September 2018


Why read Mark in dialogue with ancient Jewish sources? One reason: Jesus was a Jew. This point seems simplistic and every scholar and, in fact, lay person knows this. But knowing it and trying to make sense of it are two different things. Jesus lived and Mark wrote in a world different from our own, and the best way we have today to inhabit their world with them is to study them alongside other literature from that time period.

There are several benefits that come from studying Mark and Jesus alongside their contemporaries. First, scripture opens up to us. Figures like Herod, the Pharisees and Sadducees come alive. Jesus’ words about the kingdom of God or the strange figure of the “Son of Man” begin to make more sense. We can better understand the distinctiveness of Jesus, as well as see how he was a typical Jew in so many ways.

A second benefit is the converse of the first: scripture becomes mysterious. Many of us contain or constrain the mystery of scripture. We bypass the awkwardness, ignoring it or forcing it into paradigms we are more comfortable with. Yet, when we read Mark or study Jesus alongside their contemporaries, it flags for us that Scripture is not a 21st century text. We realize that Mark tells a strange story about a crucified messiah, a figure who belonged to his ancient context and yet exploded beyond it. Reading Mark alongside other Jewish literature helps us see that Mark—and Jesus—are redefining reality both in their ancient contexts and in ours. Jesus becomes a mystery again, a figure we can’t contain.

Why read Mark in dialogue with ancient Jewish sources? Because we discover the wonder of Jesus in new, refreshing and life changing ways.

Get Reading Mark in Context (Zondervan) at Amazon.

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Just the other day a new student asked me (Ben) about studying the New Testament and early Christianity. They were wondering how you study early Christianity because we have relatively few sources for knowing what they thought and practiced. However, when I noted exponential growth in the variety of material we have from the second, third, and forth centuries, the problem is not too little material from these early Christians to process but too much material. Of course, it’s not really too much, but there is so much that putting all the data together can be quite complex.

Since that is the nature of later Christian material, they offered that it’s too bad that we don’t have that same diversity with Jewish material for understanding the New Testament. While again we don’t have “too much,” we have quite a bit of theological, liturgical, historical, philosophical, mystical, narrative, etc. texts from Jews that lived within a similar time frame as the New Testament. The problem isn’t so much the limited amount of material that we have, the problem for students interpreting the New Testament is that they are almost completely unaware of the existence of the material, much less its breadth and depth.

9780310534457I was so much on board when the idea was initially brought up for Reading Romans in Context and now Reading Mark in Context because after seminary I was partially aware that this world existed, but I didn’t know anything about specific texts or much about particular ideas. Our goal with these is to introduce students to this world by making this material accessible to graduate and undergraduate level students. We provide glimpses into that world to help people know it exists and to get a sense of some of its flavor. With just glimpses this means that each chapter is selective, just covering one central topic. Of course, the depth and variety of each biblical passage means there’s much more that could be explored, but we hope this will whet the appetite to study these issues further.