Q In your commentary, the history and conflict of that period are set alongside the reality of what Mark or his sources had seen in Jesus. How did that all come together?
I am passionately interested in history and theology, and I think those things always go together — that theology is always done in relation to a person and a community and a world’s particular historical and sociological and economic situation.
In some ways, our situation today is similar to that of the 1st century, and in some ways quite different. In order to understand the theology, and to understand what applies and what doesn’t apply, you have to know about both your own situation and the situation of the work that you’re looking into.
The best history is always history written from a point of view that is nurtured by one’s own passions and questions, and one’s own attempt to make sense of life in one’s own time. And maybe the Holy Spirit is also active in our historical investigation and through our own imagination and through the things that have shaped us, just as it was active through the authors of the Gospels.
Q You include an interesting quotation from George Orwell in the introduction to the first volume.
Yes. I say Mark’s purpose in writing is similar to that articulated by Orwell in an essay he wrote called “Why I Write.” I love this:
My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, “I am going to produce a work of art.” I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing (“Why I Write,” 5).
I think that’s what Mark was about; there were some lies he wanted exposed and there were some facts to which he wanted to call attention. You couldn’t understand Orwell’s work if you didn’t know something about 20th-century history — about communism and fascism, and his own relationship to them. With Mark, you have to know something about his situation and what he was reacting against in order to understand what he was saying to his situation — and to understand what he may be saying to our situation.
Mark and his community, which included both Jews and non-Jews, may have run into difficulties because of the xenophobia associated with the Jewish Revolt against the Romans. I think the main lie Mark is trying to expose is the lie that God works only through violence and force. It’s paradoxical, because Mark uses this holy war imagery and theology, but like most early Christian writers, and especially like Paul, whom I think Mark is theologically related to, Mark thinks that God’s victory is won not by perpetrating violence but by suffering it — by Jesus’ death on the cross, which is followed by his resurrection.
In common with Jewish apocalyptic thinkers, Mark thinks that God is in charge of the world, but he thinks that God’s victory is being won in this very paradoxical way, through Jesus and then through communities who follow him in suffering, and yet who find in the midst of their suffering that there is this source of empowerment that transforms everything.
That transformation is something that we all catch little glimpses of once in a while. Mark is trying to capture some of those glimpses, and, through telling the story about Jesus, he’s also telling the story about what his own Christian community is going through.