by Doug Ward

The sixty six books of the Christian canon of Scripture were written by a number of men, in a variety of literary genres, during a span of over fifteen hundred years. Yet despite the diversity of human authors and writing styles represented in these books, they have an underlying unity that testifies to the guiding hand of a divine Author.


Uniting the biblical narrative are a number of recurring themes, presented with frequent references to previous and future episodes in the story. This phenomenon, which scholars call intertextuality, invites us to make instructive comparisons between corresponding people and events. For example, when the children of Israel take refuge in Egypt during a time of famine (Gen 46), we think back to Abraham's brief sojourn in Egypt (Gen 12) and look ahead to the time Jesus spends in Egypt as a young child (Matt 2:13-15). In all three cases God watches over his servants in exile and brings them out again, and we learn an important lesson about God's faithfulness.


All together the New Testament writers make hundreds of allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures, from faint echoes to explicit quotations.1 Identifying and understanding these allusions is a major research area for biblical scholars. As I write in 2017, New Testament scholar Ben Witherington has just published Isaiah Old and New, a study of the book of Isaiah and its interpretation in early Christianity. Soon to appear are two additional volumes, Psalms Old and New and Law Old and New, covering references to the Psalms and the Pentateuch in the New Testament. These books come on the heels of another major work on this subject, Richard B. Hays's Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (Baylor University Press, 2016).


A Christological Question

Sources like these increase our awareness of the ways that the New Testament writers employed the Scriptures of Israel to tell the story of Jesus, which in turn enhances our understanding of that story. In particular, scriptural allusions in the Gospels shed light on a fundamental theological question: Did Jesus and his original Jewish disciples claim that he was God in the flesh?


Those who give a negative answer to this question acknowledge that the deity of Jesus is taught in the Gospel of John, which begins with the words, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God," and goes on to say that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). They argue, however, that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke make no such assertions about Jesus.


Other scholars counter that the Synoptic Gospels also teach the deity of Jesus, but in a more indirect way, through scriptural references. Mark's Gospel, for instance, begins with the mission of John the Baptist to "prepare the way of the Lord" (Mark 1:3). Here Mark quotes Isa 40, which pictures God's return to Zion to reign. In Isa 40:3, the "way of the Lord" is a route that God will make through the desert, leading exiles back to Israel in a new Exodus. Mark applies the Isaiah passage to describe an announcement of the coming of Jesus, identifying Jesus with God in some sense. This prompts readers to wonder who Jesus might be.


Mark reports on numerous mighty works of Jesus, including miraculous healings. When Jesus heals one paralyzed man, he declares the man's sins to be forgiven (Mark 2:5), leading some scribes to ask, "Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (v. 7). Since sins are an offense against God (Ps 51:4), who except God can cancel them? The scribes probably had in mind Exod 34:7, where God reveals that "forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin" is an important aspect of his character; or Isa 43:25, where forgiveness of sins is presented as one expression of God's uniqueness.


More questions are raised when Jesus orders the wind and waves to be still in Mark 4:35-41, controlling the forces of nature as God does in Ps 107:23-32. Then when Jesus feeds the five thousand (Mark 6:30-34), he responds to people who "were like sheep without a shepherd" (v. 34). In this case Jesus acts as a true shepherd of Israel, much as God is portrayed in Ezekiel 34.


In Mark 6:45-52, where Jesus walks on the waters of the Sea of Galilee, Mark makes an identification between Jesus and God in several ways.2 First, the book of Job speaks of God as one "who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea" (Job 9:8). Second, Mark mentions that when Jesus walked toward the disciples, "he meant to pass by them" (v. 48). This detail also seems to connect to Job 9, since Job 9:11 says, "Behold, he passes by me, and I see him not; he moves on, but I do not perceive him." Here God's "passing by" expresses human inability to fully grasp God's power. The disciples, who are "utterly astounded" by the incident (v. 51), exhibit such inability.


Third, the Greek word for "pass by" appears in the Septuagint in Exod 33:22; 34:6, where God "passes by" Moses in order to indirectly reveal his glory. (God later "passed by" Elijah in 1 Kings 19:11.) Similarly, when Jesus walks on water to his disciples, he reveals his glory to them. Part of that revelation comes in his words. He says "It is I," or literally, "I am" (v. 50). In this context, Jesus seems to be saying more than simply, "Hey, it's me." Rather, he is implying a connection to the One who appeared to Moses in the burning bush (Exod 3:14).


As the Gospel of Mark proceeds, we receive further evidence for the divine identity of Jesus, including the transfiguration (Mark 9:2-9). Finally, in his trial before the Sanhedrin, Jesus declares that he will occupy the divine throne (14:62), making reference to Ps 110 and Dan 7. His accusers understand what Jesus is claiming and convict him of blasphemy (14:64).


By following Mark's scriptural allusions, we see that the Synoptic Gospels do implicitly affirm the deity of Jesus. Matthew's Gospel adds a significant detail to the account of Jesus' walking on water. After Jesus reached the boat, "those in the boat worshiped him, saying, `Truly you are the Son of God'" (Matt 14:33). People who read and believe the Gospels have been doing the same ever since.


1See Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson, editors, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, 2007.


2For fine discussions of this passage, see chapter 2 of Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness by Richard B. Hays (Baylor University Press, 2014); and chapter 9 of The Case for Jesus by Brant Pitre (Image, New York, 2016).

Issue 31


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