donderdag 21 februari 2013

Review of: R. Alan Culpepper, Mark (SHBC), Smyth & Helwys, 2007; in: interpretation

R. Alan Culpepper, Mark (SHBC), Smyth & Helwys, 2007.

Review in: Interpretation 2009 63: 188
Review door: Emerson B. Powery
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by R. Alan Culpepper
Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary. Smyth & Helwys, Macon, Ga., 2007.
622 pp. $60.00 (cloth). ISBN 978-1-57312-077-7.

R. ALAN CULPEPPER, a premier Johannine scholar, turns his exegetical skills to the Gospel of Mark and produces a first-rate theological commentary on the first Gospel written in early Christianity. The Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary series is dedicated to providing sound, credible, and scholarly interpretation on the books of the Bible for serious contemporary Christians. The series' format includes multimedia art, photographs (including the author's own), maps, and a CD (which allows enhanced searches), in addition to a variety of sidebars with observations ancillary, but intriguingly relevant, to the main comments of the interpreter. Culpepper's offering is an excellent example of the intent of the series. In his words, "It is our hope that this commentary will foster biblical preaching, devotional reading, and moral decision-making for those who draw inspiration from Mark" (p. 3). Writers in this series complement the commentary sections with theological reflections ("Connections").

The layout of the volume aims to be user friendly and generally succeeds in this endeavor. Its sidebars, printed helpfully in an alternative color font, address linguistic, cultural, and interpretive issues, drawing on various sources, including theater and sociology. The sidebars also include a wide range of reflections. Chapter 1, for example, features reflections from Origen, Albert Schweitzer, Gerd Theissen/Annette Merz, Stephen Hawking, and Matthew Arnold. Other items in the sidebars include sermonic reflection on "Sabbath Resistance" by Barbara Brown Taylor, Josephus' alternative account of the death of lohn the Baptist, numerous references to patristic theologians, and a variety of cultural issues (e.g., "age in antiquity," "patrons, brokers, and clients," "rank and status" in the Dead Sea Scrolls, "children in antiquity" and "divorce among first-century Jews"). Culpepper's sidebars on "mystery religions" and "pesher interpretation," found on the same page (p. 138), demonstrate his sensitivity to both Greco-Roman and Jewish contexts for the narrative of Mark.

Culpepper's introduction to the commentary addresses many traditional concerns: the function of a commentary, five eras in Markan scholarship, Mark's leading themes, setting, date of composition, and authorship. There are few surprises here. The overview of the "five eras" concludes with a discussion of the "creative Mark" and the "natural" flow of redaction criticism into narrative studies. This "era," however, only leads us through the 1980s and early 1990s. It is probably too soon to say whether recent postcolonial scholarship on Mark and "empire" or the latest work in performance theory and Mark's oral environment will constitute another era, although Culpepper includes a few noteworthy contributions from these categories in his selective bibliography.

On traditional issues in Markan scholarship, Culpepper proposes little that is new and takes the following positions: he advocates for Rome rather than Galilee/Syria as the provenance of the Gospel; he dates the composition between 68-73 CE.; and claims, "there is no reason to doubt" the traditional authorship of John Mark, though "this traditional identification is only of limited value for reading the Gospel" (p. 31). This conclusion is not surprising for an interpreter whose scholarship has placed more attention on the narrative itself than on the world behind it.

Culpepper's decades-long approach to narrative studies informs much of this volume, although this methodology does not control all of his exegetical decisions. He carefully interprets later segments of the narrative in light of earlier passages, with a few forays into reader-response territory (e.g., Robert Fowler). Those familiar with Markan scholarship will find few surprises, but less informed readers will benefit greatly from Culpepper's discussion. Interpretive decisions he makes about Mark 1 provide a few examples. Following N. Clayton Croy's recent argument, Culpepper regards Mark 1:1 as a second-century scribal notation added as a superscription to an awkward beginning, which—like the Gospel's ending—may have been lost. However, he also argues that the title "Son of God" is original to Mark 1:1 and not a later addition, apparently nullifying the claim about the second century provenance of 1:1. Culpepper sees Mark 1:14-15 as an introduction to the first main section of the Gospel rather than as a "conclusion" to the preface. He also favors the more difficult text-critical reading of "moved with anger" (orgistheis) over "moved with pity" (splagchnistheis) in 1:41, envisioning a Jesus angry at the disease itself (p. 62). In 1:44, he prefers a "negative" rather than positive use of the dative, with the result that the cleansed leper is directed to show himself to the priest and offer for his cleansing what Moses commanded as a "testimony against them." Culpepper takes this to mean "either an indictment of the powerlessness of the cultic system in contrast to the power of Jesus or a condemnation of their unbelief" (p. 63). This is but a sampling of the exegetical insight in this volume.

Elsewhere, other interesting decisions will generate discussion and debate. Culpepper interprets the well-known crux of 4:10-12 regarding Jesus' teaching in parables in light of both the mysteries in Greco-Roman mystery religions and the revelation in pesher interpretation at Qumran. He concludes that Jesus is the "secret" and that his parables represent a "veiled kingdom" for outsiders (p. 139). Culpepper maintains that Jesus' encounter with the Syrophoenician woman "may have been a turning point" for his ministry (p. 242), forcing his attention away from Jewish settings as a result of this engagement with a Gentile (i.e., "Greek") woman who cleverly turned Jesus' offense into an advantage. Culpepper draws no clear conclusion on the meaning of Mark 9:1, but he helpfully recognizes the transfiguration passage as a parallel to the baptism scene—one that introduces the second half of the Gospel (just as the baptism, where a voice from heaven also speaks, commences the first half). In Mark 10, the Pharisees challenge Jesus on the issue of divorce in order to provoke him into speaking a word of criticism against Herod, so that he might share the fate of his predecessor, John the Baptist (p. 328). Culpepper is noncommital on the ending of Mark, though the "connections" he articulates presume the Gospel ends at 16:8.

Most of my criticisms are minor. The regular use of "A.D." for dates is inconsistent with the list on the abbreviation page. In my view, the "testing" of Jesus' disciples is only implicit, rather than thematic. There is nothing in Mark comparable to the Fourth Gospel's portrayal of Jesus' testing of Philip (John 6:6). Late medieval art dominates the art selections (Michelangelo's "Head of John the Baptist" and Gruenewald's "The Crucifixion of Christ" are outstanding examples), and very little contemporary art appears in the volume. Each reviewer has his or her own preferences and my own inclination would have been toward more engagement with feminist and postcolonial scholarship. Several places would lend themselves to such engagement, as Culpepper recognizes the role and influence of Rome throughout his commentary. It was heartening to see Jesse Jackson and Gustavo Gutierrez cited in the theological "connection" sections, but exegetical scholarship by minorities and women is increasingly available.

Overall, this is a useful and highly readable volume and valuable guide for a reading of the Gospel of Mark. It is also much more than a commentary on Mark. It is a teaching tool. Culpepper provides the busy pastor, the serious theological student, and the engaged contemporary Christian with insights from the cultural world surrounding early Christianity's first story about Jesus. They will also encounter the history of interpretation on Mark, contemporary theological reflections upon it, and artwork generated by Mark's story. In addition, Culpepper's "connections" provide engaging resources for contemporary exploration of the theological implications of this ancient Christian Gospel for contemporary followers of Jesus. For example, who would have thought that Mark 3:20-35 (and the issue of blasphemy) would have relevance for contemporary interreligious dialogue? Culpepper maintains that "for a Christian religious leader to say, 'Mohammed was a demon-possessed pedophile,' poses a serious hindrance to the reconciling, forgiving, and peace-making work of the Holy Spirit" (pp. 128-29). And how might Jesus' difficult teaching on divorce and remarriage (Mark 10:1-12) relate to contemporary struggles with women in ministry (in some circles) and the issue of homosexuality (in other ones)? The door has been opened for contemporary reflection. Scholars will find it a useful resource for the classroom setting, especially in the context of theological education.

Emerson B. Powery
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