Monday, April 19, 2021

Did Jesus claim to be King of Israel?

The short answer is that there is no saying attributed to Jesus in the canonical gospels in which Jesus claims to be the King of Israel. The theory and practice of religion, however, is not an exact "science"; hence, the answer to this question, like all things in religion, depends on whom you ask. So, I will put the question to the author of the Gospel of Mark. All references to Jesus as king in Mark appear in chapter fifteen in connection with a hearing before Pilate and the crucifixion. At that hearing the first question Pilate asks Jesus is: "Are you the King of the Judeans?" (15:2, Ioudai┼Źn). Jesus responds evasively: "so you (sing.) say" (15:2). Pilate chides him for failing to give a direct answer to the question in view of the numerous charges brought against him (15:3-4). But Jesus remains silent (15:5). Pilate is astonished at his refusal to answer the question directly.

            Pilate appears to attribute the information that Jesus claimed to be a king to the Judean people themselves (15:9, 12). The soldiers ironically mocked him as King of the Judeans (15:18) and the inscription of the charge against him read simply "The King of the Judeans" (15:2). That the kingship of Jesus in Mark is an idea that came from the Judean people is confirmed by Mark 15:36, when the chief priests and scribes mock him saying, "Let Christ, the King of Israel, come down from the cross" (15:32). By this mocking statement the religious leaders expanded the area of his kingship to include the whole of the traditional borders of Israel.

During the career of Jesus, Idumea, Judea, and Samaria constituted an Imperial province, governed by a Roman procurator (Pontius Pilate). The son of Herod the Great (Herod Antipas) governed at Rome's behest as tetrarch of Galilee and Peraea, and another of Herod's sons (Philip) governed at Rome's behest as tetrarch of the area east of the upper Jordan from Mt. Hermon to the Yarmuk River.1 The only actual king over the area was Caesar. Therefore, if Jesus were a claimant to the throne of Israel, he would have been in competition with Caesar Augustus for the status of king (as noted in John 19:12).

Mark reports no sayings in chapters 1-14 where Jesus overtly claims to be king and there are no sayings with a political edge to them. "King" Herod Antipas did not fear Jesus as a rival (6:14-29), and apparently not even the Judean people were thinking of him as a king (8:27-30). At the entry into Jerusalem the exulting crowd did not refer to him as a king (11:9-10). There are only two sayings attributed to Jesus in Mark that have political content. One is a factual statement about the power of rulers (10:42) and in the other Jesus supports the paying of taxes to the Roman government (12:13-17). Where then in Mark 1-14 does the idea that Jesus claimed to be King originate in order to account for that specific charge in the hearing before Pilate in chapter 15?

Likely it originated with the early Christian belief that Jesus was descended from David and is frequently referred to in the canonical gospels as the "son of David," who was the divinely anointed King of Israel (2 Sam 22:51; Ps 18:50). Hence, they gave him the title Christ, that is, "the Anointed One." It is the general view of the New Testament that Jesus was the son of David; that is, he was a descendant of David, the King of Israel (Matt 1:1, 6, 16; 9:7; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30-31; 21:9, 14; 22:42; Luke 1:31-33; 18:37-38; Mark 10:47-48; Rom 1:3; 2 Tim 2:8; Rev 5:5, 22:16). There was apparently a political component to this belief—the disciples are reputed to have believed that he would restore the kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6; Luke 24:21). The author of the Gospel of John described Jesus as the King of Israel (1:49; 12:13) who was descended from David (7:42) and provides a specific prophecy to that effect (12:12-15).

Oddly, in Mark Jesus is referred to as son of David only twice (10:47-48). That raises the question: would those two appellations be enough to evoke for the general reader the early Christian expectation that Jesus, the Anointed (i.e., the Christ) is the king of Israel in order to account for the heavy emphasis on his kingship in chapter 15? Or is something else going on in Mark? Has Mark, perhaps, deliberately downplayed for political reasons this general early Christian belief in the first fourteen chapters of Mark so as not to raise the ire of Rome?2 The two instances that he is called son of David (10:47-48) would not necessarily raise the ire of Rome, however, for others are also described as a "son of" David, that is, a descendent of David with no inevitable regal expectations (Joseph, for example: Luke 2:4). The two references to Jesus as the son of David might, however, be enough to evoke the early Christian belief in a clandestine way for the knowledgeable reader (cf. Mark 13:14). How do you as a reader of Mark account for Mark's failure to provide in the first fourteen chapters an occasion for this specific charge in chapter 15?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1G. E. Wright and F. V. Filson, eds., The Westminster Historical Atlas to the Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956), Plate XIV and p. 92. A tetrarch was a ruler over a fourth part of a region.

2Another likely possibility is that Mark was not a careful writer. See Hedrick, "Conceiving the Narrative: Colors in Achilles Tatius and the Gospel of Mark," pages 177-97 in Ronald Hock, et al., eds, Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1998), 186-97.

10 comments:

  1. Hi Charlie,

    I find myself in friendly disagreement on a number of points in your essay. The comments are based on my own studies.

    I'll start with the matter of Jesus not referring to himself as king: the crowds, according to Pilate, said he was king (15:12), the soldiers said so (15:16), the cross inscription said so (15:25), chief priests and scribes mockingly said so (15:32), and Joseph of Arimathea, expecting God's kingdom, gave him the respect of a king (15:42-43).

    And when the high priest asked him if he was the "Christos/Anointed" Jesus said 'yes'(15:62). Messiah means "anointed," and the kings of the near east were "anointed" as part of their ascension to the throne ceremony (Psalm 2). Christos is the translation of messiah in the NT, Christos Jesus, meaning 'anointed/messiah Jesus the King.' Messiah King could sometimes be thought of as Special Deliverer, as the Jews thought of being delivered by King Cyrus of Persia (Isaiah 45:1ff).

    I'm pretty sure that all of these scenes were staged by Mark in his development of the Jesus story. In the eyes of the early church, I'm thinking that Jesus was not just any king but God the Father's special Deliverer. And Mark put that on the lips of Jesus, and in a reverse mockery of their ignorance, also on the lips of the chief priests and scribes (15:32). Mark placed simply "king" on the lips of all the other characters because they had a diminished view of its meaning related to Jesus.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, PA

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  2. Charlie, this time my concern is the matter of Jesus and taxes. You wrote:

    "There are only two sayings attributed to Jesus in Mark that have political content. One is a factual statement about the power of rulers (10:42) and in the other Jesus supports the paying of taxes to the Roman government (12:13-17)."

    I don't think that Jesus' answer supports the paying of taxes "to the emperor" (12:14). His response to the Herodians' question: "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's" (12:17, NRSV).

    Reason: First and foremost Jesus answer is apocalyptic -- obviously, from the viewpoint of logic everything belongs to God, so the emperor gets nothing. However, Jesus is clever enough with his wording and coin visualization (12:16) to reduce the possibility that he will be arrested. The practical person will recognize that government services are a necessary part of culture and lobby for a fair tax.

    Check the net for other interpretations!

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

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  3. Charlie,
    My view is that there is probably nothing historical in the character traits of Pilate or Pilate’s “trial” of Jesus in the Markan story, if one contrasts Philo and Josephus’s Pilate with Mark’s. Philo was reporting to Rome during Pilate’s administration from Alexandria about Pilate’s brutality and actually lack of trials, and Josephus didn’t have much positive to say about him. Mark was writing propaganda a generation later, probably in the aftermath of the Judean Roman War. The author of Mark was more interested in implicating the various Judean religious leaders. Their opposition to Jesus throughout Mark’s story was a substantial motif. Association with David later probably had to do both with the number of allusions and quotations from Psalms, as well as David’s well-developed role as anointed in Jewish scripture and inter-testament writings, including the Dead Sea Scrolls.
    Dennis Dean Carpenter
    Dahlonega, Ga.

    Gene, are you familiar with Agrippa's "speech" in Josephus, Wars 2.345-401? At the end of this (403), Agrippa said the Romans would probably make war against them, "for you have not paid the tribute which is due to Caesar, and you have cut off the cloisters from joining to the tower of Antonia." I always wondered if that was where Mark got his "Give to Caesar..." aphorism.
    DDC

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    1. Dennis, I do recall your referencing this passage in a number of past discussions. Could you explain further to whom this phrase refers: "for you have not paid...and you have cut off..." I was unable to find the passage on the net.

      Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa.

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  4. Charlie, my final difference of opinion regards Jesus and King David.

    In a major teaching section located in the Temple, which includes taxes and resurrection comments, Mark has Jesus mocking the Messiah being called "David's son" when David himself refers to the Messiah as "Lord." (12:35-37) It seems obvious that Mark thinks that this is a very important teaching, that someone in the early church put forth after a lot of scriptural research, and that, rather than suppressing it for some reason, he just doesn't think highly of the son of David theory.

    The two references to "son of David" by blind Bartimaeus (10:47-48) seem very isolated. And, of course, Jesus continues on to the crowd welcoming him into Jerusalem with shouts about Father David (11:10). Perhaps what we have in chap 10-11 is a popularist theme creeping into Mark's writing, as he engages in an imagined look-back.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, PA

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    1. Hi Gene,
      The reason you give for the lack of "son of David the king" language in the last sentence of your first paragraph I think is certainly a possibility. And the reason you give for the lack of Son of David references in your last paragraph is certainly a possibility.
      Why is there not more "son of David the king" language in Mark 1-14 to prepare for Mark 15? You suggest two in this comment and I suggested two in my essay. Of these four what is the probable answer?
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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    2. Hi Charlie,

      This is my view as of this evening: Mark builds-up his look-back on the life of Jesus, ignoring and once criticizing son of David language in many ways until 14:62 when Jesus tells the High Priest that he is the Messiah (king in the sense of Special Deliverer) who will soon come on the clouds of heaven to gather his elect from the ends of the earth (13:26-27). Any reference to Jesus as King (David or otherwise), thereafter, falls far short of the majesty of Jesus own statement, which, of course, is Mark's intent, and actually reflects the viewpoint of Mark.

      Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa.

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    3. The author is too involved creating and building the motifs and stories that associate Jesus with Moses and Elijah to fret about David. Davidic literature, particularly Psalms, became important as he entered the "city of David" (1 Chron. 4-9).
      Dennis Dean Carpenter
      Dahlonega, Ga.

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    4. A use of "City of David" more contemporary to Mark: Josephus, "Antiquties," 7.65, 67
      Dennis

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  5. I appreciate this review of the issue, but I never thought that Jesus saw himself as King of the Jews or even a "son of David." Surely these claims were part of the post-crucifixion reflections on who Jesus was. The rulers of Rome and Judea in Jesus' time are not the point, but those of Mark's time (60's?) are, and the political issues and relationships of that time. This is all tied to Paul's end, and is all the more puzzling to me because there can't have been many "Christians" in the 60's, so what did they matter to Rome? Sounds like work for the Christianity Seminar, and I am not up to date on that.

    Denny Maher

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