Book Review: Elizabeth Shively, Apocalyptic Imagination in the Gospel of Mark

Shively, Elizabeth E. Apocalyptic Imagination in the Gospel of Mark: The Literary and Theological Role of Mark 3:22- 30. BNZW 189. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2012. 295 p.  $140.00 Link.

Elizabeth Shively is a lecturer in New Testament at University of St Andrews.  Her book Apocalyptic Imagination in the Gospel of Mark is a light revision of her 2009 Ph.D. Emory University dissertation written under the guidance of Luke Timothy Johnson.

The basic thesis of the study is that Mark 3:22-30 functions as a programmatic statement for the Gospel of Mark. Three short parables and logion are placed together in order to construct the symbolic world which shapes the Gospel of Mark on both a literary and theological level. Shively understands parables of the Kingdom / House Divided and the Strong Man as apocalyptic discourse which is used to answer the question of the source of Jesus’ authority to cast out demons, but also to interpret Jesus for a new community of believers who are suffering.  For Shively, Mark 3:22-30 is “cluster of apocalyptic topoi” that Mark expands to “reveal a word of cosmic conflict manifest in Jesus’ ministry” (p. 5).

ShivelyShively points out that most scholars who work on parables do not work with these three short sayings, despite the fact that Mark specifically calls them parables in 3:23. The reason for this is that most monographs on parables have defined the genre in a way which rules out these sayings.  By taking this pericope as a programmatic statement for the gospel of Mark, Shively hopes to read Mark as a coherent, unified narrative within its own symbolic world.  That world is “Jewish apocalyptic thought” as expressed in parabolic forms. By constructing this paragraph has he has, Mark is “describing Jesus’ ministry as ‘more than a rescue operation,’” Jesus is beginning the “reconstructive work of the Kingdom of God” (p. 82).

While the Gospel of Mark is obviously not apocalyptic in terms of genre, Mark is an “apocalyptic thinker.” Following Luke Timothy Johnson’s definition of symbolic worlds, she points out that symbols are “social structures in which people live” (p. 29). Clusters of symbols help people to understand the world and communicate that understanding to others who share these symbols. Like most modern scholars who work on symbols and metaphors, she stands on the foundation of Lakoff and Johnson Metaphors We Live By, applying their insights to the apocalyptic worldview of first century Judaism. Figurative language appears in this pericope to “stage a cosmic drama” (p.81).

Shively explains that apocalyptic symbols have two dimensions. There is a vertical dimension to this literate in which cosmic forces are involved in earth. This may take the form of angels and demons active in the world, for example. The horizontal dimension is a movement toward an imminent eschatological salvation. The righteous are undergoing persecution and look forward to God breaking into history to liberate them from their oppressors. This description of apocalyptic thinking is clear from texts that are considered apocalyptic by genre; Shively argues in this book that Mark reflects that thinking in his Gospel and uses it to shape his theological interpretation of Jesus’ ministry.

By way of method, Shively reads Mark 3:22-30 both “inner-textually” and intertextually.  By inner-textually she means the “story world of Mark.”  This means that she will pay attention to the Gospel of Mark as a whole, examining the rhetoric, plot, and characters of the book in order to trace the author’s interests.  The second chapter of this book places this pericope in the overall context of the gospel by examining how it functions rhetorically at the beginning of the Gospel, and her fifth chapter  examines the larger context of the Gospel, primarily the Gerasene Demoniac (5:1-20) and the apocalyptic speech (13:5-37).

By intertextual, she intends to read the Gospel of Mark in the light of textual traditions outside of the Gospel. Following on Richard Hays, she proposes to hear echoes of the Hebrew Bible in Mark 3:22-30. She acknowledges that intertextual elements do not only exist in quotes of allusions, but also in the form of metaphors and symbols in Jewish apocalyptic thought (p. 36). She says that “we cannot understand Mark’s intertextuality simply by looking at discrete OT citations and allusions” because Mark is “weaving citations, allusions and themes” in order to “awaken the reader’s memory” (261).  (I made this point in my own dissertation on Jesus’s use of eschatological banquet traditions from the Hebrew Bible.) Since Mark wrote as an “apocalyptic thinker” he does not have to consciously cite a text from the Hebrew Bible.  He may use a well-known metaphor from apocalyptic literature without having a specific text in mind.  On the other hand, he may have a cluster of texts in mind rather than a single context.

I find this to be very helpful and interesting, but in practice there is not much which can be described as intertextual with respect to the Hebrew Bible in Mark 3:22-30.  She does comment on the potential allusion to Isaiah 49:24-26 in Mark 3:27.  Several commentaries have noticed this allusion, although there are only a few words shared by both texts.  In LXX Isa 49:24 the strong one is a “giant” (γίγαντος), and he is captured (αἰχμαλωτεύω), not bound (δέω) and plundered (διαρπάζω) as in Mark 3:27.  The word λαμβάνω is repeated in Isa 49:24-26 several times but does not appear in Mark 3:27. At best, this is an “echo” of Isa 49:24-26 and might be better described as an allusion to the tradition that the Lord is the ultimate Strong One who rescues his people from their enemies.

The key word in Mark 3:27 for Shively is ἰσχυρός.  In Isa 49:26 it is the Lord who is the “strong one” who will end the exile for Judah by destroying the strong nations.  In Mark 3:27, Jesus is stronger than the “strong man” (Satan) and is presently binding him in order to inaugurate the Kingdom. Mark “recontextualizes Israel’s captivity and rescue using apocalyptic topoi” (p. 74).

A second stage of the intertextual method in this book is a comparison to other Jewish apocalyptic literature.  This is the subject of chapter 3. She begins by offering a brief orientation to seven apocalyptic texts she has chosen to compare to Mark 3: 1 Enoch, Jubilees, Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, The War Scroll (1QM), Melchizedek (11QMelch), and Testament of Solomon.  Shively then uses Daniel as a “template” for apocalyptic thinking and develops three themes from the book: persecution of the righteous, the activity of heavenly beings, and God’s protection through a future judgment. These three themes are key elements of apocalyptic thinking in Daniel and Shively demonstrates that they are found in each of the apocalyptic books chosen for comparison. This section is well-documented and the she makes the case that apocalyptic thinking from Daniel onward does in fact include these three areas.

I like how this chapter is designed, but I wonder if the results would differ if she had chosen another set of examples from Jewish apocalyptic literature. For example, she does not use her template on 4 Ezra or 2 Baruch, two books written after the fall of Jerusalem, perhaps only two decades after Mark was written. It is likely that the three elements of her template are present there, although the “coming judgment” may look different than Mark’s Kingdom of God. I am thinking specifically about 4 Ezra 9:22 where the “rescue” at the time of judgment concerns only a very tiny remnant which survives the final judgment. By broadening the database, perhaps the template would look different.

When she applies her observations to Mark 3:22-30, Shively finds that there is a “shared symbolic world” (p. 147-52).  In Jesus’ ministry there is a persecution (by the human scribes or the demons), and Jesus is actively opposing these demonic forces by casting them out. Finally, he announces that the strong man has been bound and that those who oppose him will be judged guilty in the coming judgment (Mark 3:28-29).

Shively applies the findings of the study to Mark’s Gospel. Chapter 5 examines two examples of “power” in Mark’s apocalyptic thinking in the context of a story and a speech. The story Shively selects is Mark 5:1-20, the Gerasene Demon.  In this exorcism story, Mark “engages in apocalyptic discourse directly reminiscent of Mark 3:22-30” (p. 183). An evil spirit is oppressing a human and Jesus appears to judge that demon. The result of this demonstration of the power of God is that the man proclaims what God has done throughout the Gentile region.  Later in the book Shively suggests that the response of the man “becomes Mark’s Great commission” (p.250). The Olivet Discourse (Mark 13:5-37) concludes with a parable of a householder, reminiscent of the Strong Man parable in Mark 3:27. Shively states that the Mark’s apocalyptic discourse is “persuasive rhetoric” which seeks to persuade the followers of Jesus that righteous suffering is God’s will, they ought to act self-sacrificially (like Jesus) in anticipation of a final judgment on the world (p. 218).  God’s power is acting through Jesus to overcome the strong man already, but Mark’s audience is told to look forward to the decisive return of the Son of Man.

The nature of the power which overcomes the strong man is developed in chapter 6.  Shively examines Mark 8:27-10:45 as a unit, beginning with the confession of Peter and ending with the “ransom for many” logion. In this section Jesus subverts expectations by describing the “things of God” as his coming suffering. Jesus demonstrates the power of God which overcomes the strongman by suffering. Those who suffer manifest the power of God, even in death.  This is the point of the empty tomb account (Mark 16:1-8).  Through the resurrection Jesus asserts his power over the strong man.

Conclusion. Elizabeth Shively has made a significant contribution to the study of Mark’s gospel by suggesting Mark 3:22-30 as a programmatic statement which reflects Mark’s apocalyptic thinking. While not an apocalyptic writer, Mark reflects the sort of thinking which was common in the first century in order to communicate his interpretation of the life and ministry of Jesus as the “stronger man” who overcomes the power of Satan and enables his followers to understand their own struggle against the powers of darkness as they look forward to the return of the Son of Man to render final judgment.

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

Mark 15:24 – The Offense of the Cross

Mark is very brief and concise as he describes the crucifixion. The whole of Mark’s gospel has led up to the first phrase of verse 24, a simple line, “they crucified him.” He did not need to go into great detail, everyone in the Roman world knew what it was to be crucified, and as we saw a moment ago, it was considered impolite to talk about the execution in Roman society. Mark simply mentions it as a fact.

The Offense of the Cross

Crucifixion was not invented by the Romans, but the perfected this method of execution into the most horrible of deaths. They called it the “extreme penalty,” and “the humiliation.” It was reserved for the lower classes of their society, the conquered peoples who were not citizens. The Romans considered it too degrading for a Roman, reserved only for those citizens who had committed treason or fled in battle. There are several examples of this in Jewish history.

  • Jews who resisted Antiochus IV Epiphanies (167-164 B.C.) were crucified (Antiq. 12.5.4). Alexander Janneus, the Hasmonean high priest, executed 800 political opponents (many were likely Pharisees, Antiq. 13.14.2).
  • In 4 B.C. the Roman general Varus lined the road from Sepphoris to Galilee with 2000 crucified Jewish rebels (War 2.5.2, Antiq. 17.10.10). The procurator Tiberius Alexander ( A.D. 46-48) crucified the sons of Judas the Galilean (Antiq. 20.5.2).
  • In the Jewish War in A.D. 66 the Roman procurator Gessius Florus executed Jewish soldiers who refused to fight against Jews (War 2.14.9) and Titus crucified captives opposite the walls of Jerusalem (War 5.6.5, 5.11.1).

That Jesus was crucified would have been offensive to Jew and Gentile. The Romans considered talk of a cross or the executioner who preformed the crucifixion to be disgraceful, unworthy of a Roman citizen. The death of crucifixion was sadistic and cruel and was intended to keep the lower classes in their place and to keep subjected peoples from rebelling.

To the Jew, anyone killed by crucifixion was under the curse. The Old Testament said that anything that was hung on a tree was cursed (Deut 21:22-23). It was the ultimate insult to the Jew of the first century to be told that not only did the Messiah come and they did not recognize him, but that he had been crucified as a common criminal.

To the Greek, the death of Jesus on the cross was foolishness. The Greeks were civilized, believing in beauty and truth. To glorify the mangled body of Jesus on the cross was intellectually insulting to the worldview of  the Greek thinker.

What is the point of the Cross? Jesus is executed as a rebel against Rome.  He would not have been thought to be a righteous martyr, but a failed prophet, a deceiver who was leading people in a rebellion against Rome.  Clearly he was not God, nor was he approved of by God.  This death is a humiliation such that no one in the first century would be drawn to Jesus as a religious leader let alone a savior. If death on the cross was such a confirmation for people living in the first century that Jesus was not at all who he claimed to be, what did God intend by choosing this sort of death for Jesus?

The answer is to be found in the resurrection.  The Roman, Greek and Jewish perceptions of what Jesus’ death meant are totally reversed in what happened three days later.  The humiliation of the cross makes the vindication of the resurrection even more spectacular.

Mark 11:12-14 – Cursing the Fig Tree

After the Triumphal entry, Jesus returns to Bethany for the evening. As he is approaching Jerusalem the next morning, he sees a fig tree and expects to find a bit of fruit to eat, but there is none. Jesus then pronounces a curse on the fig tree, telling it that it will no longer bear fruit.

What is the meaning of the cursing of the fig tree? This is a symbolic action, dealing with more than a tree that does not bear fruit. The context supplies the clue, Jesus enters the temple and condemns it as a den of thieves, setting up the conflict stories as he teaches in the temple.

The fig tree is barren, a frequent symbol in the Old Testament of Israel’s unfaithfulness (Isa 28:4, for example), or God’s judgment (Jer 7:20, Hos 9:15-16). The most likely allusion is to Isaiah 6. There, the prophet describes Judah as a tree that will be cut down, but a remnant will remain (Isa 6:13). Judah would fall, but a tiny remnant will remain. Jesus has already quoted Isa 6 to describe his teaching in parables, so it is not a surprise that he would enact a parable with this fig tree based on Isaiah 6.

Jesus is looking for fruit in a place he has every right to find fruit, but does not find it. In the same way, he came to the nation looking for fruit, but did not find any. The religious establishment is a barren fig tree that is about to be cut off. Where did Jesus have every right to find a fruitful religious heart in Israel – the temple. Mark inserted the Temple demonstration into the narrative of the fig-tree to bring out the theological point of the Fig Tree sign.

On the third day after the curse is pronounced (and after the events in the temple), the disciples see the tree and note that it is dead – withered from the roots up. There are a number of Old Testament allusions here (Ho 9:16, Job 18:16, 28:9, 31:12, Ezek 19:9 ). The nation has gone past the point of no-return, they have rejected the Messiah.

But is there a “righteous remnant” as was the case in Isaiah 6:13? There are two ways of looking at this. First, we could read this as a curse upon Israel as a whole. They will no longer be God’s people and they are about to be replaced by the church. This is possible, but it seems to me to be theologically driven. Obviously from this side of the events it appears that the church replaced Israel, this parable talks about Israel being “cursed”, so it must predict the coming church. I would like to avoid this as anachronistic – Jesus is saying something about his ministry at that moment in history.

A second, better way to look at the meaning of this parabolic action is to see the religious establishment as “under the curse” and that they are being replaced by Jesus’ disciples. This is why Mark inserts the Temple demonstration into his “Markan Sandwich,” he is point to the meaning of the curse of the fig tree. Jesus came to his own people and they have rejected him. He created a new Israel with twelve disciples (twelve tribes) who will receive the promised New Covenant.

Mark 7:24-30 – Crumbs From Your Table

This story in Mark 7:24-30 (cf. Matt 15:22-28) stands in contrast to the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.  They have seen the miracles of Jesus and remain unconvinced, despite being the religious leaders of Israel.  They are the ones that ought to have understood that Jesus was the Messiah.  This is a surprise to the reader, that the good Jewish religious people (disciples and Pharisees) miss out on who Jesus is claiming to be, yet the Gentiles and demons seem to have no trouble in understanding he is Messiah, son of God, even God himself!

Why is Jesus staying in Tyre?  He instructed his disciples who avoid Gentile cities, yet here he is in Tyre.  It is possible that he is traveling alone, seeking a place where he can have some privacy from the crowds.  I doubt he is staying with Gentiles, rather, Jesus has entered the home of a supporting Jew with the hope of privately teaching his disciples, perhaps hearing their reports from their own mission in Galilee.

A woman approaches Jesus boldly and requests that Jesus heal her daughter of an evil spirit. This crosses several cultural boundaries:  man/woman, Jew/Gentile.  For a Gentile woman to approach a Jewish teacher and healer is incredibly bold!   We are told that the woman is Greek, born in Syrian Phoenicia.

There are some rather harsh comments by Jesus that it is not right to take the bread from the children (the Jews) and give it to the dogs (Gentiles)!  It is the usual practice of preachers to approach this passage by saying that Jesus isn’t really as harsh as he sounds.  The word for dog, for example, is a diminutive – a puppy.  Jesus is testing the woman’s faith, not telling her to get lost!

The fact is that the words are harsh and exclusivist.  Jesus calls her a gentile dog.  This is not a cute puppy begging table scraps, but rather a filthy scavenger.  The diminutive is not used to make the dog a “cute” puppy, but rather a little rat-like dog that steals the scraps from the garbage.  Jesus is also using a diminutive (“little dogs”) to refer to the woman’s child.  Jesus essentially says that it is unethical to take food away from the true child and give it to the dogs.

Jesus does not deny that the dogs will get their food, but it is after the true children have eaten their fill that the dogs will receive their crumbs. This condition is deleted from the Matthew version of the story.  Many take this to mean that Gentiles will experience salvation, but the gospel goes first to the Jews, then to the gentiles (not unlike Paul in Romans 1:16-17).

Does this story indicate that Jesus’ ministry is being broadened to include Gentiles at this point? The thrust of this series of stories (including the blind man and the feeding of the 4000, the near-context in Mark) is often described as an indication that the message of Jesus’ gospel was inclusive of the Gentiles, or at the very least was looking forward to the inclusion of the Gentiles in the Kingdom of God.  Many commentators will often link these stories with the later Gentile mission.  There is some merit to this, since the Lord associates food laws with Gentile ministry in Acts 10 in Peter’s Vision in the rooftop.  If Peter is the source behind Mark, then there is certainly cause to think that he is reflecting on his own involvement in some kind of Gentile ministry.

This may not be the case, however.  As Samuel Sandmel notes, the references to Gentiles in Jesus ministry are not the norm, but exceptions.  Gentiles are not replacing Israel, but rather some Gentiles may join Israel.  That the Gentiles would come into the kingdom was an expected part of the Kingdom of God, so it not unusual that some Gentiles might come into the kingdom via Jesus’ ministry. If these stories are conversion stories, that is.  It is entirely possible that the Gentiles that experience miracles in this section are no more converted to Jesus mission than the Jews in the previous sections.  It is highly unlikely that they convert to Judaism at this point!.  However, it is possible that there are “seeds planted” in the ministry outside of Galilee that will be a harvest later when Paul preaches a gospel apart form the law.

The point of Mark’s narrative is not that Jesus has “gone over to the Gentiles” after being rejected by the Pharisees.  Tyre and Sidon have benefited from Jesus’ ministry already (see 3:8).  Mark is writing about 40 years after these events, well into a period of Gentile ministry (quite possibly after Paul’s death!)  There is no need to “comfort and encourage” gentiles, they are the dominate element in the Roman church by the time Mark writes.

These stories of Gentile ministry serve as an ironic contrast to the lack of faith in Israel, and as such stand along side the testimony of the demons as to the true identity of Jesus.  He came to his own (Israel) but his own did not know him.  Are there other indications that Mark is intentionally contrasting the unbelieving Jews with believing Gentiles?

Bibliography:  Gene R. Smillie “‘Even The Dogs’: Gentiles In The Gospel Of Matthew,”  JETS 45:1 (March 2002): 73-97.

Top Five Mark Commentaries

Introduction. Mark commentaries usually do not spend as much time worrying over the synoptic problem as Matthew commentaries do primarily because virtually all scholars consider Mark to be the first gospel written. While there has been some interest in the sources Mark may have used (see the intro in Vincent, for example), most recent commentaries find this layer of tradition inaccessible and therefore do not speculate excessively on Ur-Mark (the original form of Mark, Mark’s source, etc.) More important than sources is Mark’s literary style and the genre of “gospel.”

R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark (NIGTC; Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2002). As with all the writers in the NIGTC series, France is an expert on the Greek text of Mark. The commentary has less background material that Evans, but is rich in exegetical detail. That is not to say that France is ignorant of the Hebrew Bible or other Second Temple Period literature, but only that his main interest is the Greek words in the context of Mark. France surveys the synoptic problem briefly, giving quite a bit of weight to John Robinson’s theory of cross-fertilization. In the end France concludes “I do not need a solution to the synoptic problem.” He approaches Mark as a storyteller who has created a long narrative in three “acts.” Like many commentaries on Mark, Peter’s confession in chapter 8 is the clear turning point of the book, dividing France’s first two “acts,” Galilee (1:1-8:21) and On the Way to Jerusalem (8:22-10:52). The third act in the drama of Mark at Jerusalem, beginning in Mark 11.

Craig Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20 (WBC; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001). Evans finished the Mark commentary for the Word series after Robert Guelich died unexpectedly in 1991. Guelich’s commentary is excellent, but Evans’ work is even better. The commentary follows the general pattern of all WBC volumes (bibliography, translation and text, form and structure, commentary, explanation). Although Evans is contributing to a commentary begun by another scholar, he has included a 63-page introduction to Mark which covers a number of issues not covered in Guelich’s original commentary. Evans only briefly comments on typical introduction issues, preferring to up-date and extend the original introduction. His section on the theology and purpose of Mark is excellent. But what sets this commentary apart from the rest is Evans’ use of Second Temple Period literature to illustrate the world of historical Jesus. For example, his comments on the Parable of the Vineyard provides references to several rabbinic parables which may be considered as parallels Jesus’ own parable. The section of Jewish divorce practices is brief, but contains a wealth of secondary material (p. 84-6). Bibliographies for each pericope are extensive, there are five pages for the Parable of the Wicked Vineyard tenants!

Robert Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on his Apology for the Cross (Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 1993). Unlike his original Matthew commentary, Gundry’s Mark commentary is more focused on the text of Mark alone. This would have to be the case given his interest in Matthew as an editor of Mark, there is no real “redaction criticism” possible for Mark. The result is an exegetical commentary which is sensitive to the text and aware of the broader theological issues at stake. What sets this commentary apart from the rest is the “notes” section for each pericope. In the main commentary section, Gundry makes scant reference to other scholars, he simply lays out the meaning of the text. After his section, he includes a section of “notes” in which he surveys the opinion of virtually every modern scholar on the topic at hand, including major German and French scholars. The type is smaller in these sections and he cites his sources only briefly, making these sections dense but rewarding.

James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2002). Edwards’ commentary is in the Pillar series, edited by D. A. Carson. While the series is designed for pastors, most of the volumes will have an appeal to scholars as well. Edwards has an excellent introduction to the gospel of Mark, the highlight is his discussion of Mark’s Christology. Since the commentary is aimed at pastors, Greek is transliterated and text-critical issues are relegated to footnotes. I especially appreciate his use of the Hebrew Bible and other Second Temple Period literature. The result is a very readable and useful commentary which will serve the busy pastor well.

Vincent Taylor, The Gospel According to St. Mark (1952, second edition 1966). Originally published in 1952, this commentary was republished in the early 1980s by Baker as a part of their Thornapple commentary series. This is how commentaries used to be written for pastors – with the Greek text running across the top of the page and textual notes in two columns beneath. Vincent’s comments on the Greek focus on syntax, citing Blass, Moulton, Turner, etc. His 150 page introduction is a window into the state of Gospel studies in the mid 20th century, critical yet respectful of the text – Mark is “an authority of first rank for our knowledge of the Story of Jesus.”

I will mention one other classic commentary here, even though this violates my “top five commentary” rule. Henry Swete’s 1902 commentary on the Greek text of Mark is available from Google Books (now, Play Books) as a free download. This is an oft-cited classic commentary on Mark which is well worth consulting.

Conclusion. What have I left out? What commentaries on Mark have you found useful? What classic commentary on Mark should be read by all students of the Gospels?

Index for the Top Five Commentary Series

 

Introduction to Series on Commentaries

On Using Commentaries 

Matthew        Mark        Luke        John        Acts
Romans        1 Corinthians         2 Corinthians
Galatians         Ephesians        Philippians        Colossians
1-2 Thessalonians        Pastoral Epistles         Philemon
Hebrews        James         1 Peter         2 Peter & Jude 
Letters of John         Revelation

Conclusion:  Last Thoughts on New Testament Commentaries