Blasphemy!

Why is Jesus condemned to death by the Sanhedrin in Mark 14? The exchange goes like this:

Then the high priest stood up in the middle of the gathering and examined Jesus. “Aren’t you going to respond to the testimony these people have brought against you?” But Jesus was silent and didn’t answer. Again, the high priest asked, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the blessed one?”

Jesus said, “I am. And you will see the Human One sitting on the right side of the Almighty and coming on the heavenly clouds.”

Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we need any more witnesses? 64 You’ve heard his insult against God. What do you think?”

They all condemned him. “He deserves to die!” (CEB)

What constitutes the “blasphemy” or “insult against God” that leads to Jesus’ condemnation?

First, although Jewish backgrounds are always important, I’m not sure that examining ancient standards for blasphemy is going to be entirely helpful. What I mean is this: the trial is set up in Mark 14 as a kangaroo court–false witnesses sought, conflicting testimony given. Thus, we won’t necessarily find a category of “blasphemy” into which Jesus’ confession fits. They may very well be condemning him without him being technically guilty of anything.

On the other hand, it is interesting that one way someone might incur a blasphemy charge is to speak the name of, or even say, “God.” It is therefore interesting that both Jesus and the High Priest are depicted as avoiding the word “God,” using circumlocutions instead. Maybe the point, in part, is that there is no reason for a blasphemy condemnation?

In the narrative itself, we have met accusations of blasphemy before.

In Jesus’ first conflict with the scribes, he is accused of blasphemy for forgiving the paralytic’s sins. “The fellow blasphemes! Who can forgive sins but God alone?!”

The charge of blasphemy is tied to arrogating to oneself the prerogatives that belong only to God.

But Jesus says that, as the Human One, he has authority on earth to forgive sins. If God has bestowed this authority upon Jesus, it is not blasphemy to perform the actions otherwise suitable to God alone.

I note with interest that both the first conflict and this final trial swirl around issues of blasphemy and Jesus’ identity as the Human One.

The other place where blasphemy comes up is when Jesus is accused of casting out demons by the prince of demons. In that case, he accuses the scribes of blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. In this case, it is not arrogating the authority to himself, but wrongly ascribing the work of the Spirit to an evil spirit that provokes the charge.

But the commonality is important: blasphemy charges derive from the question of the authority of God being wrongly ascribed (whether that be Jesus ascribing it to himself or the scribes ascribing it to an evil spirit).

Returning to the trial.

Jesus is claiming the position of the one whom God enthrones in the heavens to rule the entire cosmos. The same claim he had made in ch. 2 returns here: the Human One has authority given to him by God to act, to rule, in the name of God. And the same response of unbelief is leveled by the religious leaders: no, such a claim to be installed as the one who acts for God is blasphemy.

The blasphemy charge stands or falls with whether or not Jesus is correct about his identity.

The question is, what is Jesus claiming for himself that the religious leaders do not believe to be true?

It is something more than simply being a messiah as traditionally expected–a geopolitical, militaristic leader who would come to liberate Israel from its bondage. There were plenty of those going around, and such claims did not lead to blasphemy charges.

And yet, the way that Mark, and Jesus, have cultivated Jesus’ messianic identity, he has a power from heaven, an authority to command the entire cosmos, that must be ascribed to some ultimate, spiritual power.

Is the human one enacting the very reign of God Himself over the cosmos? Or is he casting out demons by the prince of demons? That’s the choice.

11 thoughts on “Blasphemy!”

  1. It’s just like any libel/slander charge: it stands or falls based on whether the statement is true. Except with blasphemy, we have a category of “never true” statements. Which causes quite a bit of trouble for anyone who claims to speak or act in the name of God. The canonical prophets are alright — they’re already dead and behind us. We have safely come to agree with them. But present prophets are always a problem.

  2. I guess you have to assume that, by using the Human One/Son of Man title from Dan 7:13, Jesus is claiming that he is the subject of Dan 7:14.

  3. I won’t speak to the blasphemy issue but I do have a comment on the “Human one.” While it might be possible to render hUIOS TOU ANQTWPOU in this manner, only a modern seeking to be gender-neutral would do so. I am convinced that in its original context in Daniel the Aramaic phrase would have been understood by its initial sixth-century B.C. audience as “one like a son of man.” So to I cannot fathom a first-century audience taking the phrase in such a empty, banal (and illogcal) generic reference to being human. It is plainly obvious to the most casual observer that Jesus did not simply claim to be a human being. Every human on the planet can do that, and therefore it is of no consequence as a claim. No one would be condmened for that. I am confident that Jesus’ and Gospel authors’ original audiences would not have taken this phrase so generically. They were not overly focused on being gender-neutral and would therefore not have sacrificed the significance of statements to be gender-neutral. Yes the phrase can be taen in a more generic way but what possible value would it have had for Jesus to claim to _the_ Human One or _the_ son of humanity. hUIOS does not mean one or person. It means “son” and I do not accept the move to depart from that because “son” is masculine. Jesus certainly was not female. How could he make the claim that he was _the_ Human One? Right now there are about 6 billion human ones on the planet, so clearly claiming to be _the_ human one is arrogant. The phrase must mean much more than that.

    1. Hi, Ken,

      The editors of the Common English Bible put together this explanation of why they translate it, “the Human One”:

      http://www.commonenglishbible.com/Connect/Blog/ViewBlog/tabid/209/ArticleId/13/From-Son-of-Man-to-Human-One.aspx

      I think they’ve it it well. The generic “human”, embodied in Daniel’s figure, is the title that Jesus clams for himself.

      At the end of your post you say it well: it would be arrogant to claim to be “The Human Being;” unless, of course, Jesus actually is the first of a new humanity, the true human who does what humanity was meant to do all along or, as Paul would put it, the Second and Last Adam.

      1. Daniel,

        I know that there are interpreters out there (N.T. Wright comes to mind) who take the view that you just offered. I have to wonder, however, if either those present at this “trial” (a kangaroo court, as you have noted) would have had any notion of this. Would any of the Gospel authors (I won’t say just Mark because I don’t believe in Q, except in the 25th century) have had any inkling that this is what Jesus meant? I would tend to put this in the category of things that neither the actual hearers nor the original audiences of any of the gospels could have possibly imagined. I tend to stumble over very subtle readings like this. That doesn’t mean it’s not possible, but I always tend to resist interpretations that require the original authors or audiences to come up with very complex, subtle, nuanced ideas that they have not encountered heretofore, much like the entry I once actually saw in the concordance of a Bible that listed automobile because Nah 2:4 speaks of chariots racing through the streets (I’m not making this up). Theoretically possible but since no one had seen an automobile, would Nahum really prophesy about one? Perhaps there is some Jewish background that I am unaware of, but could a first-century Jew have come up with this conclusion from this one sentence? I am doubtful. Again, you could be right but that’s quite a nuanced idea.

        Ken

        1. Hi Daniel,

          There certainly has been a lot of online discussion from the link you pointed me to for the CEB. It is a complex issue and yes, rethinking about what the phrase would have meant to Jesus’ hearers and to Daniel’s audience as well is in order. I’m not sure how we could come to that knowledge, however, so reconsidering the translation is appropriate as well. I wonder if anyone before our era worried about being gender-neutral.

          Ken

          1. Ken, I find the gender neutral concern here to be a distraction. I like “the human one,” (or, as I used to say before the CEB came out, “the Man”) because it captures well what it means to take SoM as a title.

        2. Ken, in working out what Mark wanted us to know about Jesus and blasphemy, I think that the two other places in the Gospel where blasphemy charges are leveled are crucial. In particular, the first conflict story is one in which just such a charge is leveled, and Jesus defends himself by using the Son of Man designation: “that you may know that the son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins.”

          They seem to differ on where he gets his authority. If Jesus is right, that he is this God-exalted Human One from Daniel, then it’s not blasphemy; if they are right that he’s possessed by demons or something (ch. 3), then they’re also right that claiming to be the Man is blasphemous.

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