished from YHWH, Bird insists this has no connection to how Christ was conceptualized, since,

Christ’s person was understood as being distinct form God the Father, and his mode of divine presence was couched in far more concrete language, like ‘form’ of God, ‘glory’ of God, ‘image’ of God, and even ‘God enfleshed.’

In addition to the facts that the “person/being” distinction is utterly irrelevant to these texts and that the second concern is a difference of degrees, not kind, the passages Bird cites in the earlier quote are cases of interpolation (see here). They didn’t originally refer to the messenger as God. While it’s true the interpolated texts were later incorporated into a broader theology of presencing, this fact rather undermines Bird’s attempt to distance the conceptualization of the messenger of YHWH from the conceptualization of Jesus. The messenger became identified with God and God’s presence and authority in virtue of possessing God’s name, as we see in Exod 23:20–21:

Look, I’m sending a messenger before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I prepared. Pay attention to him and listen to his voice. Do not rebel against him, because he will not pardon your transgressions, for my name is in him.

Christ’s possession of God’s name, in his own theophoric name as well as his repeated associated with “I am,” is conceptually identical. He has God’s name, therefore he presences God (reifies his presence) and exercises his authority. This notion of the “indwelling” of the name is found also in the Apocalypse of Abraham, where Yahoel is a name given to God, but also to an angel who meets with Abraham. The angel insists he exercises God’s power “in virtue of the ineffable name that is dwelling in me” (think also of the “place where my name will dwell”).

Interestingly enough, the Exodus 23 passage undermines one of the most common assertions that is made about Christ’s unique relationship with God in Mark. When Jesus forgives the man in Mark 2, the rhetorical bad guys wonder, “who can forgive sins but God only?” This is taken by some to be an accurate assertion of theological fact that means Jesus’ forgiveness of the man’s sins proves he is God, but a far more parsimonious reading has Jesus correct their misunderstanding by showing that he exercises that very power despite not being God. The objection that is usually lodged here is that there are no other examples anywhere of someone other than God having the prerogative to forgive sins. While this objection is an argument from silence, it’s also wrong. The messenger in Exodus 23, whose presencing of God is likely a reflection of those earlier interpolated texts, exercises precisely that prerogative in virtue of having God’s name in him.

The conceptualization of the messenger of YHWH in those Hebrew Bible passages where its identity is confused with that of God provide an exactly parallel conceptualization of the messenger as a figure that, in virtue of being endowed with God’s very name, presences God and exercises God’s authority. This is not to say that Jesus was originally an angel (which is what critics—including Bird—always seem to think angelomorphic christology means), but just that the messenger’s literary form and function as a representative of the deity offered a conceptual template for those nurturing and developing the Christ tradition. The cognitive architecture that predisposes us to conceptualize of agency and even identity as rather fluid and even communicable, as we see with the messenger and with Christ, is the subject of the doctoral dissertation I’m writing right now. Stay tuned!


19 responses to “Markan Christology and the Messenger of YHWH

  • kgreifer

    I think the angel of the Lord is just an angel that sometimes brings a message and says “Thus says the Lord…” and other times God speaks through it’s mouth like it is a telephone or a puppet. The name of God in it could just be God’s presence. Maybe God puts His name in the angel, the same way He puts His spirit on prophets. Exodus 23 says to listen to the angel’s voice and do what God will speak. I think it means that they will hear the angel’s voice, but God will be speaking through it’s mouth like it was a telephone or puppet.

    When Jacob wrestled this angel, he called the place “the face or presence of God” because he saw God “face to face.” I think it means he saw God in reality, and not in a dream or a vision, but really he saw the angel with God’s presence in it and probably it was God speaking to him through the angel.

    In Deuteronomy 5:4, God spoke to the people “face to face” from the mountain, but in Deuteronomy 4:12-15, it says they saw no image, but only heard a voice. I think this shows “face to face” does not mean seeing God’s face, but just that He spoke to them in reality, and not in a vision or dream.

    Kenneth Greifer

  • jamesbradfordpate

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

  • meekmildmagnificent

    Excellent response Daniel. Exactly why Evangelical scholars insist on reading the Being/Identity structure into the biblical texts is beyond me. Your focus on the culture of honor and shame and the way the patron/client relationship works is dead on as far as I see it.The honor of receiving the Patron’s name and thereby becoming the son who embodies the Patron seems to me to be the proper optic here.

  • thinkright5

    Just came upon your site. Sorry I wasted my time.
    Another liberal academic with a pathological hatred of Evangelicals that bleeds into his “scholarship”.

  • What was Mark’s Understanding of Jesus’ Identity? « The Apostles' Memoirs

    […] Christology going around Michael Bird, James McGrath, Dustin Smith, Daniel Kirk (quotations), Daniel McClellan, Joel Watts, and Anthony Le Donne. I had the opportunity to participate in this conversation at the […]

  • Howard Pepper

    Sounds like an interesting dissertation… do you have hopes or plans to get it published? If not by an established publisher, you can probably “dumb it down” bit by bit and make it at least an ebook for a fee! (I’ve always felt many dissertations were worthy of and should be published, perhaps in modified form…. and you deserve some monetary pay-back for all the education costs!

    On the topic at hand: The development of Christology is endlessly fascinating. I encourage people to forget the whole orthodoxy vs. heresy thing. (Nobody intentionally nor probably ignorantly becomes a “heretic”!) Similarly, it’s not so much a major deal whether Jesus was/is “God” or something lesser/lower. More important are specifics of how we conceptualize him and if/how we let those concepts move and guide us. Obviously, it was NOT easy for the earliest Christians to figure out and articulate just who Jesus was and how he was related (or basically equal) to “the Father”, IF indeed he was God.

    I know, for some “atonement” is at stake, and thus views of salvation, and our personal destiny. But maybe, just maybe, even to them, it needn’t be?

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Thanks for the comments, Howard! I’m hoping it will be published after I’m done, but that’s still a ways off. The dissertation is also kinda specialized, so it would have to be a publisher that does more technical works.

      I agree that when we impose our own conceptual and even theological sensitivities upon our interpretation of ancient texts and material remains we tend to distort what they meant to the original authors and audiences. That’s really my main concern with so much research taking place right now in biblical studies.

  • kgreifer


    It is too bad that you could not comment on my comment about the angel of the Lord. I guess my idea that God can speak through an angel that has His name in it is just too weird for scholars who want it to be something else. I guess nobody seems to have considered my idea because I never see it in any commentaries. You are a true scholar because you only consider ideas by other scholars.

    Kenneth Greifer

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Kenneth, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I’m concerned here with academic approaches to understanding the Bible and the people who wrote it, not to theological ones. The question of some real metaphysical mechanism by which God could speak through or by an angel is absolutely unanswerable, and so of no interest to me. It’s not a question of weird or what I want it to be.

  • kgreifer


    I am amazed to find out that you can discuss God and the angel of the Lord without any theological explanation, but when I do it, it is theological. What you are doing is also theological. There is no way to discuss this topic without theology in some way. Everything you are saying is just as metaphysical. Everything on this topic is unanswerable also, not just my idea.

    How do you know that the writers of the Bible didn’t mean what I am saying in Exodus 23:21-22? Maybe they were being theological when they wrote the Bible. You can’t discuss anything theological that the writers wrote I guess to be consistent, so if this is what they meant, you can’t consider it because they can’t be theological either. I thought I have heard every unusual rejection of my idea, but your’s is a shocking surprise that you don’t want to consider theological explanations for what the writers of a theological book wrote.


    Kenneth Greifer

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      The difference is that I am just explaining academically how other people are formulating their theological explanations. I am not providing theological explanations of my own, but just evaluating the ones others use. You are formulating your own theological statements, which is a different discipline.

  • kgreifer

    I forgot to mention something that maybe you might consider. If God puts His spirit on a prophet to talk to it, maybe He puts His name in an angel to speak through it instead of using His spirit. This could be considered theology, metaphysics, or Bible scholarship, but you are allowed in Bible scholarship to discuss His spirit being on prophets, I believe. Maybe His name is a mechanism to speak through an angel in the same way?

    Kenneth Greifer

  • kgreifer

    When you say you are explaining how other people formulate their theological explanations, do you mean people who wrote the Bible or other scholars?

    I don’t think I am inventing a theological statement. I am also analyzing what the writer or writers of the Bible said to understand their theological explanations. I think G-d put His name in angels to speak through them just like He put His spirit on prophets. I show that Exodus 23:21-22 seem to say that the angel has His name in it, and you hear it’s voice, but G-d is speaking. If you understand it that way, then it makes sense for the angel to sound like it is speaking as G-d. Just because scholars have not considered this possibility, does not mean that the writer or writers of the Bible didn’t mean it that way, and I am inventing a new theological explanation. Maybe scholars have failed to understand this, so they have overlooked what the Bible says, and I am not formulating a theological statement, but just explaining what the Bible says.

    There are other quotes connected to this belief that I discuss more in my first comment and on my internet site. Just because scholars don’t fully understand the writers of the Bible, doesn’t mean I am inventing an idea. When you analyze the Bible, you do the exact same thing, I believe. When I do it, it is called “theology” for some reason, but it isn’t theology, it is also Bible scholarship, although I am an amateur.

    There seems to be a fine line between Bible scholarship and theology. When you do it is Bible scholarship, when I do the same thing it is theology.

    Kenneth Greifer

  • kgreifer


    I am sorry to bother you, but I am just curious. Are you too busy to answer what I said or are you done answering me?

    Kenneth Greifer

    • Howard Pepper

      Kenneth, I don’t know which is the case, in response to your q. to Daniel. But I can add a perspective that might be helpful. Basically I understand and respect his explanation re. scholarly analysis of theological statements as opposed to making them himself. Not that anyone can (or should be) completely without bias in any direction. But I’ve gone far enough in formal education (M.Div., M.A., and PhD work that included theology) to know that some scholars, thankfully, DO study religion and theology while mostly if not fully setting aside their own beliefs or leanings. It’s a benefit to us all.

  • kgreifer


    Since you understand theology compared to Bible scholarship, maybe you can tell me if what I said spread over a few comments was theology or Bible scholarship. I am not accusing Daniel of doing theology. I am just saying that my ideas are not theological, but Bible scholarship too. What do you think?

    Kenneth Greifer

    • Howard Pepper

      Kenneth, I hesitate to label your comments one way or the other. I did re-read them quickly to see if it seemed clear. It doesn’t, in that sometimes the line if pretty thin between theology and biblical studies (or scholarship). There is also what is called “Biblical Theology” (apart from what people mean by saying their theology is “biblical”). Many, perhaps most scholars, especially if church-tied, do both “theology” and “biblical studies” at the same time or alternatingly… in my view. It takes special effort NOT to. And it’s not “wrong” to want to apply one’s study of biblical texts to creating or sustaining some belief system. Some scholars also study/write/teach largely to negate belief systems they believe are unwarranted or detrimental.

      As a general rule, the more technical and specific, detailed the work (as in articles or books), the more it is likely to be merely “biblical scholarship” with little or no theologizing. That is, work based on the original languages, deciphering textual transmission or dating issues, etc. (This is usually tedious reading and often hard to even follow without background in the issues and/or knowledge of Hebrew/Greek, etc.) What most of us read is at a less technical level… and often using theological assumptions which may or may not be spelled out.

      What you are saying above is not at a “professional” Bible scholarship level (as I think you’d acknowledge) unless you’d give lots more detail, supporting evidences and various theories, etc. One might call it amateur “Bible scholarship” (which nearly everyone does who takes the Bible seriously, but usually does very poorly… and NOT saying you do).

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