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The reader’s patience is requested in the fact that these Jesus pages are in effect a kind of sub-Web, “piggy-backing” on the principal Web,, and thus that the As Paul Tells It . . . designation at the top of each page is not quite accurate. The Jesus Traditions Home Page is readily accessible by clicking on Contents, to be found at the top and bottom of each page.

Contents of Jesus Traditions


“He set his face to go to Jerusalem . . .” (Luke 9:51)

When Jesus went to Jerusalem, did he go as the Jewish Messiah? Did he go, knowing that he would die there—and perhaps intending to die there? Thus we return to the question which we left unresolved in our discussion of the baptism of Jesus: Can we discern whether Jesus believed himself to be called to a vocation as Messiah and (suffering) Servant of the Lord? We take as our point of departure the episode at Caesarea Philippi.


Caesarea Philippi and All That

It has frequently been remarked that the conversation of Jesus with his disciples at Caesarea Philippi marks a distinct turning point in the career of Jesus, as it is set out in Mark. In Mark’s narrative, Jesus inquires of the disciples what the popular estimate of him is; the people, they report, take him to be [a second, or resurrected] John the Baptist, or Elijah, or one of the prophets.

Click on Mark 8:29-33 || Matthew 16:15-23 || Luke 9:20-22, for full text.

As with other passages we have looked at (see The Baptism: layers ; and The Fig Tree: layers), there is evidence here of various levels or layers of interpretation, a summary of which should assist our enterprise.

Layers of Interpretation

  4. A Johannine Layer  John 6:66-71 is this author’s equivalent of the Caesarea Philippi episode, with:  


The question of Jesus, “Do you also wish to go away?” (6:67); 


Peter as the spokesman for the disciples (6:68); 


Jesus affirmed as the Holy One of God [another way of referring to the Messiah] (6:68-69); and 


The announcement of betrayal [and suffering] (6:70-71).

  3. A Later Synoptic Layer:  Matthew’s interpretation of Mark’s version.


We find in Matthew a quite positive valuation of messianism: Jesus congratulates Peter for affirming that he is Messiah. Whatever diffidence Jesus may have shown in Mark about Peter’s statement is “corrected” by Matthew.


There is also a heightening of the Christology, with the addition of the title, “Son of the living God.”

   2. An Early Synoptic Layer:  Mark’s view, or the view of his community. 

If we were to take Mark’s account at face value, we would note the following features:


Jesus’ messiahship is affirmed by Peter, but neither confirmed nor denied by Jesus.  There is no congratulatory acknowledgement as in Matthew.


He requires silence about the matter, whether due to security considerations (a movement to make him king would of course be treasonous), or because the character of his reign would be misunderstood, or even because he thought the title of Messiah would misrepresent his vocation. Whereupon,


Jesus announces that he will follow the path of suffering, though in this passage no interpretation is given of that vicarious suffering which might suggest a connection with the Suffering Servant of the Lord in Second Isaiah.


Peter rebukes Jesus for accepting such a path, whereupon


Peter is rebuked in turn, as one who is putting temptation in Jesus’ way.


Then follows an invitation for the disciples to join him on this path.

  2. The Early Synoptic Layer =  1. The “Jesus Layer”?  

Our enterprise would be greatly simplified if we could just equate these two layers; i.e. what we find in Mark would be what Jesus thought and said and did. A closer examination of Mark shows the difficulty with such an equation: there is, as we shall see below, too much in Mark’s narrative that seems contrived, for us to be convinced of a pre-Easter messiahship.

  1. The “Jesus Layer”  

The layer of Jesus’ own intentions remains frustratingly inaccessible. In the course of our earlier discussion of the baptism of Jesus, we noted the difficulty of distinguishing between Layer 2 (the Gospel of Mark) and Layer 1 (Jesus’ sense of vocation), between what the post-Easter Christian community thought about him, and how he viewed his vocation. There are a number of reasons why it gets no easier when we come to the Caesarea Philippi narrative.

Mission Unknown ?


   §  There is little doubt that the early church believed Jesus to be the Messiah, and it would be difficult for Christians transmitting traditional material, and for authors composing the gospels, to tell about Jesus without their belief being reflected in the narrative. We are not thereby entitled to conclude that Jesus could not have accepted the title of Messiah for himself, but it is a problem knowing where his view of his vocation ends and the church’s view begins. This belief in Jesus as Messiah is served in the Gospel of Mark by a pattern of secrecy, as described in the following point:
   §  For more than a century (going back to William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret), scholars have known about an apparent editorial device in the Gospel of Mark, a device which was intended to explain why, during the time of Jesus’ public activity, it was not generally known that he was the Messiah. Mark’s answer was to represent Jesus as choosing to keep his messiahship a secret. Thus, when Peter acknowledges him as Messiah, Jesus orders him to tell no one; and following the transfiguration experience, when his unique sonship is revealed to Peter, James and John, he orders them to tell no one “until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead” (for further details, click on Secret). But in bringing to light the editorial device of a messianic secret, we inevitably expose the possibility that the messiahship itself is also a post-Easter development.
   §  There is a further difficulty in validating what Mark says about Jesus (Layer 2), and that is the dissonance between who he was and what he stood for on the one hand, and the messianic notion on the other hand. (This position is explained at length in a note on Jesus and Messiaship.)
   §  Finally, we encounter a problem in Mark (Layer 2) with the pattern of events leading up to the death of Jesus, a problem which suggests the imposition of a theory of his death upon the tradition, whether by the author of Mark or his source. (Click on Cautious Scenario, for details.)
Therefore, it remains uncertain whether Layer 2, the Gospel of Mark, gives us access to Layer 1, the arena of Jesus’ own intentions.

An Alternative interpretation is available

The Sequel

The early church was of one mind: Good Friday was not the end. Early tradition affirmed that Christ was raised from the dead on the third day, and appeared to his followers. Click on Resurrection Narratives, for the details.


Revised December 15, 2004


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