Saturday, February 12, 2005

Book Review: Donahue and Harrington, The Gospel of Mark

The Gospel of Mark
by John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington
Sacra Pagina Series, Daniel J. Harrington, Editor
Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press. 2002. 488 pages. $39.95

On that day when the aliens finally arrive at our planet and ask for samples of objects that represent the achievements of Earth's civilization, someone is certain to nominate the book as one of humanity's major steps forward. And when they do, the book they'll have in mind to represent the highest in human progress will undoubtedly be the Sacra Pagina Mark.

In every way this efficient, well-written text is a pleasure to interact with. The Commentary is long enough to present significant detail without piling on erudition for erudition's sake. The gentle, unobtrusive style draws the reader in by subordinating the personality of the writer to the needs of the text, rather than vice versa, as is so common in New Testament scholarly writings. Thus, sitting on the couch, book in hand, is like reading the Gospel of Mark with Donahue and Harrington perched one on each shoulder, helpfully pointing out problems, issues, meanings, and possibilities. Even at the physical level the book is sheer joy: perfectly balanced for the hand, the pages having a faint creamy texture that is easy on the eyes and feels wonderful under the fingers.

The opening chapters of the text are taken up with a general introduction to the structure, characters, style, and dating of the Gospel of Mark. A pericope by pericope commentary follows. Each pericope of Mark is presented in an orderly fashion, with the authors' translation, a set of notes, an interpretation, and a small bibliography focusing on major issues. The notes cover text critical issues, OT relationships, and historical points. They also explain the action, and the interrelationships among the various parts of Mark's gospel as well as with the other canonical gospels, and extracanonical writings. The interpretation explains the text in greater detail, and also offers a guide to actualizing the lessons of the gospel in the reader's own life. Historical judgments play a minor role. An index gives important parallels to the Gospel events in other writings.

The meat of the book is in the notes. A typical note, like this one on 4:38, states:
  • 38. he himself was in the stern of the boat, sleeping on a cushion" the image is of Jesus on the raised afterdeck, sleeping on a sailor's cushion (or perhaps on a gan of sand used for both ballast and comfort). "Sleeping" (katheduon) recalls the farmer of 4:27 whose unconcerned sleep is a prelude to the miracle of growth and harvest. Also, an untroubled sleep is a sign of trust in the power and protection of God (Prov 3:32-34; Pss 3:5; 4:8; Job 11:18-19). The almost comic contrasts among the deep sleep of Jesus, the raging sea, and the terror of the disciples heighten the power of the word of Jesus.(p158)

Most of the notes follow this format, illuminating the passage, linking it to other Markan pericopes and Jewish tradition, and giving some historical insight into the possible meaning of the text. The prose itself is simple, clear, and unadorned, and stays entirely out of the way of the information. Knowledge of Greek is unnecessary, since the authors helpfully present the meaning of the Greek terms they use.

A welcome aspect of this volume is the way in which it presents possibilities rather than determines realities, again in opposition to the prevailing trend in NT writing. Donahue and Harrington have no theory of their own to demonstrate in this book, and so the text lacks a polemical slant and defensive critique. The result is that the reader can concentrate fully on the information they present, instead of always having to swat aside tenditious comments intended to impress rather than clarify.

Perhaps the only interpretive problem they create for themselves is their firm date of Mark at 70. This often leaves them in silence or confusion when they encounter possible evidence for second century construction of Mark. For example, discussing Mark 9:5 and 10:51, they write that the term "rabbi" probably had not yet become a technical term for "teacher" when Mark's gospel was written. This could perhaps be re-interpreted as evidence for a later date of Mark, but they do not take that step. Yet, that is but a minor failing in a work swarming with major strengths.

In sum, Donahue and Harrington have produced a first rate work that is reliable, balanced, easy to read, and extremely helpful. This volume should be a welcome addition to the library of anyone who receives good scholarship gladly.

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