Review: The Rhetoric of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark

rhetoric of jesus mark

The Rhetoric of Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, David M. Young and Michael Strickland. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017.

Summary: A study of the four major discourses in the Gospel of Mark analyzing them in the context of first century Greco-Roman rhetoric.

When form criticism was used in biblical studies, the biblical text was divided into the textual fragments that represented to the critics the fundamental units out of which the text was built from various sources. With the advent of rhetorical criticism, the concern is less with identifying discrete textual units than considering the work of the writer or narrator in the text as we have it.

In this work the writers apply the study of rhetoric to the four major discourses in the Gospel of Mark (Mark 3:22–30, 4:1–34, 6:53–7:23, 11:27–13:37). The writers assert that the teaching of rhetoric, or at least familiarity with examples of well-crafted rhetoric was widespread in the world of both Jesus and Mark, and their hearers or readers would recognize rhetorical strategies and appreciate them. This work utilizes a methodology developed by George Kennedy that begins with establishing the rhetorical unit and situation, then engages in detailed, line by line, study of the text, noting rhetorical elements and devices such as parable and chiasmus, and then overviews the rhetoric of the discourse, whether it succeeds, and the implications for speaker and audience.

The writers then employ this methodology with the four discourses, as indicated above. Space precludes a summary of the analyses of each passage, but the writers reached several salient conclusions. One is that at both the primary level of Jesus the speaker, and the secondary level of the narrative, these discourses are well-crafted rhetoric, that are effective as persuasive works. In particular, each establishes the authority of Jesus against the challenges of the teachers of the law.  The writers particularly note the terse, economical character of Jesus’ speech and his effective use of parables, enthymemes, and other rhetorical devices his listeners would readily have recognized. Finally, they note the consistent pattern of movement from public discourse to private explanation with the disciples.

The work includes a glossary of terms in the end matter, and the reader not well-versed in rhetorical studies would do well to bookmark this as they study the text. The writers also offer an appendix on a brief history of Greco-Roman rhetoric. Some readers without this background might find reading this first to be helpful. Familiarity with Greek is helpful, and the analyses do go into fine detail on rhetorical structures in the text. The reward for this rigorous work is an appreciation of the rhetoric of Jesus and the rhetorical art in Mark. We see in finer detail how each element in these discourses persuade us of the authority of Jesus. This work is helpful both for the teacher of this material, and other scholars of Mark studying the discourses.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through Edelweiss. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Jesus, The Temple and the Coming Son of Man

Jesus the Temple and the Coming of the Son of ManJesus, The Temple, and the Coming Son of Man, Robert H. Stein. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: This commentary on Mark 13 sorts through the complex interpretive issues concerning the fall of the temple, apocalyptic events, and the return of the Son of Man.

Perhaps the greatest interpretive challenge in the gospel of Mark concerns the predictions of chapter 13, beginning with the questions the disciples ask in response to Jesus’ statement, “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (v. 2). The disciples ask, “When will these things be and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” (v. 4).

Robert H. Stein provides one of the best explanations that takes seriously the question of Mark’s readers as well as the original context of Jesus’ words. He deals with one of the thorniest parts of the passage, who “this generation” is in verse 30 and whether this applies to the fall of the temple, or the return of the Son of Man. If it is the latter, it is hard to explain how this could be true.

First of all, Stein surveys the various ways the different “quests” for the historical Jesus have shaped readings of Mark 13 before arguing for his own approach of considering what the author of Mark intended his readers to grasp. Then he turns to the first four verses of Mark which he sees as key to the whole. He would argue that the parallel phrases of the disciples question are both concerned only with the fall of the temple and that the second concerns the sign to be looked for to warn when the time of the temple (and Jerusalem’s fall) was imminent. Their question did not envision any events beyond this including the Son of Man’s return.

He then argues that the rest of the chapter follows an A-B-A-B pattern:

A. Verses 5-23 are Jesus’ immediate response to the questions. He first warns them of what will not be signs of the temple’s fall–false messiahs, wars and rumors of wars, and persecution. The sign will be the “abomination of desolation” that Jesus’ original hearers would have understood as those who defiled the temple, probably fulfilled in 67 AD when Zealots and their leaders performed sacrilegious acts in the temple. It was at this time that Christians fled the city to Pella and escaped its destruction, heeding the warnings Jesus gave.

B. Verses 24-27 speak of events in some subsequent time, “in those days, after that tribulation” when there will be signs in the heavens and the Son of Man comes on the clouds. Stein understands this occurring at some indefinite time in the future after the fall of Jerusalem, but not necessarily close in time.

A1. Verses 28-31 focus again on “these things” which Stein understands as the abomination of desolation (which is likened to the blossoming of the fig tree) and the ensuing fall of Jerusalem, and sees “this generation” as the generation that will still have living members when these events in 70 AD occur.

B1. Verses 32-37 speak of no one knowing the time and refers not to the fall of the temple but to the return of the Son of Man, and concludes with exhortations to be watchful and ready at any time.

One benefit of this explanation is that his inclusion of the sign of Jerusalem’s fall encourages the believers to trust the other predictions, particularly post 70 AD. Also, the exhortations to faithfulness in the face of persecution and watchfulness are relevant to their situation (and indeed for believers in subsequent generations).

What I most appreciated about this work was the clarity and concision of writing (138 pages, excluding bibliography and indices), and the close textual work that supported his arguments, providing an explanation of this text that demonstrates that neither Jesus nor Mark were mistaken in what was said or written, as would be the case of those who believed that Jesus thought that the Son of Man’s return would be within the apostles’ generation. Stein concludes this lucid explanation of Mark 13 with his own interpretive translation consistent with his reading. A useful resource for anyone teaching or leading a study of Mark.

Review: Walking the Labyrinth

Walking the LabyrinthWalking the LabyrinthTravis Scholl. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014

Summary: The book consists of a series of reflections over the forty days of Lent intermingling thoughts on the gospel of Mark, life, and the daily walking of a labyrinth in the churchyard of a neighborhood church.

Travis Scholl discovers a labyrinth in a churchyard in his neighborhood and determines to walk it over the forty days of Lent. Each day, he reflects on a portion of the gospel of Mark, interweaving these reflections with thoughts about life, and the peculiar type of pilgrimage that is walking the labyrinth.

The book begins with a helpful explanation of the history of labyrinths from the myth of Ariadne’s thread to the appropriation of the idea of walking labyrinths as a Christian practice–a kind of pilgrimage both to the center of one’s life and the center of one’s relationship with God.

The use of Mark’s gospel seems especially appropriate. Jesus seems to be perpetually walking in this gospel–a labyrinthine journey around and around Galilee, into the Decapolis and the regions of Tyre and Sidon, and then on to Jerusalem and the cross, which perhaps not coincidentally we learn forms the center of the labyrinth.

Scholl attempts to walk the labyrinth every day, coming at various times in all kinds of weather from snow to the incipient heat of summer. His reflections concern such things as pilgrimage in the middle of things, the seeming labyrinthine and circular natures of life, the westward facing entrance of the labyrinth, symbolizing both death and the hope of the life to come, the cross at the center of the labyrinth and his own life, and much more.

Labyrinths are often inlaid in the floors of cathedrals. "Labyrinth" by Marlith - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Labyrinths are often inlaid in the floors of cathedrals.  This is Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. “Labyrinth” by MarlithOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

One of my favorite reflections was on the labyrinth being like the seed of the kingdom — growing day and night. The seed is itself a kind of labyrinth from which life emerges. Another is on the impossibility of keeping the kingdom secret, as secret as our practices might be. Jesus is in seclusion and sought out by the Syrophonecian women who answers his parable or riddle with a parable. She understands the secret of the kingdom that is found in Jesus, and receives her daughter whole.

Perhaps the final reflections tracing the way of the cross are among the best, as is the very last which captures the incredible excitement of the women’s report, “He is risen. He is going ahead of you into Galilee.” The labyrinthine journey of Jesus begins and ends in Galilee, just as one enters and emerges from the labyrinth in the same place.

The author concludes the book with recommendations and resources for those who want to walk the labyrinth and provides a day by day list of his readings in the gospel of Mark. In some ways, it was better that I read his book at a time other than Lent. While it could be helpful to use these reflections during Lent, there is a part of me that is inspired to find my own labyrinth and journal my own reflections, using Scholl’s book not as a devotional, but as a model. We shall see…