Book Review: Helen K. Bond, The First Biography of Jesus

Bond, Helen K. The First Biography of Jesus: Genre and Meaning in Mark’s Gospel. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2020. 317 pp. Hb; $42.99.   Link to Eerdmans 

In The First Biography of Jesus Bond argues the Gospel of Mark is a very specific reception of earlier Jesus tradition. The Gospel of Mark is an ancient biography and as such, the author actively re-appropriated and reconfigured selected material in circulation at the time into a formal literary creation (5). By imposing a biographical structure on this tradition, Mark extended the Christian gospel beyond the death and resurrection of Jesus, so it now included his ministry as well.

Bond, The First Bio of JesusThe first three chapters of the book begin with a survey scholarship on Mark as Bios. In general, she assumes Mark was written from Rome after the Jewish War in the mid-70s CE. Yet the Mark still retains the “air of persecution” from Nero’s brutal attacks of Christians in 65 CE. Nothing in her book depends on these identifications (9). Early form critics described the gospels as a unique phenomenon in literature quite different from other ancient histories and biographies. By the 1970s scholars began to look for antecedents to the gospels, sometimes by drawing comparisons to Philo’s Life of Moses of the works of Josephus. Since the work of Richard Burridge (What are the Gospels?; Cambridge, 1992), scholars have once again described Mark as bios, an ancient biography. After surveying much of this literature, Bond observes that nobody really answers the “so what?” question. If Mark is a biography rather than a history or a theological treatise or a letter, what difference does it make for the reading of the book? (37).

Answering this “so what?” question drives the rest of this volume. For example, Bond suggests Mark may have wanted to challenge his readers, “to jolt them out of their complacency or to encourage a subtle new way of articulating their story” (109). Later she suggests Mark’s extension of the gospel to include Jesus’s life and ministry was intended to “encourage his audience to recommit their lives not do a set of theological ideas but specifically to the person of Jesus… Jesus is not only the proclamation but also the model of Christian discipleship” (166).

Bond then surveys ancient bioi, focusing especially on the role in the educational system: biography was used to teach morality. “at the heart of biography was a concern with character or what Plutarch calls ‘the signs of the souls of men’ (Alexander 1.3)” (151). This is especially true in her biography describes the character’s death. She surveys a wide range of ancient biographies which focuses on heroic “good deaths” of their characters. A good death is the crowning point of a virtuous life. A good death had a ripe old age may signal and endorsement of a philosopher’s way of life. However, there are a few philosophers who are remembered positively even though they met what an ancient reader might consider a “bad death” such as Socrates or Zeno. This is an obvious difference in Mark’s gospel. Mark does not describe Jesus’s death as noble or “conventionally honorable.” Rather, he portrays Jesus’s death as conforming to his countercultural teaching. Like a good philosopher, Jesus has a fitting death, which a fitting conclusion to his earlier way of life (250).

Are ancient biographies historically accurate? If the goal is to describe a great man’s character as positively as possible in order to teach morality, and perhaps some historians exaggerated or idealized their subjects. Bond cites Cicero, who suggested a historian had to stick to the truth, but a biographer could take liberties with the facts (67).  She surveys several studies which confirm the passion that biography is prone to slip into fiction. Since biographies rely upon anecdotes, this increases the possibility of an accuracy. Apocryphal stories circulate despite having questionable historical foundations. She ultimately concludes that the purpose of an ancient biography was not to provide an accurate list of everything the subject did or said, but to “labor the essence of the man, to re-create a living character” (71). Bond interacts briefly with a view of Craig Keener who argued ancient biography on the whole “tended to put a high value on historical accuracy” (67, n. 108).  Keener repeats this view in his recent Christobiography (Eerdmans, 2020), “some biographies from the early empire this warrant more respect his historical sources then do others,” those composed close to living memory of the subject are more historical (17). Unfortunately, Bond’s book was complete when Christobiography, so she could not interact with Keener more fully.

After describing the general contours of an ancient bioi, Bond then argues Mark is a biographer. In this chapter she describes what can be known about the writer of Mark. She also attempts to describe Mark’s audience, his “Christ-following readers.” This description implies the gospel was written for insiders, people who already knew what Christian terms meant. The gospel uses Christian terms and well-known characters without any explanation or introduction. At least initially, the gospel was not written for evangelistic reasons.

The next three chapters survey the life (ch, 4) and death (ch. 6) of Jesus. Beginning with the opinion of Aristotle that “actions are a sign of character,” Bond observes people in antiquity did not rely upon the judgment of the narrator to best appreciate a character, but rather “observing a person’s words and deeds” (121). Most ancient bioi collected anecdotes and maxims and allow the readers to form their own opinions. Bond moves through the ministry of Jesus and compares Mark’s presentation of Jesus to the bioi.

Although Mark does not seem to be interested in Jesus is early years, the gospel uses a similar method of characterization. The audience is “not merely hearing stories, but watching the protagonist as events unfold” (123). Mark therefore collected miracles, conflict stories, and questions about Jesus’s identity in the first half of his book. The second section of the Gospel contains teaching on discipleship and travel to Jerusalem, leading up to the passion. For Bond, Mark included these stories point out that Jesus is not merely the focus of Christian proclamation but the model for Christian discipleship (166). The crucifixion was an attempt by authorities not only to destroy Jesus’s body, but remove his memory. Bond argues that Mark as a biography is an act of defiance; it is a refusal to except the Roman sentence and attempt to shape the way in which both his life and death should be remembered (249).

The fifth chapter examines the “other characters” who populate Mark’s landscape. Here Bond suggests Mark used intercalations, the so-called Markan Sandwich, in order to draw two characters together as a form of synkrisis. Synkrisis is common in histories interested in the moral character of their subjects (174). Bond describes Plutarch as a master of his style, especially in Parallel Lives (176). But these are not formal comparisons in Mark. In fact, she suggests, with the possible exception of one or two disciples, Mark is not interested in any of these characters other than the light they shed light on Jesus. The “walk-ons” and minor characters enable Jesus to do his ministry or perform his miracles or they conspire against him (220).

Conclusion. Bond succeeds in her goal of demonstrating Mark is bios, using the genre of biography to extend the Christian proclamation of the gospel. Since this book is primarily interested in the final form of Mark, it is beyond the scope of the book to treat in any detail early Christian preaching or how oral tradition may (or may not) have been adapted in the Gospel of Mark. Peter’s speech in Acts 10, for example, may be a hint of the process moving from oral proclamation to a written biography.

 

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.