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Intertextuality and the Deity of Jesus

The sixty-six books of the Christian canon were written by a number of men, in a variety of literary genres, during a span of over fifteen hundred years. 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.

Significant recurring themes, presented with frequent references to previous and future episodes in the story, unite the biblical narrative. Scholars call this phenomenon intertextuality; a term which invites us to make instructive comparisons between people and events that correspond. 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 his faithfulness.

The New Testament writers make hundreds of allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures, from faint echoes to explicit quotations.(1) Identifying and understanding intertextual references is a major area of research for biblical scholars. Ben Witherington recently 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 Psalter and the Torah in the New Testament. These books owe much to the seminal work, Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels by Richard B. Hays (Baylor University Press, 2016).

Sources like these increase our awareness of the ways in which the New Covenant 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?

Even those who give a negative answer to this inquiry acknowledge, though grudgingly, that John proclaims the deity of Jesus in the Gospel bearing his name. He opens with, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (1:1). John goes on to say that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (1:14). They argue, however, that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke (the Synoptic Gospels) make no such claims about Jesus.

Intertextual scholars counter that the Synoptic Gospels also teach the deity of Jesus, but in a more indirect way, through scriptural references. Let's take Mark's Gospel for instance. He 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 returning 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. He applies the Isaiah passage to announce the coming of Jesus, linking him—as Israel's Messiah—with God in

some sense. Mark is prompting his readers to think deeply about the identity of Jesus.

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 Jewish scribes to ask, "Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (v. 7). Ironically, they are correct in assessing that only God can cancel sin (51:4). 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 presents itself as one expression of God's uniqueness.

Mark raises additional questions when Jesus orders the wind and waves to be still (4:35-41), controlling the forces of nature as God does in Ps 107:23-32. When Jesus feeds the five thousand (Mark 6:30-34), he responds to people who "were like sheep without a shepherd" (v. 34). Here he is acting as the true Shepherd of Israel, a role God fills himself in Ezekiel 34.

Mark continues to make connections between Jesus and God in 6:45-52, where Jesus walks on the waters of the Sea of Galilee.(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 of Exodus 33:22 and 34:6 when God "passes by" Moses and indirectly reveals 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 divinity of Jesus, including his transfiguration (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 know exactly what Jesus is claiming and convict him of blasphemy (14:64).

Mark is a test case confirming that the Synoptic Gospel's affirm the deity of Jesus but in a uniquely Hebraic, allusional manner. In this he is not alone. Matthew and Luke also offer a treasure trove of truth for those with ears to hear and hearts to respond.


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

(2) For 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).


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