A celebration of the career and scholarship of Joel Marcus, professor of New Testament and Christian Origins, on the occasion of his retirementWednesday, May 1, 2019
By Matthew Thiessen, Ph.D.’10 and Lori Baron, Ph.D.’15
My first year as a doctoral student, I was convinced that Duke had admitted me in error. It did not help that in early January I received back my first paper from Joel. Red markings covered every page. Not a few comments were pointedly witty in their criticisms of my writing. It was humbling to work through his comments. At the end of the paper he told me that I needed to work on my writing and recommended Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. I wondered: What was I doing in a doctoral program, if I could not even write?
A few years later, when I began writing my dissertation, I found myself frustrated with Joel’s continued criticism of my writing. I had read Strunk and White three times since my first year, yet still I was falling short. So I emailed him for another recommendation on what to read to improve my writing. He asked a friend whose primary job was to edit, and her response was Joseph Williams’ Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. In his email response, he not only passed along this recommendation but also mentioned that he had ordered a copy for himself.
These two episodes represent to me some of the most valuable lessons I have learned from Joel. Joel never coddled students. I doubt anyone has ever been happy to get work back from him. His mind and his red pen were ruthless—although never cruel. He treated us like scholars in the making whose thinking and work were worthy of his best mentoring. He treated us like students in need of criticism. Joel’s students knew that if their work passed muster with Joel, it would do so with the broader academic world as well.
His insistence on better writing, I can now see, springs out of Joel’s character. While academics often display a penchant for pretension, Strunk and White and Williams insist on simplicity and clarity in writing. Joel would permit no affectation in our writing because he is one of the least pretentious persons I have ever known. He is the world’s leading scholar on the Gospel of Mark, having written what is to our minds the most important commentary on the second Gospel, and he has taught at prestigious institutions (Princeton, Glasgow, Boston University, and Duke). Yet one would not know this from the way in which Joel carries himself or relates to others. He wears his brilliance, his learning, and his success lightly.
Anyone who has read Joel’s work knows that he writes beautifully. So when he mentioned that he would be reading the same book on writing that I did, I was surprised. Surely, Joel did not need to work on his writing! Again, this shows something significant about Joel. He always wants to learn more. In the five years that I was a doctoral student, I know that he learned Ge‘ez (Ethiopic) and Spanish. Joel was always striving to learn more, pursuing the truth no matter whether it fits with his assumptions or sensibilities.
Feeling like an imposter myself, I thought I was the only student to whom Joel recommended Strunk and White. It was some time after Joel had given up the red pen for the greater technological ease of “Track Changes” that I realized that the tone of his comments was different from the voice I had previously imagined in my head. Joel’s red markings, whether scrawled in ink or typed in pixilated bubbles, were inscribed by the hand of a careful surgeon, cutting out grammatical blunders and poorly reasoned arguments so that the patient—my writing—might have a chance to live and even to flourish. If Joel criticized your writing, it was because he was holding you to the same high standards to which he held himself. And if he held you to his own standards, then he believed in you, even if you didn’t always believe in yourself.
What I value about Joel, beyond what he taught me as a writer and a scholar, is what I’ve learned from him about theology. If I have interpreted Joel rightly, he believes that all theology is historically grounded, something one can see in his latest book on John the Baptist. The writings of the New Testament are shaped by humans in a particular time and place; theology does not begin with abstract, propositional truths but within the exigencies of history. So, for example, Joel teaches that Mark’s theology is shaped by the Jewish War and the experience of profound loss in its aftermath. Mark and the other Gospel writers narrate the life of Jesus through the lens of their own circumstances and those of their respective communities. Here Joel was shaped by his Doktorvater, J. Louis Martyn, whose own work detailed the social and historical circumstances of the Johannine community, the trauma of their expulsion from the synagogue, and the effect of this experience upon the unique Christology of the Fourth Gospel.
For Joel, as for Lou Martyn, history and theology are ever intertwined. The Gospel writers, along with Paul and others, were not only interested in what Jesus said to his earliest disciples; they wanted to know what Jesus was saying to them, in their time, in their place, in light of the particular challenges of their day. And so our canonical texts, while being neither “pure” history nor “pure” theology, contain both history and theology mixed together.
When most seminary students begin to study the New Testament writings within an academic setting, these ideas can at first be confusing, frightening, and even faith-shattering. If we cannot with certainty separate what the historical Jesus said and did from what the later church believed about him, how can we know what he is saying to us today? But this is precisely Joel’s point. The Gospel writers do not seem terribly concerned about keeping perfectly accurate historical records about Jesus. Acutely aware of the crises of their own time, they told the story of Jesus that their communities needed desperately to hear. And so must we. The freedom granted to the Gospel writers to reinterpret the life of Jesus within their communities is the same freedom that pastors and teachers must exercise today in order to bring the gospel to the church and the world.
Lecturing on the Johannine Epistles, Joel said that in order to be true to the church’s tradition, the tradition must change. The tradition must change? The room was transfixed; Joel was discussing how the author of the Epistles takes ideas from John’s Gospel and transforms them, giving them new significance in light of evolving social and historical circumstances. Within Scripture itself there is a precedent for change, a mandate for change. Rather than holding on to biblical texts as if they are fixed and static, biblical writers felt free to reinterpret the traditions they had inherited in order to give hope, strength, and courage to a new generation of believers facing new obstacles to faithful living.
I think of the many challenges to the church today, especially those arising from within the church itself. Joel has left a theological legacy at Duke that would be wise for church leaders to consider, now more than ever. In order to be true to the church’s tradition, the tradition must change. To honor Joel’s legacy at Duke, the gospel’s historical message must be transformed to bring life and love to the church and the world today.
Watch Joel Marcus's retirement lecture, "Thoughts on the Parting of the Ways Between Judaism and Christianity":