The recent publication of the second volume of Joel Marcus’s commentary on the Gospel of Mark* 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.
Q What led you to begin reading the Bible?
At Berkeley I had started reading the Bible because I wanted to be a writer, and all these writers were always making allusions to the Bible and I thought maybe I should read it. So I read through the whole Old Testament and then started reading the New Testament, too. I was interested in the figure of Jesus from the start, so I read through the Gospels. And then I got to Acts and I found this guy Paul really kind of repulsive, so I skipped to Revelation, which was the one book that I’d read before in high school. I read it because somebody told me that it was “psychedelic.” When I went back and finished up my undergrad at NYU, I already knew that I wanted to study the Bible.
Q When did you realize you wanted to become a biblical scholar?
Well, after I became a Christian, my first idea was to become a pastor. But then I found that I was so interested in learning languages and getting into the history surrounding the New Testament that my goals changed. Also, my wife didn’t much like the idea of being a pastor’s wife.
Q After the dissertation, what led you to do the commentary on Mark?
When Doubleday was looking for somebody to redo the Mark commentary, Raymond Brown, who had written one of the early and best commentaries in the Anchor series, the one on John, mentioned my name to Noel Freedman, the series editor. Freedman and I met to talk, and a few weeks later I heard from him that I had the contract. That was right around the time my daughter was born, and she’s now 18 and off at college. So she’s grown up with this commentary.
Q Was the commentary originally planned as two volumes?
I originally signed a contract for one volume of medium size, and then when I saw that I was going to need more space, I tried to get Doubleday to extend the word limit so that I could do one long volume. I fought for that for a long time. And then all of a sudden they said, “Well, how about doing two volumes?” And I said, “Yeah!”
I hadn’t even dared to ask them for two volumes, because I was told that they weren’t doing two-volume commentaries anymore. But I think they preferred two medium-sized volumes to one long volume, because at least they would have something out after five or 10 years, rather than have to wait something like 20 years, which is what we’ve had to do for the complete product.
Q How do you think your commentary might be most helpful for people preaching and teaching Mark?
I’ve tried to keep in mind the person “on the front,” the pastor who is preparing a sermon for Sunday morning and doesn’t have time to read 50 pages on a particular passage. So in writing the comment section, I’ve tried to limit it to 10 pages per passage. Of course, I want the scholars also to read the comment, because that’s where I give a connected account of the passage, whereas the notes tend to be more atomistic.
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.
Q To get back to Orwell, could you say something about why you write?
As a Christian from a Jewish background, the question about the birth of Christianity and its separation from Judaism is, in a way, my own story, and this relates to my present research project on the parting of the ways between Judaism and Christianity.
The old view, expressed classically by Adolf von Harnack around the turn of the 20th century, was that Christianity was born out of Judaism. He argued that for a little while, not very long, people who were both identifiably Jewish and Christian — like James, the leader of the church in Jerusalem, and Peter, to some extent — were observing the Jewish law and thinking that converts to this new messianic movement also had to observe the Jewish law.
But along came Paul, who with some predecessors began proclaiming the message of Jesus to non-Jews, who responded positively to this message, and to Jews, who responded negatively. The group that was both Jewish and Christian quickly disappeared, and by the beginning of the 2nd century it was no longer an appreciable factor.
I think the theological agenda behind that analysis was that the Pauline version of Christianity was the true version, and that Christianity is something different from Judaism: Christians don’t have to be worried about all of these Jewish laws, which actually go back, most of them, to the Old Testament. So Gentile Christianity quickly arrived on the scene and just blasted Jewish Christianity out of the universe.
There’s been pushback by people who have said that the lines between Judaism and Christianity were very blurry, not only in the 1st century, but continuing into the 4th century, and that it was with Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, and Christianity becoming the Romans’ state religion, that the lines were sharply drawn in a way that was irrevocable. They argue that, until that point, everything was just totally mixed up: Jews were a lot less orthodox than we think of them as being, and many Christians were attracted to Judaism.
Q Do you think this “pushback” is a good thing?
I think there is some truth in it. The Christians and the Jews were a big factor for each other in these early centuries, always pushing against each other — but also learning some things from each other. Then there was this group that was both Jewish and Christian. They still observed the Jewish Torah, so they were identifiably Jewish, but they also believed in Jesus as messiah.
I am partly interested in this because I am one of those in-between people, too, even though I don’t observe the Jewish law in any identifiable way. I like to go to synagogue once in a while, and being Jewish and being part of this tradition is still quite important to me, and the Hebrew language does something to me, and so does klezmer music, and so does a pastrami on rye.
Q As a Jewish Christian myself, I think there’s a sense that one is betraying his or her heritage — it’s as if we’ve defected. Even the language of conversion makes it sound as if we’ve left one side and joined the other. Might there be a way to see that that separateness is not a betrayal?
I think so. My own work is partly a way of mediating and trying to reconcile these different sides of myself and my own background — and to affirm both my Jewish heritage and my Christian conviction. I see myself as both Jewish and Christian. For many people those terms are opposite, but who defines what Jewish means and what Christian means?
This in-between group that saw itself as both Jewish and Christian has a right to be heard, just as the voices of those who eventually decided that “Jew” and “Christian” were opposites have been, and which is the way that we usually think of things today.
I get a thrill in reading the Pseudo-Clementines, say, or the Gospel of Matthew — these texts are in some ways so Jewish, and affirm the Jewish heritage, and yet are obviously Christian. It makes things a lot more interesting for me, because it gives these documents a sort of ethnic texture; that is a texture that I relate to, and know about, and can recognize.
Q I wonder if your research on the parting of the ways between Jews and Christians might shed light on some of the problematic “anti-Jewish” passages in the New Testament?
This fall, I have a long article coming out about a Jewish curse against heretics, which became part of the standard Jewish prayer, and which I think was originally directed against Christians. So that has to do with the rabbis and their relationship to Jewish Christians, and their attempt to drive these two communities apart. So it does have to do with Jewish Christians, but it also has to do with the rabbis’ response to them. And I think this is part of the background to some of the rage against “the Jews” in the Gospel of John, for example.
Recently I’ve also been working on an apocryphal work called The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, which I want to argue is Jewish Christian. People have noticed that it has Jewish elements, and then there are these passages that are obviously Christian. So there’s been a big debate: Was this originally a Jewish work that was later interpolated by Christians, or was it Christian from its inception?
I want to argue that it was both. Actually, this was a fairly common view in the middle- and late-19th century. But since then, most scholars have said that it’s got to be either Jewish or Christian. I think that’s partly because that’s the way we’re trained to think — because most people today are either Jewish or Christian. The idea that there could have been people who were both, and who produced some significant literature, doesn’t even occur to people. But it might occur to someone like you and me, who are similarly situated.
* Mark 8-16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, (Yale University Press, May 2009)
Lori Baron was born and raised in St. Louis where she attended a conservative synagogue, which her parents still attend. She holds a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin, and an M.Div. from Fuller Theological Seminary. Professor Marcus is the faculty advisor for her dissertation, “The Shema in the Gospel of John.” She currently worships at the United Church of Christ in Chapel Hill, N.C.