Is the Messiah ὁ ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ in Mark 1:24?

The fuller version of this article was just published in the Journal of Biblical Literature as “The Messiah Is ‘the Holy One’:ὁ ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ as a Messianic Title in Mark 1:24” JBL 136, no. 2 (2017): 417–433.

The Messiah is the Holy One of God

I. Introduction

It has become almost obligatory to begin a discussion of ὁ ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ (“the Holy One of God”) by conceding that it “was not a messianic title in Judaism.”1 The title never occurs outside the New Testament and, outside of Mark 1:24, it only occurs in two other places (Luke 4:34; John 6:69).2 In light of such paltry attestation, some scholars reach the conclusion of Edwin Broadhead, that ὁ ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ is a “largely inconsequential description.”3 Such pessimism is perhaps further warranted by the fact that, despite the efforts of a number of scholars, no compelling explanation for the derivation of this title has been offered.4 Rather, it would appear that the best one can offer is a range of possible connotations that ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ might evoke.

Within the secondary literature, four scriptural categories are suggested to offer potential points of resonance with Mark 1:24. These can be listed in descending order of popularity. First, many scholars recognize that ὁ ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ echoes traditions about two of Israel’s most famous charismatic prophets: (1) a widow of Zarephath addresses Elijah, “What have you against me, O man of God?” (3 Kgdms 17:18); and (2) a Shunammite woman describes Elisha as “this man of God [who is] holy” (4 Kgdms 4:9).5 Second, a number of scholars plausibly suggest resonances with (high) priestly texts (cf. Ps 106:16 LXX; Sira 45:6).6 Third, some scholars point to texts that describe YHWH’s people as holy (e.g., Deut 7:6; 14:2).7 And finally, several scholars note that “Holy One (of Israel)” is a common designation for YHWH (see esp. Isaiah).8 Markedly absent from this list, however, is any indication that ὁ ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ may be suggestive of messianic traditions, a curious coincidence in light of the consensus that it functions like a messianic title in Mark (cf. Mark 1:24; 3:11; 5:7; 8:29; etc.).9

This article aims to rectify this lacuna in two ways. First, I demonstrate that some first century CE Jews and Christians were aware that the designation “the holy one” derived from one’s being anointed YHWH’s “messiah.” In order to make my case, I adduce four texts (Ps 88:19 LXX; LAB 59:2; Pss 152:4, 153:3) that explicitly refer to the anointed David as “the holy one,” and two additional texts that demonstrate awareness of the ancient practice of using “holy oil” to anoint Israel’s new king (11QPsa XXVIII, 11; Josephus, Ant. 6.157, 165). Second, I examine how the underlying logical connection between messianic anointing and YHWH’s holiness within these texts allows us to see certain features of Mark’s Gospel in fresh and compelling ways.

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II. God’s Messiah is “the Holy One”

In this section I build a case for the plausibility that scripturally informed Jews and Christians in the first century could recognize ὁ ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ as a messianic designation. My argument builds from Matthew Novenson’s recent work on “messiah language” in ancient Judaism.10 Novenson argues convincingly that the linguistic currency of the word “messiah” in antiquity depended upon two conditions being met: (1) “an accessible pool of linguistic resources” (i.e., the Jewish scriptures) from which an author could clarifying what s/he meant by the term “messiah,” and (2) “a community of competent language users” (i.e., “the Jewish community and their sympathizers”).11 While Novenson appropriately distinguishes between the royal ideologies textualized in the Hebrew Bible and the various messianic aspirations (or lack thereof) among Jewish communities in the late Second Temple period, he rightly concludes that the language used to describe Israel’s ancient kings offered the basic building-blocks with which members of this linguistic community constructed their messianic ideologies.12

If Novenson is correct, then it may be misleading to frame our discussion of ὁ ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ around the observation that it “was not a messianic title in Judaism,”13 since this overlooks the possibility that scripturally literate Jews and Christians were aware that “the holy one” was one way of designating Israel’s anointed king. The evidence presented in this section will demonstrate that there was, in fact, an inherent link between messianic/Davidic anointing and the appellation, “the holy one,” within the body of linguistic resources from which Jewish and Christian authors derived their messiah language. My proposal is that this link is, in part, responsible for the application of this title to one particular messiah—Jesus Christ.

II.1 “Help comes from the Lord, and from the Holy One of Israel, our king (Ps 88:19 LXX)   

Psalm 89 MT (88 LXX) evinces an inherent link between royal anointing and YHWH’s holiness: “I [YHWH] have anointed him [David] with my holy oil” (בשמן קדשי משחתיו 89:21 MT; ἐν ἐλαίῳ ἁγίῳ μου ἔχρισα αὐτόν 88:21 LXX).14 While the Jewish scriptures are replete with references to the Davidic king as YHWH’s “anointed” (e.g., 1 Sam 16:13; Pss 2:2, 18:50, 132:10), this verse is the lone instance where the oil used to anoint David is specifically classified as “holy.” In fact, the construction “with holy oil” (instrumental ב or ἐν + dative) only occurs in two other places in the Jewish scriptures (Num 35:25; Sir 45:15)—both with reference to the means of high priestly consecration.

More importantly, the MT and LXX differ with respect to the referent of “Holy One of Israel” in verse 19. On the one hand, MT reads: “for our shield belongs to YHWH (כי ליהוה מגננו), and our king belongs to Holy One of Israel (ולקדוש ישראל מלכנו).” Both clauses have the subject in final position (מגננו ;מלכנו), and both use a possessive lamed to indicate a belonging to YHWH. On the other hand, LXX reads: “for help comes from the Lord (ὅτι τοῦ κυρίου ἡ ἀντίλημψις), and from the Holy One of Israel, our king (καὶ τοῦ ἁγίου Ισραὴλ βασιλέως ἡμῶν).” The syntax of LXX dictates that τοῦ ἁγίου Ισραήλ is in apposition with βασιλέως ἡμῶν, implying that David is the Holy One of Israel. Some recensions add a copula to clarify this point: sanctus Israel est rex noster.15 This reading is entirely coherent with the wider context of the psalm: (1) YHWH anoints David with “my holy oil” (ἐν ἐλαίῳ ἁγίῳ μου ἔχρισα αὐτόν; v. 21); (2) YHWH’s hand will help David (συναντιλήμψεται αὐτῷ); and (3) David will cry out to YHWH, “You are my father, my God, and the helper of my salvation” (ἀντιλήμπτωρ τῆς σωτηρίας μου; v. 27). Thus, while the underlining message of the LXX remains the same as the MT—Israel’s help comes from YHWH via his messiah—the LXX suggests that David is the Holy One of Israel precisely because he is YHWH’s messiah.   

This shift in referent, while inconsequential for the overall meaning of Psalm 88 LXX, has the potential to be very significant for our understanding of ὁ ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ in the New Testament. First, although it is clear that none of the earliest Christian writers explicitly cite Psalm 88 LXX, there is good evidence that it was an important linguistic resource from which they drew their messiah language.16 Second, there are a number of places in Mark’s Gospel where the language the evangelist uses to describe Jesus, as Daniel Kirk and Steven Young rightly note, “trades on a set of descriptions . . . similar to those found in the psalm.”17 These are as follows: (1) David’s anointing is correlated with his receipt of YHWH’s strength (Ps 88:20–21 LXX), God’s Spirit comes upon Jesus to empower him as ὁ ἰσχυρότερος (“the Stronger One;” Mark 1:7–11; 3:23–28); (2) YHWH delegates his cosmic power over the sea to David (88:26 LXX)—the same power YHWH displayed when he slew Yam and Rahab at the Chaoskampf (88:10–11 LXX),18 Jesus exercises the cosmic authority he received from God to rebuke the wind and the sea (Mark 4:35–41; 6:45–52);19 (3) David is described as YHWH’s δοῦλος (Ps 88:4, 21, 40, 51 LXX), Jesus’s self-giving life and death embodies the position of a δοῦλος (Mark 10:44–45); (4) David cries out to YHWH, “You are my Father (πατήρ μου εἶ σύ), my God, and the helper of my salvation!” (Ps 88:27 LXX), at his most vulnerable moment Jesus cries out “Abba, Father” (ἀββὰ ὁ πατήρ; Mark 14:36); 20 and (5) Psalm 88 LXX closes with YHWH’s messiah (ὁ χριστός σου) being mocked by his enemies (ὀνειδίζειν; 88:52) and pleading with YHWH for deliverance, and while Jesus is hanging on the cross he is mocked (ὀνειδίζειν; Mark 15:32) and cries out to God (15:34).21 While these points of resonance do not demonstrate—indeed cannot demonstrate—that the evangelist had access to a text-form of the psalm in agreement with LXX MSS at verse 19, they do open up the distinct possibility that he had engaged with the psalm and, therefore, that he may have had encountered a text describing the Davidic “messiah” as “the Holy One of Israel.”

II.2 “Behold now is this the holy one, the anointed of the Lord?” (LAB 59:2)

In Pseudo-Philo’s retelling of 1 Sam 16:6–13, Samuel sets his eye on Eliab, Jesse’s first born, and inquires, “Behold now is this the holy one, the anointed of the Lord?” (sanctus christus Domini; LAB 59:2). 22 While scholars propose a number of source texts for this verse, none provide a direct connection to sanctus.23 It is tempting to speculate that sanctus derives from the tradition that the king is anointed with holy oil (cf. Ps 89:21; 11QPsa XXVIII, 11; Josephus, Ant. 6.157), but one cannot be sure. What is important for our purposes is simply that LAB assumes a direct link between christus and sanctus, namely that, as with Ps 88 LXX, “holy one” designates YHWH’s messiah.

In addition, Pseudo-Philo manifests a reading strategy for the material subsequent to David’s election in 1 Samuel that may shed some light on certain features in Mark. First, the immediate context of LAB links David’s status as sanctus christus Domini with angelic assistance and antagonism from “beasts”: directly after his anointing (LAB 59:3), David bursts into psalmnic praise (psallere psalmum), “. . . [God] has delivered me to his angels and to his guardians that they should guard me” (LAB 59:4); while he is still singing he is attacked by “wild beasts” and delivered by God (LAB 59:5), in a scene that anticipates his triumph over Goliath (LAB 61). In Mark, Jesus is (1) anointed by the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:10–11), (2) immediately launched into a conflict with “beasts” (Mark 1:13), where he (3) receives angelic protection, and (4) emerges victorious in anticipation of his victory over Satan.24 Second, as sanctus christus Domini—the recipient of the Lord’s spirit (cf. 1 Sam 16:13)—David possesses knowledge of the origin of evil (unclean) spirits (LAB 60:1–3), and predicts a time when, “. . . one born from my loins will rule over you.”25 It may be no accident, then, that Jesus Christ (1:1)—a “son of David” (cf. 10:47)—begins his public ministry with an exorcism as “the Holy One of God” (1:21–28).

II.3 “Deliver Your Holy One from Destruction!” (Ps 152:4 [5ApocSyrPs 4])

Psalm 152’s superscription references the same tradition as LAB 59:5 (1 Sam 17:34–37).26 At the psalm’s midpoint, David cries out, “Spare, O Lord, your elect one, and deliver your holy one from destruction (Ps 152:4);”27 and, at its conclusion, he cries out, “Quickly, O Adonai, send from your presence a redeemer; lift me up from the gaping abyss which is seeking to enclose me in its depths” (Ps 152:6). The psalmist agrees with Pseudo-Philo in two important ways that go beyond 1 Sam 17:34–36: (1) both writers classify the lion and the bear/wolf as “beasts” (LAB 59:5; Ps 152:5), and (2) both expect that God’s holy one will receive angelic assistance when attacked by them (LAB 59:4; Ps 152:6). Finally, the collocation of “elect one” and “holy one” (Ps 152:4), in conjunction with the temporal marker vis-à-vis the psalm’s superscription (i.e., after David became YHWH’s messiah; 1 Sam 16:13), suggests the same logic as Ps 88 LXX and LAB: “holy one” is an alternative way of designating the messiah.

II.4 “. . . And He Redeemed His Holy One from Destruction” (Ps 153:3 [5ApocSyrPs 5])

Psalm 153 reads as David’s response to God’s answering his plea in Psalm 152. He celebrates, “For he [God] delivered the physical life of his elect one from the hands of death; and he redeemed his holy one from destruction” (153:3).28 He recounts further, “I almost became two parts by two beasts. However, he sent his angel and closed from me the gaping mouths; and redeemed my life from destruction” (153:4–5). Thus, in agreement with LAB 59:4–5 and Psalm 152, Psalm 153 transmits a tradition that David, God’s “holy one,” received angelic assistance when he was attacked by beasts (cf. 1 Sam 17:34–37). Moreover, as with Psalm 152, the collocation of “elect one” and “holy one” implies that David is God’s messiah.

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II.5 YHWH’s Messiah via “Holy Oil”

Novenson notes that, “Jewish readers around the turn of the era will have understood χριστός to signify an anointed person, even if no one had anointed a king or priest for centuries, because they were familiar with the scriptures in Greek.”29 Additionally, we should note that some members of this linguistic community were equally aware that the medium used to conduct this ceremony was holy oil. Beyond the singular mention within MT and LXX (Ps 89:21 MT//88:2 LXX), the Hebrew version of Psalm 151 presents David’s first person account of his anointing as follows: “He [God] sent his prophet to anoint me (למושחני), Samuel to make me great . . . YHWH God did not choose them (i.e., David’s brothers), but sent them to fetch me from behind the flock and anointed me with holy oil (וימשחני בשמן הקודש), and made me leader of his people and ruler over the sons of his covenant” (11QPsa XXVIII, 7, 10–12).30 Josephus, too, knows that Israel’s kings were anointed with holy oil at the beginning of their reign. On four occasions in Jewish Antiquities he describes the unction used to anoint a new king as τὸ ἅγιον ἔλαιον (Ant. 6.83, 157; 7.355; 9.106). Most significantly for our purposes, Josephus reports that Samuel took τὸ ἅγιον ἔλαιον to the city of Bethlehem (Ant. 6.157) and, later, “in the sight of David, he [Samuel] took the oil and anointed him [David] (τὸ ἔλαιον ἀλείφει τ᾽ αὐτὸν) and spoke softly into his ear, explaining that God had chosen him to be king” (Ant. 6.165). Thus, while the archaic practice of symbolically demarcating Israel’s new king as YHWH’s “holy one” through the medium of holy oil had long since passed, we find traces of its remembrance within several Jewish texts roughly contemporaneous with Mark’s Gospel.

Awareness of the ancient practice that Israel’s kings were made YHWH’s messiah via holy oil offers an intriguing conceptual parallel to the early Christian notion that Jesus of Nazareth was appointed God’s messiah via the Holy Spirit (e.g., Mark 1:10–11). That is, just as holy oil demarcated the David king “the holy one,” so too the Holy Spirit established Jesus of Nazareth as “the Holy One of God.” 31


II.6 Summary          

The above investigation yields a number of results that could prove fruitful for our understanding of ὁ ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ in Mark 1:24 and, potentially, for its other two occurrences in the New Testament (Luke 4:34; John 6:69). First, two texts (Ps 88:19 LXX; LAB 59:2) link “messiah” (χριστός; christus) with “holy one” (ὁ ἅγιος; sanctus), and two more clearly operate under the same assumption (“holy one” and “elect one;” Pss 152:4, 153:3). In every instance, the relationship between the two concepts is the same: David is “the holy one” because he is YHWH’s “messiah.” Second, among the literature produced by Mark’s linguistic community, we find vestiges of the archaic tradition that Israel’s kings were anointed with holy oil. These offer further evidence that the link between messianic anointing and YHWH’s holiness was not lost on first century readers of the scriptures. Third, while Mark’s knowledge of the traditions assessed in this section must remain an open question, it is striking that the designation, “the holy one,” tends to occur in places which share strong points of resonance with the Second Gospel. Three of the four texts retell the events in 1 Samuel 16–17 such that, subsequent to his anointing, David—God’s “holy one”—received angelic assistance when he was attacked by wild “beasts” (cf. Mark 1:9–13). To this LAB adds that sanctus christus Domini—David, and after him, a “son of David”—is also an exorcist par excellence. I now turn to consider further how this material might enhance our reading of Mark.

III. ὁ ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ as a Messianic Title in Mark

Given the nature and scope of this study, the following section is necessarily limited to the following points. First, I explore how the texts examined in the previous section enhance our understanding of the connection between Jesus’s baptism and ensuing wilderness temptation (Mark 1:9–13). Second, I demonstrate that these same texts provide a compelling explanation for the connection between the baptism-temptation sequence (Mark 1:9–13) and Jesus’s first act of public ministry (Mark 1:21–28). Finally, I bring both points into conversation with scholars who interpret the “son of David” title in Mark 10:47–48 in light of Solomon-as-exorcist traditions.

III.1 Baptism-Temptation Sequence (Mark 1:9–13)

In the opening line of his Gospel, Mark informs his audience that he sets out to narrate “the good news of Jesus Christ [the Son of God]” (Mark 1:1).32 Everything that follows appears to be rather self-evident: the composite citation of Exod 23:20/Mal 3:1 and Isa 40:3 introduces the dramatis personae (Mark 1:2–3); the Baptizer emerges as a “new Elijah” to prepare the “way of the Lord” (Mark 1:4–8); and Jesus’s baptism by John leads to his anointing by the Spirit and concomitant commissioning by the voice from heaven. The audience thus knows that Jesus of Nazareth is ὁ χριστός because he has been anointed by the πνεῦμα ἅγιον (Mark 1:9–11).33 Matters become more convoluted, however, when τὸ πνεῦμα immediately propels the messiah into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan (Mark 1:12), and complicated further still when the evangelist adds the allusive comment, “and he [Jesus] was with the beasts (καὶ ἦν μετὰ τῶν θηρίων), and angels were attending him” (οἱ ἄγγελοι διηκόνουν αὐτῷ; Mark 1:13). Given the enigmatic nature of verse 13, it is not surprising that scholars have proposed a range of explanations: Jesus is identified as (1) the new Adam, (2) the new Israel, (3) the messiah, (4) the paradigmatic righteous sufferer, and so forth.34 To varying degrees, each of these categories is audible and would likely be grasped by some of Mark’s audience. My focus, however, is limited to augmenting one current proposal for why the evangelist fuses such a tight link between Jesus’s messianic anointing and subsequent conflict with Satan and “beasts” in the wilderness.  

At present, Psalm 91 features as the primary “messianic” text that scholars adduce to elucidate Jesus’s temptation.35 The relevant verses read as follows, “For he [God] will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and the adder [LXX asp and the basilisk], the young lion and the serpent [LXX lion and the serpent] you will trample under foot” (Ps 91:11–13 MT [Ps 90: 11–13 LXX]). No doubt this proposal is influenced by the fact that both Matthew and Luke assume that the messiah is the referent of “you” in the psalm (Matt 4:5–7; Luke 4:10–11). The plausibility of a Markan allusion, however, does not rest on this point alone. First, although Psalm 91 lacks a superscription in the MT, the LXX adds “a song of praise by David” (αἶνος ᾠδῆς τῷ Δαυιδ; Ps 90:1 LXX).36 Second, the version of Psalm 91 discovered in Cave 11 near Qumran has been plausibly reconstructed as being attributed to David (11QApPs VI, 2).37 That this psalm forms the end of a collection used for performing exorcisms may be significant for Mark, since the “beasts” in verse 13 likely represent demons. Third, Émile Puech suggests that this collection of psalms invites the exorcist to embody the role of “Solomon, David’s son.”38 If Puech is correct and, if Psalm 91, in particular, evoked the role “Solomon, son of David,” this enhances the possibility that another writer, for example, Mark, could apply the text to another “son of David.” (To this end, it is worth noting that Tg. Ps 91 reads verses 10–13 as a promise God makes to Solomon).

In addition to Psalm 91, three of the texts I examined in the previous section (LAB 59; Pss 152, 153) also juxtapose angelic protection and hostility from beasts—the foremost of which is a lion. These texts go beyond the psalm, however, in that they explicitly mention David, and assume, whether explicitly or implicitly, that David receives angelic protection from hostile beasts because he is God’s messiah. In the case of LAB 59:5, in particular, the angelic protection David receives from beasts occurs immediately after he becomes sanctus christus Domini (LAB 59:2). I suggest a similar logic may be at work in Mark. The Baptist prophesies that the one who comes after him will be a mighty warrior—ὁ ἰσχυρότερος. Jesus then comes to the Baptist (Mark 1:9), is anointed God’s messiah by the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:10–11), and immediately faces hostility from God’s enemies, Satan and beasts. Just as David received angelic protection because he was sanctus christus Domini, so too, God’s messiah, Jesus, receives assistance from a heavenly entourage, and registers a victory that forecasts his ultimate triumph over Satan and demons. Through this process, moreover, the demons come to learn who Jesus of Nazareth truly is—they know that he is the messiah who has been anointed with God’s holy unction, the Holy Spirit and, thus, they also know that he is the Holy One of God.

III.2 “Jesus of Nazareth . . . I know who you are!”

A number of scholars recognize the strong intratextual links between the inauguration of Jesus’s public ministry at the Capernaum synagogue (Mark 1:21–28) and the themes introduced in the baptism-temptation sequence (Mark 1:9–13).39 Many draw attention to, on the one hand, the clear connection between ὁ ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ (Mark 1:24) and Jesus’s endowment with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:10) and, on the other, the equally clear connection between ὁ ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ and the more renowned title, ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ (e.g., Mark 3:11). To my knowledge, however, no one has been able to explain the logic behind these links. So, for example, recognition that ὁ ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ anticipates ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ leads R. T. France to conclude that “the use of ἅγιος here is therefore surprising.”40 If one looks backwards to Jesus’s baptism, on the other hand, one may arrive at a conclusion along the lines of Étienne Trocmé that, “Il y a simplement un contraste voulu entre le sale esprit et le Saint de Dieu . . .”41 In other words, the lone function of ὁ ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ is to accentuate the difference between the demon’s impurity (ἀκάθαρτος) and Jesus’s holiness (ἅγιος).

The texts I have examined in this study suggest that there may be more to the demon’s address, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (Mark 1:24). As we have seen, David’s status as ὁ ἅγιος/sanctus is the direct result of his being made χριστός/christus. This suggests that the primary function of ὁ ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ is not simply to contrast Jesus with a malevolent spirit that is ἀκάθαρτος, but rather to drive home the point that Jesus is ὁ χριστός christened by πνεῦμα ἅγιον. This may also explain, at least in part, the close association between ὁ ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ and ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ, namely, that both titles are initially encountered in relation to God’s anointing Jesus ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ (cf. Mark 1:10–11). Finally, I suggest that the collocation of the demon’s exclamation, “I know who you are, the Holy One of God” (οἶδά σε τίς εἶ, ὁ ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ), with the exigent question, “Have you come to destroy us?” (ἦλθες ἀπολέσαι ἡμᾶς;), indicates the demon’s awareness that Jesus’s baptism marks the ultimate demise of its kind: the Holy Spirit is the strength of God (cf. Mark 1:7; 3:37) at work in the messiah who has inaugurated “eschatological holy war” against Satan and demons.42

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III. 3 “Son of David” in Mark 10:47–48: Exorcist vs. Messiah, or Exorcist & Messiah?

In commenting on the opening line of The Testament of Solomon, Dennis Duling posits that, “[t]he address ‘Son of David’ could be a link between the magical tradition about Solomon and the activity of Jesus as exorcist and healer.”43 Duling’s suggestion has been taken up by a number of scholars who argue that blind Bartimaeus’s cry, “Son of David, Jesus, have mercy on me!” (Mark 10:47), indicates that Jesus is an exorcist-healer son of David, not a messianic son of David.44 The results of my study, however, suggest that this group is only partly right.

On the one hand, the argument that Mark’s audience would hear resonances with Davidic-Solomonic exorcistic traditions in the cry “Son of David” is a perfectly defensible position. In fact, we have in LAB a tradition where David is both sanctus christus Domini (LAB 59:2) and the progenitor of a “son” who will rule over demons (LAB 60:3). This point of connection becomes even more intriguing when we recognize that the evangelist brackets Jesus’s public ministry outside of Jerusalem (Mark 1:21–10:52) with two titles: ὁ ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ (1:24), and υἱὸς Δαυίδ (10:47–48). These titles are also linked by the “Nazarene” designation, which, as Broadhead shows, has been strategically located at various points throughout the Gospel.46 The impetus behind such a misstep is easily traced back to Duling’s study itself, which bifurcates “son of David” into two separate “ideas” that existed in the late Second Temple period (a royal messianic idea, and Solomon-as-exorcist idea). Duling then inquires as to how these two ideas converge or conflict within the history of their transmission.47 Yet, what Duling fails to consider is that Jews and Christians in the late Second Temple period inherited a close connection between these two “ideas” within their scriptures. Indeed, the very same narrative that recounts David becoming YHWH’s messiah and receiving YHWH’s spirit (1 Sam 16:13), also presents David as a proto-exorcist (1 Sam 16:14–23).48 Furthermore, as we have already seen, LAB provides a first-century CE recitation of 1 Samuel 16–17 that firmly maintains both these elements. Thus, in my judgment, we have no plausible historical reason for concluding that an exorcist “son of David” is somehow at odds with a messiah “son of David.” Rather, the two appear to be inextricably wedded in Mark.

IV. Conclusion

The aim of this study has been to rectify the marked absence of messianic traditions in discussions surrounding ὁ ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ within New Testament scholarship. The evidence I have adduced makes a plausible case that the designation “the holy one” was among the pool of linguistic resources Jews and Christians had for speaking about an anointed, Davidic king. Thus, I would suggest that the reason ὁ ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ functions like a messianic title in Mark and, indeed, in Luke and John, is because some early Christians were aware of traditions that spoke of the Davidic “messiah” as YHWH’s “holy one.”

I close with a brief suggestion as to how the results of this study may also further our understanding of ὁ ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ in Luke. Joseph Fitzmyer’s comments on Luke 4:34 are suggestive: “In the Lucan context Jesus’ ‘holiness’ would have to be explained by his ‘sonship’ (Luke 3:22) and ‘anointing’ with the Spirit (Luke 4:18).”49 Later, in his second volume, Luke draws a direct connection between God’s servant David, through whom the Holy Spirit spoke (Acts 4:25), and God’s holy servant Jesus, whom he anointed with the Holy Spirit (Acts 4:27). Is it possible that Luke’s appropriation of ὁ ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ from Mark 1:24 divulges an awareness of the title’s messianic resonance? Perhaps the question will be taken up in a further study.

Max Botner is a lecturer in the Department of Protestant Theology (New Testament and Early Christianity) at Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main and researcher for the LOEWE-Projekt, “Religiöse Positionierung: Modalitäten und Konstellationen in jüdischen, christlichen und islamischen Kontexten.” He completed his Ph.D. in New Testament Studies at the University of St. Andrews with a dissertation entitled “How Can Mark’s Christ Be David’s Son?” He and his wife Jessica have been married since 2009 and have three children: Ava, Noah, and Olivia.


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  1. Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel according to St Mark, BNTC 2 (London: A&C Black, 1991), 64; see also, M.-J. Lagrange, Évangile selon Saint Marc, 6th ed. (Paris: Librairie Lecoffre, 1942), 22; Howard Clark Kee, Community of the New Age: Studies in Mark’s Gospel (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977; repr. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1983), 120; Dieter Lührmann, Das Markusevangelium, HNT 3 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1987), 51; Robert Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 82.
  2. Joseph Fitzmeyer, The Gospel according to Luke (IIX): Introduction, Translation, and Notes, AB 28 (Garden City: Doubleday, 1981), 546. Luke 4:34 is dependent on Mark 1:24; John 6:69 appears to be an alternative version of Peter’s christological confession in Mark 8:29; see Craig Keener, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 2 vols. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2003), 1:697.
  3. Edwin Broadhead, Naming Jesus: Titular Christology in the Gospel of Mark, JSNTSS 175 (Sheffield: Academic Press, 1999), 100. See also, R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 104; Jack Dean Kingsbury, The Christology of Mark’s Gospel (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983), 86–88; Heikki Räisänen, The ‘Messianic Secret’ in Mark’s Gospel, trans. Christopher M. Tuckett (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1990), 173.
  4. The most influential proposal, at one time, was Otto Bauernfeind’s suggestion that Mark had reworked 3 Kgdms 17:18 (Die Worte der Dämonen im Markusevangelium, BWANT 3.8 [Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1927], 3–18). A partial list of scholars who have followed either all or part of Bauernfeind’s position is: Erich Klostermann, Das Markusevangelium HNT 3 (Tübingen: Paul Siebeck, 1950), 17; James M. Robinson, The Problem of History in Mark, SBT 21 (London: SCM, 1957), 36; Johannes Schreiber, Theologie des Vertrauens: Eine redaktionsgeschichtliche Untersuchung des Markusevangelium (Hamburg: Furche-Verlag, 1967), 221; Karl Kertelge, Die Wunder Jesu im Markusevangelium: Eine redaktionsgeschichtliche Untersuchung (München: Kösel-Verlag, 1970), 53; Kee, Community, 120; Lührmann, Markusevangelium, 51; Räisänen, ‘Messianic Secret’, 172–73. Gerhard Friedrich, on the other hand, argued that ὁ ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ points to Jesus’s role as the eschatological high priest who would bind and destroy demons (e.g., T. Levi 18:12) (“Beobachtungen zur messianischen Hohepriestererwartung in den Synoptikern,” ZTK 53 [1956]: 265–311). His proposal was vigorously attacked by Ferdinand Hahn, and has never gained much currency among New Testament scholars (The Titles of Jesus in Christology: Their History in Early Christianity, trans. Harold Knight and George Ogg [Cambridge: James Clark, 1963], 229–35); though see, Walter Grundmann, Das Evangelium nach Markus, 2 vols., THKNT 2 (Berlin: Evangelische Verlags-Anstalt, 1965), 1:43, and to some extent, Joel Marcus, Mark 1–8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, AB 27 (New Haven: Yale University Press), 188.  For a fresh argument that ὁ ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ signifies a priestly figure, see Crispin C. T. Fletcher-Louis, “Jesus as the High Priestly Messiah: Part 2,” JSHJ 5 (2007): 57–79, at 63–64. I suspect Fletcher-Louis is partially correct, though, as we will see, he is mistaken when he argues that “the acclamation does not suit a king” (63). Finally, a group of scholars has suggested that ἅγιος is the result of “wordplay” (Wortspiel) on Ναζαρηνός, but their position has been largely rejected as well; see Franz Mussner, “Ein Wortspiel in Mk 1,24?” BZ 4 [1960]: 285–86; Eduard Schweizer, “‘Er wird Nazoräer heissen’ (zu Mc 1.24; Mt 2.23),” in Judentum, Urchristentum, Kirche, W. Eltester, ed. (Berlin: Töpelmann, 1964); Rudolph Pesch, Das Markusevangelium, 2 vols., HTKNT 2 (Freiburg: Herder, 1976), 1:122 n. 20.
  5. See Hooker, St Mark, 64; Joachim Gnilka, Das Evangelium nach Markus, 2 vols., EKKNT 2 (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1978), 1:81.
  6. E.g., Marcus, Mark 1–8, 188.
  7. Lagrange, Saint Marc, 22. Kee points to the use of “holy ones” in the Parables of Enoch (1 En. 37–71) (Community, 120); John Collins notes that, by far, the most common referent(s) for holy one(s) in Second Temple literature is (are) angel(s), though he does list some exceptions (Daniel: A Commentary on the Book of Daniel, Hermeneia [Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993], 313–318).
  8. E.g., M. Eugene Boring points out that YHWH is called “Holy One (of Israel)” thirty-nine times in Isaiah (Mark: A Commentary, NTL [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006], 64). On the wider significance of Isaiah in Mark, see Joel Marcus, The Way of the Lord: Christological Exegesis of the Old Testament in the Gospel of Mark (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1992), 12–45; Rikki Watts, Isaiah’s New Exodus in Mark, WUNT 2/88 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1997).
  9. See William Wrede, The Messianic Secret, trans. J. C. G. Greig (London: James Clarke, 1971), 24–25, 77 n. 75; Kertelge, Wunder Jesu, 56; Kingsbury, Christology, 86–88; Räisänen, ‘Messianic Secret’, 172; Marcus, Mark 1-8, 192–93. Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, Mark’s Jesus: Characterization as Narrative Christology (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2009), 82. Lukan and Johannine scholars generally agree that the third and fourth evangelists use ὁ ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ as an alternative, messianic title; see my n. 2.
  10. Matthew V. Novenson, Christ among the Messiahs: Christ Language in Paul and Messiah Language in Ancient Judaism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).
  11. Novenson, Christ among the Messiahs, 174; for the full argument, cf. 41–63.
  12. Novenson, Christ among the Messiahs, 52–53.
  13. Hooker, Gospel, 64.
  14. מן שמן קדשי (cf. 4QPsx 1:3); Hebrew text from Eugene Ulrich, ed., The Biblical Qumran Scrolls Volume 3: Psalms–Chronicles (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 652–3.
  15. Bo and Sa are listed in Alfred Rahlfs, ed., Septuaginta: Psalmi cum Odis, Vetus Testamentum Graecum 10 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1979), 234.
  16. By my count, the NA28 lists 26 possible allusions to Ps 89 (88 LXX). On the use of Ps 88 LXX in the New Testament, see esp. Donald Juel, Messianic Exegesis: Christological Interpretation of the Old Testament in Early Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988), 104–10. Although Ps 89 (88 LXX) is less frequent in Jewish messiah texts, there is at least one clear allusion in Pss. Sol. 17:4.
  17. J. R. Daniel Kirk and Steve L. Young, “‘I Will Set His Hand to the Sea’: Psalm 88:26 LXX and Christology in Mark,” JBL 133 (2014): 338.
  18. Note J.-B. Dumortier’s comment that, “le roi, véritable lieu-tenant de Yahvé sur terre, possède une puissance directement proportionnelle à la puissance divine” (“Un Rituel D’Intronisation: Le Ps. LXXXIX 2–38,” VT 22 [1972]: 187); and, “Yahvé, vainqueur des forces du Chaos . . . délègue sa domination cosmique à son élu; le roi deviant ainsi le véritable garant de l’order du monde et de sa stabilité toujours menace” (188). Dumortier’s description of the Davidic king in Ps 89 is remarkably similar to what Joel Marcus says about Jesus at this point in Mark (Mark 1–8, 338).
  19. So Kirk and Young, “‘I Will Set His Hand to the Sea.’”
  20. Jesus’s abba-prayer is unique to Mark’s Gospel (cf. Gal 4:5; Rom 8:15; Heb 5:7). While we now know that the address “my father” was not as unique in Palestinian Judaism as, for example, Joachim Jeremias once thought (see, e.g., Eileen M. Schuller, “The Psalm of 4Q372 1 Within the Context of Second Temple Prayer,” CBQ 54 [1992]: 67–79), this does not necessarily detract from the possibility that some early Christians noticed the connection between Jesus’s abba-prayer and the Davidic king’s invocation in Ps 88:27 LXX.
  21. To be sure, Jesus’s words from the cross are a citation of the opening of Ps 22. Nevertheless, Juel is likely correct that early Christians were reading Ps 89 (88) alongside other psalms that depict the messiah’s suffering (e.g., Pss 22, 31, and 69) (Messianic Exegesis, 110).
  22. I follow Daniel Harrington’s English translation throughout, including his italics, which are intended to signal, “[w]here the text agrees with a recognizable ancient biblical text (the MT, LXX, Samaritan Pentateuch, etc.)” (OTP, 2:303). The Latin text, including italics, follows Pseudo-Philo, Les Antiquités Bibliques, ed. Daniel Harrington, trans. Jacques Cazeaux, commentary by Charles Perrot and Pierre-Maurice Bogaert, 2 vols., SC 229, 230 (Paris: Cerf, 1976). In distinction to Harrington and Cazeaux, Howard Jacobson takes sanctus adjectivally, thus, “the holy anointed of the Lord” (A Commentary on Pseudo-Philo’s Liber Antiquitatum Biblicarum: With Latin Text and English Translation, 2 vols., AGJU 31 [Leiden: Brill, 1996], 1:187).
  23. See Jacobson, Commentary, 2:1166. Perrot and Bogaert list Mark 1:24, Luke 4:34, John 6:69 as the closest linguistic parallels (Les Antiquités Bibliques, 2:230).
  24. Commentators differ as to whether Jesus’s “victory” in the wilderness temptation represents the decisive undoing of Satan’s power, so that Jesus’s exorcisms in the remainder of the Gospel amount to a mere “mop-up” operation (so Ernest Best, The Temptation and the Passion: The Markan Soteriology, SNTSMS 2 [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965], 13–15), or whether it represents but the beginning of an ongoing conflict (so Robinson, Problem, 33–42). A convincing case for latter position has recently been presented by Elizabeth E. Shively, Apocalytic Imagination in the Gospel of Mark: The Literary and Theological Role of Mark 3:22–30, BZNW 189 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2012).
  25. LAB is one of the many traditions that portray David as an adroit exorcist (e.g., 11QApPsa V, 4; VI, 3–14; 11QPsa XXVII, 9–10; Josephus, Ant. 6.166–69; j. Šabb. 6:8b; b. Šebu. 15b; j. ‘Erub. 10:26c). Commentators are divided as to whether David’s prophecy that his “son” will rule over the evil spirits is a reference to Solomon or to a messianic deliverer (so Jacobson, Commentary, 2:1180). The former seems probable (with Harrington OTP 2, 373 n. e).
  26. On the basis of its style and its inclusion in a collection with other Syriac psalms whose Hebrew Vorlagen have been discovered at Qumran, Charlesworth concludes, “it was probably composed by a Palestinian Jew during the Hellenistic period” (OTP, 2:615). Alternatively, Patrick Shekan argues that the author of Ps 152 was a Nestorian Christian writing in Syriac (“Again the Syriac Apocyphal Psalms,” CBQ 38 [1976]: 154–55). If Shekan is correct, then Ps 152 indicates that a Syrian Christian author recognized the Davidic “holy one” as a type of the Christ.
  27. Trans. Charlesworth, OTP, 2:616, my emphasis. The invocation, “rescue your holy one (ḥasāk) from destruction,” reflects the language of Ps 16:10 Pesh (Shekhan, “Again,” 153). The author of Luke-Acts claims that Jesus Christ, rather than David, is “the holy one” (ὁ ὅσιος) spoken of in Ps 15:10 LXX (cf. Acts 2:27, 31; 13:35).
  28. Trans. Charlesworth, OTP, 2:617, my emphasis. The issues with dating Ps 153 are mutatis mutandis the same as with Ps 152 (see my n. 28 above).
  29. Novenson, Christ among the Messiahs, 51.
  30. Hebrew text from J. A. Sanders, ed., The Psalms Scroll of Qumran Cave 11: 11QPsa [DJD IV; Oxford: Clarendon, 1965]); LXX reads: “with anointing oil” (τῷ ἐλαίῳ τῆς χρίσεως αὐτοῦ; 151:4 LXX).
  31. See Novenson, Christ among the Messiahs, 148.
  32. There remains significant debate over whether or not υἱοῦ θεοῦ belongs in the “original” reading of Mark 1:1. For an overview of the issues, see Max Botner, “The Role of Transcriptional Probability in the Recent Text-critical Debate on Mark 1:1,” CBQ 77 (2015): 467–80.
  33. In keeping with the majority of scholars, I read the dual allusion to Ps 2:7 and Isa 42:1 as an indication that Jesus is being commissioned as Israel’s messiah; see, e.g., Kingsbury, Christology, 60–68; Marcus, Way, 59–79; Adele Yarbro Collins, Hermenia: Mark: A Commentary on the Gospel of Mark (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 149–51.
  34. For an interpretation of Jesus as the new Adam, see Joel Marcus, “Son of Man as Son of Adam,” RB 110 (2003): 38–61. For Jesus as the new Israel, see Ulrich W. Mauser, Christ in the Wilderness, SBT 39 (London: SCM, 1963). For Jesus as the messianic son of God in Psalm 2, see Marcus, Way, 66–69. For Jesus as the righteous sufferer, see Susan R. Garrett, The Temptation of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 55–68.
  35. See esp. Jeffrey B. Gibson, “Jesus’ Wilderness Temptation according to Mark,” JSNT 53 (1994): 21–23.
  36. Stephen P. Ahearne-Kroll shows that Mark, like many other New Testament authors, consistently reads psalms with Davidic superscriptions messianically (The Psalms of Lament in Mark’s Passion: Jesus’ Davidic Suffering, SNTSMS 142 [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press], 2007).
  37. In the previous column directly following a vacat, לדויד indicates the beginning of a Davidic psalm (11QApPsa V, 4); Hebrew text in Florentino García Martínez, Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar, and A. S. van der Woude, eds., Qumran Cave 11, vol. 2: 11Q218, 11Q2031, DJD XXIII (Oxford: Clarendon, 1998), 198, 202–3.
  38. Émile Puech, “Le Paumes Davidiques du Rituel d’Exorcisme (11Q11),” in Sapiential, Liturgical and Poetical Texts from Qumran: Proceedings of the Third Meeting of the International Organization for Qumran Studies (Oslo 1998), Daniel K Falk et. al., eds., STDJ 35 [Leiden: 2000], 160–181, at 180.
  39. See Robinson, Problem, 35–8; Marcus, Mark 18, 190–95; Shively, Apocalyptic Imagination, 154–66.
  40. France, Gospel, 104.
  41. Étienne Trocmé, L’Évangile selon Saint Marc, CNT 2 (Genève: Labor et Fides, 2000), 52, my emphasis.
  42. So also Marcus, Mark 18, 195.
  43. Dennis Duling, OTP, 1:960; see also his, “Solomon, Exorcism, and the Son of David” HTR (1975): 235–52.
  44. See Bruce D. Chilton, “Jesus ben David: Reflections on the Davidssohnfrage,” JSNT 14 (1982): 88–112; J. H. Charlesworth, “The Son of David: Solomon and Jesus (Mark 10.47)” in The New Testament and Hellenistic Judaism, Peder Borgen and Giversen Søren, eds. (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1995), 72–87; S. H. Smith, “The Function of the Son of David Tradition in Mark’s Gospel,” NTS 42 (1996): 523–39; Ahearne-Kroll, Psalms of Lament, 138–44.
  45. Edwin Broadhead, “Jesus the Nazarene: Narrative Strategy and Christological Imagery in the Gospel of Mark,” JSNT 52 (1993): 3–18.[/ note] Inside the frame of Mark 1:9 and Mark 16:6, Jesus is identified by his narrative point of origin in only three other places: (1) at the inauguration of his public ministry (Mark 1:24), (2) on his approach towards Jerusalem (Mark 10:47), and (3) at “Peter’s trial” (Mark 14:66–72). In every instance where the “Nazarene” designation occurs, it is closely accompanied by information that is central to the audience’s perception of Jesus’s identity: Jesus is (1) the son of God (Mark 1:9–11), (2) the holy one of God (Mark 1:24), (3) the son of David (Mark 10:47–48), (4) the messiah son of God and son of Man (Mark 14:61–62), and (5) the crucified one who was raised by God (Mark 16:6). The combined evidence, that ὁ ἅγιος τοῦ θεοῦ (1) resonates with the Davidic-Solomonic exorcistic traditions, (2) occurs at the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry in the context of an exorcism, and (3) appears to be intentionally linked with υἱὸς Δαυίδ, provides additional support for Duling’s hypothesis.

    Scholars who build upon Duling’s work, however, tend to assume that evidence for a Solomon-as-exorcist “son of David” obviates the possibility that Mark’s audience would also hear “son of David” as a messianic title.45See, e.g., Chilton, “Jesus ben David,” 92–97.

  46. Duling, “Solomon,” 250.
  47. So also Yarbro Collins, Mark, 66–67.
  48. Fitzmeyer, Luke IIX, 546.
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  • This is a shot in the dark, and I am at work and have no references with me, but it strikes me that this phrase from Mk 1:24 may be a reference to Jesus as God’s perfect High Priest, echoing the designation God gave Aaron in Exodus 28:36: “Holy to the Lord.” I may be completely off, and it is true Mk 1:24 is usually taken to be a Messianic designation. However, perhaps it has priestly overtones, too? After all, the passage is in the context of Jesus’ teaching ministry, where the crowd marvels at the authority with which he explained the Tanakh. What is a priest, but a mediator who makes God known to the people and exercises a teaching ministry? Ex 28:36 could have some relevance to understanding this term in Mk 1:24.

Written by Max Botner