Thursday, December 24, 2009

Mark (BECNT)

Maybe I'm just getting grumpy, but . . .

That's probably not the best way to start this post. Let's try again.

This morning I read Robert Stein's introductory discussion of the gospel of Mark in his contribution to the Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Mark [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008]), which I've assigned for the course I'm teaching on Mark in the Spring 2010 term. I appreciate the breadth and thoroughness of Stein's discussion, and I realize that the introduction to a commentary is not the place to expect original or groundbreaking scholarship. Also, I've read two others of Stein's books (A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible and The Method and Message of Jesus' Teachings [both 1994]), so I knew as I started this book that Stein represents a very traditional scholarly point of view.

So in the context of my broad appreciation for what Stein has accomplished in publishing this commentary (and it is significant), I found myself increasingly exasperated by Stein's rather uncritical approach to Christian origins and Mark's place therein. For instance,

From within Mark we learn a great deal abut the audience for whom it was written. We know it was a Greek-speaking audience that did not know Aramaic, as Mark's explanations of Aramaic expressions indicate (3:17–22; 5:41; 7:11, 34; 9:43; 10:46; 14:36; 15:22, 34). We also know that it was a Christian audience familiar with the gospel traditions. (Stein 2008: 9).

But do we know these things? And if so, how? Nevermind my general questioning of the utility of identifying Mark's audience as "Christian" (As opposed to what? Jewish? What does this mean?), which would be inappropriate for Stein to discuss, perhaps, in this venue. But why should Mark's explanations indicate necessarily that his audience—either in part or in whole—were unfamiliar with Aramaic? I find it just as probable—more so, even—that we should construe Mark's explanations as evidence that the Markan evangelist was accustomed to presenting the Jesus tradition in situations that might also include people (Jews? God-fearers? gentiles?) who were unfamiliar with Aramaic.

I also question the judgment that Mark's was "a Christian audience familiar with the gospel traditions." I wouldn't want to suggest that Mark wrote for people who were unfamiliar with the gospel. But I don't think familiar is a useful adjective for gospel scholarship. For too long we have spoken of the evangelists as "familiar" with gospel traditions or of those traditions as "sources" for their writings. But this language, rooted in earlier generations of scholarship, fail to express the significance that traditions and customs and ethics—in a word, culture—played in the earliest Christian communities (or any communities, for that matter).

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz famously described culture as "webs of significance" (granted, webs "that we ourselves have spun"), and it's well past time for NT scholars as a whole to appreciate that early Christians—the authors of our texts as well as their audiences—lived and moved and had their beings in worlds defined and constrained by their traditions. We might as well say that Mark's audience "was familiar with" oxygen. Or water. Or love. As I've argued elsewhere, this change in perspective has dramatic consequences not only for our interpretation of the biblical texts but also for our appraisal of them.


Anonymous said...

RR, aside from your personal grumpiness, which I for one can identify with, not everyone has read your book yet, and not everyone has studied social memory. Give the man some time; he'll catch up. ~Carl

Rafael said...

Thanks, Carl. Actually, the link was just meant to point to where my argument can be found, not to suggest that Stein ought to have accounted for it. But then again, he should have.

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