An Opposable Faith
For Joel Marcus, Jewish Christian is not an oxymoron; it’s his story.

The recent publication of the second volume of Joel Marcus’s commentary on the Gospel of Mark1 represents the culmination of nearly two decades of scholarship. Marcus, who began the project in 1991, published the initial volume in 2000. The following year he joined the Divinity School as professor of New Testament and Christian origins.

His current research focuses on the parting of the ways between ancient Judaism and the Christianity of the first three centuries A.D. “My own work is a way of mediating and trying to reconcile these different sides of myself and my own background,” says Marcus. “I see myself as both Jewish and Christian.”

Marcus is a native of Homewood, Ill., a suburb south of Chicago. His parents were “proudly Jewish, but not religious, although my father’s father had been Orthodox,” he says. He became a Christian as a young adult, and eventually joined the Episcopal Church. He is a member of St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Durham, where he serves on the vestry.

Lori Baron, a doctoral student in New Testament at Duke, interviewed Marcus for Divinity.

Q When did your interest in Mark begin? Was it in a course in graduate school?

I had a class about the Gospel of Mark early on, but I think that actually, even before that, the first time I read through the Bible, I was really struck by certain passages in Mark, especially Mark 4:10-12 where Jesus explains that he speaks in parables so that people may look and look and not see, and hear and not understand.

That was just very strange and fascinating to me. And although at that time I was not a Christian, and I was just reading the Bible as a piece of literature, that passage really grabbed me. So Mark was already kind of a favorite before I got to grad school. And then I took this class with Lou Martyn, and I wrote a paper on the reason why Jesus speaks in parables, and then did my dissertation on the chapter of which that passage is a part, so one thing kind of led to another.

Q It’s interesting that the first passage that struck you that way turned out to be your dissertation.

Yeah, it’s something that had grabbed me early on, and that I had a passion for. I think that’s a good thing, too. It helps to keep you going on the long road to writing a dissertation. Even though when I first read the passage I was not a Christian, I had imbibed this stereotypical, Sunday-school image of “gentle Jesus, meek and mild,” and that passage totally did in that image. I mean, who was this guy who was saying this outlandish stuff? And it just intrigued me because it was so seemingly contrary to sense, contrary to the way a teacher would act who wanted people to understand what he was saying.

1. Mark 8-16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, (Yale University Press, May 2009)

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