5 Mar 2013

And He asked them, “Who do you say that I AM?” Peter answered, “You are the Christ””

As the College of Cardinal's gathers to elect a successor to St Peter, the following is a short piece on the place of the profession of Peter in the gospel of Mark (Mk 8:27-30) which has contributed to our understanding of the role of Peter and his successors in the Roman Catholic tradition.


The role of the profession of Peter in the synoptic gospels has been one subject to much examination. In the account as presented in Mark’s gospel, “many scholars find a major dividing point in Mark 8, approximately half way through the account of Jesus’ministry.”[1]In the first half of his Gospel, Mark showed Jesus proclaiming the Good News of the Kingdom in parabolic words and deed. Mark also showed the disciples failing to understand the reality of the Good News; they failed to see the true nature of God’s Kingdom as it is first realised in the person of Jesus. In the second half, Mark continues to unfold the true nature of the Good News - he points to the true identity of Jesus as a necessary element in the Good News.[2]

This division into two parts is connected by the central passage in which Peter confesses“You are the Messiah” (8:29). This dividing point arises where, “after having been consistently rejected and misunderstood, despite all he has said and done, Jesus starts to proclaim the necessity of the suffering, death and resurrection of the Son of Man in God’s plan.”[3] This division serves to reveal the christological identity of Jesus. “Although we can learn much about Jesus from the traditions of his parables and mighty deeds, unless this is ultimately combined with the picture of his victory through suffering [through his passion and death], we cannot understand Him.”[4]

The profession of Peter can be viewed as one of three pillars or frames of reference of the gospel which help underpin the identification of the role of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. The three pillars are the professions of who Jesus is. At the beginning of the gospel text Mark introduces us to the proclaimed good news of Jesus Christ, “the Son of God” (1:1), the next is Peter’s profession at 8:27 of Jesus as the Christ; and the final one is the recognition by the centurion at the Crucifixion (15:39) that “Truly this man was the Son of God”.

Throughout the gospel, Keegan observes that Mark makes careful use of the number three and triplets of information. This number had special religious significance among many historical peoples including the Egyptians, Jews, Greeks and Celts.

It suggested a completeness that somehow involved God. In Mark’s Gospel the movement of Jesus towards his destiny is built on threes. People come to Jesus from Jerusalem three times (3:8; 3:22, 7:1). The Pharisees try to trap Jesus three times (8:11, 10:2, 12:13). Jesus predicts his passion three times (8:31, 9:30, 10:32). Jesus enters Jerusalem three times on three successive days (11:11, 11:15, 11:27). After these three days of entry into Jerusalem Jesus begins his final three days of suffering, rejection and death (14:1-15:41)[5].

The profession of Peter comes after the second miracle of the multiplication of the loaves, the lack of recognition of this sign and request for another by the Pharisees, the Socrates-like probing of the disciples’ lack of understanding in the boat and the curing of the blind man of Bethsaida.

The multiplication miracle passage could be viewed as a second version of the same miracle recounted in 6:34-44. It is seen form critically as a miracle story, told again because it foreshadows the Christian Eucharist, this time as food for Gentiles, where as the first miracle was a sign to the Jews.[6]However, the Pharisees fail to recognise this sign and seek another portent. They play the role of the stubborn “generation” of Moses’ time who so often tempted God by demanding further proofs of his power after he had worked so many signs (Num 14:11,22; Deut 1:35). The demand for a “sign from heaven”(v.11) presupposes that Jesus is a prophet and places a burden of proof upon him to justify his role and preaching.[7]The miracles of Jesus are sign enough – beyond them no sign will be given.

After highlighting the blindness of the Pharisees, Mark recounts a crossing of the lake, where the disciples once again display their ignorance and obtuseness despite everything that they have seen to date. Mark has stressed their failure to understand throughout (4:13, 40-41; 6:52; 7:18; 8:4). In all cases they display lack of spiritual insight in failing to discern the hidden meaning in a word or deed of Jesus.[8]The scene also seems to dramatise climatically the utter unlikelihood that Jesus will be accepted or understood.[9]The seven questions posed by Jesus in the form of a dialogue in the boat (8:17-21) re-emphasises the fact that the disciples despite the miracles they have seen and witnessed, still do not understand the “secret of the kingdom of heaven”. Their spiritual blindness is then followed by a curing of physical blindness.

The healing of the blind man (8:22-26) ends the second cycle of the loaves section just as the healing of the deaf-mute (7:31-37) ends the first cycle and its symbolic intent is unmistakable. It comes, just after the castigation of the sheer hardness of heart, the total blindness, of the disciples. Jesus physically touches the supplicant and in a two stage process the cure of blindness occurs. The two stages of healing, as opposed to the instantaneous healings elsewhere in the gospel can be said to symbolise the gradual opening of the disciples’ eyes leading to the profession of faith. Warringtoncomments that the parallelism between vv.22-26 and 27-30 is remarkable and obviously intended.[10]The story is parabolic vis-à-vis a sign of coming to faith. It tells us that Jesus alone can cure the blindness of the disciples; and it shows that it can be penetrated only gradually.

From Bethsaida, Jesus and the twelve journeyed north to the city of Caesarea Philippi, to what the Jew’s of Jesus’ day considered the northern limit of the Promised Land since it was located near the ancient city of Dan (Deut 34:1-4). Jesus must make a decision to continue north or travel south to Jerusalem and accept the fate that awaits him there.

Before revealing his identity, he gives the disciples one last chance to manifest some understanding. In Mark’s presentation the significance of Peter’s profession rests upon the fact that for the first time the disciples tell Jesus who, in their estimation, he is. To get them to that point, Jesus takes the initiative and asks them “Tell me, who do people say that I am (8:27)?” i.e. who do “those outside” (4:11) say I am? And he learns that they regard him as a forerunner to the Messiah under a variety of opinions: John the Baptist, Elijah, a prophet. The opinions of those external people have not changed since 6:14-15 and the death of the Baptist. Those externals have missed the central theme of his message and works. He then asks the disciples, “What about you? Who do you say I am (8:29)?” Peter speaks for the rest and says “You are the Messiah (8:29).” The disciples have been asking the question “Who is this man?”(4:41) since the calming of the storm and now they begin to show the first sign of understanding but it is only a partial understanding. This is demonstrated by Peter’s rebuke of Jesus after the first prophecy of the passion where Peter fails to understand that Jesus has come as a suffering Messiah (v. 37) and must under go his Passion and death to bring true freedom to the People of God.

“Who do men say that I am?”(v.27)

The question prepares for the more personal and vital question of v. 29. ‘Men’ in the sense that Mark uses it, clearly indicates those outside Jesus circle (1:17); his enemies (9:31).[11]For Mark, these outsiders represent Israel. It is possible that the resonance of the question with Yahweh’s naming of himself to Israel in Exodus 3:14 (“I AM WHO I AM”) is a deliberate attempt to focus their answer. It calls to mind the Shema of Israel and the declaring of faith in the LORD.

And they told him, “John the Baptist; and others say Elijah; and others one of the prophets.” (v. 28)

In the early part of the gospel we have heard negative judgements about Jesus (“He is beside himself” (3:21) “He is possessed by Beelzebul.” (3:22)). Now we hear of more positive evaluations of him although they still do not recognise him as Messiah but rather as a forerunner to the Messiah in much the same manner that John the Baptist was seen as a messenger (Mal 3:1) and the wilderness prophet (Is 40:3). The messenger of Mal 3:1 is identified as Elijah in Mal 4:5; he who would come again to purify Israelbefore the day of Yahweh. Just as Elijah was thought to have reappeared in John the Baptist, some felt that John had returned to life in his successor, Jesus. The reference to “one of the prophets” reflects the expectation of “the prophet like Moses” who was supposed to appear in the final days (Deut 18:15, 18; Jn 1:21). There is a similarity in this verse with 6:14-16 and the fears of Herod which Mark uses to convey the popular speculation about Jesus.[12]

And he asked them, “But who do you say that I am?”

The second question is emphatically introduced; it becomes clear that the Twelve (‘you’)are contrasted with the ‘men’ of 8:27.

Peter answered him, “You are the Christ/Messiah” (v. 29)

Peter’s profession of faith is emphatic and profound, “You are the Christ.” He is the first human to openly acknowledge that Jesus is the expected deliverer. He uses the Hebrew name for the expected bringer of salvation, the anointed one. The essence of Mark’s gospel is the proclamation of the reign of God which was perceived in Judaism as the intervention of Yahweh and the establishment of a new age in which Yahweh’s royal power would be recognised throughout the world. However, God’s intervention was not envisaged without the intervention of an agent. The reign announced by a “messenger” would be the work of the Messiah, the “son of David”.[13]The prophets and other writers in Israel’s religious tradition had constantly foretold the coming of a saviour who would free God’s people[14];

Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his day Judah will be saved, and Israelwill dwell securely,” (Jer 23:5-6).

However, Jesus had not come to fulfil the common perception of the messiah. When he appeared there was no current title that was adequate to express every facet of his identity. To call Jesus the messiah may have been correct to a certain extent, but this title was so set in its meaning that it could only prevent people –even Peter – from grasping the full reality of Jesus.[15]This is shown in Peter’s reaction to the first prophecy of the Passion (8:32-37) and in his master’s stern rebuke: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not on the side of God, but of men” (8:33).

And he charged them to tell no one about him (8:30).

Due to the years of occupation, suffering and exile experience prior to and at the time of Jesus, the Jewish understanding of Messiah was never seen shorn of its nationalistic undertones. Jesus was indeed the messiah of Jewish expectation but not according to the popular often political understanding. He therefore forbade the disciples to reveal his identity to anyone and begins to teach them who he really was. “The command to silence imposed on the disciples is of a different kind to that imposed on the demoniacs and those witnesses to healings. It forms part of the special teaching reserved to them. The command to silence prepared the minds towards a new definition of Messiah.”[16]After reaching this decisive point, struggling to articulate and understand who Jesus is, they have to finish their journey of understanding through the Passion through to the Resurrection before they can fully understand the meaning of Messiah.

The profession of Peter is a common episode to three of the synoptic gospels – Luke (9:18-20), Mathew (16:13-19) and Mark (8:27-29).The versions in Mark and Luke are very similar with one difference being in Luke’s usage of the term “You are the Christ of God” where as Mark used “You are the Christ”. The meaning is the same and picks up on a phrase used by Luke in describing Simeon’s prophecy (2:26). The same section in Matthew has Jesus phrase the question in terms of the “Son of God” rather than “me” as in Mark. In Matthew there are additional verses relating to the role of Simon Peter and how his confession of faith is the rock on which the Church is built.
The episode of the profession “can be viewed as Jesus wanting his disciples to become aware of what is hidden in their own minds and to give voice to their conviction. The event that took place near Caesarea Philippi leads in sense, into a school of faith. There the mystery of the origin and development of our faith is disclosed. First there is the grace of revelation: an intimate, ineffable self-giving of God to man. There then follows the call to respond. Finally, there comes the human response, a response which from that point on must give meaning and shape to one’s entire life.[17]

[1]R.E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (New York, Doubleday, 1997) 126.
[2]T.J. Keegan, A Commentary on the Gospel of Mark, (New York, Paulist Press, 1981) 97
[5]T.J. Keegan, A Commentary on the Gospel of Mark, (New York, Paulist Press, 1981) 105.
[6]E.J. Mally, “The Gospel According to Mark” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary edited by R.E.Brown et al (London, Geoffrey Chapman, 1968) 38-39.
[7] W. Harrington, Mark, New Testament Message – A Biblical Theological Commentary, Vol. 4, (Dublin, Veritas Publications 1979) 111
[9]R.E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (New York, Doubleday, 1997) 137.
[10]W. Harrington, Mark, New Testament Message – A Biblical Theological Commentary, Vol. 4, (Dublin, Veritas Publications 1979) 117
[11] E.J. Mally, “The Gospel According to Mark” inThe Jerome Biblical Commentary edited by R.E.Brown et al (London, Geoffrey Chapman, 1968) 40.
[12]W. Harrington, Mark, New Testament Message – A Biblical Theological Commentary, Vol. 4, (Dublin, Veritas Publications 1979) 119.
[13]B. Rigaux The Testimony of St. Mark –translated from the French edition (Témoignage de l’évangile de Marc) by Malachy Carroll (Chicago, Franciscan Herald Press, 1966) 68-69
[14]T.J. Keegan, A Commentary on the Gospel of Mark, (New York, Paulist Press, 1981) 101.
[16]B. Rigaux The Testimony of St. Mark –translated from the French edition (Témoignage de l’évangile de Marc) by Malachy Carroll (Chicago, Franciscan Herald Press, 1966) 91-93
[17]John Paul II, Vigil of Prayer, Tor Vergata, Saturday, 19 August 2000, World Youth Day 2000, para 1

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