My RBL Review of “Who Do People Say I Am? Rewriting Gospel in Emerging Christianity”

May 1, 2015

I just received an email that my review of Vernon K. Robbin’s Who Do People Say I Am?: Rewriting Gospel in Emerging Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013) has been published at the Review of Biblical Literature. Basically, Robbins looks at the different representations of Jesus in 11 ancient “gospels”:

  1. Q (*note: Robbins takes the existence of the hypothetical Q source as his starting point and, while he cites the Synoptic “double tradition” passages in Matthew and Luke, I followed the convention of Q scholars in citing this “text” according to the Lukan references in the interests of saving space. I evaluated Robbins’s proposals about Q on his terms (i.e. assuming the Two Source Theory), but I recognize the growing skepticism about Q from those who argue that Luke used Mattthew or vice-versa or propose that the double tradition derives from multiple oral/written sources).
  2. The Gospel of Mark
  3. The Gospel of Matthew
  4. The Gospel of Luke
  5. The Gospel of John
  6. The Gospel of Thomas
  7. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas
  8. The Infancy Gospel of James (or the Protevangelium of James)
  9. The Gospel of Mary
  10. The Gospel of Judas
  11. The Acts of John

My review attempts to cover the main points that Robbins made about each Gospel as well as offer some praise or constructive criticism on his reading of select texts. I conclude that the strength of this popular introduction to Gospel literature is that it models for students how a historian tries to empathetically enter into the worldview of another from the past and explain how he or she found meaning in a certain set of beliefs and practices. Please pass on any comments or questions about the review in the comments.

*Update: see also the recent review by Brian LePort.

Justin Marc Smith on the Genre and Audiences of the Gospels

April 17, 2015

At Bible and Interpretation, Justin Marc Smith has a post about the relationship of the Gospels’ genre to the their intended readership and proposes a new typology (contemporary open, contemporary focused, non-contemporary open, non-contemporary focused) based on whether the Gospels were written within the living memory of the subject and whether they had a particular or general audience in mind. I have a few initial thoughts. First, we may have to look at each Gospel individually, for Mark may be contemporary with and may have consulted some eyewitnesses (though I question the tradition that Mark was Peter’s interpreter) while Luke-Acts was potentially an early 2nd century work. Second, I agree that the Gospels should not be treated like epistles and I appreciate that Smith notes that there are biographies directed towards specific or broad audiences. However, outside of Luke’s address to the official Theophilus, the evangelists do not explicitly mention the audiences they envisioned and I would need to see Smith’s evidence about why they should be classified as “contemporary open.” Finally, I agree that reconstructions of “Gospel communities” are often built on sand, but I also disagree with Bauckham’s view of the early Christ movement as a unified international network and think that there are some clues in the Gospels about the implied reader. Mark’s implied reader seems to be a Christ-following insider on the margins (e.g., unexplained Christological titles and secrecy themes, the cryptic reference to flee at the sight of the desolator, allusions to persecution) or Matthew’s implied reader a Torah observant Jewish Christ-follower (e.g., scriptural proof-texts, distinct M traditions on the Law and Israel). It is possible that the evangelists did hope that their Gospels would persuade other Christ-followers to their points of views and the eventual success of these Gospels in reaching a wide readership often resulted in their distinctive theological emphases getting suppressed in the process. Anyways, the Bible and Interpretation article is a summary of Smith’s case in his monograph Why Bios? On the Relationship Between Gospel Genre and Implied Audience (LTS 518, London: T. & T. Clark, 2015).

Looking for reviewers

April 13, 2015

There is a copy of The Gospel on the Margins: the Reception of Mark in the Second Century that is available on the Review of Biblical Literature. It would also be great to see if anyone wants to review it on other open access journals such as Marginalia or Relegere: Studies in Religion and Reception. I always find book reviews to be a nice way to get a new book and to build up the CV a little bit. I also am trying to pass on the links of any bloggers who post a review, so, if I missed you, please let me know!

James Tabor recommends my book

April 10, 2015

James Tabor, professor of Ancient Judaism & Early Christianity in the Department of Religious Studies at UNC Charlotte, has written the following endorsement about my new book:

I want to highly recommend Michael J. Kok’s new book, The Gospel on the Margins: The Reception of Mark in the Second Century (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 2015). This is a substantial work, running 400 pages, and the retail price might seem a bit steep to some, but you can get it through Fortress for 40% off (less than Amazon paperback or Kindle). I am not sure how long this sale will last so act fast if you have a serious interest in Christian Origins and add this book to your library and reading list.

I thought that even the price on Amazon was reasonable given how high monographs can cost these days, but interested readers should definitely buy as long as there is a sale going on at Fortress Press (I also noted you can now read a few sample chapters for free on there). Thanks Dr. Tabor!

My SBL Paper for the Annual Meeting in Atlanta

March 31, 2015

I received an email that my paper “Adoptionist Interpretations of Mark’s Gospel among Ancient and Modern Readers” has been accepted for the Mark Section at the SBL annual meeting in Atlanta. The topic of the session is about whether the Gospel of Mark portrays Jesus entirely within a human plane (e.g., Jewish prophet, Messiah) or on a cosmic one as well. I will have to wait for the program book to come out to refresh my memory of what I exactly wrote in my abstract as I misplaced it, but I can outline where I plan on going with it.

First, while advocates of an “early high Christology” correct some of the errors of past scholarship on the slow evolutionary development of Christological thinking, I may criticize some of them for assuming there was a single monolithic high Christology among all early Christ followers. For instance, I am open to the remarkably early pre-existent incarnational Christology or the quick eruption of Christ devotion in some of the texts, but we should not force every text such as Mark’s Gospel into this mold. I would also make the theological aside that the fact that different Christological conceptions were reached at different times among different Christ congregations, or that it took a great deal of time and intellectual effort to reach the majestic formulation in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, does not dispute the theological validity of those confessional claims.

Second, I would argue that Mark’s Gospel represents Jesus as elected/anointed for his messianic office as the Davidic king and Deity’s son at the baptism and installed on his throne after the resurrection. Likewise, Michael Peppard has made the case about how Mark’s claims rivals those of the Roman emperor, with imperial power often transferred through legal adoption. I do not see anything in Mark’s Gospel going beyond the concept of divine agency in the Second Temple period. I will also challenge other interpreters who spot pre-existence or theophanies in texts such as the “I have come” sayings, the Sea/feeding miracles or the transfiguration.

Third, I will follow the lines of my book The Gospel on the Margins (cf. my article at Bible & Interpretation) and suggest that this “adoptionist” Christology was later re-read in support of a “possessionist” or “separationist” Christology in the second century. That is, some groups argued that the divine Christ possessed the human Jesus at the baptism and left him at the cross and interpreted Mark in this fashion (cf. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.11.7). The redactional changes to Mark by Matthew and Luke made the latter two Gospels less susceptible to such a reading and some scribal changes to Mark may be explicable as an attempt to correct such a theology.

Now, the only question will be how far in advance I will write this paper.  I will try to not leave it to the last minute and scramble typing it on the plane :)

Blog reviews on my book

March 30, 2015

I plan to share the links of any bloggers who take the time to interact with my book The Gospel on the Margins: the Reception of Mark in the Second Century and hope to continue the dialogue over at my blog.  I just noticed that Neil Godfrey has offered his summary and reflections on the book in his post “Why is the Gospel of Mark in the New Testament.”  I left a comment over at his blog to clarify a few of my positions in interaction with his kind review.

  • I lean towards the majority view that Mark’s Gospel is our earliest extant Jewish biography of Jesus (ca. 65-75 CE), though I noted David Aune’s contention that there may be some parodic inversion of the values of elite Graeco-Roman biographies, and that its narrative served as the source for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  I covered a range of views in my genre post.
  • Against those who see Papias unfavourably contrasting Mark’s Gospel with the Gospels of Luke (Martin) or John (Hengel, Bauckham, etc), I argue that Papias compared Mark’s rhetorical or literary arrangement (taxis, order) to Matthew’s carefully arranged account with its complete narrative of the subject and five orderly discourses (cf. Eccl. Hist. 3.39.15-16).  Clement of Alexandria’s observation about Mark as rough “notes” may fit here (cf. Hist. Eccl. 2.15.2) and most Church Fathers privileged Matthew over Mark.
  • Neil summarized my case about how certain groups read Mark in a way that centrist Christian writers judged heretical, such as claiming that the divine Christ possessed the human Jesus at the baptism, that Simon of Cyrene was crucified instead of Jesus or that Jesus imparted hidden gnosis (knowledge) in the form of a “mystery” to his disciples. Irenaeus is my major source for these examples.  On the last point, I could bring in Clement’s Letter to Theodore as corroborating evidence about how Mark’s Gospel was being read by some Alexandrian Christians in the second century, but I tried to largely bracket this text to an appendix since I recognize its “authenticity” is still hotly debated in the guild and would point out that Irenaeus already told us how the Carpocratians understood the “mystery” Jesus taught in Against Heresies 1.25.5.

I also appreciate that Daniel Gullotta included my book in his interview and I second his answer about whether Mark was a “Gnostic Gospel”:  it is not a “Gnostic” text in that there is absolutely no identification of the Creator God of the Jewish Scriptures with the ignorant or fallen demiurge and Mark is adamant that Jesus came to die a vicarious death on behalf of others, but some “Gnostics” may have found an adoptionist reading of Mark’s baptism scene or the theme of secrecy (e.g., Jesus teaching a “mystery” to an inner circle of followers in private) conducive to their theological views.  My thanks to both bloggers who shared their thoughts on the book and I look forward to further blog conversations about the book.

*Update: since I mentioned that I “hope to continue the dialogue”, I thought I should re-enable comments whenever I interact with other bloggers reviews to let them or anyone else respond.

The Authors of the New Testament Gospels

February 21, 2015

If you ever wondered why the four New Testament Gospels were ascribed to the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, I have written a number of posts over at the blog Bible Study and the Christian Life that aims to introduce some of the scholarship on this to the layperson sitting in the church pews or to anyone else who is interested. Here is an index for the whole series and I welcome feedback or questions in the comments sections under any of the posts linked to below:

Who Wrote the Gospels?

Why are the Gospels Anonymous?

Why was Matthew Chosen as the Author of the First New Testament Gospel?

Why was Mark Chosen as the Author of the Second New Testament Gospel?

Why was Luke Chosen as the Author of the Third New Testament Gospel?

Why was John Chosen as the Author of the Fourth New Testament Gospel?


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