How quaint to debate whether Jesus originally meant “an ordinary man” or the titular “THE Son of Man” when in Mark’s Gospel he says: “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath”, or, “The son of man is lord of the Sabbath”.
Mark’s Gospel is a work of ambiguities. Especially in the first part of his Gospel the central theme is the very ambiguity of Jesus himself: to the human characters in the Gospel he is a mere man, to the spirit characters and readers of the Gospel he is The Holy One of God. He astonishes innocent bystanders and disciples alike with his God powers of twice subduing the forces of watery chaos, speaking with authority and commanding demons, and performing all sorts of miracles.
So when Mark has Jesus say that “the sabbath was made for man and not man for the sabbath”, the natural literal meaning of “son of man” in this context is, “man” and nothing more. But at the same time the reader of the Gospel knows more about Jesus than any of the characters ever do. For them Jesus is THE Son of Man.
The same ambiguity applies to “Christ”. When Peter acknowledges Jesus is the Christ, he attempts to reprove Jesus for announcing that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer and be killed. So Jesus rebukes him and calls him Satan. Peter has interpreted the Christ as an earthly Davidic conqueror instead of a spiritual conqueror who must die to defeat death. The reader of the Gospel understands the ambiguity of the word.
Similarly, Jesus appears to accept without protest being acclaimed the Son of David, first by Bartimaeus and then by the crowds as he entered Jerusalem. But Jesus also refers to Psalm 110 to apparently deny that he is the Son of David:
David therefore himself calls him Lord; and whence therefore is he his son? (12:37)
Again, the ambiguity is clear to the reader if not the literary characters. The sonship of David is the sonship of the pious saint (and psalmist) who suffers and is delivered out of all his troubles. His reign on David’s throne is to be heavenly or spiritual, not earthly.
Then in the final scenes Jesus is mocked by the Roman soldiers as a fool-king, yet readers know he really is the highest King of all. His procession to the cross is like a Roman Triumph, but the literary characters only see a victim on his way to execution.
How much energy has been wasted on discussions over whether Jesus meant one thing or the other! It is not Jesus who is talking. It is “Mark” who is writing. Jesus is a literary figure, one of many, in his literary work. Mark is creating a story with meanings at two levels: one for the literary characters (the literal meaning) and the other for his readers (the spiritual or parabolic or allegorical meaning).
Literary criticism should always precede any attempt to mine a narrative for historical roots. It can save a lot of wasted time and energy.
First know what it is you are reading. Astrologers make the same mistake. They think the planets tell the past, present and future lives of persons. They fail to acknowledge the real nature of the planets they are “reading”.
In the case of the Gospel of Mark, scholars who interpret Jesus words in their literal sense are aligning themselves with the very characters the author set up as foils (and fools) to teach the readers spiritual lessons.
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