100. The “Spirit (pneuma) of Jesus” in Mark’s Gospel (Mark 2:8; 8:12)

The Gospel writer, Mark, used psychological terms sparingly and carefully in reference to Jesus. For example, the word kardia is never applied to Jesus because the human heart is “evil” (Mark 7:19,21), “hardened” (3:5; 6:52; 8:17) and “disputatious” (2:6,8; 11:23), “far from God” in Isaiah’s language (Mark 7:6 quoting Isaiah 29:13). The term psuchē tends to refer to the life principle within a human being (3:4; 8:35,36,37; 10:45; 12:30). Sometimes as in 14:34 psuchē describes the self, which expresses the life principle in a person. For example, Mark says that Jesus is “grieved to the point of death in his psuchē” by which Jesus indicates the deep, personal intensity of his grief. Mark does not use terms related to mind, apart from dianoia which occurs in a quotation from Deuteronomy (Mark 12:30). Once as well he used the verb phronein (“to think”) to describe Peter’s ideas (8:33).

Perhaps even more remarkable is that Mark only twice says that Jesus has a spirit (pneuma 2:8; 8:12). Now Mark primarily used the term pneuma in two ways. First, God, the Holy Spirit, is referenced by this noun (1:8,10,12; 3:29; 12:36; 13:11). In each context it is quite clear that the Spirit of God is being described. Secondly, Mark frequently describes demons as “unclean spirits” (akatharta pneumata) (1:23,26,27; 3:11,30; 5:2,8,13; 6:7; 7:25; 9:17,20,25(2x)). In his anthropology “spirit” is not a normal component of human constitution. Rather, these are spiritual beings, either good or evil , which influence human beings. Only in two cases do we read in Mark about a person’s pneuma, and in both cases it refers to Jesus (2:8; 8:12). Mark 14:38 may be an exception: “The S/spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”

So what then did Mark intend his readers to understand in these two passages about Jesus’ spirit? We know from Mark 1:10, 12 that the Holy Spirit “descended” upon Jesus after his baptism and “thrust him out into the wilderness.” John prophesied that Jesus would be able to “baptise in the Holy Spirit (en pneumatic hagiōi)” (1:8), which again indicates that God’s Spirit is present with Jesus in a special way. In 3:29 Jesus warned the Jewish religious leaders about the dangerous consequences of attributing the works he was doing by the Spirit’s power to demonic forces. Those who persisted in this perspective “profaned the Holy Spirit” and “did not have forgiveness forever but were guilty of an eternal sin.” Again the Spirit is identified significantly with Jesus’ teachings and miraculous activities. We can only conclude that God’s Holy Spirit integrally works in concert with Jesus.

According to Mark 2:8 Jesus is able to discern what the Jewish religious leaders around him are “disputing in their hearts/themselves (en tais kardiais autōn/en heautois)” (2:6,8). Mark says that “Jesus, knowing in/by his spirit (tōi pneumati autou)” what they are thinking, interrogates them. What does Mark mean by this phrase and reference to “spirit?” Should we translate this as “his spirit” or “the Spirit that belongs to him,” i.e. the Holy Spirit? In other words is it Jesus himself that discerns their thoughts or is it the Holy Spirit within him that empowers or aids him to do this? The same verb occurs with Jesus as subject in 5:30 and there the expression is “knowing in himself (en hautōi)”, with the preposition present.

We discover a similar situation in Mark 8:12. Again Jesus is entangled in controversy with Jewish religious leaders. They have approached him to demand some extraordinary sign, “testing him” (8:11). In response Mark says that Jesus is “dismayed in/by his spirit (tōi pneumati autou).” This is exactly the same phrase Mark used in 2:8. So is this the Holy Spirit in Jesus who is dismayed at the religious leaders’ continued refusal to accept Jesus as Messiah, because He knows that this stubbornness is leading to terrible judgment? Or is this Jesus’ spirit, i.e. himself, expressing this dismay?

If these are to be taken as references to the Holy Spirit, then how are we to understand the meaning of dative case in which these phrases are written? A frequent use of the dative case is to define means or instrument. If this is the intended sense, then in 2:8 Jesus “knows by means of the Spirit which he has” what the religious leaders are thinking. And in the case of 8:12 the dismay that Jesus experiences arises “by means of the Spirit which he has.” Another usage, just as common, is the dative of manner, i.e. defining how something occurs. If this is the sense that Mark intended, then we would translate 2:8 as “recognizing in his S/spirit” and 8:12 “dismayed in his S/spirit.” Whether this would refer to the Holy Spirit or his own spirit (i.e. as we would refer to a human being’s spirit) is unclear. The entry defining pneuma in the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Volume 3 says that the usage in Mark 2:8 and 8:12 describe “that area of human awareness most sensitive to matters of the spiritual realm.” However, it provides no specific justification for defining the usage in these Markan passages in this manner.

At this point I am not sure how to read these two verses in Mark’s Gospel. I am inclined to see references to the Holy Spirit. However, in doing this I have no desire either to diminish Jesus’ humanity or his deity. The entire Gospel of Mark demonstrates without doubt the real humanity of Jesus — he eats, sleeps, weeps, gets angry, is compassionate, etc. Simultaneously Mark expresses the involvement of God and the Holy Spirit with Jesus in his incarnational work. In these two contexts I would sense that Mark conveys the harmonious working of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the Incarnation, but this is not “Spirit Christology.” Jesus is Son of God in his own right. Obviously some mystery exists in this and its expression. Conversely, I can find no evidence in Mark’s Gospel that would support a usage of pneuma with reference to the human spirit, unless it might be in 14:38, but the meaning of pneuma is not exactly clear in that context either. Perhaps the lack of such a usage in Mark’s Gospel is a coincidence and not intentional. Regardless, such a usage is not present.

  1. the early church struggled to understand how Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, as we do today. There is mystery in this. We affirm both as essential for our salvation. Is this affirmation a fundamental part of your faith?
  2. Mark describes Jesus in terms that show he is the same as other humans, but different. How in your worship today will you praise God for sending Jesus as the divine-human saviour?

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