Commentaries on Mark I have Known and Loved.
Contents of this Essay
As users of the Revised Common Lectionary know, Year B (2006, 2009, 2012, etc.) is the year of Mark’s Gospel. From Advent 2011 to Advent 2012 there will be 32 Sundays with Gospel readings from Mark, and in other years, with different dates for Easter, there can be as many as 37 readings from Mark. Thus, a little introduction to this Gospel early in year B may be in place.
What I offer is a chatty reminiscence of about 55 years of reading commentaries on the Gospel According to Mark. It is also an informal review of what scholars have done with Mark over the last 120 years.
My first commentary on Mark was a gift in college about 1954, Volume VII of The Interpreter’s Bible (Abingdon, 1951), containing commentaries on Matthew and Mark. Mark was done by Fredrick C. Grant, whose work is discussed below. I began to get into earlier work on Mark in seminary, when I acquired the five-volume, The Expositor’s Greek Testament (originally published by Hodder & Stoughton, 1897-1910, reprinted several times by Eerdmans, my current copy dated 1956). The commentaries on Matthew, Mark, and Luke in the first volume of this work were done by A.B. Bruce, and over the decades I have turned repeatedly to Bruce’s commentaries on these Gospels. He helps me stay in touch with the ancestors, as it were.
The Late Victorian Era
The earliest commentaries on Mark I studied, as my Greek improved, were by A.B. Bruce and Henry Barclay Swete. They represent late nineteenth-century British Gospel interpretation in its main strengths and weaknesses.
Alexander Balmain Bruce (1831-1899) was Professor of Apologetics and New Testament Exegesis in the Free Church College of the University of Glasgow. The Free Church broke away from the established Church of Scotland in 1843, resisting the monopoly held by the Scottish landed gentry on appointing parish ministers. They quickly came to represent almost half the congregations in Scotland, and their theological colleges had a strong tradition of an educated clergy.
Bruce was one of a group of Scottish Biblical scholars who accepted the main results of the new higher criticism of the Scriptures, along with W. Robertson Smith, George Adam Smith, and Marcus Dods. These men believed firmly that strong Christian faith and historical criticism were both compatible and liberating.
Bruce’s contemporary, Henry Barclay Swete (1835-1917; Swete is pronounced “sweet”), was a contrasting figure in many respects. He was very English and very Anglican. He served Anglican parishes from 1859 to 1882, when he became a professor at King’s College, London. As was common in his era, he was a scholarly pastor, writing in the 1870s volumes on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, and later editing a new critical edition of the Septuagint, published from 1887 to 1891 (3 vols. from Cambridge University Press). He followed that edition with a masterly Introduction to the Old Testament in Greek (Cambridge, 1902, 2nd ed. 1914). Swete was a scholar in the classic mold, presenting rigorous detailed work based on original sources, assuming that his readers read Greek and Latin as readily as English. He crowned his career with two detailed and monumental commentaries in the prestigious Macmillan Commentary series, The Gospel According to St. Mark (1898; Kregel reprint, 1977) and The Apocalypse of St. John (1906).
Mark and the Historical Jesus. Bruce and Swete summed up the first major period of modern criticism on the Gospel According to Mark.
(1) They accepted as basically true the earliest church traditions that Mark was a translator/interpreter for the apostle Peter in Rome, and the Gospel was written for the Roman church to preserve Peter’s memories of Jesus.
(2) Mark was the earliest Gospel to be written, composed around 65 to 70 CE.
(3) Matthew and Luke, working independently, had used Mark to provide the narrative framework of their own Gospels, filling out that framework with additional teachings of Jesus from other sources.
This scholarly consensus viewed Mark as the most reliable source available for knowledge of the historical Jesus. It should be recalled that that was an era very absorbed by history and the recently achieved long perspectives on the human past. (The 4,000 years of Biblical history had recently been vastly extended by the revelations of geology and the newly deciphered texts of Egypt and Mesopotamia.) In this age of history, the historical Jesus was vigorously championed, often in strong contrast to the dogmatic Christ of ecclesiastical tradition.
Bruce spoke of Mark’s “realism,” meaning “the unreserved manner in which he presents the person and character of Jesus and of the disciples” (Expositor’s Greek Testament, vol. I, p. 32).
[This realism] speaks to an early date before the feeling of decorum had become controlling as it is seen to be in Luke’s Gospel. Mark is the archaic Gospel, written under the inspiration not of prophecy like Matthew, or of present reverence [for the risen Lord] like Luke, but of fondly cherished past memories. In it we get nearest to the true human personality of Jesus in all its originality and power, and as coloured by the time and the place. (Ibid., p. 33.)
Bruce and Swete expressed the spirit of their age (especially for English-speaking Protestants) when they treated Mark as the way to be close to the real Jesus of history.
A kind of transitional work, which in its second edition took account of the form criticism of the next period, but which is somewhat unique in its own right, is C.G. Montefiore’s The Synoptic Gospels, 2 vols., first ed. 1909, second fully rewritten edition 1927, also from Macmillan. Montefiore brought the perspective of liberal Judaism to a deep and thorough study of the Christian Gospels, especially Mark, to which the entire first volume of 411 pages was devoted. Montefiore discussed and evaluated views of critical scholars such as Alfred Loisy and Rudolph Bultmann carefully and gave his own conclusions concerning their historical and religious worth. His is always a thoughtful and interesting read, even in the present.
The Age of Form Criticism (about 1920 to 1960)
A commentary I learned to respect from the many references to it by prominent scholars was The Gospel of Mark, by B. Harvie Branscomb, published in the Moffatt New Testament Commentary series (Harper and Bros., 1937). Branscomb had studied at Oxford, but taught at Duke University in North Carolina. His commentary is deeply informed by two new insights into Mark that had become prominent in German scholarship of the time:
(1) that the Gospel was composed of separate stories and sayings that had circulated in oral tradition for many years, being adapted in the process to the spirit and needs of new environments, and
(2) that the Gospel was the product of the Hellenistic (Greek-speaking) Christian churches of the first generations after Jesus, as distinguished from early Palestinian, Aramaic-speaking Christian groups.
The first point had been developed extensively in the form-critical work of Martin Dibelius and Rudolph Bultmann; the second point by those and other scholars who emphasized the “Sitz im Leben,” the cultural context, in which the traditions had developed into written documents.
In this period Fredrick C. Grant popularized in the United States results of form-critical studies on Mark, his most prominent publication being The Earliest Gospel, a series of lectures given in 1943 (Abingdon-Cokesbury). Grant had been Professor of New Testament at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and later became President of Seabury-Western Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. He did the Exegesis of Mark in The Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VII (Abingdon-Cokesbury, 1951).
Grant emphasized that, in the form-critical approach, the Gospel of Mark was seen to have grown backward, the end was the earliest, the first had become the last (part of the story).
The earliest nucleus of the Gospel was the passion narrative. To this was prefaced the account of the ministry of Jesus as a kind of bridge-approach [entry ramp]… The controversies [were introduced to explain] the opposition to Jesus [that led to the passion]. The sayings illustrated his teaching—the “Son of Man sayings” in particular explaining Jesus’ own view of his death… Other materials…showed Jesus in his career of healing and teaching, accompanied by his disciples… But Mark is not writing history or biography, nor even giving an account of Jesus’ teaching; he is writing an apology, an explanation of the death of the Messiah, and the passion narrative is in his mind from the beginning. ([ Earliest Gospel], pp. 76-77.)
A contemporary of Grant’s in England was Robert Henry Lightfoot, a busy Anglican churchman and Professor of Exegesis at Oxford University. Lightfoot helped interpret the impact of form criticism on the Gospels for British scholarship, and used the results of the new methods for constructive innovations in interpreting Mark (instead of viewing form criticism as only negative because it questioned the literal historicity of the Gospels). He didn’t produce a conventional commentary on that Gospel, but the new vision of Mark as a product of the early church instead of the memoirs of Peter was the center of several major publications: History and Interpretation in the Gospels (1935), emphasized that the composition of Mark was guided by religious confession (interpretation) more than historical memories; Locality and Doctrine in the Gospels (1938), recognized that localities (e.g., Galilee versus Jerusalem) were theological more than geographical realities for Mark’s Gospel; and The Gospel Message of St. Mark (1950) was a last round-up of the Gospel as a genuinely theological achievement, not simply a historical account. R.H. Lightfoot’s work was much appreciated by Norman Perrin at the University of Chicago in the 1960s and 70s, who reiterated Lightfoot’s emphasis on Mark as a Galilean-oriented work.
The great culmination of English-language form criticism on Mark was the magisterial commentary by Vincent Taylor, The Gospel According to St. Mark (Macmillan, 1952). Taylor was very conscious that his volume was replacing the 1898 volume of Henry Swete in the eminent Macmillan commentary tradition. I acquired this commentary when I was in graduate school and it was for us the fullest and most current discussion in English of the various “forms” used in the composition of Mark.
The most persuasive and permanently valuable of the form-critical work was the identification of the “types” of narrative units. The German terminology for these types was confusing, and Taylor’s names became our guide. Most important were the “Pronouncement Stories,” of which Taylor listed 19. These are stories in which the narrative details are simply a build-up for a particularly striking saying of Jesus. The story exists for the sake of the saying. Other forms included the “Miracle Story,” in which some awe-inspiring deed of Jesus was the central point, of which Taylor listed 17 examples in Mark. What the German critics had called “myths,” Taylor labeled “Stories About Jesus,” of which he listed 29. These are such things as Jesus’ baptism, temptation, rejection at Nazareth, cleansing of the Temple, and several items in the passion narrative.
The fullness and carefulness of Taylor’s large commentary on Mark is a kind of watershed. This is as far back as one needs to go for most purposes in tracing Mark interpretation in the English-speaking world.
One more commentary in the form-critical tradition I have enjoyed is Dennis Eric Nineham’s Saint Mark (1963), in the Pelican New Testament Commentary series. This is aimed at a relatively popular audience, Nineham is a good writer, and it’s a pleasant book to dip into. Nineham gives due esteem to Taylor’s big commentary on the Greek text, but his true inspiration came from his tutor and mentor at Oxford, R.H. Lightfoot (Preface, p. 9).
Redaction Criticism (about 1960 to 1980)
The generation of form criticism had focused on the oral stage of Jesus traditions; the next logical stage was more careful study of how the Gospel writers had used these materials to create the new literary form of the Gospel. You were now two stages removed from the Jesus of history in Galilee: (1) forty years of oral transmission of small units, including a shift in cultural milieus from Aramaic-speaking to Greek-speaking worlds, and (2) what the Gospel writer chose to include and how he chose to arrange it.
Redaction criticism, fully developed, came to have two aspects: (1) redaction criticism in the narrow sense of editing collections of oral materials, supplying links, frameworks, and notices of place and time, and (2) composition criticism, analyzing how larger units were composed and arranged to make overarching theological points.
Redaction criticism of Mark was initiated in a set of studies by Willi Marxsen, Mark the Evangelist, tr. James Boyce et al., Abingdon Press, 1969, German original 1956. Norman Perrin, professor of New Testament at the University of Chicago Divinity School, became a champion of redaction criticism, especially of Mark, in the American scene. I was a colleague of Perrin’s at that time (though I taught Old Testament rather then New Testament) and sat on a number of Ph.D. oral exams with his students in the 1970s, from which I learned the then cutting edge of this new tack on the Gospels.
There were many studies of Mark from a redaction critical viewpoint, but commentaries were longer in appearing. The first commentary I worked with that took a self-conscious redaction-critical approach was Morna D. Hooker’s The Gospel According to Saint Mark, “Black’s New Testament Commentaries,” ed. Henry Chadwick, Hendrickson, 1991. Hooker had spent about fifteen years maturing her commentary (see her Preface) and it is a solid piece of work about what Mark intended when he left the text of the Gospel just as we have it. Her judgment is consistently balanced and persuasive.
Hooker begins her Introduction with an interesting four-and-a-half page discussion that attempts to give Biblical scholarship some self-awareness: “The task of a commentator.” After surveying commentaries on Mark in the twentieth century, she sees current scholarship as veering in two directions: “Did Mark simply preserve the tradition or freely create it?” (page 4). She allows that she has sought a middle course on this matter, but her question sets the scene for the current confusion of voices (next section below).
This is the appropriate place to mention the only German commentary on Mark I pay attention to. (I do own and occasionally consult the commentary on Mark in Die Schriften des Neuen Testaments, a kind of early German Interpreter’s Bible [Vol. I, 3rd ed., Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1917]. Mark is done by Johannes Weiss, the early twentieth-century scholar who, along with Albert Schweitzer, forced the Apocalyptic Jesus on the scholarly world.) The current German commentary I consult is the massive work by Rudolf Pesch, Das Markusevangelium, 2 vols., Herder, 1984, a work of modern Roman Catholic Biblical scholarship. Pesch presented a generation of penetrating scholarship on Mark, by scholars of all confessions, with the redaction-critical approach as the crowning contribution. I imported this work from Germany because of James D.G. Dunn’s estimation that it is the one treatment of Mark he must consult on all important questions (the reference, which I can’t locate just now, is somewhere in Jesus Remembered, Eerdmans, 2003). Pesch is a massive thing to read, but it is well organized and one can find a specific topic reasonably easily.
Literary Criticism (New Style), and Other Ways
There was an explosion of publications about Mark on the American scene beginning in the 1970s. (A sociology-of-knowledge reading of this would note the great increase of teachers of religion, each needing a Ph.D. degree, in tax-supported universities beginning in the late 1960s. Universities that already had well-established graduate programs in Biblical scholarship were very much in a sellers’ market in the 1970s.) Methods and approaches proliferated, with an amazing variety of outcomes. Here is one scholar’s rather negative summary of the situation by the end of the 1990s.
More than a decade ago Martin Hengel remarked ruefully that “we are at the threshold of a new epoch of exegetical whim” in which “Mark simply becomes a cryptogram the key to which has to be guessed at” (M. Hengel, Studies in the Gospel of Mark [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985] 140 n. 9). He was right, but I think American scholarship entered this epoch several years earlier [that would be the 1970s]. The fruit of it has been a seemingly unending harvest of subjective guesswork that has spawned a variety of speculative theories of what issues the evangelist faced and how he (or she) went about addressing them. What is impressive in all of this is the ingenuity of the individual interpreters and the even greater cleverness of the evangelist [irony intended!]. (Craig A. Evans, Word Biblical Commentary: Mark 8:27-16:20, Thomas Nelson, 2000, page x.)
It has in fact become the case that one can find a treatment somewhere (probably written by someone with a Ph.D. degree) that fits whatever special campaign one wishes to pursue. I refrain from giving examples.
Much of Evans’ critique has in view the work of the Jesus Seminar and its allies in the 80s and 90s, especially John Dominick Crossan, Burton L. Mack, and Helmut Koester, though Norman Perrin and Theodore Weeden are also in his cross-hairs. Some of these scholars adopted a rather jargon-laden “social-scientific” approach. For example, Burton Mack’s A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins (Fortress, 1988) represents the extreme of the-early-Christians-invented-it-all approach. “It was Mark’s fiction of a fantastic infringement on human history that created Christianity’s charter” (page 353).
More widely, however, an alliance developed between the teaching of serious literature in colleges and universities and Biblical interpretation. What had been called the “New Criticism” in the 1950s and 60s had crusaded against the over-historicizing of imaginative literature: “a poem is a poem and not another thing,” such as a piece of the poet’s biography or an expression of her social class. The literary work has a status of its own, not to be reduced to historical background, sources, or the like. Adopted by Biblical scholars, this approach allowed interpreters to ignore or slight the historical contexts as a basis for interpretation and to focus mainly on the text as it stands. This emphasis, pursued in college and university humanities programs, was often combined with feminist (womanist) explorations of literature, general and Biblical. An impressive example of this is Mary Ann Tolbert’s Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary-Historical Perspective, Fortress, 1989. (Tolbert was a student of Norman Perrin’s and this study developed from her dissertation.)
The ferment about Mark in the 80s and 90s did not produce noteworthy commentaries; things were too much in flux. The last decade and a half, however, since about 1995, has seen a new crop of commentaries on Mark.
Current (Major) Commentaries on Mark
All the works discussed here are in commentary series. One should recognize that major commentaries are economically feasible only if large publishing houses support them with the kind of marketing that commentary series make possible. (Get the buyers interested in completing a series, even if they would otherwise not buy a commentary on II Peter and Jude.) Such publishers invest major resources in commissioning editors and contributors with established reputations to fill out multi-volume commentary sets, often stretching over decades if not centuries. (The International Critical Commentary series from T&T Clark has been coming out, intermittently, since the 1890s.)
It is a sign of the times that of the six or seven current commentaries on Mark I am likely to consult on serious issues, three were written by women. And there is no tokenism in these works; they are not just “demonstration pieces.” They are well-developed, mature, and impressive works of major scholarship. I have already mentioned Morna Hooker’s commentary on Mark in Black’s New Testament series, a masterful medium-scale commentary on her own English translation. See also the works below by Pheme Perkins and Adela Yarbro Collins.
It is also a sign of the times that major commentaries on Biblical books get longer and longer. This is partly because every decade adds a lot more stuff to the discussions, but it is also because editors (and also reading publics?) have become more tolerant of verbosity. Readability is steadily losing in the competition for good qualities of serious commentaries.
Pheme Perkins. 1995 saw the publication of the commentary on Mark in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume VIII (Abingdon Press). What was, in the 1950s, an essentially male, Protestant Biblical series now (44 years later) has a woman professor of New Testament at a Catholic institution doing the commentary on Mark! The publishers have gone strongly ecumenical as well as crossing gender boundaries. Perkins had achieved a scholarly reputation at Boston College in the 70s and 80s. The format of this commentary requires the contributor to do a “Reflections” section—giving the faith impact of the passage—as well as its scholarly exegesis. Pheme Perkins’ reflections are usually as valuable as her scholarship. This commentary is in a big volume, but is in fact a modest size commentary, on the English texts of the NIV and the NRSV.
Adela Yarbro Collins. For some decades, a premier scholarly commentary series has been in production by Fortress Press, the Hermeneia series. (The series also includes extra-canonical works like the Letters of Ignatius and hypothetical documents like the Sermon on the Mount and Q.) The Mark volume in this high-profile series finally appeared in 2007, done by Adela Yarbro Collins.
Adela Yarbro’s scholarly journey took her from Pomona College in California to study at Tübingen, Germany, to a Ph.D. in New Testament at Harvard, to teaching at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago (12 years), to teaching at Notre Dame (6 years), at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago (10 years), and finally to teaching at Yale Divinity School, where she has been the Buckingham Professor of New Testament Criticism and Interpretation since 2000. At most of these academic locations she had as a colleague, teaching Old Testament, her husband John J. Collins.
Ms. Collins published preparatory work for her Mark commentary in The Beginning of the Gospel: Probings of Mark in Context (Fortress, 1992) with essays on the Gospel genre, on miracles, the apocalyptic discourse, and the passion narrative in Mark. In her commentary (over 900 large pages), Collins gives her assessment of the history of tradition, using results of form and redaction criticism on each unit of the Gospel. The critical notes cover details of the Greek text and language, but the commentary is particularly rich in comparative materials from Greek and Roman cultural contexts. In my current practice, this is the number one commentary to consult for the scholarly evaluation of Markan passages.
John Donahue and Daniel Harrington. Roman Catholic Biblical Scholars in America have produced a major commentary series published by the Liturgical Press, Sacra Pagina. The volume on Mark by John R. Donahue, S.J., and Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., was published in 2002. The volume was dedicated to Norman Perrin (Donahue’s mentor at Chicago) and George W. MacRae (Harrington’s mentor at Harvard).
Donahue wrote the first dissertation under Norman Perrin based on redaction criticism. It’s title was Are You the Christ? The Trial Narrative in the Gospel of Mark (SBL Dissertation Series #10, 1972). He went on to publish literary critical studies of the Gospels, especially of the parables. At publication he was Raymond E. Brown Distinguished Professor of New Testament Studies at St. Mary’s Seminary and University in Baltimore. Daniel J. Harrington had published work on New Testament apocrypha, served as editor of New Testament Abstracts, and was professor of New Testament at Weston School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
This commentary (less than 500 pages) concentrates on the Markan text more than its sources. It gives its own translation and discusses current scholarly issues, but keeps the citations of specialist writings to a select few. Its audience seems to be seminary students and graduates who want full scholarly accountably for the Gospel of Mark but who are engaged in religious leadership in the churches. It is a balanced and well-written work that will endure.
Joel Marcus. The most recent commentary on Mark I am still exploring is the huge two volume work in the Anchor Bible (now [The Anchor Yale Bible]), Mark 1-8 (2000, 600 pages) and Mark 8-16 (2009, 670 pages, though the pagination is continuous through both volumes). There had been an earlier Mark volume in the Anchor Bible (by Charles S. Mann, Doubleday, 1986), but it had been written to argue that Mark was not the earliest Gospel but had used Matthew as an old written source, an approach that found little scholarly acceptance. Even at a bargain rate in a used book store I declined to spend my time on it.
The first volume of the Joel Marcus work was a rave success, according to Gary Wills. When he wrote What the Gospels Meant in 2009 (Penguin Group), Wills cited Marcus almost exclusively in discussing Mark’s Gospel. Marcus’s academic journey included teaching first at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, then Princeton Theological Seminary (where he was when Mark 1-8 was published in 2000) and he is now professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Duke Divinity School. (He thus followed some of my earlier commentators on Mark, A.B. Bruce at Glasgow and B. Harvey Branscomb at Duke.)
Marcus’ work is ambitious, intending to encompass all credible discussions of the Gospel, but being clear in drawing his own conclusions from all of that interpretative history. He covers a wide range of ancient Jewish writings, including depth in the great mass of Rabbinic texts and detailed discussions of many major and minor texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls collections. This is a scholar’s compendium of issues in and around Mark’s Gospel.
Evangelical Scholars. There is a vast world out there of writings about Mark from a theologically conservative viewpoint, which means defending the tradition concerning miracles and apostolic authorship of New Testament writings. Much of this is more or less homiletical, aimed at audiences with specific faith stances. Many Evangelical scholars do seek to be as academically accountable to the generally educated public as possible in dealing with historical and cultural issues of the scriptures. Their writings, however, sometimes appear to be careful balancing acts between serious historical work and the faith affirmations their educational institutions require of them.
A triumphantly orthodox treatment of Mark championed these days by Evangelicals is Robert Horton Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross (Eerdmans, 1993, 1069 pages). Gundry had previously done a rescue job on the Gospel of Matthew in 1982, and his reputation as a slayer of critical dragons was extended to Mark is this work. I have avoided spending money and time to enter this lion’s den.
Guelich and Evans. The Word Biblical Commentary is a large-scale commentary series initiated in 1977 by Word Books in Dallas, Texas (more recently taken over by Nelson in Nashville). It is marked by the inclusiveness of the scholarship it discusses: it discusses all critical work even though its authors usually find ways to defend the traditional positions on matters of authorship and historicity of Biblical events. It’s bibliographies are vast and exhaustive. The Gospel According to Mark is treated in Mark 1-8:26 by Robert A. Guelich (1989, 490 pages) and Mark 8:27-16:20 by Craig A. Evans (2001, 690 pages). This commentary format is complex: bibliography, translation, notes on translation, form/structure/setting, comment (the long verse-by-verse discussion), and explanation (the larger implications of the passage). This can make for jumbled reading, but it is usually worth consulting to get a moderate Evangelical take on a Mark passage.
R.T. France. One of the most prestigious New Testament commentary series produced by conservative scholars is The New International Greek Testament Commentary, published over the last few decades by Eerdmans. The volume on Luke by I. Howard Marshall (1978) inaugurated the series and was an impressive historical and literary treatment by a conservative scholar. The Mark volume by R.T. France, published in 2002 (740 pages), I find repeatedly frustrating. France was, at publishing time, a retired principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and formerly rector of many Anglican parishes. He had an academic background in classics but had become prominent as a New Testament scholar.
I have read France often, noting the sophisticated erudition, but at the end I repeatedly ask myself, Now what is he really saying? His unqualified conservatism on religious matters is firm, but I find him without much help in straightforward interpretations. I come away feeling that his conservatism is exceeded only by his verbosity.
The Non-Scholarly World. There is also a vast world out there of writings about Mark by and for liberation folks, teachers, Bible classes, and just interested readers.
One that is more or less in commentary form is Theodore W. Jennings, Jr., The Insurrection of the Crucified: The “Gospel of Mark” as Theological Manifesto (Exploration Press, Chicago Theological Seminary, 2003). Jennings presents a treatment of Mark he had used for years in Latin American seminaries, churches, and theological courses at CTS (Chicago). His Preface, “A Theological Reading,” relates how seminary students balked at having the Gospel of Mark on their reading lists for systematic theology, along with works by Pannenberg and Moltmann.
[These students] had come to see the New Testament not as a discrete text to be read and understood, but instead as a text mediated by a vast specialized literature which must be mastered before one could understand a single verse! Thus when they saw Mark on the syllabus, they did not think of it as a brief dramatic narrative but as a whole library of commentaries, specialized articles, erudite essays and esoteric word studies. (Page x.)
Finally, there is an expanding literature for just reading—or, perhaps more importantly, for hearing Mark. Here I enjoy a couple of publications by Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, a popular teacher at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. (She was introduced to Mark by John R. Donahue when he was teaching at Vanderbilt Divinity School.) She is another scholar who has combined gender studies with literary treatment of the Gospels. Her In the Company of Jesus: Characters in Mark’s Gospel (Westminster John Knox, 2000) treats “characters,” as studied in drama and rhetoric, in Mark. A first chapter, “Narrative Criticism: How Does the Story Mean?,” represents the main thrust of current New Testament literary criticism of Gospels. Her studies are of “minor” characters in Mark’s story; not Jesus but those around him.
Malbon has also produced a little work that one may hope has an expanding future, Hearing Mark: A Listener’s Guide (Trinity Press International, 2002). This is based on a series she did with community churches (Protestant and Catholic), which concluded with a “performance” of Mark.
This work represents one application of the growing realization by scholars that their study of the Gospels has been caught in the “Guttenberg Galaxy,” the mass of unconscious assumptions imprinted on scholars by constant exposure to the printed page. The ancient world was ORAL; few could read, and the scrolls required practiced readers who could turn unvocalized (Hebrew) and unpunctuated (Greek) texts into intelligible oral performances. That’s how the Scriptures lived for early Christians.
Malbon’s work divides Mark into four chunks, each designed to facilitate the hearing of a large piece of the Gospel: Kingdom (Mark 1-4:34), Community (Mark 4:35-8:26), Discipleship (Mark 8:22-10:52), and Suffering (Mark 11:1-16:8). Her discursive text is designed exclusively to inform the “hearing” of these units. At the back she describes recordings, both audio and video (by now probably DVD also), of performances of all or parts of Mark’s Gospel, available at the time of publication. (Mark can be read in about two hours, though if you pause and ponder occasionally, it is a three-hour read.)
This is work that could give the Gospel According to Mark the kind of audiences it had around 90 CE (house churches), when Matthew and Luke took it as the basis for their expanded presentations of the meaning of Jesus the Christ.
And one last touch, as this essay goes through its final revision, is a new treatment of this oral performance approach to Mark’s Gospel. Antoinette Clark Wire (another alumna of Pomona College, and one-time classmate of my wife) gives a substantial treatment of Mark as a work formed in constant oral performance for some decades before reaching fixed written form. Her work is, The Case for Mark Composed in Performance (Cascade Books, Wipf & Stock, 2011). Perhaps through some ironic turn, this is the first study of Mark I have purchased as an ebook, for reading on a Kindle! (Really a sign of the times!)
As Year B progresses with its many Lectionary readings from Mark, we may be grateful that so many hearers, readers, and scholars have gone here before us. Each major scholar represents the devotion and offerings of a particular period in (or against) the Church’s life, and they deserve to be understood in their own terms, even if we must also seek other terms.
From the learned scholars of Victorian times, who were confident Mark takes us nearly to the historical Jesus, to the post-moderns who read the Gospel as a narrative drama disassociated from things historical, they are an intriguing mixed company of pilgrims, in their divergent ways teaching us faith, humility, and perseverance.
In summary, here are the major points about Mark that have distilled for me from all these works:
1. The supernatural status of Jesus is essential to Mark’s presentation (and meaning) of the gospel. In Mark’s terms, Jesus’ baptism and temptation open a cosmic-level conflict between the Spirit and Satan which is then carried on on the human level in Jesus’ exorcisms, healings, and disputes with authorities. (I was first convinced of this view by James M. Robinson, The Problem of History in Mark [“Studies in Biblical Theology,” No. 21; Alec R. Allenson, 1957]).
2. The apocalyptic Jesus cannot be wished away. “And he said to them, ‘Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power’” (9:1, NRSV). “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” (13:29). (Norman Perrin’s title for Mark was, “The Apocalyptic Drama.”) These sayings are not convincing as creations of the early church rather than as coming from Jesus. The post-Markan churches gradually found ways around this embarrassment of the unfulfilled prophecies (Luke evolves the Kingdom into the Church by writing Acts), but these hard sayings were not simply eliminated from the tradition or the Gospels.
3. The Passion Narrative is the fundamental core of this Gospel. The divine necessity of Jesus’ rejection, suffering, and death is announced in unmistakable terms, which are reiterated in the course of the passion narrative itself. “And he said all this quite plainly…. But they did not understand the saying, and they were afraid to ask him” (8:32 and 9:32, RSV). The narrative from Palm Sunday to the Empty Tomb (chapters 11-16) is about one-third of the Gospel, and, as the form critics recognized, the earlier parts of the Gospel serve as preface and explanation of the passion.
4. The Structure of the Gospel divides Jesus’ activity into two significantly different stages: the Spirit-empowered mighty acts of the Galilean period (chapters 1-8:30), which culminate in the disciples recognition of Jesus as the Messiah (finally catching on to what the demoniacs—and the hearers of the Gospel—knew from the beginning); and the Jerusalem-oriented period of divinely-ordained rejection, suffering, and death of Jesus (8:31-16:8). The relatively amazing episode of the Transfiguration on a mountain in Galilee (9:2-10) is Mark’s (only) presentation of the Risen Jesus. In Jerusalem Jesus’ followers know only an empty tomb (an outcome radically rejected by Luke and John, who were deeply invested in a Jerusalem-based Christianity).
5. The narrative detail in Mark is still compelling. Compared to Matthew and Luke’s treatments of the same narratives Mark has more color and vigor (for example, the Gerasene Demoniac, Mark 5:1-20 and Jesus in Gethsemane, 14:32-42, compared with the parallels in Matthew and Luke). It is hard to avoid the view that Mark is closest to a real human Jesus.
Thanks be to the many devout and skeptical students of Mark’s Gospel who have guided us along the way!!