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Mark 8-16 (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries)
Mark 8-16 (The Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries)
Joel Marcus
Yale University Press, 2009
672 pp., 75.00

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Scot McKnight

The Cross-Shaped Messiah

Volume 2 of a major commentary on Mark.

Pastors, professors, and students, with a light sprinkling of ordinary churchgoers, read commentaries on books of the Bible. "Commentary" is a unique genre, unique both for users and writers. My own story of commentary writing is spotty. My first contract as a young professor, which arrived with a personal invitation from F.F. Bruce, led to seven years of misery for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that I wanted to reinvent the wheel on interpreting the Gospel of Matthew. Well beyond half of those years, I realized, when I was still working on chapter 1 and thinking that all I had written was rubbish, it would take two volumes to write the commentary. F.F. Bruce had passed on to his eternal reward and Gordon Fee had been appointed as the general editor of the series, and he gave me permission to write two volumes. After another year or so, now into chapter 2 of Matthew and convinced it was still rubbish, I ashamedly asked Gordon to excuse me from the contract, and I promised myself I'd never do that again. I've since finished a commentary on James (due in 2010), but I learned some valuable lessons early on.

I could generalize my experience into"don't ask young professors to write substantive commentaries,"but some, like my friends Ben Witherington and Joel Green and Craig Blomberg, have managed to write commentaries effortlessly for more than two decades. My own conviction about commentary writing is that one can write out what one knows and get the thing done in a year or two or three, or one can work for a long, long time. Joel Marcus, whose second and concluding volume on Mark has just appeared in the ever-evolving Anchor Yale Bible series, belongs to that latter group. Marcus, a professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School, confesses that he worked on this commentary on Mark for approximately sixteen years, and it looks like it.

In Marcus you will find the ultimate dream attempted when it comes to commentaries: mastery of the text itself, the historical"background"and contributing influences, the scholarship that continues to grow and shift and accumulate options and alternatives—and Marcus is not afraid to enter into the theological and pastoral significance of his exegesis and his conclusions. This commentary takes its place at the top of the list for the Gospel of Mark. And a long list it is becoming, for commentaries on Mark, already abundant, have continued to appear regularly in this decade, with volumes from Craig Evans (Word Biblical Commentary, 2001), R.T. France (New International Greek Testament Commentary, 2002), M. Eugene Boring (New Testament Library, 2002), John Collins (Hermeneia, 2007) and Robert Stein (Baker Exegetical Commentary, 2008)—a list that is by no means exhaustive. What more can be said? It is tempting to answer"nothing,"but we'd be wrong. It is unlikely that two ploughs operated in the same field by two different scholars will create the same furrow. We need the cacophony of voices.

Many a first-year seminary student, after being subjected to the assignment to read a stack of commentaries on Mark 8:27-9:1 (confession of Peter, discipleship instruction, and the enigmatic"you will not taste death"saying), will yield to the temptation to turn to Twittering: if these scholars can't agree, then it can't really matter. Which raises an important observation about commentary reading and writing: the forest is often lost in the analysis of selected trees, but if the student reads harder and reads between the lines, he will recognize that the romp from Evans to Marcus, say (always read commentaries in their order of publication), is one of both profound commonalities and genuine exegetical progress. There's far more agreement than difference. Commentary writers know that the hardest part is stopping with what has already been said so well by others.

When I inspect a commentary on Mark, I start—always—with the comments on Mark 8:27-9:1. This is the heart of Mark's theology and the turning point in his Gospel. If a commentary sheds light on that text both narratively and theologically, I add it to my shelf. If it doesn't, I don't, and neither should you. Jesus is the Messiah, but Jesus'Messiahship goes radically against the grain of Jewish expectation: he will be crucified. When Peter mouths the words that every Jew mouthed at the suggestion of the cross, Jesus puts him in his place—Marcus suggests that"behind me"is the posture of discipleship—and then reveals that a crucified, cross-shaped Messiah means a crucified, cross-shaped disciple. It is the tie of Christology to discipleship that Mark's Gospel emphasizes, and Marcus plumbs this theme as well as anyone I've seen. Tied to the cross, though, is exaltation, and so the"not taste death"is tied to the transfiguration scene. Marcus thinks Mark brought these two scenes together, he thinks Jesus himself probably mistakenly believed time would wrap itself into eschatology within a generation, but Marcus gets the theology right: followers of Jesus embrace a cross-shaped life that will someday be turned inside out into justice and love by God's act. As he puts it in his excellent appendix on the meaning of"Messiah,""One idea that does not seem to be prominent in pre-Christian Judaism is that of the suffering Messiah; no early Jewish text speaks of such a figure."

Discipleship, too, is revolutionized from the bottom up when the cross-shaped Messiah speaks:"The Markan Jesus'call to follow him in the hard way of discipleship, then, is not a 'counsel of perfection'addressed to the spiritual elite [here engaging one traditional tenet of Roman Catholicism's call to celibacy and poverty and humility] but the apocalyptically realistic advice that, for everyone, life is only to be found by treading the pathway of death."Marcus'reading is front-to-back shaped by the historical-critical method, the method designed to put Jesus in his historical context. This is why he can frame the call to a cruciform discipleship in terms of the apocalyptic vision of Jesus:"Specifically, those who wish to follow the Messiah Jesus into the eschatological battle are given fair warning that such a course will require renouncing oneself [Greek omitted] and taking up one's cross."

That historical-critical method, even if it is baptized into the waters of literary, narrative, and sociological observations, gives rise to a pervasive caution in Marcus. Historians, when they are honest, admit that much of the time they can't land on certainty but only on probabilities. This commentary ends with an appendix on the empty tomb, and its conclusion is doubly cautious:"It is improbable that the tradition is a total invention of the early Christian community, or that Joseph of Arimathea is an entirely fictional character, or that Jesus was still alive when placed in the tomb, or that his disciples or Joseph of Arimathea stole the body. It remains possible that the body was stolen by someone else. But it is only possible that it was missing on the third day for the reason implied by the Gospels themselves—because Jesus had risen bodily from the dead."That caution, because it proceeds with care and circumspect analysis of all the evidence, leads to numerous evidential displays that will help any reader. Marcus'study of Mark 10:45, taking the older view that it combines Daniel 7 with Isaiah 52-53, admirably exemplifies a painstaking examination of evidence brought into crystal clarity. I could say this about passage after passage in this commentary. In Marcus'own words about reconstructing the last supper:"Categorical pronouncements about historicity are out of place, but so are categorical pronouncements about fictitiousness." Nevertheless, Marcus often tips his hand, as he does here:"even if, as seems likely, the Last Supper occurred on the night before Passover officially began, as in (John 19:14, 31,42,) it was probably still deeply imbued with the atmosphere of the holiday, and the Passover symbolism that is emphasized in the Synoptics is apropos."I wish more pastors would pay attention to this observation, which is becoming increasingly a consensus; were they to do so, the celebration of the Eucharist in their congregations would more fully acknowledge its character as"the feast of the world's redemption"(see John Koenig's book of that title).

Marcus avoids the suggestion that he is offering a brand-new interpretation that will unsettle all the old and resettle everything into a new framework. This commentary is a measured, historical, and theological reading of Mark, firmly tied to what the evidence tells us. Because scholars differ, Marcus needs to be read alongside others, like Evans and Collins and France. No doubt the Anchor Yale Bible will continue to replace older commentaries with newer ones, but I doubt I will live long enough to see any reason to replace Marcus. It's all here. And more besides.

Scot McKnight is the Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University in Chicago. He is the author of Jesus and His Death: Historiography, the Historical Jesus and Atonement Theory(Baylor Univ Press).

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