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Literary Critical Approaches to Mark’s Gospel

Many twentieth century New Testament scholars concentrated on the history behind the text: who wrote the Gospel of Mark, when was it written, where was it written, to whom was it written, what are its sources and how was it used as a source, what form did its oral or written traditions take before they were included in it, how did the evangelist edit the traditions, and is the text a window into the life of Jesus or a mirror into the beliefs of the various Christ associations? Narrative or literary-critical approaches tend to bracket such historical-critical questions, for reconstructions of the “authorial intention” or the historical situation behind the text is always tentative, to closely read the text itself.  This approach may be interested in the structural elements of the narrative (plot, settings, round or flat characters, implied author, implied audience, narrative point of view, rhetorical techniques, etc.) or in how meaning is produced in the interaction between text and reader. This has also led to ideological approaches that emphasize the reader’s own social location, for the former hegemony of white, male, liberal Protestants from Germany over the biblical studies guild impacted upon the research questions that were brought to the text, and has opened up the field to perspectives or readings from those who have been marginalized. Such approaches may include poststructuralism, liberation theology, postcolonial criticism, or feminist criticism.Here is a sample of literary or ideological studies of Mark’s Gospel:

  • Anderson, Janice Capel and Moore, Stephen D. Editors. Mark and Method: New Approaches in Biblical Studies.  Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992.
  • Belo, Fernando. A Materialist Reading of the Gospel of Mark. Translated by Matthew J. O’Connel. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1981.
  • Best, Ernest. Mark: The Gospel as Story. Revised Edition.  Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000.
  • Dewey, Joanna. Markan Public Debate:  Literary Technique, Concentric Structure and Theology in Mark 2:1-3:6. Chicago: Scholars Press, 1980.
  • Fowler, Robert. Loaves and Fishes: The Function of the Feeding Stories in the Gospel of Mark. Chicago: Scholars Press, 1981.
  • Fowler, Rober M. Let the Reader Understand:  Reader-Response Criticism and the Gospel of Mark. Harrisburg: Trinity, 1991.
  • Gray, Timothy C. The Temple in the Gospel of Mark: A Study in Its Narrative Role. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010.
  • Horsley, Richard. Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001.
  • Humphrey, Hugh M. ‘He is Risen!’:  A New Reading of Mark’s Gospel.  New York: Paulist, 1992.
  • Iverson, Kelly R. and Skinner, Christopher W. Editors. Mark as Story: Retrospect and Prospect. Atlanta: SBL, 2011.
  • Kingsbury, Jack Dean. Conflict in Mark: Jesus, Authorities, Disciples. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989.
  • Jack Dean Kingsbury, The Christology of Mark’s Gospel. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1989.
  • Levine, Amy-Jill. Editor. A Feminist Companion to Mark. Sheffield: Sheffield University Press, 2001.
  • Liew, Tat-siong Benny. “Tyranny, Boundary and Might: Colonial Mimicry in Mark’s Gospel.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 73 (1999): 7-31.
  • Politics of Parousia: Reading Mark Inter(con)textually. Biblical Interpretation Series 44. Leiden: Brill, 1999.
  • Malbon, Elizabeth Struthers. “Fallible Followers Women and Men in the Gospel of Mark.” Semeia 28 (1983): 29-48. 
  • Malbon, Elizabeth Struthers. Narrative Space and Mythic Meaning in Mark. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986.
  • Malbon, Elizabeth Struthers. In the Company of Jesus: Characters in Mark’s Gospel. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000.
  • Malbon, Elizabeth Struthers. Mark’s Jesus: Characterization as Narrative Christology. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2009.
  • Maloney, Francis J. Mark: Storyteller, Interpreter, Evangelist. Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004.
  • Moore, Stephen D. Mark and Luke in Poststructuralist Perspectives: Jesus Begins to Write. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992.
  • Moore, Stephen D.  “Mark and Empire.” Pages 70-90 in Recognizing the Margins: Developments in Biblical and Theological Studies. Essays in Honor of Sean Freyne.  Edited by Werner G. Jeanrond and A. D. H. Mayes. Dublin, Ireland: Columba, 2006.
  • Myers, Ched. Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus.  Maryknoll: Orbis, 1988.
  • Peterson, Dwight N. The Origins of Mark: The Markan Community in Current Debate.  Leiden: Brill, 2000.
  • Powell, Mark Allan. “Toward a Narrative-Critical Understanding of Mark.”  Interpretation 47 (1993): 341-46.
  • Rhoads, David and Michie, Donald. Mark as Story:  An Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982.
  • Rhodes, David, Joanna Dewey, and Donald Michie. Mark as Story: An Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel. Second Edition. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999.
  • Skinner, Christopher L. and Hauge, Matthew Ryan. Editors. Character Studies and the Gospel of Mark. London: Bloomsbury, 2014.
  • Smith, Stephen H. A Lion With Wings: A Narrative-Critical Approach to Mark’s Gospel.  The Biblical Seminar 38. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996.
  • Tannehill, Robert C. “The Disciples in Mark: The Function of a Narrative Role.” The Journal of Religion 57 (1977): 386-405
  • Tolbert, Mary Ann. Sowing the Gospel:  Mark’s World in a Literary-Historical Perspective. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989.
  • Van Iersel, Bas M.F. Mark: A Reader-Response Commentary. London and New York: T&T Clark, 1998.

Does the Relationship between the Synoptic Gospels Matter?

This was a post that was originally published on the defunct blog Bible Study and the Christian Life

When I once was teaching on the Synoptic Problem, I had a student ask in a theological context whether any of it mattered at all. I began answering the question in the typical ambiguously professorial way that it both does and does not matter. 🙂

For those interested in the Gospels as literature, the focus may be on how each Gospel retells the plot of the story of Jesus on its own terms rather than bringing in possible sources and hypothetical historical scenarios behind the writing of that Gospel.

For the pastor or priest at church who wants to explain the theological vision of a particular Gospel to her or his congregation, the focus should again be on the inspired Gospel texts rather than the sources the Gospel may or may not have used. I can imagine many a bad sermon that tries to preach on “Q”, “M” or “L” rather than Matthew, Mark, Luke or John!

On the other hand, for historians who want to know more about what Jesus said and did during his lifetime, it matters how many independent early sources we have about him.  Are there a number of early sources in addition to the New Testament Gospels (Q, M or material used only by Matthew, L or material used only by Luke), not to mention whether there are other Gospels not found in the New Testament that contain some historical information, or are we mainly working with the Synoptic Gospels alone.

Historians may also be interested in how Jesus is remembered over time and how his story is retold in changing historical circumstances, observing how Matthew and Luke may edit Mark’s Gospel in support of developing theological views. Each Gospel writer tried to make the story of Jesus relevant to audiences living in different times and social circumstances, just as many church leaders try to apply different stories about Jesus to how church congregations should live in the twenty-first century.

Theologians may also get a clearer window into the theological interests of each individual writer based on how the Gospels use their sources. We have seen how Matthew and Luke may update Mark’s story of Jesus’ baptism to avoid any implication that Jesus was sinful or inferior to John, a potential theological liability that may have not crossed Mark’s mind. We have also seen Luke’s care for the poor shine through by the way the author edits or adds to his sources [e.g. compare Matthew 5:3-12 and Luke 6:20-26].

In the end, the church chose to have four Gospels rather than stick with a single one. Together the Gospels give us a fuller picture of who Jesus was than would be available by reading them in isolation, for each Gospel works with traditions about Jesus that came before them yet shapes them into a new narrative of Jesus that met the needs of a new generation of believers.

An Annotated Bibliography on the Date of Mark’s Gospel

Martin Hengel (Studies in Mark) sets the terminus ad quem for Mark in its use by Matthew and Luke, the reference to “this generation,” and some original witnesses who had not died (7-10). The terminus a quo is based on the time it takes to translate tradition from Aramaic to Greek, the waning of eschatological enthusiasm encouraging the writing of a Jesus’ biography, the re-working of the sayings traditions and Passion Narrative, the presupposition of a worldwide mission (13:10, 14:9), the relaxation of the ritual laws for Gentiles, the martyrdoms of the sons of Zebedee (10:39), and the distant reflection of the news of the Jewish War (12-14). The advice in 13:14 to flee would not make sense once Titus set up a circumvallatio around the city and the abomination cannnot be Titus who immediately left the temple and city (18-20); he dates it to 69 CE in the year of three emperors (Galba, Otho, Vitellius) which provoked fears of Roman Christians of a future Nero redivivus (22-28).

Ched Myers (Binding the Strong Man, 41) argues that Mark must be prior to 70 but during the revolt in order to understand its ideology and critique of the current temple state and political order and its advocacy of revolutionary non-violence. He critiques post-70 daters as influenced by a “docetic” tendency to remove the political critique and see Mark in light of a “theological” rift with the cult and with “Judaism.” Richard Horsley (Hearing the Whole Storylargely agrees that Mark is a story of a village-based Israelite renewal movement against the Roman-designated Jerusalem elites (48-50), obscured by its reduction to “Scripture” and “theology” (27-28), and that the advice of 13:14 and the warnings of false messiahs/prophets would be pointless if the results of the War were already known (131). Myers locates the evangelist in Galilee and Horsley in Syria.

John Kloppenborg (“Evocatio Deorum“) grants that 13:14 was part of an apocalyptic tractate in response to Caligula’s plans to put his statue in the temple before his assassination in Jan 24, 41 CE (cf. Theissen, Context) or another apocalyptic scenario (2 Thess 2:14) (422-26). Yet 13:1-2 frames the chapter around the Temple destruction, a key theme from chapters 11 to 15 (427-28). While oracles of the Temple’s destruction are in the Scriptures and later (e.g. 1 En. 98:20-30; War 300-309; Lam Rab 1:31), they are uncommon and 13:2 is specific (430-31, 434). After describing the Roman ritual of evocatio deorum to invoke alien gods to flee locales devoted to destruction (434-41), he finds evidence of the ritual in Mark’s narrative recasting of a Q saying (Matt 23:38/Lk 13:35) and account of the cosmic darkness and tearing of the curtain (15:36-38) (448-49). Similar omens occur in Josephus or Tacitus; Josephus’ apologetic is that Providence was on Rome’s side (442-44). The effectiveness of this ritual could only be narrated in historiography retrospectively after a successful siege (434, 444).

Joel Marcus (Sitz Im Leben), in contrast to Hengel’s claim that Mark had no familiarity with what transpired during the Jewish War in hearing the news from Rome, argues that Mark was written from one of the Transjordan Hellenistic cities attacked at the start of the War (461-62). Mark protests that the temple was a house of revolutionary bandits (lēstēs) (cf. Josephus, War 4.3.7-8; 5.1.2; for Zealots used for revolutionaries in general see War 2.17.9; 4.9.10) under Elezar son of Simon. The abomination is Eleazar’s occupation of the temple in 67-68 CE. The Markan community was persecuted for its Gentile inclusiveness and protests in the Temple’s Court of Gentiles, since the Zealots wanted to cleanse the site of foreign influence and held mock trials of opponents. Mark’s triumphal entry is the anti-type of the messianic entry of Simon bar Giora in April-May 69  (448-59). Mark wrote in hindsight and sees the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE as punishment for closing the door on Gentiles and turning the place into the seat of revolutionary violence (461-62)

Hendrika Roskam (The Purpose of the Gospel of Mark) interprets four passages as pointing to a post-70 date: 12:9 reflects that the tenants (religious leaders) will be destroyed and the vineyard (Israel) given to others (Romans), 13:2 reflects the fall of the Temple and its inaccuracies no more relevant than those in Josephus, 13:14 is not just the Temple’s profanation but its destruction with the Roman general or army standing in the courtyard now (nun) (13:9), and 15:38 is an omen of the temple’s fate (81-94). She situates Mark in post-war Galilee and argues that 13:9 depicts the post-70 context where the eastern part was ruled by a king and the western part by a Roman legate (112-13). Mark’s depoliticized the kingdom and the title Christ so as not to be seen as a subversive movement and get handed over by Jewish authorities in the region to the Romans.

Brian Incigneri (to the Romans; cf. Head’s article) dates Mark to Vespasian’s triumph in 71 CE. He defends a post-70 date: Matthew or Luke are no more accurate on the Roman siege (Luke 21:24 reflects 2 Kings 25:1), Jesus’ predictions are mostly fulfilled, the Romans had no policy of destroying temples (cf. Kloppenborg, 434), 13:2 is generally accurate while Josephus exaggerates the fire (cf. War, the desolator in 13:14 is Titus standing in the Temple and Josephus shows it was possible to flee (War 6.382), and Mark has temple replacement imagery (11:22-25; 14:58) (117-55). His mirror-reading of Mark finds many allusions to Vespasian (cf. 156-252). The crucifixion is modeled on an imperial triumph (purple robe, crown, whole guard, Golgotha meaning “head” or Capitoline Hill, the time of day, etc), the healing of a blind man with spittle (7:32-38; 8:22-26) echoes Vespasian (Tacitus, Hist. 4.81), 14:47 reflects a supporter of Vitellius who cut the ear of the Tribune guarding him (Hist. 3.84), Herod & Herodias are like Titus & Queen Bernice, James & John are like Vespasian’s ambitious sons, the Gerasene demoniac echoes the 10th Legion whose symbol was a boar, the dividing of Satan’s kingdom reflects prior civil war in Rome, the controversy on taxes becomes acute with Jews forced to pay for the Temple of Jupiter in Rome, 15:38 reflects the parading of the outer curtain of the Temple in Rome, and so on.

Adam Winn (Purpose) places Mark in the same time and place as Incigneri, but he sees the desolator in 13:14 as a future antichrist figure (69-75). He has criteria to decide if Mark wrote pre- or post-factum: Specificity, Reasonableness, Similarity, Motivation, and Risk-Reward (58-67). Only his last two criteria rules for post-factum as Christian literature is largely silent on the Temple’s destruction before Mark and Mark would not risk linking Jesus’ prophetic powers to the Temple given a chance the prediction could be falsified (61-67). He agrees on allusions to Vespasian and judges Mark to counter imperial propaganda about a messianic prophecy of Vespasian (Josephus, War 6.312-13; Tacitus, Hist. 5.13.1-2; Seutonius, Vesp. 4.5) (157-67).

Burton Mack (Myth of Innocence) argues that Mark wrote in the 7os in southern Syria, close enough to feel the vibrations from the Jewish War but without direct involvement (315). It is a product of a failed synagogue reform movement (cf. pronouncement stories) that turned bitter and threatened apocalyptic judgement on its foes; Mark is a charter document and new myth of origins combining Jesus traditions with Paul’s kerygma for a community stressing its independent of the synagogue. Mack judges the concept of an anti-temple Messiah to be a contradiction in terms formulated after the temple’s destruction (282). William Arnal (“Reflection on Exile and Identity”) puts Mark in the early-mid 70s in a region affected by the Jewish War (60), but he questions the confidence of what we can know about a discrete “Markan” community in a specific locale since this is creatively obscured by the author (59). Instead, Arnal views Mark as a commentary on exile, social dislocation, and ethnic identity in light of the fall-out of the Jewish War (60, 65).

James Crossley (Date of Mark’s Gospel) takes on the consensus of dating Mark 65-75 CE. He severs the link of Mark 13 to the War (ch. 2) as there may be several referents (Herod Antipas conflict with Aretas of Nabatea, Caligula crisis, persecutions in 1 Thessalonians 2:14 or in Acts, an early outreach to non-Jews, etc). He deconstructs the case for a long period of development based on form criticism, Markan redaction reflecting the fall or replacement of the temple, influence from Paul, and so on (ch. 3). He re-dates Mark’s Gospel to the 40s by arguing that it presupposes a Law observant movement not yet impacted by Paul’s law-free Gentile mission or debates of the Jerusalem Council, while Matthew and Luke respond to these developments (e.g. Matt 5:17; Acts 11-12). His last two chapters contend that Mark’s legal verdicts on Sabbath, divorce, or purity do not violate biblical law; he re-reads 7:1-23 as a coherent whole dealing with hand-washing (7:2-5) and opposes the oral tradition (cf. Corban) that unwashed hands render food unclean.

Other interesting studies to note:

Jonathan Bernier’s monograph Rethinking the Dates of the New Testament: The Evidence for Early Composition.

Hyun Chul Won’s PhD Thesis “The Date of Mark’s Gospel: A Perspective on its Eschatological Expectation

Jesse Luke Richards’ MA Thesis “Jesus, the Jewish Law, and the Gospel of Mark: A Critical Evaluation of a Proposed Early Date for the Composition of Mark

Notes on Mark’s Provenance

A Roman Provenance

  1. Patristic Evidence: the surviving fragments of Papias do not mention where Mark composed the Gospel, but Papias consulted 1 Peter (in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.15.2; 3.39.17) which seems to associate Mark/Peter with “Babylon” or Rome (1 Pet 5:12-13). Irenaeus mentions that Mark wrote the Gospel after the exodus (departure, euphemism for death?) of Peter and Paul in Rome (Against Heresies 3.1.2), but this may indicate the time rather than place of writing. Clement of Alexandria explicitly deduces from 1 Peter that Mark wrote for Peter’s hearers in Rome (in Ecclesiastical History 2.15.1-2; 6.14.5-7; Adumbrationes in 1 Peter 5.13), while the so-called Anti-Marcionite Prologue vaguely places Mark in the regions of Italy. Only John Chrysostom offers an alternative in placing the Gospel in Alexandria (cf. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.16.1; Jerome, Illustrious Men 8).
  2. Latinisms: The following list is from Stein (Mark, 9-10): 2:23 to make a road [hodon poiein, Lat. iter facere]; 2:4, 9, 11, 12, 6:55 mat [krabattos, Lat. Grabatus]; 4:21 basket [modios, Lat. modius]; 5:9, 15 legion [legiōn, Lat. legio]; 6:27 soldier of the guard [spekoulatōr, Lat. speculator]; 6:37, 12:15, 14:5 denarius [dēnarion, Lat. denarius]; 7:3 fist [pygmē, Lat. pugnus]; 7:4 pitcher [xestēs, Lat. sextarius]; 12:14 tax [kēnson, Lat census]; 12:42 penny [kodrantēs, Lat. quadrans]; 15:39, 44, 45 centurion [kentyriōn, Lat. centurio]; 15:15 to satisfy [to hikanon poiēsai, Lat. satis facere]; scourge [phragelloō, Lat. flagello]; 15:16 praetorium [praitōrion; Lat. praetorium).  Van Iersel (Reader-Response Commentary, 34-35) spots two more Latinisms in Mark not following the Greek word order (i.e. the accusative or dative generally follows the verb to which they belong) but the reverse order in Latin and in the use of hina in a similar way to the Latin ut.
  3. The reference to a Syrophoenician woman by tribe (Syrophoinikissa tō genei) is redundant for a Greek-speaking audience in the East, but necessary for a Roman audience to distinguish the Phoenicians of Syria from the more familiar Libyphoenicians (Libyphoinikes) of Carthage (Lucilius, Book 15, fr.496f; Juvenal, Sat. 8.159f; Pliny the Elder, Nat. Hist. 7.201; Syrophoenix as special indication of origin in Latin inscriptions in Italy and Africa) (cf. Hengel, Studies, 29).
  4. The kind of persecution to the point of crucifixion could have the Neronian persecution in mind (Tacitus, Ann 15.44), which may have claimed the lives of Peter and Paul (1 Clement 5-6; Ignatius Romans 4:2-3; Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.3.2; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.25.7), and Mark comforted Christians who failed or betrayed the community under duress by showing how the Twelve equally betrayed Jesus to save themselves yet were restored to fellowship (16:7).
  5. The social reality presumed in the text (e.g. agriculture, housing, land-ownership, socioeconomic status) used in support of a provenance in rural Syria or Palestine may be equally compatible with a Roman setting (cf. Incigneri, Gospel to the Romans, 65-82) or an author in Rome had access to traditions about the Galilean Jesus.
  6. As for Mark’s supposed ignorance on the geography and customs of Palestine, 7:31 has Jesus travel from Tyre 22 miles/35 km north to Sidon, southeast through middle of the Decapolis, and northwest to Sea of Galilee. 11:1 has the order Jericho, Jerusalem, Bethpage, and Bethany. In 5:1-20 the pigs stampede over 30 miles/48 km from Gerasa to the Sea of Galilee, causing the textual variants Gadarenes and Gergasenes. As for the latter, scholars often cite the mistaken high priest (2:26), the reference to “all” Jews obeying the custom of hand-washing (7:4), the dismissal of the food laws (7:19b), the possible influence of Roman divorce law (10:12), the day-day rather than night-night calendar in dating Passover (14:13), and so on. Mark’s alleged errors, explanations of Aramaic terms or Jewish customs, and lack of specific information on the Jewish War besides stereotyped apocalyptic imagery (ch. 13) may suggest a predominantly non-Jewish audience far from Palestine.
  7. Hengel dates Mark between Nero’s suicide in 68 CE and the winter of 69 CE when there was a rapid succession of 3 emperors in a year (Galba, Otho, Vitellius) and a fourth claimant on his way to Rome (Vespasian); 13:14 may hint at a Nero redivivus expected in the future. Incigneri argues Mark was written in light of the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE and triumph of Vespasian in 71 CE; Mark parodies the propaganda of Vespasian including healing a blind man with spittle or a man with a withered hand and returning to Rome parading the outer veil of the Temple  (Gospel to the Romans, 156-207; cf. Head, “Roman Document,” 245-58; Winn, Purpose, 153-67).
  • Black, C. Clifton.  Mark: Images of an Apostolic Interpreter.  Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001.
  • Brandon, S.F.G. Jesus and the Zealots: A study of the political factor in primitive Christianity. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1967.
  • Donahue, John R.  “Windows and Mirrors: The Setting of Mark’s Gospel.”  Catholic Biblical Quarterly 57 (1995): 1-26.
  • France, R.T.  The Gospel of Mark.  NIGTC; Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2002.
  • Head, Ivan.  “Mark as a Roman Document from the Year 69: Testing Martin Hengel’s Thesis.”  Journal of Religious History 28 (2004): 240-59.
  • Gundry, Robert.  Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993.
  • Hengel, Martin.  Studies in the Gospel of Mark.  Fortress: Philadelphia, 1985.
  • Incigneri, Brian J.  The Gospel to the Romans: The Setting and Rhetoric of Mark’s Gospel.  Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2003.
  • Lane, William L.  The Gospel According to Mark.  The New International Commentary on the New Testament.Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974.
  • Martin, R.P.  Mark: Evangelist and Theologian.  Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978.
  • Stein, Robert H.  Mark.  Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008
  • Taylor, Vincent.  The Gospel According to St. Mark.  New York: St Martin’s Press, 1966.
  • Winn, Adam.  The Purpose of Mark’s Gospel: An Early Christian Response to Roman Imperialism.  WUNT 2.245, Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 2008.
  • Witherington, Ben.  The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001.
  • van Iersel, Bas M.F.  Mark: A Reader-Response Commentary.  Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998.

A Syrian Provenance

  1. Clement of Alexandria did not locate Mark in Rome based on historical-critical considerations, but due to (i) the association of the evangelist with Peter in Papias, (ii) the tradition of Peter’s ministry and martyrdom in Rome, and (iii) the inference from 1 Peter 5:13.
  2. The Latin loan-words are primarily related to political, military, and economic administration known throughout the empire due to Roman rule (legio, praetorium) and many occur independently in other Gospels or Hellenistic literature. Mark clarifies imprecise Greek terms by precise Latin ones (e.g., in 12:42 quadrans was proverbial as the minimum unit of money, while the mention of two lepta actually supports a provenance in the East) (Theissen, Gospels in Context, 247-49; Collins, Mark, 10, 99-100; Marcus, Mark 1-8, 32-33). Finally, a one-sided discussion of the latinisms overlooks the number of Aramaic terms and Aramaicisms in Mark (e.g. Maurice Casey, Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel, 140-44 argues against the view that behind Mark 2:23 hodon poiein [to make a road] is the latinism iter facere and sees an underlying Aramaic term mistranslated).
  3. Theissen notes that the Latin “Syrophoenix” was borrowed from a Greek construction as the Romans ordinary spoke of “Punii” (poeni), with Syrophoenician first used to distinguish from Libyphoenicians in Diodorus of Sicily (20.55.4), and the term could be used in the East for residents of southern Syria (Gospels in Context, 245-47). Marcus argues that the term does not specify a particular kind of Phoenician, but a particular kind of Syrian, someone who intermarried with the Phoenicians or was from the Phoenician part of the province of Syria (Mark 1-8, 33).
  4. Kee’s sociological study emphasized that Mark reflects an Eastern rural or village culture (Community, 100-105). Theissen argues that Mark’s references to the “Sea [thalassa] of Galilee” (the region in the genitive) does not correspond to Greek or Latin, for lakes or oceans are usually described by an adjective, and one familiar with the wider Mediterranean would hardly call a little Galilean lake a “sea” (Gospels in Context, 237-38). Van Iersel (Reader-Response Commentary, 36-37) responds that the expression is in the Septuagint (LXX Exod 10:19; Num 34:3, 6, 11, 12; Josh 3:16; 8:9; 12:3, 7; 13:27; 10:46; 18:19; 2 Chron 2:16; Ezek 47-48, etc.). Simon of Cyrene and his sons are known to Mark’s audience in 15:41 (cf. Acts 11:20) and Matthew, usually located in Antioch or Syria in general, quickly used Mark  (Boring, Mark, 19).
  5. Familiarity with the Jewish War: the temple is overrun with bandits (lēstēs in Mark 11:17 is in Josephus for “revolutionaries”) and the abomination in 13:14 may be the zealot Eleazar’s occupation of the temple in 67-68 CE (cf. Joel Marcus’ “The Jewish War and the Sitz Im Leben of Mark”). The warning to “flee to the hills” in 13:14 would be meaningless to a distant Roman, though it could be a hint that the readers fled Judea to a Decapolis city such as Pella (?), and persecution in Mark mainly comes from local councils, synagogues, and governors/rulers (13:9). Collins (Mark, 99-100) points out that the reference to “take up the cross” could be metaphorical (cf. Plutarch Moralia Sera 554A-B) and that crucifixion was a reality in eastern provinces.
  6. Mark shows no contact with Paul’s epistle to the Romans, lacking knowledge of Paul’s discussions on the “law”, “righteousness of God” or cosmic Christology, nor with later Roman texts such as 1 Peter or 1 Clement (Boring, Mark, 18-19).
  7. The translation of Aramaic terms and explanations of Jewish customs (e.g., 7:3-4, 11; 14:1, 12; 15:42) may still presuppose a predominantly non-Jewish audience and the geographical errors (5:1; 7:31; 10:1) an author outside of Palestine.
  • Boring, M. Eugene.  Mark: A Commentary.  The New Testament Library. Westminster John Knox Press:Louisville,London, 2006.
  • Collins, Adela.  Mark: A Commentary.  Hermeneia; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007.
  • Horsley, Richard A.  Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel.  Louisville; London; Leiden: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
  • Kee, Howard Clark.  Community of the New Age: Studies in Mark’s Gospel.  Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977.
  • Koester, Helmut.  Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development.  London: SCM; Philadelphia: Trinity International, 1990.
  • Kummel, W.G.  Introduction to the New Testament.  Nashville: Abingdon, 1975.
  • Mack, Burton.  A Myth of Innocence: Mark and Christian Origins.  Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988.
  • Maloney, Francis J.  The Gospel of Mark.  Peabody: Hendrickson, 2002.
  • Marcus, Joel.  Mark 1-8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary.  Anchor Bible; New York: Doubleday, 2000.
  • Marcus, Joel. “The Jewish War and the Sitz Im Leben of Mark.”  Journal of Biblical Literature 111/3 (1992): 441-462.
  • Theissen, Gerd.  The Gospels in Context.  London and New York: T&T Clark, 1992.

A Galilean Provenance

  1. All the arguments for locating Mark near Palestine in Syria could apply to placing it within Galilee.
  2. Theological map: Galilee symbolizes the locus of divine revelation as the crowds are widely receptive to Jesus’s teaching and healing, despite the hostility of some political and religious elites (3:6), while Jesus is rejected in Jerusalem (cf. Loymeyer, Lightfoot). Kelber sees the dichotomy of Galilee and Jerusalem as representing two rival Christian centers: Mark polemicizes against the Jerusalem church (Jesus’ brothers, Peter, the  Twelve) that held the “false” eschatological belief that the parousia (coming) of Jesus would occur in Jerusalem, did not comprehend the nature of Jesus’ messiahship as the suffering Son of Man, and tried to keep the community exclusively Jewish. This polemical reading (cf. Tyson, Crossan, Weeden) is a popular explanation for Mark’s portrait of the disciples and interprets the silence at 16:8 to mean the Twelve were never restored to the movement in Galilee (16:7).
  3. The angel instructs the women to tell the disciples to go to Galilee where they “will see” (opsesthe, future of horaō) Jesus (16:8; cf. 14:28). Marxsen (Mark the Evangelist, 83-92) interprets 14:28 and 16:8 in reference to the future parousia (coming) of Jesus and Mark summons the community to gather in Galilee (cf. the tradition of the flight of Christians to Pella) to await the imminent return of Jesus.
  4. Roskam argues that Mark is familiar with Galilee but ignorant about everywhere else (5:1-20, 11:1) (Purpose, 95-100). Mark 1-4 and 8-9 are geographically sound. She outlines Jesus’ movements: to Nazareth (6:1), to Galilee  on the coast of the lake (6:30), to the west coast of lake somewhere in vicinity of Tiberius (6:35-44; cf. in 6:32 Jesus withdrew by boat to deserted place but does not cross the lake), to Bethsaida by ship ( 6:45, correctly placed on the north-east coast of lake) yet ends up in Gennesaret (likely north-west coast of Galilean Sea halfway between Tiberias and Bethsaida) (6:53), to Tyre (7:23, 7:24-30), and to Sidon and onward to the Decapolis (7:31-8:9). She argues that it is not unlikely for Jesus to travel from a coastal area (Tyre) to the middle of the Decapolis via the Galilean Sea and the only thing that makes the route awkward is that Mark does not realize quite how north Sidon is in relation to Tyre and the Sea (Purpose, 104-10). Alternatively, we should avoid anachronistic standards of cartographic exactness for authors who held ancient conceptions of space, covering Jerusalem and Galilee with which the author is familiar with more detail and flattening out/representing on a small scale locales on the boundary lands on the West (Tyre and Sidon) and the East (Gerasa) with which the author is less familiar (cf. Chapman, “Agrarian Biography”).
  5. Increasingly scholars are challenging the older view that Mark was ignorant of Jewish customs by arguing that Mark is an informed participant in debates on scripture exegesis or religious praxis (halakhah on the Sabbath, purity, korban). See Marcus, The Way of the Lord: Christological Exegesis of the Old Testament in the Gospel of Mark (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993; cf. commentaries); Collins, Mark (Fortress, 2007); Booth, Jesus and the Laws of Purity: History and Legal History in Mark 7 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1986); Casey, Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel (Cambridge University Press, 1998); Crossley,  “Halakah and Mark 7.4: ‘…and beds,’” JSNT 25 (2003); The Date of Mark’s Gospel: Insights from the Law in Earliest Christianity (London: T & T Clark, 2004); “Mark 7:1-23: Revisiting the Question of all Foods Clean” pp 8-20; Ermakov, “The Salvific Significance of the Torah in Mark 10:17-22 and 12:28-34”  in Torah in the New Testament (ed. P. Oaks & M. Tait; London & New York: T&T Clark, 2009); Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (New York: New Press, 2012).
  6. Myers argues that Mark advocates a just redistributive system for disenfranchised, landless Galilean peasants against the Roman imperial order and Temple elites. He writes, “Events had also changed the general political atmosphere; what was sporadic, predominantly rural resistance to Roman colonialism in Palestine at the time of Jesus had coalesced into a major, Jerusalem-centered insurrection at the time Mark wrote. Nevertheless, the basic social structures and dynamics that characterized this era did not alter significantly” (42). Roskam dates Mark post-70 (Purpose, 81-94) and sees “governors and kings” in 13:9 as reflecting the political situation of Galilee as the eastern part was ruled by Agrippa II and the western part by the Roman legate (112-13). Contrary to Meyers, she argues that Mark de-politicized the gospel and aimed its animosity at Jewish rather than Roman leaders.
  • Chapman, Dean W. “Locating the Gospel of Mark: A Model of Agrarian Biography.” Biblical Theology Bulletin 25 (1995): 24-36.
  • Kelber, W.H.  The Kingdom of Mark: A New Place and a New Time.  Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974.
  • Lightfoot, R.H.  Locality and Doctrine in the Gospels.  New York: Harper, 1938.
  • Lohmeyer, E. Galiläa und Jerusalem. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck, 1936.
  • Marxsen, Willi.  Mark the Evangelist: Studies on the Redaction History of the Gospel. Nashville andNew York: Abingdon Press, 1969.
  • Myers, Ched.  Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus.  Maryknoll: Orbis, 1988.
  • Roskam, H. N.  The Purpose of the Gospel of Mark in Its Historical and Social Context.  Leiden: Brill, 2004.
  • Vander Broek, L.D.  The Markan “Sitz im Leben”: A critical investigation into the possibility of a Palestinian setting for the Gospel. PhD-dissertation, Graduate School of Drew University, New Jersey, 1983.

The Irrelevance of the Local Audience of Mark?

Against the view that we can reconstruct the local community addressed by Mark from clues in the text, The Gospel for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences edited by Richard Bauckham takes on the Gospel community paradigm. The use of Mark by Matthew and Luke shows it achieved wide circulation, the interest in “Gospel communities” has a modern pedigree from B.H. Streeter through to the emphasis on the Sitz im Leben (situation in life) of the churches (form critics) or of the evangelist (redaction critics), the Gospels as biographies differ from epistles directed to a local address to substitute for when the author could not communicate in person, the objection that Christians were not isolated groups but networks in constant communication and traveling leaders, and the hermeneutical irrelevance of a “Gospel community” to interpreting the text (pp. 9-47). Bird adds that 1. arguments about a Markan community are “viciously circular, 2. the relationship with a community is ambiguous (for a community, allegorically about a community, in a community yet for wider circulation), 3. influence does not flow only in one direction but texts influence a sociohistorical situation as much as they are influenced by it, 4. our knowledge of the author is at a bare minimum and may have ministered in many geographical or cultural settings, 5. the genre of a Gospel is not conducive to in-house debates (unlike an epistle, testimony collection, or community rule), and 6. Mark is not primarily about a community but about Jesus (pp. 477-82).  Edward Klink, The Audience of the Gospels: The Origin and Function of the Gospels in Early Christianity (T&T Clark, 2010) and Dwight Peterson, The Origins of Mark: The Markan Community in Current Debate (Brill, 2000) (cf. RBL review) also react against the excessive mirror reading of Mark’s literary narrative in “Markan community” hypotheses. There are also critiques of Bauckham’s approach in the bibliography below.

  • Bauckham, Richard. “For Whom Were the Gospels Written.” Pages 9-48 in The Gospel for All Christians: Rethinking the Gospel Audiences. Edited by Richard Bauckham. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1998.
  • Bauckham, Richard. “Response to Philip Esler.” SJT 51 (1998): 248-53.
  • Bird, Michael F. “The Markan Community, Myth or Maze?  Bauckham’s The Gospel for All Christians Revisited.” Journal of Theological Studies 57 (2006): 474-86.
  • Esler, P.F. ”Community and Gospel in Early Christianity: A Response to. Richard Bauckham’s Gospels for All Christians.”  SJT 51 (1998): 235-48.
  • Hengel, Martin. The Four Gospels and the One Gospel of Jesus Christ. Translated by J. Bowden; London: SCM Press, 2000.
  • Incigneri, Brian J. The Gospel to the Romans: The Setting and Rhetoric of Mark’s Gospel.  Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2003.
  • Klink III, Edward W. (ed.). The Audience of the Gospels: The Origin and the Function of the Gospels in Early Christianity. LNTS; London: Continuum, 2010.
  • Marcus, Joel. Mark 1-8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary.  Anchor Bible; New York: Doubleday, 2000, pp. 25-28.
  • Mitchell, Margaret. “Patristic Counter-Evidence to the Claim that ‘The Gospels were Written for all Christians.” New Testament Studies 51 (2005): 36-79.
  • Peterson, Dwight. The Origins of Mark: The Markan Community in Current Debate. Leiden: Brill, 2000.
  • Roskam, H. N. The Purpose of the Gospel of Mark in Its Historical and Social Context.  NovTSup 114; Leiden: Brill, 2004.
  • Sim, David C. “The Gospel for All Christians?: A Response to Richard Bauckham,” JSNT 84 (2001): 3-27.
  • Van Eck, Ernest. “A Sitz for the Gospel of Mark: A Critical Reaction to Bauckham’s Theory on the universality of the Gospels.” HTS 56 (2000): 200-235.

The Genre of the Gospels

This is a handout for an undergraduate Gospels course

What is a “Gospel”?

  • εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion): “good” (eu) and “message, tidings, proclamation” (angelia)
  • The singular neuter noun is extremely rare in both Greco-Roman and Jewish writings before the Christian era. For instance, there is only a single instance of the plural form of the neuter noun in 2 Samuel 4:10. For further statistics, see Steve Mason, “Methods and Categories: Judaism and Gospel.”
  • The verb euangelizomai or “to bring good tidings” is present in the Greek translation of Isaiah in the Septuagint: “…as a season of beauty upon the mountains, as the feet of one preaching glad tidings of peace, as one preaching good news for I will publish thy salvation, saying, O Sion, thy God shall reign” (Isaiah 52:7 LXX).
  • The plural form euangelia is inscribed on the Priene Calendar Inscription: “It seemed good to the Greeks of Asia, in the opinion of the high priest Apollonius of Menophilus Azanitus: ‘Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance (excelled even our anticipations), surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by reason of him,’ which Asia resolved in Smyrna.” (See Craig Evans, “Mark’s Incipit and the Priene Calendar Inscription: From Jewish Gospel to Greco-Roman Gospel“).
  • The good news of the kingdom of God (Mark 1:15) or the royal proclamation of the crucified and risen Lord (Romans 1:3-4; 1 Corinthians 15:1-4)

What Does the Term “Genre” Mean?

  • If a a text opened with the address “Dear Mary” and closed with “Sincerely, Tim”, what is the likely genre of this piece of writing? If a text began with the words “once upon a time in a far way land” and had fantastic characters or themes in the story-line, what is the likely genre of this piece of writing?
  • Richard Burridge explains that speaking or writing happen in a system of conventions (i.e. traits, rules, customs, necessities, properties that constitute verbal meaning) and, therefore, a genre is like a contract between the author and the reader based on their shared expectations about what traits make up an utterance (What are the Gospels: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography, 34-36, 43-44).
  • The differences between “prescriptivism” (i.e. a genre must be characterized by x, y, and z), “nominalism” (i.e. a generic classification has no effect on the properties of a text or “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”), and “family resemblance” (i.e. there are a number of overlapping traits that generally characterize the texts in a given category while each individual text may not have every single expected trait). For further discussion, see Burridge, Graeco-Roman Biography,” 39, 42-44.

What is the Genre of the New Testament Gospels?

  • Did the Gospels evolve out of the missionary “proclamation” (kērygma) of the crucified and risen Christ, eventually incorporating other materials (sayings collections, miracle stories, ritual texts about baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and were thus a uniquely Christian genre?
  • The Gospel as an aretalogy of a miracle worker?
  • The Gospel as an apocalyptic text (e.g. the book of Daniel) envisioning the eschatological consummation of history?
  • The Gospel as equivalent to an ancient Graeco-Roman or Jewish novel (e.g. Tobit, Joseph and Aseneth) or a literary epic (e.g. the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid) intended for popular consumption?
  • The Gospel as an ancient “biography” (bios or life) of a principal subject?
  • The Gospel as a shorter historical monograph about the climax of the history of Israel in the advent of Jesus the Messiah? Does the two-volume work of Luke-Acts belong to the genre of historiography?

The Gospels are not like Modern Biographies

  • Graeco-Roman historiographers and biographers preferred to name themselves and their sources, but the Gospels are more like the history books of the Hebrew Bible and other Ancient Near Eastern historians in remaining anonymous and keeping the spotlight on the subject (but cf. Luke 1:1-4; John 21:24). See Armin D. Baum, “The Anonymity of the New Testament History Books: A Stylistic Device in the Context of Greco-Roman and Ancient Near Eastern Literature,” NTS 50 (2008): 120-142.
  • They are not interested in Jesus’ upbringing, education, or motivations. Only the Gospels of Matthew and Luke have infancy narratives (Matt 1-2; Luke 1:5-2:41) and Luke has one story about Jesus when he was 12 years old (Luke 2:42-52).
  • There are round or flat characters, but the characterization remains static.
  • The basic unit in the Synoptic Gospel is the chreia or “anecdote” that has sayings or deeds of Jesus in a condensed form and has an edificatory purpose. These anecdotes may be arranged topically or in a loose chronological order (e.g. “on the Sabbath day”), while the Passion Narrative about the events in Jerusalem leading up to the crucifixion and resurrection is a more interconnected narrative. The Gospel of John is made up of longer discourses, “signs” that Jesus performed, and a Passion Narrative. It has a more structured literary outline organized around the Jewish feast days.
  • The purposes of a Gospel was to proclaim the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus, to encourage readers to the path of discipleship based on Jesus’ teachings or self-sacrificial example, and correct what the evangelists saw as deficient Christologies.

The “Apocryphal” (“Hidden”) Gospels

  • The Gospel according to the Hebrews, the Gospels according to the Ebionites, the Gospel according to the Nazoraeans, the Gospel of the Egyptians, Papyrus Egerton 2 Unknown Gospel, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip, the Gospel of Truth, the Gospel of the Saviour, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Infancy Gospel of James, the Epistle of the Apostles, the Coptic Apocalypse of Peter, the Second Treatise of the Great Seth, the Secret Gospel of Mark (see Bart D. Ehrman, Lost Scriptures: Books that Did Not Make it into the New Testament [Oxford University Press, 2003], v).
  • These diverse writings include sayings collections (e.g. the Gospel of Thomas), discourses of the Risen Jesus (e.g. the Gospel of Philip or the Gospel of Mary), infancy Gospels (e.g. the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Protoevangelium of James), narrative Gospels in the same genre as the canonical Gospels (e.g. the Gospel of Peter), and Gospel harmonies (e.g. the Gospel of the Ebionites, the Diatessaron).

New JECS Article on Papias and the “Gospel according to the Hebrews”

The Journal of Early Christian Studies 25.1 (2017) has come out and has my article “Did Papias of Hierapolis Use the Gospel according to the Hebrews as a Source?” in it. It is based on the following line from Eusebius: “Now this is reported by Papias about Mark, but about Matthew this was said, Now Matthew compiled the reports in a Hebrew manner of speech, but each interpreted them as he could… and [he] had also set forth another story about a woman who was accused of many sins before the Lord, which the Gospel according to the Hebrews contains” (Ecclesiastical History 3.39.16-17). This is the official journal of the North American Patristic Society and this article is meant for specialists, but I will outline the main arguments:

  • Ecclesiastical History 3.39.16 was not referring to a Jewish style of argumentation (contra Kürzinger and Gundry). There are three options: Papias mistakenly thought that our Greek New Testament “Gospel according to Matthew” was translated from the language of the Hebrews (i.e. Aramaic), alluded to a lost Aramaic source, or referred to the “Gospel according to the Hebrews” that Eusebius brings up in the next passage. I leaned towards the first option and tried to disprove the third option.
  • The general consensus dates Papias, a bishop in Hierapolis, around 110 CE based on a combination of external and internal evidence. Papias seems to know the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, 1 Peter, 1 John, and Revelation, while the writer of Luke-Acts may actually be a near contemporary of him.
  • There is debate among scholars about whether there was one, two, three, or more Gospel texts being cited by the church fathers who refer to the “Gospel according to the Hebrews.” I follow Luomanen and Gregory that there were two: a Jewish Christian source cited originally by Christians in Alexandria (Clement, Origen, Didymus) and a Gospel harmony attributed to the Jewish Ebionite sect by Epiphanius, while Jerome may have had access to other fragments from the Jewish Nazoraean sect’s translation of Matthew’s Gospel.
  • There are fragments of the Jewish Christian Gospels that show signs of harmonizing Matthew and Luke and, thus, postdate the Synoptic tradition and Papias.
  • Papias got the story of the accused woman from the oral traditions in Asia Minor. Interestingly, many of Papias’s oral traditions are multiply attested by the author of Luke-Acts, while this particular episode evolves into the familiar story of Jesus rescuing an adulteress from getting stoned to death that was interpolated into John 7:53-8:11.

Links to Genre Notes

I have been reviewing the various scholarly proposals for the genre of the Gospels, so here are all the notes that I have compiled:

The Biblical Studies Carnival (February 2017)

Jacob Prahlow’s Biblical Studies Carnival has compiled several links organized in different categories (e.g. Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, New Testament, Early Christianity, Theology and Hermeneutics, etc) for the month of February 2017. Enjoy!