What was I trying to do, when I wrote my book on Mark’s Gospel?
Fundamentally, I wanted a book that would change readers by making them better readers of the Gospel of Mark. My ideal reader is not someone who goes to the book to use as a resource but who reads it from beginning to end–who reads the passage of Mark and then reads the part of the book dealing with the passage. I think the book is quite useable as a resource, but that is, in my mind, a mere side effect to what I was aiming at.
Mark is thought, often enough, to be the “rawest” of the Gospels, the closest thing to a web log of the disciples. I certainly thought this at one time. But in fact (and here I owe an immense debt to the late Anglican scholar Austin Farrer), it is quite complex in pattern and rhythm. Mark’s Gospel is not simply a summary of Jesus’ life dashed off in a hurry or reconstructed from some of Peter’s sermon notes thrown together in a vague order. It is carefully put together to communicate various themes. The miracle stories are judiciously chosen in conjunction with the callings and other challenges recorded in the Gospel to spell out and reinforce certain themes. These occur within a rhythm of double cycles–the last two, during Passion Week, don’t feature a healing miracle except for the climactic one, the resurrection of Jesus. [See Note At the Bottom]
Of course, spelling all this out is rather dangerous. Once one sets out the message of what the Spirit has done by Mark’s hand, one might think that the Gospel was simply a coded way of sending certain lessons. But that would be like thinking that the religious poetry of John Donne is merely written to communicate certain propositions about religion. No. Donne wrote to change his readers by the experience of reading his work. Mark also was not sent to communicate basic truths about calling and restoration through literary structure. The point of showing these themes is to reinforce the readers faith that reading Mark for oneself is a means of grace–a means of transfiguration by the power of the Spirit.
Naturally, the Gospel of Mark presents to us what happened to, in, and through Jesus. But it does so in a way that is quite complex and is meant to change the reader. Yet, to do this best, one needs to become Mark’s “ideal reader” the one who–just to name a couple of things–is well versed in the Hebrew Scriptures and is familiar with the politics of Israel. My hope was to write an exposition that would help you become that ideal reader.
What works helped me understand Mark?
Well, I’ve already mentioned Austin Farrer, whose Studies in Saint Mark is simply invaluable. Sadly, it is no longer in print.
Secondly, on the politics of Jesus’ ministry (which is, as one should expect in first-century Palestine, also his theology) there are two great resources. First N. T. Wright’s Jesus & the Victory of God was quite helpful. From a much more radically liberal, but still a fruitful perspective, the “Jesus Seminar” scholar Marcus Borg has written Conflict, Holiness, and Politics in the Teaching of Jesus. This work is well-worth reading. For more about it, see my review at Amazon.com.
Third, the works of James Jordan and Peter Leithart are both excellent. Through New Eyes: Developing a Biblical View of the World is a great resource for understanding the imagery of the Bible and the tranformational nature of history. Peter Leithart presents similar information in the form of a survey of the Old Testament–”Through New Eyes for Dummies” he calls it. His book is entitled A House for My Name
Strangely enough, I don’t think I can stop this list until I mention a work written by a Jewish scholar with higher critical assumptions (though he does a great job showing the integrity of the text as we have it). Robert Alter’s The Art of Biblical Narrative was an excellent help to me to get me to pay attention to the details of how the story is written. Sadly, Alter makes it sound as if the narratives of the Hebrew Scriptures work differently than those of the New Testament. I think he is wrong.
Finally, and most importantly, I owe my entire interest in Mark to the preaching of the man who was my pastor while I was a seminary student in Saint Louis. Jeff Meyers preached through Mark while I was attending there. He also delivered some excellent lectures on Mark’s Gospel at the 1997 Biblical Horizons summer conference. You would do well to purchase those lectures from Biblical Horizons.
I should mention that I departed from Farrer’s pattern at one point in particular. My chapters, once we get past the first fifteen verses, are each devoted to one double-cycle. However, for reasons made plain in the book, the main cycle in 3.13-6.6 has no complement with a corresponding healing. Farrer tried to justify a quasi-cycle that I found unconvincing. Thus, chapter 6 covers Mark 6.7-9.1. I didn’t find a complementary cycle of any sort.
Yet since writing the book I had the chance to present some of the material in two lectures at the 2001 Biblical Horizons conference. In so doing, I had a chance to rethink what is going on. For reason that will be obvious to those who read the book I think the raising of Jairus’ daughter is completed, paradoxically, by the recounting of the death of John. Instead of a complementary healing miracle (since a resurrection needs no complement) we find a martyr’s death. Realizing this made a lot more sense, because the callings that begin each cycle matched one another. Thus:
Calling of Levi, by the sea, from his work (Mark 2.14).
Sending of Twelve to preach and Cast out demons (Mark 6.7-13).
Feeding of the Four Thousand (Mark 8.1-10).
So, if I had it to do over again, Chapter Four would have covered Mark 3.13-6.29 and Chapter Five would have begun with Mark 6.30. For more details you can get the book from Canon Press and/or purchase the lectures from Biblical Horizons.