Book Review: Mark (Hermeneia)

markhermeneiaTitle: Mark: A Commentary (Hermeneia)

Author: Adela Yarbro Collins

Bibliographic info: xiv + 413 + 69

Cover: Hard with Dustjacket

Publisher: Fortress Press, 2007

Buy it at Amazon

With thanks to Fortress Press for the review copy!

Of all the commentary series I’ve read the Hermeneia series is easily one of the best. Of course, one’s preference for commentary series depends upon exactly what it is that one looks for in a commentary, but if one desires a commentary that dives in deep into the historical, cultural, linguistic, and intertextual aspects of the text in question, then Hermeneia does it best. I’ve had this volume on Mark for quite a few months as it has taken me quite a long time to read through it (if you’re familiar with the Hermeneia commentaries then you are probably aware the size they can run to).

The author of this volume on the Gospel of Mark is Adela Yarbro Collins, a Professor at Yale Divinity School. The book begins with the standard lengthy introduction covering all the usual issues, e.g. date, genre, audience, authorship, Christology, and so forth. The most interesting gleaning from the intro is Collins novel take on the genre (see esp. pp. 15-43). Collins begins by saying:

The author of Mark has taken the model of biblical sacred history and transformed it, first, by infusing it with an eschatological and apocalyptic perspective and, second, by adapting it to Hellenistic historiographical and biographical traditions. The latter was accomplished by the focus on the person of Jesus and by the presentation of his life and teaching in a way that assimilated him to the Hellenistic philosophers. (1)

After exploring the options of the Gospel of Mark as “gospel”, “history”, and “biography”, Collins instead opts to describe it as best being understood “as an eschatological historical monograph” (18).

Collins sees the provenance of Mark being probably Roman or Syrian, though neither option can marshal a decisive case. Like the majority of commentators on Mark, she sees the Gospel as being written in the 66-73 CE period, with it more likely being written prior to the destruction of the temple. Collins proposes that one intention of Mark in writing the Gospel was to defend Jesus as messiah in view of the messianic pretenders that had arisen subsequent to the war beginning in 66 CE.

There are more than a few first-rate commentaries on the Gospel of Mark available on the market. For instance, there is Bas van Iersel’s volume on Mark from a reader-response perspective, Ched Myers’ from a political perspective, Joel Marcus’ which focuses upon the Jewish backdrop of the Gospel, and Ben Witherington’s volume on Mark from a socio-rhetorical perspective (which, oddly enough, was never referred to in this volume and is not in the bibliography). What makes Adela Collin’s contribution to the Hermeneia series stand out? It is the detailed attention she pays to the parallels of Greco-Roman and Jewish literature (found in each commentary section under the label “Cultural Contexts”). For instance, in the pericope on property and the kingdom of God (Mk. 10.17-31), Collin draws upon nearly a dozen different sources, ranging from the Dead Sea Scrolls to Diogenes Laertuis. In another pericope (Mk. 6.31-56) Collins quotes Euripides, Philostratus, the Hebrew Bible, the pseudepigrapha, the Dead Sea Scrolls, Homer, and Apollonius of Rhodes to name some of the sources. This is pretty typical throughout the entire commentary, yet despite this focus on parallels, Collins does not lead the reader astray into parallelomania; she makes astute use of the sources in order to help tease out the meaning of Mark’s text. An example of this is her “cultural contexts” discussion of Jesus’ walking on the water (Mk. 6.45-52) on pp. 326-32. After examining relevant Jewish and Greco-Roman texts, Collins concludes with the following:

The creation of the account in Mark 6:45-52 was an act of early Christian mythopoiesis, the construction of an incident in the life of Jesus that was intended to honor him and to win adherents to his cause. […]

As indicated above, the motif of walking on the sea or on water was known in Greek or Roman, biblical, and Jewish tradition. The members of the Christian communities in which Mark was read probably came from diverse backgrounds. Those Jewish by birth and well instructed in biblical and Jewish tradition were likely to understand the account of Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee in terms of Jewish cultural heroes and prophets. The fact that it is God alone in the Hebrew Bible who is said to walk on water, in addition to the theophanic elements in vv. 45-52, makes it likely that such members of the audience of Mark would have understood that the passage implies the divinity of Jesus. The motif of a human or semi-divine being walking on water, however, is considerably more widespread in Greek and Roman tradition than in Jewish circles. This currency makes it likely that Gentile Christians, or anyone familiar with such traditions, would associate this story with Greek and Roman backgrounds, even if they had been instructed in the biblical and Jewish analogies. (332-33)

I enjoyed the section that dealt with the empty tomb narrative of Mark 16.1-8 (779-801). Within this section is an excursus on resurrection in ancient cultural contexts (782-94). At the end of the excursus Collins notes that:

Since the earliest recoverable form of Mark does not depict Jesus as walking the earth in bodily form, it is likely that the author assumed that his earthly body had been transformed. (794)

This is consistent with Collins’ proposal that Mark displays Jesus to the Hellenistic audience by assimilating him to the heroes of the Greek and Hellenistic tradition. Mark shapes the empty tomb narrative in such a way as to suggest a “translation” of the immortalized Jesus to the heavenly sphere of existence, which in the Greece-Roman world was accompanied by interest in the empty tombs of such heroes (and thus why Mark ends the Gospel with the empty tomb). The silence of the women in Mk. 16.8 is said by Collins to be due to “their being struck with awe at the extraordinary events” (800). Collins also says that Mark “does not address the question whether the women eventually gave the disciples and Peter the message. It focuses rather on the numinous and shocking character of the event of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead […] The conclusion that Mark ended with 16:8 is supported by the emphasis throughout the Gospel on the “numinous” or on the human response of “wonder” to the manifestation of heavenly power in an earthly context” (800-01). Of course, after dealing with Mk. 16.1-8, Collins also deals with the longer endings of Mark and even provides a reconstruction of a pre-Markan passion narrative.

As with any other Hermeneia volume, there are several excurses throughout the commentary, covering such topics as the messianic secret, the son of man tradition, the Secret Gospel of Mark, the historicity of Judas, and others. The volume finishes with the obligatory bibliography and four indices (Greek terms, passages, authors, and subjects). All in all, Adela Collins has provided us with a fantastic commentary on Mark. It is the best commentary on the Gospel that I’ve had the pleasure of reading, which I am sure is due in part to her decision to focus heavily upon the Jewish and  Greco-Roman backgrounds which I think is the most beneficial approach to this Gospel.

One response

  1. My perspective on this commentary is that it’s an invaluable resource for people who are currently doing research on the Gospel of Mark due to its balanced judgment and generous citation of the secondary literature but doesn’t really contain any significant insights of its own. For the most part, Collins is content to give her version of the consensus as it existed before her commentary was written.

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