Book Review: The First Biography of Jesus by Helen Bond

Author: Helen K. Bond

Book: The First Biography of Jesus: Genre and Meaning in Mark’s Gospel

Publisher: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Year: 2020

Page Count: 360 pages

Price: $42.99 (hardcover)

I. Introduction

Pick up most any commentary on the Gospel of Mark and you’ll find in the introductory section discussions of things like authorship, date, composition, sources, structure, and more. You’ll also likely find a discussion of the Gospel’s genre, though this section is often very short. For example, in Robert Guelich’s commentary on the first eight chapters of Mark, he devotes only four pages to the subject of genre, concluding that the canonical Gospels “belong to the broad category of Hellenistic biography.”[1] Similarly, Craig Evans commentary, which picks up where Guelich’s commentary ends, includes only four pages of discussion on Markan genre.[2] Adela Yarbro Collins’ contribution in the Hermeneia series does fare better as she talks about genre for nearly thirty pages.[3] Joel Marcus’s two-volume set for the Anchor Yale Bible, by contrast, only offers readers half a dozen pages on the subject.[4]

The decision to not have lengthy discussions on Markan genres is understandable but unfortunate. When we read a book, it helps to know what kind of book it is. We read science textbooks very differently than we read romance novels. Understand a work’s literary context helps us look for techniques that are common to the genre, thereby giving us some aid with which to interpret it. But a drawback of many commentaries on the Gospel of Mark is the lack of real interaction with the subject of genre, especially ancient bioi or biography.[5] It is one thing to talk about it in the introduction; it is a whole different thing to use it as a tool with which to understand the Markan text.

This is why Helen Bond’s book The First Biography of Jesus: Genre and Meaning in Mark’s Gospel is so important. It is one of those few works that takes the issue of genre so seriously that it becomes a lens through which to interpret the Gospel. In the review that follows, I’ll offer a summary of the work and then provide a brief analysis of it, zeroing in on Bond’s discussion of the death of Jesus.

II. Summary

Following the introduction (pp. 1-14) in which she laments the “disappointingly meager” results from scholarly classification of the canonical Gospels as bioi (p. 2) and offers readers an overview of FBJ (pp. 11-14), Bond presents in ch. 1 (pp. 15-37) what amounts to a reception history of the view of the Gospels as ancient biography, particularly the Gospel of Mark. Meandering throughout time and scholarship, she keenly observes that the “strongest piece of evidence that Mark was indeed read as bios…comes from the way in which his work was received and expanded by Matthew and Luke” (p.18). Today, the “dominant scholarly position” is that what Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote “are best understood as ancient bioi” (p. 35). In ch. 2 (pp. 38-77), Bond answers the question, “So what?” She begins by tracing the origins of the bios genre, the “first stirrings” of which can be detected in the writings of Hellenistic historians like Herodotus (p. 39). She also notes the ways in which ancient biographers would weave in important themes surrounding the moral lives of their subjects (pp. 46-51), their corresponding character (pp. 51-56), the ways in which their deaths factored into the overall portrait of the person (pp. 56-66), and more. “In broad terms,” she writes, “Mark has most in common with Greek lives of philosophers, especially those (the majority) that hold up their subject as a model to be imitated” (p. 76). Chapter three (pp. 78-120) commences a discussion of Mark’s role in the process of writing his Gospel. Bond goes into some detail on what his level of education may have been as well as what that education may have looked like, concluding that while the Evangelist’s “literary abilities” should not be overhyped, Mark nevertheless “was clearly a competent and reasonably skilled writer who was perfectly able to convey his ideas in the literary form of bios” (p. 89). She also examines Mark’s intended audience, the structure of the Gospel, and more. In ch. 4 (pp. 121-166), the author discusses the characterization of Jesus in the Markan text. She notes that Mark’s “preferred method of characterization is to present a series of anecdotes and to allow his audience to reach their own conclusions” (p. 123). Bond discusses the all-important subject of Jesus’ identity, rendered in titular form through monikers like “son of God,” “Christ,” “son of man,” and more (pp. 142-150). She also notes Mark’s apprehension of giving his readers a physical description of Jesus. “If Mark did know what Jesus looked like, he clearly did not think that it was of any relevance to his audience,” she observes (p. 166). “Other Characters” is the title of ch. 5 (pp. 167-221) and in it Bond discusses Markan intercalation (pp. 171-178) as well as the significance of particular characters like King Herod (pp. 178-186), the Twelve (pp. 190-199), and others. She also discusses “minor” characters that are sprinkled throughout Mark’s narrative like Bartimaeus (pp. 211-212), the woman who anoints Jesus before his death (pp. 212-213), and more. In ch. 6 (pp. 222-252), the author zeroes in on the death of the Markan Gospel’s protagonist, noting “how Mark emphasized Jesus’s earlier teaching on self-denial and shame so that, paradoxically, a shameful exit [i.e., crucifixion] formed the only fitting end to his biography” (p. 224). Bond also looks at the empty-tomb narrative of Mark 16, observing the apologetic nature of the story (p. 247) as well as how the idea of Jesus’ resurrection fits into both Greco-Roman and Jewish matrices (p. 249). To close the volume, Bond offers some “final reflections” (pp. 253-258) on Mark’s biography of Jesus. She concludes her tome by noting that the other canonical Gospels – Matthew’s, Luke’s, and John’s – were all in one way or another inspired by the work of Mark. And so, she writes, “Whether we like it or not, the story of Jesus is Mark’s story of Jesus” (p. 258).

III. Analysis

Readers of the Gospel of Mark know that to rightly understand it one must appreciate the historical context in which it was written. It is a product of its own time. But often ignored is the literary context of the Markan text, a subject that Bond emphasizes in FBJ. As she notes, many commentaries pay lip-service to the bioi theme but few put it to work in understanding the Gospel itself. But once you are aware of the relationship between Mark’s Gospel and ancient bioi you simply cannot unsee it.

Take, for example, the death of Jesus. If we did not have any of the canonical Gospels and possessed only, say, the Pauline epistles, what details would we glean about Jesus’ death from them? We would know, for example, that beforehand he shared a meal with his disciples before he was handed over (1 Corinthians 11:23),[6] though by whom and to whom we do not know. We would also know that Jesus died by crucifixion (1 Corinthians 1:23). We would know that he was buried (1 Corinthians 15:4). But that’s about it. Though the Gospels may be “passion narratives with extended introductions,”[7] virtually nothing of what they tell us about the end of Jesus’ life is reflected in Paul’s letters. Yet somehow in the decade or so after Paul exits the world stage, we have a bios complete with a rather detailed and elaborate account of Paul’s savior. How did this happen? “The cross itself was a given,” Bond writes, “but almost all of the details could have been written up differently” (p. 226).

Some scholars appeal to the existence of a “pre-Markan Passion Narrative,” often in a bid to show how two seemingly unrelated Gospels like Mark’s and John’s could both have so much overlap.[8] However, Bond has no use for such a speculative source, arguing earlier in the volume that “[t]he more we see [Mark] as a creative biographer, rather than simply a transmitter of existing traditions, the more hopeless the task of identifying pre-Markan material becomes” (p. 110, author’s emphasis). Thus, while Bond is confident the Markan author was aware of various traditions surrounding the meaning of Jesus’ death, he goes a very specific route, one in which Jesus’ death is depicted as “the very opposite of a ‘good death’” (p. 227) the kind of death that points to the nobility of the protagonist. Whereas ancient authors would depict their heroes dying with “calm, courageous, dignified acceptance of [their] fate” (p. 62), Jesus’ death is anything but this. For example, he not only pleads with God for it not to happen (Mark 14:36) but he cries out in agonizing abandonment, lamenting that even God has forsaken him to death before giving up the ghost (Mark 15:34-37). “Jesus’ cry of desolation signifies a bad death, a wretched and miserable exit, fully in keeping with his servile execution on a Roman cross,” Bond writes (p. 230).

Yet all is not lost for Mark and his hero’s seemingly sad ending. As Bond observes, the Evangelist has been dropping hints that Jesus’ death on a cross would be the ending to his story. While in the first half of the Gospel the protagonist is depicted as a demon-exorcising, disease-destroying son of God, in ch. 10 he teaches his followers that to follow him isn’t to wield absolute power and lord it over others. Instead, to enter God’s kingdom they must be like children (Mark 10:15) and sell all that they have to give to the poor (Mark 10:21, 28-31). Moreover, to enjoy Jesus’ eschatological favor requires that one be willing to participate in a baptism of suffering (Mark 10:39) and to be servant to all just as he is (Mark 10:41-45). Thus, juxtaposed the image of a powerful healer and exorcist with God’s stamp of approval is this notion that to be truly great in God’s kingdom is to not use power as a means to subjugate the weak. A few chapters earlier, Jesus defines what it means to be his follower: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).

Therefore, consonant with ancient authors’ frequent depictions of philosophers as living and dying consistent with their beliefs, Mark portrays Jesus as coming to his end consistent with his teachings. Bond writes that “Mark emphasized Jesus’s earlier teaching on self-denial and shame so that, paradoxically, a shameful exit formed the only fitting end to his biography” (p. 224). Within this narrative world, the centurion’s declaration of Jesus’ divine sonship (Mark 15:39) is taken by Bond to be an indication that the Roman soldier “recognizes Jesus’ shameful death for what it ‘truly’ is (alēthōs): a perfect expression of his teaching and the means by which humans are to enter into a new relationship with God” (p. 246). She goes on to note that given the centurion’s status as a representative of a force hostile to Jesus (i.e., the Roman Empire), Mark’s deployment of the centurion in the scene complete with the declaration is the Gospel author’s use of a trope that was common in literature depicting martyrdom in which the executioner is moved by the death of the one he stands responsible for killing (p. 246).

IV. Conclusion

Once viewed through the lens of ancient literature generally and bios in particular, Mark’s Gospel begins to take on new dimensions. For readers unfamiliar with bioi generally, Bond’s work fills the gap and can provide them not only with high quality scholarship but an excellent bibliographic resource. This is a book that I’ll not only be recommending to those interested in the literary context of the Gospel of Mark, but I will be revisiting it myself with regularity.

[1] Robert A. Guelich, Mark 1-8:26, Word Biblical Commentary Series (Nashville: Word, Inc., 1989), xxii.

[2] Craig A. Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20, Word Biblical Commentary Series (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers., 2001), lxiv-lxvii. Guelich died before he was able to complete what would have been a two-volume series on the Gospel of Mark. Evans plans to contribute a new volume covering the first half of Mark for the Word Biblical Commentary series for the near future.

[3] Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary, Hermeneia Commentary Series (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 15-43.

[4] Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8: A New Translation with Commentary, The Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 64-69.

[5] One commentary that does provide an excellent and accessible way to read the Gospel of Mark as a work of ancient literature is Mary Ann Beavis’ contribution on the Gospel in the Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament series (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011).

[6] Paul uses the verb paredideto which suggests a chain of custody. Some English translations render paredideto as “betrayed” in keeping with its use in the Gospel accounts wherein Jesus is “betrayed” by Judas Iscariot (e.g., Mark 14:44). However, Paul routinely uses paradidōmi to mean “to hand over” and to my knowledge never uses it to signify betrayal. To read the Gospel accounts into Paul is necessarily backward and I can see no good reason to think that Paul’s use of paredideto in 1 Corinthians 11:23 should be translated as “betrayed.” Instead, it seems this use here is in keeping with its use in Romans 4:25 – “who was handed over [hos paredothē] to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification” (NRSV). See Joseph A. Fitzmyer, First Corinthians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 436.

[7] Martin Kähler, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic, Biblical Christ, translated by Carl E. Braaten (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1964), 80n11.

[8] For an overview of this hypothetical source, see Marion L. Soards, “Appendix IX: The Question of a Premarcan Passion Narrative,” in Raymond E. Brown, The Death of the Messiah: From Gethsemane to the Grave – A Commentary on the Passion Narratives in the Four Gospels, vol. 2 (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 1492-1524.

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