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.


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.

This summer my family and I were glued to our television for nearly a month, as we are every four years, during the FIFA World Cup. Even though the USA didn’t qualify, we were pulling for one particular team—England, where my wife and I lived during my doctoral studies. Sadly, the Three Lions were eliminated in the semi-final round, bringing an all-too-early end to our World Cup dreams. But it was an exciting tournament nonetheless and we were sorely disappointed when the final whistle blew.

Despite our World Cup thrills, most viewers probably appreciated the tournament far more than we did. While my family and I are avid fans of football, the truth is we normally follow the other kind—American football, which is, as they say, a completely different ballgame. In fact, our familiarity with the players, rules, strategies, and team histories of international soccer are embarrassingly limited. We know enough of the basics to follow along, even enough to get caught up in some of the drama, but there is no question we would have understood and appreciated more of what we were watching had we possessed a deeper well of knowledge about the sport, even about international politics and pop culture.

Believe it or not, reading the Gospel of Mark is not unlike watching the World Cup. Many readers can easily pick up their New Testament, read the Second Gospel, and walk away better informed about the life, ministry, and passion of Jesus Christ. They can even, as a result, grow in their love for our Lord and live more faithful lives as his disciples. But what Jesus said and did resonates at an altogether deeper level when one brings to the Bible greater awareness of the “game” Jesus was playing—that is, the game of Second Temple Judaism.

Mark’s Gospel was written for readers with at least some familiarity with intertestamental Jewish history, politics, culture, and religion. In fact, there are numerous pericopae that are in implicit dialogue with the Jewish theological traditions extant in the first century. Sometimes the evangelist himself tells us exactly what those traditions and beliefs consisted of. For example, when introducing the Sadducees for the first and only time in the narrative, Mark tells us they were a sect of Judaism that denied the resurrection of the dead (12:18). But at other times, Mark assumes his readers themselves possess the requisite knowledge to fill in the blanks about the who, what, and where of the narrative.

Reading Mark in Context

Our recently released collection of essays, Reading Mark in Context: Jesus and Second Temple Judaism (Zondervan Academic), seeks to show how familiarizing oneself with Second Temple Jewish literature can help fill those blanks. With a foreword by N. T. Wright and 30 essays by some of today’s most respected Markan scholars (Michael Bird, Darrell Bock, Helen Bond, Elizabeth Shively, Mark Strauss, Rikk Watts, and more), this book will help the reader study the text in new and enriching ways. The volume was designed to cover the entire Second Gospel, but not to be exhaustive. Much more could be said both about Judaism as well as about Jesus. But hopefully this book will whet one’s appetite for reading Mark’s Gospel in context and for digging deeply into the world of the New Testament. If this book interests you, I encourage you to check it out!

Many thanks to Logos are in order, as the October “free book of the month” is Joseph Fitzmyer’s Romans volume in the Anchor Yale Bible Commentary series. And, as if that were not generous enough, Logos has also made available for cheap Francis Andersen’s Habakkuk volume ($1.99) as well as J. Louis Martyn’s Galatians volume ($2.99), both from the same series. Just scroll down the give-away page to see those two additional offers.

In a previous post I (Jason) noted what I think is the most important claim made by Campbell in his book Framing Paul: An Epistolary Biography. It is the role he assigns to Ephesians/Laodiceans as the summary of Paul’s theology. In this post I want to raise a potential methodological problem with Campbell’s project.

As the subtitle indicates this book uses exclusively Paul’s epistles to establish Paul’s biography. Campbell is following John Knox when he identifies Paul’s letters as “primary” evidence. This primacy is set over against the book of Acts, which is treated as “secondary” evidence.

I want to note two problems with this approach. First, while I appreciate the need to ensure that one understands what each letter itself is saying about Paul’s travels, it strikes me as problematic to exclude evidence when one is trying to reconstruct a person’s life from 2000 years ago. My impression is that this is not the way historians typically operate. Historians draw on all the available material to construct an account of what happened. When we have so little material to work with, it seems mistaken to disregard from the outset a potential source.

Second, and more problematic to me, is Campbell’s willingness to use other sources besides Paul’s letters to collaborate or explain potential historical connections, which Campbell does at key points in his account, while maintaining a complete disregard for Acts. It is unclear to me why he is willing to use this material but not Acts. Campbell’s argument is not exclusively using Paul’s letters for the reconstruction. For example, the Thessalonian correspondences do not clearly identify when they were written or why. Yet, Campbell confidently claims that they were written against the backdrop of the Gaian crisis in 40-42 CE. This may be the case, but the only way Campbell can make this claim is to draw on non-Pauline material to establish a potential historical referent. The Thessalonian correspondences do not explicitly identify this issue. But here is precisely the problem: as soon as one allows any source beyond the letters into play, one must be willing to allow all the evidence into play–including Acts.

Campbell indicates at several points that a follow up study of Acts is in the works (or at least a study of Paul that incorporates Acts). I wonder when Acts is evaluated will the evidence of Acts at points be allowed to modify the reconstruction Campbell offers in Framing Paul? Or, will the conclusions drawn here be given priority and allowed to overrun Luke’s account? Is the framing presented in this volume actually as tentative as Campbell indicates at times? Or, is the frame now a fixed structure and any material that does not build on this pattern going to be rejected outright? Is Framing Paul the blue prints that are still subject to adjustment, even moving a whole wall if necessary, or is it a steel structure and Acts can only add some decorative features?

I’m (Jason) presently working on a short piece that outlines Paul’s biography so I finally got a round to reading Douglas Campbell’s Framing Paul: An Epistolary Biography. In the run-up to the book’s publication, I had heard that it would challenge much of the status quo in Pauline scholarship. And this it certainly does. The book is methodical in its assessment of the Pauline material and the standard arguments put forward by others. It is bold in its conclusions. Campbell was not bound by normal answers, and he was willing to rethink almost everything about Paul’s biography (including positions that he himself had advocated for previously). Campbell provides the reader much to think about. The conclusion is a fascinating re-ordering of Paul’s life and letter writing.

While I have many questions about the details of the argument, I want to focus briefly on two issues in this post and the next. First, while reading the book, it was often unclear to me what the payout was going to be. Campbell insists that having Paul’s biography, specifically his chronology, right is absolutely necessary for a correct reconstruction of his theology. While modifying the dates of when some of the books were written (Romans earlier than most would place it), through the first four chapters I wasn’t sure what the significance of getting Paul’s biography right was going to be. However, it is in chapter 5 on Colossians, Philemon and Ephesians where I think the payout comes. Particularly it is Campbell’s claims about Ephesians (which he claims is the letter to the Laodiceans). He argues for the authenticity of Ephesians/Laodiceans–not itself a novel position but certainly contrary to much of scholarship. But the real shift comes in his claim that Ephesians/Laodiceans is the third letter Paul wrote (after 1 and 2 Thess). Moreover, it is written to a community that did not know Paul or his theological views. From this reconstruction, Campbell claims, Ephesians/Laodiceans “is a unique introduction to the Pauline way for those who knew next to nothing about it” (p.407). As he puts it elsewhere, “Ultimately, this position will result in a more ‘Ephesiocentric’ account of Paul’s thought than might otherwise be the case” (p.326).

Of course, many scholars hold that Ephesians is in essential agreement with Paul’s other letters. But, I think, Campbell means something more by this. Rather than interpretative priority being assigned to Romans, it must now be given to Ephesians. How exactly this will impact reconstructions of Paul’s theology remains to be seen. Will prioritizing Ephesians/Laodiceans produce a completely different reading of Paul than, say, Dunn’s The Theology of Paul, which is structured on Romans? Campbell has a book on Paul’s theology in the works, and it will be interesting to see how this refocusing on Ephesians/Laodiceans will play out.

One of my (Ben’s) favorite classes as to teach to undergrads is our New Testament Theology course. It’s one of the first upper level courses that majors/minors will take, and I get to expose them to the breadth, depth, and variety among these great texts. My focus in that course is two fold: 1) give them a deeper knowledge of the different texts and genres and 2) expose them to different hermeneutical approaches and voices (patristic, historical critical, postmodern, theological interp, etc.). Last year I taught Theology of the New Testament on the masters level for the first time. Wanting to provide a unique approach (for the rare student that might have had me as an undergrad but as much for my own benefit), I was looking for a something different to do.

My colleague, Jason Maston, suggested George Caird’s approach in his New Testament Theology. I did end up following that model, but Caird’s book is difficult to find since it’s out of print and it didn’t really give enough details about each author to warrant the size of the book. So, I wasn’t really satisfied with the book, but I loved the approach I took in class. Each student had to become “the expert” on their text, and as we worked through a variety of issues each week, they had to represent the voice of their text. I would first assign them to meet with others that represented their same genre: Gospels/Acts, Paul, and Catholic Epistles. Then they would mix genres in another group. It was great interaction that really helped them see the unity and diversity of the NT.

9780830851485As I’m looking forward to the next run of the course, I’ve kept my eyes open for a replacement, and I’ve definitely got one I’ll try: Derek Tidball’s The Voices of the New Testament. 1) It’s manageable in size–I’m a big fan of fairly short textbooks so I can either assign good seminar readings of the best thinkers or just get students to dig into primary texts. 2) It doesn’t over-do the topics. That is, Caird attempted to give a more complete discussion of various texts, but couldn’t given the format. Tidball’s treatment of each text is shorter and gets you to the big picture issue, so that (for my purposes) students can then go digest the text more fully on their own.

Not having used it, I can’t speak to how well he manages the conversation, but it seems to have a good dose of the Gospels and Paul, so the CE (broadly conceived) may get less attention, though Hebrews seems to show up a bit.

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