Jesus and the Gospels

We got a few responses from our Reading Romans in Context: Paul and Second Temple Judaism volume that we were just beholden to the New Perspective and its fundamental problem—letting Jewish texts determine the meaning of inspired revelation. (That said, if they had actually read the volume or understood the New Perspective, they would have not so easily made that claim about our volume.) The challenge seems a little less pressing when you consider Jesus in his Jewish environment like we have with Reading Mark in Context: Jesus and Second Temple Judaism, but even then I (Ben) have received a comments from some quite hesitant to allow any uninspired text to shape our understanding of the Bible. That sounds spiritual, but the historical study of the Bible is foundational for all serious interpretations. Whether one follows the historical-critical method or its evangelical cousin the historical-grammatical method, the key idea is history.

We don’t have any problem studying the practices of the cult of Artemis in Ephesus to help us understand Luke’s portrayal of Paul’s experience there in Acts 19. We don’t have any problem looking at archeological dig sites to help understand the daily life of Jews and their Decapolis neighbors to understand Jesus’ early ministry in Galilee. In fact, my evangelical compatriots often rightly appeal to the distinctly historical nature of the narrative accounts in the Gospels and Acts to argue for their reliability. In these cases, allowing for a historical boundedness to meaning does not entail that we are letting uninspired knowledge determine the meaning of the Bible. Rather than a hindrance, we think of these as aids. In the same way, we have a treasure trove of Jewish texts that give us a window into historical perspectives of Jews contemporaneous with the New Testament. Why would ignore this rich variety that we find in the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Dead Sea Scrolls, Philo, Josephus, etc.? These help us gain invaluable historical information about the first century Jewish experience.

When you read Reading Mark in Context, you will see that Jesus and Mark disagree with or modify Jewish categories as much as they accept them. As a result, we are not allowing these other texts to control our understanding of the Bible. They do, however, enlighten our understanding. If we are concerned with bad interpretation, I am much more worried about those who ignore historical information and therefore import their own very modern conceptions back onto Jesus and the New Testament. As they try to avoid letting actual historical documents determine the meaning, they end up committing a worse error by allowing their own opinion to determine the meaning (i.e., eisegesis). God chose to reveal himself in Jesus in a Second Temple Jewish setting for a reason, and it behooves the serious interpreter to understand the historical context in which God’s revelation occurred so we can understand it better. Reading Mark in Context won’t uncover all the historical issues, but it can at least tangibly introduce you and your students to Jesus’ world.


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!

In Mark 11.27-12.34 Jesus engages with other Jewish groups as they pepper him with various questions. In one of the rare engagements between Jesus and the Sadducees, they present him with a problem regarding marriage and resurrection (12:18-27). They tell a story about a woman who marries, but the husband dies. Of course, in Jewish law the solution is simple: the woman marries the man’s brother. Yet, in this story, the next brother dies, as does the next and the next and so on. Their question then is whose wife will she be at the resurrection. (The account is probably based on the story of Tobit.)

The story told by the Sadducees is tragic, but their real concern is with the legal code of the levirate marriage law (Deut 25.5-10). According to the logic of the Sadducees, one cannot maintain a belief in resurrection and uphold the authority of the Torah. They make two assumptions here: 1) marital practices of the “supposed” resurrection age will mirror those of the present age; and 2) the ultimate authority of the Mosaic Torah in both the present age and the next. If the Torah commandment of levirate marriage remains applicable in the resurrection age, which it must, then this creates a bizarre situation that violates other laws about adultery. Their question to Jesus is fundamentally about the Torah.

In his response Jesus challenges the Sadducees understanding of Scripture. He claims that if the Sadducees were reading Scripture properly they would realize that God is the God of the living. This is the point of his quotation of Exod 3.6, whatever exactly is the best interpretation of Jesus’ quotation.

But stopping here is to grasp only the surface meaning of Jesus’ response. Underneath the surface Jesus is leveling a more marked charge: the issue as Jesus frames it is not merely whether there will be a resurrection nor even how best to interpret Moses, but rather the very nature of God. Is Israel’s God one who gives life only in the present or also in the future? The conjunction of the double declarations of God’s identity is crucial: Scripture reveals that God is “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” and it is accepted truth that he is “the God of the living,” therefore, Jesus infers, the patriarchs must live again.[1] Jesus cuts through the legal questions to the core issue: what is the nature Israel’s God?

By turning to Exod 3:6, Jesus’ tactic is not only cleaver, but it thoroughly undercuts the Sadducees’ rejection of the resurrection. Jesus exposes them as hermeneutically deficient, for they had failed to grasp the full import of this text as it relates to one of their core beliefs. But, even more sharply, Jesus charges that their denial of resurrection is actually a denial of Israel’s God.

[1] Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20, WBC (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 256–57.

In a previous post, I (Jason) briefly explained how little clear evidence there is in second temple Jewish texts for a widespread belief in resurrection. Recognizing this point may help explain two issues about the development of early Christianity (probably more, but I’m only interested in these two right now).

First, if resurrection was not a widely held belief, then the commonality between Jesus, his movement and the Pharisees on this issue can help explain why the two are often linked together. Despite all their differences, these two groups were united in their acceptance of a minority view. They found common support, and if necessary could look past their obvious differences on other matters. This explains why some of the teachers of the law (Luke 20.39) praised Jesus when he rebutted the Sadducees. Recognizing this shared viewpoint also helps explain why there was so much tension between the Pharisees and Jesus. Both had a common message about resurrection which they were offering to the same group of people. In other words, they were competing for the same audience, and Jesus appeared to be winning.

Second, the distinctiveness of the Christian message stands out. If many people were not expecting individual resurrection, then the Christian message strikes a different tone. It not only appears awkward in comparison to Greek and Roman ideas of the afterlife, but also in comparison to many Jewish ideas. The Christian message not only struck a chord with its claim that the messiah was a crucified man, but also with its claim that this one had been raised and that all who believed in him would also be raised. The resurrection of believers should be seen as a distinctive part of the Christian proclamation.

51-Q4LemSWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Mike Bird, Lecturer in Theology at Ridley Melbourne, is well known for his many books and blog Euangelion. In his latest volume, The Gospel of the Lord: How the Early Church Wrote the Story of Jesus, he explores the origins and development of the Gospels. Mike works through a range of the key issues, such as oral tradition, the synoptic problem and the Johannine Question, and presents many complicated issues with great clarity. (His discussion of the synoptic problem is one of the clearest accounts, whatever one makes of his conclusion.) He kindly has answered some questions about the book.

1. Your publications have spanned across the breath of New Testament and Systematic theology. What brought you back to the Gospels at this point and particularly to this topic?

A number of things. First, it’s always good to go back and have a close read of the Gospels because the Gospels present to us the story of Jesus. So by virtue of their subject, Jesus, they should have a special place in our hearts. Second, I didn’t want to engage in a study of the literary, narrative, and theological texture of the Gospels just yet. I hope to return to that task in the coming years. But I felt the need to write a kind of critical preface towards understanding how the Gospels came to be. How did we get them, what are they, and where do they sit in the story of the early church. So GOTL covers all the preliminary stuff, hoping paying the way for a more concerted study of the actual content of the Gospels themselves.

2. Will you summarise for us what your main thesis (theses) are in this book?

There is no singular thesis since I’m trying to answer the critical questions abou the origins of the Gospels. In a nutshell, I’d say: (1) The Gospels are historically reliable and are reasonable guides to Jesus; (2) The Gospels were probably transmitted in a complex web of oral and written traditions. (3) Social-memory is probably the best hermeneutical framework for understanding the origins of the Gospel traditions. (4) On the Synoptic Problem, I go for the three-source theory (Holtzmann-Gundry thesis) where Luke used Matthew-Mark-Q. On the Johannine Question, I opt for the semi-independence of John from the Synoptics (i.e., John has probably seen, heard, or read Mark, but doesn’t write with it front of him). (5) The Gospel genre is a variation of Greco-Roman biography married to OT narrative and Christian proclamation. (6) The fourfold Gospel was not a late invention nor one meant to stifle diversity, but bring us the clearest testimony to Jesus as he is understood in the rule of faith.

3. There have been several recent studies addressing the formation of the Gospels and the four-fold Gospel (e.g. Dunn, The Oral Gospel Tradition; Eve, Behind the Gospels; Rodriguez, Oral Tradition and the New Testament; Watson, Gospel Writing). What will readers find different in your study?

I believe there are good reasons for supposing that the church was interested in what we might call a “historical Jesus” (though not necessarily “historical” as we might conceive it). I think we can no longer look for a pure oral tradition behind the Gospels since the Jesus tradition moved to and fro between oral and written forms in its pre-Gospel stages. It means that orality, book culture, and social memory theory are all needed to reconstruct what is behind the Gospels and how we got them. I take a bold perspective in advocating the Holtzmann-Gundry thesis. I think we can read non-canonical Jesus literature and other “Gospels” sympathetically even if they are not regarded as part of the church’s testimony to Jesus.

4. In your view what has led to this interest in the formation of the Gospels?

It is a bit of a detective game when you think about it. The Synoptic Problem and Johannine Question beckon us with why these documents are partly similar and partly different. Who knew what when? Who used who first? It also raises the question of sources, reliability, and authority, which are natural questions for those who treat the Gospels as sources of either authority or even revelation. To put it broadly, what forces and factors shaped the Evangelists to write these Jesus books in these particular ways and what were they trying to achieve by doing that? These are all big questions and no consensus has really won the day.

5. Two areas that have received much attention lately are orality and memory which both are important throughout your whole project and discussed directly in chapter 3. Would you explain how you address these areas?

Whoa, that would take a big lecture and while I utilize social memory, I do not profess to be one of its leading practitioners. I’m reliant on chaps like Anthony Le Donne, Rafael Rodriguez, and Chris Keith. The important thing is that social memory is not a “school” that describes how the Gospels evolved from orality into literature, but it provides a hermeneutical framework for how memory is both reliable and yet refracted or redacted in light of the situation of the remember(s). In many cases, it provides a way of breaking the impasse between different ways of conceiving the development of the Jesus tradition.

6. Your title ‘the Gospel of the Lord’ comes from two patristic authors (John Cassian and Cyprian). How have these early Christian authors and others shaped your understanding of the Gospels?

I think the Gospels are fundamentally about drawing people to praise, revere, believe in, and worship, the one whom the Evangelists know to be “the Lord.” They are the books and stories that tell us who the Lord Jesus is, what he taught, how he lived, why he died, why he rose, who we should think he is, and how we should relate to him.

7. What areas in the study of the formation of the Gospels need addressed further? To put it differently, if someone was looking for a PhD thesis topic, what might you suggest to them?

So many areas. The Gospel of Mark in the Second Century would be good. The Gospel titles in the various manuscripts. The making of early Gospel commentaries. Angels in the Gospels needs to be done (see esp. Matt 18:10).

8. Now that you have finished this project, what can we be looking forward to next?

I’m currently working on a commentary on Romans for the SGBC series and an introduction to Christian doctrine via the Apostles’ Creed. Coming soon!!

I would like to thank Mike for answering these questions. For more information about the book, check out this video interview by Mike. The book is available now or you can get it from Eerdmans at SBL.

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