Doston Jones on Studying the Bible as Literature

Back in July, Doston Jones asked whether the New Testament authors were influenced by Greco-Roman literature. This may seem absurd: how could they not have been influenced? But there are certain Christians of the fundamentalist variety who think that the New Testament is utterly unique due to its divinely inspired origins. But the topic Jones discusses in this post is far more important than the never-ending battle with fundamentalism. It strikes at the very heart of New Testament studies itself. The only way to fully appreciate the New Testament texts is to start with their own literary context. Jones aptly writes,

The books comprising the Bible were not written in a cultural or literary vacuum. The authors of the New Testament were highly educated in compositional Greek prose (albeit in a society in which less than 5% of the population possessed such literacy). Having high-level Greek literacy and compositional skills meant that the NT authors were likely of a privileged socio-economic status, and through their education they were certainly exposed to and familiar with popular volumes in Greco-Roman literature.

As an example of this influence, Jones turns to the Acts of the Apostles and compares the so-called conversion story of Paul with the Bacchae, a play by the ancient Greek playwright Euripides. The key part is the similarity between Acts 26:14 and Bacchae 795. In Acts, Jesus says, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads [πρὸς κέντρα λακτίζειν]” (NRSV). In the Bacchae, the deity Dionysus says to Pentheus, “I would pay him sacrifices rather than kick against the goads [πρὸς κέντρα λακτίζοιμι] in rage – a mere mortal taking on a god” (Bacchae 795).[1]

This verbal similarity isn’t the only parallel between the account in Acts and the account in Bacchae. But rather than steal Jones’ thunder, I’ll simply urge you, the reader, to click on the link above. I will add this: the influence of Greco-Roman literature is everywhere, down to the very genre of literature that the Evangelists chose to employ when talking about the life and death of Jesus – bioi. Helen Bond in her book The First Biography of Jesus: Genre and Meaning in Mark’s Gospel observes that among the closest analogies to Mark’s Gospel are texts like Xenophon’s Memorabilia, Lucian’s Demonax, among others.[2] Mark’s “decision to write a biography – a literary form that was immensely popular within the Greco-Roman world and yet strangely uncommon within Jewish circles – may…suggest an attempt to appeal to the sorts of people who were familiar with this type of literature,” she writes.[3]

Per the ending of Jones’s piece, he is planning to say more about the influence of various sources upon the New Testament authors. I’m looking forward to reading his thoughts on the subject.

[1] Translation taken from Euripides, Iphigenia among the Taurians; Bacchae; Iphigenia at Aulis; Rhesus, translated by James Morwood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[2] Helen K. Bond, The First Biography of Jesus: Genre and Meaning in Mark’s Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2020), 6. See my review of Bond’s work here.

[3] Bond, The First Biography of Jesus, 90.

Recent Episode of the ‘Religious Learning’ Podcast: Jonathan Burke on the Existence of Demons in the New Testament

Kameron Mazurek recently hosted Jonathan Burke for a recent episode of the Religious Learning podcast. In it, Burke discussed a debate he had back in February with Sir Anthony Buzzard on the existence of Satan and demons as personal beings. (I’ve not watched the debate and so cannot comment on it.) Burke has been on Mazurek’s podcast before (as have I) and I so enjoyed his previous discussion of Jesus mythicism that I knew this more recent conversation would be interesting as well.  So, what does Burke think of Satan and demons? Well, he doesn’t think they exist.

It is with some measure of irony that both Burke and I are in total agreement on the existence of demons. For starters, he is a Christian who accepts the existence of God, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and many other classically Christian views.[1] I, on the other hand, am an atheist and reject the supernatural claims of Christianity. But what is perhaps more ironic is that while Burke seems to think the Gospel writers and Paul rejected the existence of demons, explaining references to them away as accommodation to an audience prone to believe in them yet all the while undermining belief in their existence, I think Burke’s reading is the exact opposite of what is going on in these texts. I firmly believe that the Gospel writers, the apostle Paul, and the historical Jesus would have believed in the existence of Satan and demons as personal beings. Let me briefly explain why.

Both Paul and (in many ways) the Evangelists were products of the Second Temple period. Thus, interpreting these authors requires some appreciation for their historical and, relatedly, literary contexts. “Apocalyptic prophecies lie at the heart of Christian origins,” writes Emma Wasserman in her 2018 volume Apocalypse as Holy War: Divine Politics and Polemics in the Letters of Paul.[2] Apocalypticism generally entails dualism and that on various levels. For example, in the opening salutation of his letter to the Galatians, Paul reminds his readers that their Lord Jesus Christ was he “who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Galatians 1:4, NRSV). And in his first (extant) missive to the Corinthians, the apostle warns them that “if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall” because the failures of Israel recorded in the scriptures “happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Corinthians 10:11-12). Implicit in Paul’s thought is that there is a present age, characterized as “evil” (Galatians) and coming to an end (1 Corinthians), and a future age that inaugurates an era of peace under the reign of the god of Israel (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:20-28). This temporal dualism is characteristic of apocalyptic literature generally[3] and Paul’s thought seems to be baptized in it. As Paula Fredriksen notes, “Apocalyptic hope, the vibrant matrix of Jesus’s mission to Israel, is also the interpretive context for understanding the gentile mission of Paul.”[4]

That Jesus of Nazareth held to an apocalyptic worldview is implied both by the apostle Paul’s own commitment to it as well as by the first words Jesus speaks in our earliest Gospel: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news” (Mark 1:15, NRSV). It is easy to take for granted the full import of these words, particularly if one remains blissfully unaware of the surrounding context. Space does not permit a full discussion, but it suffices to say that the introduction of the Markan Gospel is thoroughly apocalyptic.[5] It is no coincidence that his first public miracle is an exorcism (Mark 1:21-28). Martinus de Boer notes that there were two “tracks” of apocalyptic eschatology: cosmic and forensic.[6] While at times these tracks overlap, it is in the former that we find the origins of the demonic spirits that plague Mark’s conceptual world.

This isn’t to say that Mark is describing the exact historical circumstances of an exact historical Jesus. Though it fits within the bios category, Mark’s Gospel is nevertheless (or, perhaps, consequently) a literary creation of Mark’s making. In fact, one of the more surprising elements is the running gag that the only ones who truly know Jesus’ identity is a disembodied voice from the sky (Mark 1:11), a blind man (Mark 10:46-48), a gentile overseeing his execution (Mark 15:39), and demons (Mark 1:26, 34; 3:11-12; 5:1-13). Does this reflect historical reality? I doubt it. But I agree with E.P. Sanders when he writes that the “sheer volume of evidence makes it extremely like that Jesus actually had a reputation as an exorcist.”[7]

Back to Paul. It stands to reason that if our earliest Gospels (i.e., the Synoptics) all of which post-date Paul, managed to get something right about Jesus in terms of his work as an exorcist, then surely Paul would remain in this general vein. We know that the author of the Acts of the Apostles, writing in the second century, thought of Paul as a miracle worker generally and an exorcist particularly. In one comical scene, a group of Jewish exorcists attempt to expel an unclean spirit in the name of Jesus but succeed only in rousing the creature’s sarcastic ire: “But the evil spirit said to them in reply, ‘Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?” (Acts 19:15, NRSV). The episode continues in horror movie fashion when the possessed man attacks the would-be exorcists, driving them away (v. 16). Though Paul himself nowhere describes performing an exorcism, he does talk about Satan. In his earliest letter, 1 Thessalonians, Paul places the blame for his not being able to return to see the fledgling Christ-following community squarely on Satan (1 Thessalonians 2:18). And in 2 Corinthians, Paul attributes to Satan noemata (2:11; “designs” or “schemes”), a sure sign of intellectual agency. These and other references to Satan found in Paul sound, at least to this amateur exegete, like references to a personal being.

There is much more that could be said but I’ve “waxed elephant” long enough. Regardless of my disagreement with Burke, I found this discussion with Mazurek very informative. Not only does Burke exhibit an impressive knowledge of biblical texts, but he is very organized in his thinking. I’ll fully confess to being envious! I hope that readers of this post will give Mazurek’s most recent episode of the Religious Learning podcast a whirl.

[1] Burke (and Mazurek) it should be noted is a Christadelphian. As such, he rejects the divinity of Jesus and the doctrine of the Trinity.

[2] Emma Wasserman, Apocalypse as Holy War: Divine Politics and Polemics in the Letters of Paul (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018), 1.

[3] On defining apocalyptic genre, see John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature, second edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publish Co., 1998), 3-11.

[4] Paula Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017), 9.

[5] For an overview, see Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000), 71-73.

[6] See the discussion in Martinus C. de Boer, Paul, Theologian of God’s Apocalypse: Essays on Paul and Apocalyptic (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2020), 22-24.

[7] E.P. Sanders, The Historical Figure of Jesus (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 149.

Does Mike Winger Think Jesus Was a Sinner? (Evangelical Eisegesis #1)

Pastor and pop-apologist Mike Winger thinks that the Markan cry of dereliction (Mark 15:34) implies more than just a cry of anguish from the lips of Jesus. In critiquing the views of Bart Ehrman, Winger suggests that the author of Mark’s Gospel was subtly referencing the entirety of Psalm 22, not just the first verse. But this introduces a significant problem for Winger’s theology.

Amateur Hour w/the Amateur Exegete #3 – The Problems with Creationism w/Jackson Wheat

Just how problematic is creationism? To answer that question, I invited Jackson Wheat to join me for this episode of Amateur Hour.

Book Review: ‘A Most Peculiar Book’ by Kristin Swenson


I love the Bible. Those words may sound odd coming from an atheist, but they are nevertheless true. My connection to the Bible runs deep: I was raised in a Bible-centered Christian environment, one in which we were told we should read at least ten pages daily so we can get through the Bible annually. When the psalmist said, “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee” (Psalm 119:11, KJV), we took it seriously because we knew the danger of sin. Today, the idea of “sin” is to me an unhelpful one and I have no fear of offending the god of Christianity. But still the Bible clings to me as a relic of my own experience and I have devoted countless hours of my life to it.

The Bible is a difficult book. One of the reasons it is so difficult is well-articulated in a pithy statement by the historian Paula Fredriksen: “The Bible is not a book: it is a library” (emphasis added).[1] And this library was not always available to the biblical writers in full, usually as a function of their historical context. Moreover, these writers were not of one mind on every issue. Sure, worship of Yahweh was a central concern. But how that looked – its socio-religious implications – varied from author to author. Additionally, the authors weren’t writing impassioned pieces to communicate historical reality. In many cases, they were producing propaganda, whether that be of a religious or political nature (or, in many cases, both).

For veterans of biblical studies, unpacking the biblical corpus takes considerable work and knowledge. What hope does a mere novice have? Much if they have at their disposal Kristin Swenson’s A Most Peculiar Book: The Inherent Strangeness of the Bible (Oxford, 2020). Swenson, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, offers readers a fine introduction to the world of biblical criticism. Coupling a conversational tone to sound scholarship, A Most Peculiar Book (AMPB) would make a great addition to anyone’s library, but especially those who are just starting out in the world of biblical studies.


Following an introduction wherein Swenson declares her love for the Bible and explains why she loves it (pp. xiii-xviii), AMPB is thereafter divided into four sections. The first section, comprised of chs. 1-2, is “A Book Like No Other.” In ch. 1 (pp. 3-26), Swenson discusses the myriad ways the Bible is “problematic.” For example, contrary to the expectations of many Christians, “the Bible” doesn’t offer its readers a singular, coherent narrative that stretches from Genesis to Revelation. “There is no neat progression all the way through, from beginning to end,” writes the author (p. 4). With ch. 2 (pp. 27-36), Swenson lets her readers in on one of the best unkept secrets of biblical scholarship: the origin, transmission, and collection of the biblical corpus was a mess. While some routinely throw out terms like “the original text” or “the original autographs,” she states unequivocally that “[t]here is no authoritative ur-text that we can consult for the final word” (p. 27). Additionally, the Bibles to which we refer, complete with chapter and verse divisions, are relatively late developments, at least relative to the production of the so-called original texts. Consider “the New Testament,” that collection of 27 books that Christians consider canonical. By and large, the entirety of the New Testament was written from the 50s CE (e.g., the undisputed letters of Paul) to the early second century (e.g., the Pastoral Epistles). But the first complete New Testament extant is found in a codex from the fourth century known as Sinaiticus. And it not only includes the standard books of the New Testament but also works like the Epistle of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas.

Part two, “Beings Odd and Otherwise,” takes up three chapters. The first of these chapters, ch. 3 (pp. 39-59), is devoted to God. It almost goes without saying that the god of Israel, Yahweh by name, is the central figure of the entire Hebrew Bible. His importance stretches even into the New Testament as the earliest followers of Jesus were both adherents to and proponents of the worship of Yahweh. But, Swenson observes, the biblical authors are hardly univocal in their portrayal of the deity. To open the chapter, the author writes that with its use of elohim, a plural noun to describe the singular god of Israel, the text of Genesis 1 offers its readers a being that is hardly “a monotone, singular, consistently recognizable (read: predictable) deity” (p. 41). This may be reading too much into the word, but she is certainly correct that the “biblical” God is colorful and complex. In ch. 4 (pp. 60-81) more colorful characters are discussed, including the snake of Genesis 3, the Satan of the book of Job, the talking donkey of Numbers 22, and more. Chapter 5 (pp. 82-102), entitled “Good People Behaving Badly,” looks at characters like Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, and others. These somewhat iconic figures exhibit many of the qualities one expects in real people: they can at once act selflessly and selfishly, display profound courage and retreat into fear, declare their firm reliance on God and yet act contrary to his will. And it is not just human characters who can seem flawed in various ways. Swenson notes that even “God does some really questionable stuff in the Bible” (p. 100).

Chapter six (pp. 105-119) opens part three of AMPB and features a discussion on some of the peculiarities of certain texts. For example, Swenson compares the exaggerated lifespans of the antediluvian patriarchs found in Genesis 5 with the exaggerated lifespans of antediluvian monarchs listed in the Sumerian King List. “Coincidence?” she asks. “Few scholars think so” (p. 108). She also dispels the notion that the prophecies found in the Hebrew Bible were “meant to predict the coming of Jesus” (p. 112). Rather, the New Testament writers “reinterpret[ed] received texts in light of new ideas and experiences” (p. 112). In ch. 7 (pp. 120-145), Swenson charges headlong into the debate on things like the historicity of Daniel and its relationship to the faithful. “If your faith is entirely invested in the Bible’s factual accuracy, then you have to resort to some pretty fanciful reasoning to accept Daniel’s assumption that Belshazzar was the son of Nebuchadnezzar, when we know for a verifiable, historical fact that Belshazzar was the son of Nabonidus,” she writes. Later in this chapter, Swenson talks about sex and marriage, noting that the Bible is “a collection of many voices” on the subject and that not extramarital sex “is judged equally by biblical standards” (p. 140). Chapter eight, entitled “And General Befuddlements,” talks about some of the strange episodes that are scattered throughout the biblical corpus. For example, in Exodus 4 there is a brief but bizarre story in which Yahweh attempts to kill Moses while they are spending the night on the way to Egypt. His life is spared thanks to his wife Zipporah who cuts off the foreskin of her son and touches Moses’ “feet” with it (Exodus 4:24-26). This passage has been a thorn in the side of exegetes for a long time and Swenson does her best to explain what exactly is going on in it. For example, perhaps it isn’t that Yahweh tried to kill Moses but rather Moses’ son. “Zipporah does take some pretty dramatic action toward her son,” she says (p. 148). And why Moses’ “feet”? It is possible that the term is a euphemism for Moses’ penis. Needless to say, it is a weird story.

In ch. 9 (pp. 165-185) which begins part four, Swenson talks about the various contradictions – real or perceived – within the biblical corpus. She discusses the Documentary Hypothesis, noting that it in “making sense of one of the most striking strangenesses of the Bible: that even a seemingly single narrative can be the product of many voices” (p. 166). This hypothesis helps to explain why there are two different creation accounts in Genesis, why the story of the Deluge in Genesis 6-9 often seems disjointed, and why some of the so-called Mosaic laws seem incongruent. She also brings up discrepancies within the Gospels, how they “disagree in tone and general concerns” (p. 182). Moving on from contradictions, in ch. 10 (pp. 186-207) Swenson surveys the variety of troubling and morally questionable tales found throughout. For example, the divinely directed genocide of the Canaanites “poses a conundrum that can be addressed by modern people of faith only by understanding and respecting the Bible’s ancient past and history of development, and only by allowing for ways of faithful reading besides the literalistic application of those texts to today” (p. 192). She also brings up the subject of abortion, noting that some of the texts used by the pro-life side of the debate like Jeremiah 1:5 are employed without regard for their literary and historical context. “The Bible is a messy, messy book with all sorts of unsettling and sometimes flatly contradictory information,” she contends. In ch. 11 (pp. 208-217), the author presents her readers with various turns-of-phrase that stem directly from the biblical texts like “forbidden fruit” (pp. 208-209), “how the mighty have fallen” (pp. 211-212), and “the writing’s on the wall” (pp. 213-214). The final chapter, ch. 12 (pp. 218-232), features Swenson’s “Ten Commandments for Reading the Bible.”


Though far from a technical treatise on the Bible, AMPB does function well as an introduction into the subjects and concerns of biblical criticism. While fundamentalist and evangelical readings of the Bible tend to either skirt around or wave off entirely the anthology’s problem areas, biblical criticism approaches them head on, probing for anything that can reveal their historical import. Biblical scholars, therefore, take seriously Swenson’s observation that “the Bible is a cacophonous gathering of disparate voices” (p. xiv). It isn’t a bug but a feature, the consequence of binding these ancient texts together.

There is no short abundance of examples to illustrate this point. One of the more interesting, albeit less appreciated, examples is the subject of the death of Goliath (pp. 175-177). Most readers, even those who have never cracked open a Bible a day in their lives, know something about the story of David and Goliath. In cultural discourse, “Goliath” often codes for “gigantic” or “enormous,” a reference to an enemy – physical or metaphysical – that is seemingly unstoppable. David, on the other hand, is a stand in for the underdog. The story of David’s triumph over the giant from Gath can be found in 1 Samuel 17 and the death of Goliath via the slingshot of the shepherd David as well as his subsequent decapitation at the hands of his own sword can be found in vv. 49-51.

If I were to ask you, “Who killed Goliath?” you would undoubtedly respond, “David killed Goliath!” And you would have Bible-based reasons for thinking so. But Swenson alerts her readers to another text: “Now have a look at 2 Samuel 21:19,” she instructs us (p. 175). In that passage we read, “Then there was another battle with the Philistines at Gob; and Elhanan son of Jaare-oregim, the Bethlehemite, killed Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam” (NRSV). Suddenly, we have a complication. Now, in response to the question “Who killed Goliath?” there is a new answer: Elhanan son of Jaare-oregim killed Goliath. But how could that be right?

By all measures, we have a contradiction. But this is strange – why wouldn’t the author of the books of Samuel just smooth it over by claiming Elhanan killed someone else? Swenson provides us with the answer:

It’s all a bit fishy until you remember that the Bible didn’t develop in the manner of modern books, with a single story line controlled by a single author. By all scholarly accounts, we have here a great example of an early story (Elhanan’s killing Goliath as per 2 Samuel) reworked in later years so that the great deed went to the hero of the bigger story, David. (p. 175)

Space does not permit a full discussion of the origins of 1-2 Samuel, but Swenson thinks that the Elhanan version of the death of Goliath is “the historical germ” upon which the David story was based. She is not alone in this assessment. For example, Baruch Halpern in his work David’s Secret Demons contends that “[m]ost likely, storytellers displaced the deed [i.e., the killing of Goliath] from the otherwise obscure Elhanan onto the more famous character David.”[2] Steven McKenzie in his book King David takes a slightly more nuanced approach, asserting that while it was Elhanan and not David that killed Goliath, the story of 1 Samuel 17 was about the killing of a giant Philistine and that the name “Goliath” was imported from 2 Samuel 21.[3] Both Halpern and McKenzie consider the Elhanan version to be the older version of the story. There is debate over how this happened, but some scholars think the books of Samuel were written backwards. For example, in his commentary on 1-2 Samuel A. Graeme Auld suggests that the books of Samuel “were composed from end to beginning.”[4] Consequently, the stories found in 1 Samuel are often based in part on what we find in 2 Samuel. In particular, per Auld, the story of Goliath’s death in 2 Samuel 21 serves as “the kernel of the much more famous story that our author has attributed to David, and set at the very beginning of his career (1 Sam 17).”[5]

Further complicating matters is another text, this one from a work composed during the post-exilic era: Chronicles. In a section that parallels 2 Samuel 21:18-22, the Chronicler writes, “Again there was war with the Philistines; and Elhanan son of Jair killed Lahmi the brother of Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam” (1 Chronicles 20:5). Without a doubt, one of the sources that the Chronicler had at his disposal was some version of the Deuteronomic History which would have included the books of Samuel.[6] It would appear that this section from 2 Samuel 21 was available to him, and he decided to significantly alter the text such that Elhanan no longer kills Goliath but Lahmi, the brother of Goliath. The alteration itself is clever. While the Deuteronomic Historian had referred to Elhanan as a Bethlehemite (byt hlḥmy), the Chronicler removes the reference to Elhanan’s hometown and turns lḥmy into the name of Goliath’s brother “Lahmi” (laḥmî).[7] But why take this route?

Swenson provides the answer: the Chronicler’s “primary goal is to lionize David” (p. 175). If you’ve ever read 1 Chronicles, you’ll have noticed that following the lengthy genealogical section (i.e., chs. 1-9), the story picks up with the demise of Saul and the ascent of David to the throne of Israel (chs. 10-11). The rest of the book paints David in a very favorable light, avoiding such topics as his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba as well as the disastrous rebellion by his son Absalom (to name a few). James Kugel observes that the changes the Chronicler made to his source material has been useful such that “modern scholars have been able to find a whole political program hidden in his rewriting,” including a desire for reunification of Judah with its neighbor to the north, the end of Persian dominance, and the restoration of the Davidic monarchy.[8] In other words, the Chronicler was writing propaganda, part of which was to paint David in the most favorable light possible. Thus, while the Chronicler never traces the early days of David’s life as the book of 1 Samuel does, he does manage to rectify a problem that persisted in his source material, namely that Elhanan was given credit for something everyone knew David did.

So, within the corpus of 1-2 Samuel we have a contradiction. Early in the narrative, it is David who kills Goliath. Much later in the narrative, it is Elhanan who kills Goliath. Contradicting that later narrative, the Chronicler asserts that Elhanan killed not Goliath but Lahmi. There are, of course, apologists who have clever ways to resolve the contradiction, but that is a subject for another time. The key take away here is that whatever else we may think about the Bible, it is a most peculiar book for a variety of reasons, including texts like those discussed above. If Swenson and other scholars are right and the Elhanan story is the “germ” from which the Davidic version sprouted, then that gives us some measure of insight into just how important it was to legitimize David’s claim to the throne of Israel and, in later texts like Chronicles, why he is given such moral deference despite his rather sketchy literary history.


Seasoned readers of the Bible who have also waded into the waters of biblical scholarship will find little new in Swenson’s book. Nevertheless, it is an entertaining read and one that in many ways offers an emotional rather than purely intellectual connection to the Bible. Having spent the last two decades of my life in reading and studying it, AMPB was a helpful reminder that there is much to love about the Bible – warts and all.

Novices to the world of biblical scholarship will find in AMPB an excellent introduction to the reason the endeavor exists. Whether it’s the authorship of the Gospels, the nature of the sources behind the stories of Genesis 1-2, or even the reception history of particular texts and how they are employed in today’s culture wars, Swenson’s work provides a taste of what the work of a biblical scholar entails. And while there is no bibliography, astute readers can mine the endnotes for the various sources to which Swenson appeals. Since she depends heavily on quality scholarship, building a library off the works she mentions is an exercise in wisdom.

A Most Peculiar Book by Kristin Swenson is one I will gladly recommend.

[1] Paula Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017), 8.

[2] Baruch Halpern, David’s Secret Demons: Messiah, Murderer, Traitor, King (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001), 8.

[3] Steven L. McKenzie, King David (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 76.

[4] A. Graeme Auld, I & II Samuel: A Commentary, The Old Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 9.

[5] Auld, I & II Samuel, 13.

[6] On the sources employed by the Chronicler, see Anson F. Rainey, “The Chronicler and His Sources – Historical and Geographical,” in The Chronicler as Historian, edited by M. Patrick Graham, Kenneth G. Hoglund, and Steven L. McKenzie (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), 30-72.

[7] Halpern, David’s Secret Demons, 7-8.

[8] James L. Kugel, How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now (New York: Free Press, 2007), 9-10.

Amateur Hour w/the Amateur Exegete: Episode #2 – Who Is Jesus? A Christadelphian Perspective w/Kameron Mazurek

Who is Jesus? For many Christians, he is both Son of God and God the Son, the second person of the Trinity. But not all Christians think this, including Kameron Mazurek. Mazurek is a Christadelphian and in this episode of Amateur Hour we talk about his background and beliefs, particularly his view of the claim that Jesus is a divine being on equal footing with God.

Amateur Hour w/the Amateur Exegete: Episode #1 – The Trouble with Inerrancy (w/the Non-Alchemist)

Is the Bible free from error? If it isn’t, what does this mean for some version of Christian belief? And what exactly would an error look like anyway? My friend the Non-Alchemist and I touch on these questions and more in our conversation in this inaugural episode of ‘Amateur Hour w/the Amateur Exegete.’

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.

Musings on Mark: A Promising New Series on the Gospel of Mark

Over on Twitter, I was recently followed by @bibleautopsy. It must have slipped under my radar because I didn’t look into their profile, nor did I follow back. But after I saw a tweet in which they tagged Joshua Bowen, I wanted to see what their website was all about. I’m glad I did. Their aim is expressed on their home page: “Dissecting the Bible in a secular and academic way – removing the scales of inerrancy and fundamentalism.” Now that’s a mission I can get behind

There are only three posts up on the site, all written by Micah Bartlett, and all having to do with the Gospel of Mark. The first has to do with historical context: Who wrote it? How does it relate to the other so-called Synoptic Gospels? What was the historical situation in which it was composed? The answers given are fairly standard among critical scholars and offer those not as familiar with Markan scholarship a way to dip their toes into the broader ocean of the literature on the Gospel. The second post covers the layout and structure of the book, following the work of R.T. France and his commentary. France saw Mark as a three-act drama and his commentary reflects that understanding.[1] Bartlett also brings up the messianic secret as well as the Gospel’s abrupt ending. In the third and most recent post, we read of unique features of the Markan text. There is a discussion of Markan Christology (with which I have a few quibbles), the naked youth of Mark 14:51-52, and the Passion account.

I’m looking forward to future posts from Bartlett as he performs an autopsy on the Bible. Though I have to admit, with its focus on critical scholarship, it feels more like an exorcism. The demons of fundamentalism are forced to flee as the text is investigated closely. In any event, I am pleased to commend this site to my readers.

[1] R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), 11-15. It should be noted that France was careful to not attribute to Mark this scheme of a drama in three acts but to observe that “any structure we [as readers] discern is a matter of our reading of the text, not of Mark’s direction” (p. 13). France was, of course, not denying structure in Mark generally but only that such structures are more often than not in the eye of the beholder and to some degree arbitrary.

Conversation with Jackson Wheat on Stephen Meyer’s Book ‘Darwin’s Doubt’

I had the distinct privilege of being invited to discuss Stephen Meyer’s book Darwin’s Doubt over at Jackson Wheat’s YouTube channel. I had recently finished reading Meyer’s book and along the way had DM’d Wheat with various questions about the science behind it. As usual, Wheat was kind enough to answer my questions and provide feedback. He then invited me onto his channel to discuss the book and to get my impressions of it. Talk about outside of my wheelhouse! I’m quite openly an amateur in biblical studies, a subject about which I’ve read and written on extensively. But evolutionary biology? I’m less than a novice!

So, for what it’s worth, my conversation can be found below. And if you haven’t already subscribed to Wheat’s channel, you should go ahead and fix that now.