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Themelios Review of the Gospel on the Margins

I came across a review of The Gospel on the Margins: The Reception of Mark in the Second Century at the Gospel Coalition’s journal Themelios. I have wondered how my work might be received by a more conservative evangelical reviewer, especially as I share the desire to communicate scholarship to believers in the pews. Although the review has fair criticisms, I am appreciative of its accurate summaries and positive feedback. I want to clarify a few points.

I did not mean to be too ready to reject “conservative” arguments. I tried to equally criticize form critics who removed the eyewitnesses from the transmission of the Jesus tradition, redaction and literary critics who exaggerate the negative aspects of Peter’s portrayal in Mark, and historical critics who wrongly attack Mark’s knowledge of Judean geography and customs. Yet I would give the following reasons why I am not persuaded by Martin Hengel’s early dating of the standard Gospel titles:

  • Following Helmut Koester, the term “gospel” (euangelion) seems to still be used for the oral proclamation of Jesus’ lordship rather than a literary genre in the early second century (though I allowed for exceptions in the Didache and 2 Clement).
  • Some Patristic testimonies about the Gospels do not know the standard titles. Papias names a few evangelists without entitling their writings “Gospels,” Justin is familiar with the title “Gospels” (euangelia) that he prefers to call memoirs that he assigns to undifferentiated apostles, the Valentinian “Gnostic” Ptolemy and the Christian apologist Theophilus of Antioch attribute the Johannine Prologue to John, and Irenaeus has traditions on all four Gospels.
  • The standard title “Gospel according to x” implies not just that there are multiple copies in a library, but the theological view that the essential “Gospel” remains intact even when proclaimed from different vantage points. The best context for this is when the fourfold Gospel canon came together: one unitary “good news” and four messengers.

My case that the figure of Mark was remembered in the earliest New Testament evidence as an associate of Paul (Philemon, Colossians) and with Peter in the later New Testament evidence (1 Peter, Acts 12) does partially depend on my dating, which is always tentative and open to challenge. I think I am in the broad critical consensus in dating 1 Peter between 70 – 95 CE, while a date for Acts in the first decade of the second century is an admittedly minority view. Again, I tried to be balanced in this section: I was open to the possibility that Paul wrote Colossians or his co-workers did after Paul’s demise and I was critical of those who would date 1 Peter and Acts far too late into the second century (e.g. see my critique of some recent scholarship dating canonical Luke-Acts after Marcion).

I really appreciate the reviewer’s final comments: “Kok’s discussion of the patristic context is informative, and his portrayal of the adoption of texts by Christian factions for ideological purposes is intriguing. While his argumentation does not consistently prove convincing, his thesis raises a pertinent question for the contemporary church: Do we allow scripture to authoritatively speak into our beliefs, practices and emphases, or do we simply adopt it to the extent that it supports our pre-conceived opinions?” Great question! I do not think we ever escape our own social location that conditions what questions we ask of biblical texts and the methods we use to interpret them, but we try our best to use honest exegetical methods to not just read our own presuppositions out of Scripture but to let Scripture inform and challenge our worldviews.

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