Saturday, February 12, 2005

Book Review: Robert Gundry, Mark

Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross
by Robert H. Gundry. Published by Erdmans (1993) 1069 pages.

Gundry's masterwork Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross is 1069 pages of scholarship on the Gospel of Mark, reviewed. The tome manages to be an amazingly useful book despite the fact that it is simply a purblind review of the Gospel of Mark with its eye firmly fixed on the task of demonstrating that the scholars who have other-than-reactionary views of Jesus are all wrong.

Gundry announces his project in the opening paragraph of the work:
  • The Gospel of Mark contains no ciphers, no hidden meanings, no sleight of hand:

    No messiac secret designed to mask a theologically embarrassing absence of messianism from the ministry of the historical Jesus. No messianic secret designed to mask a politically dangerous presence of messianism in his ministry. No freezing of Jesuanic tradition in writing so as to halt oral pronouncements of prophets speaking in Jesus' name. No Christology of irony that means the reverse of what it says. No back-handed slap at Davidic messianism. No covert attack on divine man Christology. No pitting of the Son of man against the Christ, the Son of David, or the Son of god.(p1)

The list goes on for two more paragraphs. Then Gundry finishes:
  • None of these. Mark's meaning lies on the surface. He writes a straightforward apology for the Cross, for the shameful way in which the object of Christian faith and subject of Christian proclamation died, and hence for Jesus as the Crucified One."(p1)

There it is. NT scholars do not lack for hubris; most of us would feel obligated to at least explore the ideas enumerated therein, and show where they have gone wrong, but Gundry isn't going to waste his time on penny-ante stuff like that. He intends this as a serious work of scholarship which will simply take the story of Jesus as given, assume it is actually history, and not bother with other possibilities, except to show that they have erred. In other words, this is the apotheosis of the declarative method: It's True Because I Say It Is, to which he has added the Gundry Corollary: Other Scholars are Wrong Because I Say They Are.

The commentary itself consists of a pericope by pericope review of the Gospel of Mark. Each review offers a commentary on the pericope, and then is followed by a set of notes in 10 point font. The pericopes are always given a title that often comically reflects Gundry's confessional positions. Whereas most exegetes might title Mark 8:10-12 something like "Jesus refuses to give a sign," Gundry would never opt for anything so pedestrian, for him that is "THE POWER OF JESUS' DENYING THE REQUEST FOR A SIGN" in all caps for special emphasis. Other pericope titles include:



and of course, when the reader grows bored with the repetition of "POWER" Gundry offers us:


The real meat of the book is in the notes; this is essentially a thousand page monster written in a ten point font (!). The notes themselves attempt to cover various controversies, observations, and arguments about Mark, reviewing the Greek first, and then moving onto other issues. Although Gundry appears to be displaying vast erudition as the cites roll by, the careful reader will soon note that Gundry is primarily carrying on a conversation with conservatives like R. Pesch, J Gnilka, J. Jeremias, and his own previous works. Other authors are cited on particular topics, and liberal scholars are mentioned only for squelching. This places some limits on the usefulness of the commentary because so often Gundry is adjudicating among various conservative standpoints, rather than really exploring a multiplicity of perspectives on the gospel. An additional problem is that the work is now more than a decade old and in serious need of revision and update.

Nevertheless, there is quite a bit to be learned from this work. It is basically an encyclopedia about the Gospel of Mark, and it can be profitably treated as such. Gundry is thorough on text critical issues, and I picked up quite a few useful tidbits. For example, not being able to read Greek, I had never known that when Jesus' disciples are criticized for not washing in Mark 7:1-13, they are eating not just any food, but the magic bread that Jesus had created in the previous pericope. "The anaphoric definite article refers back to the five loaves broken by Jesus and eaten by the five thousand..."(p348). The RSV and NIV have just "food" there while the YLT and Darby have "bread" but without indicating that it is the magic bread from the previous scene. This changed my whole view of the pericope. Similarly Verse 3 in that same pericope has "clenched fist" in Greek although most translations change this to "hands." Thus it is truly said that until you read the NT in Greek, you haven't read it. Gundry is usually conscientious in bringing out a variety of views on the meaning of a given pericope, so there is a harvest to be gathered if one ignores his facile if dominating dismissals.

However, Gundry's work runs aground when he leaves the stamp collecting and ventures into actual historical analysis. When it comes to adjudicating between different points of view, he is extremely skilled at presenting himself as the forceful judge of what is right and wrong, a position he often ascribes to Jesus (who is in reality a projection of Gundry's own decisive persona). His historical analysis verges on comical, however. Because he has declared that Mark has no hidden intentions or meanings, repeated themes, such as Jesus' injunction to secrecy, are treated as unrelated events with only local explanations. For example, the injunction to secrecy to the healed leper in Mark 1 is explained as Jesus' way of getting the leper to hurry up and show himself to the priest so Jesus can get authenticated testimony of the miracle out to the public. Similarly, the injunction to secrecy in the healing of Jairus' daughter is treated as a ruse by Jesus to buy time to permit him to get away before anyone has realized he has raised the dead. Alas, Mark has already solved that problem by simply writing the crowd out of the narrative; Jesus' command has some other purpose, probably for the parents to prove to themselves that the girl is not a ghost (a double/foreshadowing for resurrection appearances at the end of Mark, which I believe are now in John 21, in which Jesus eats to prove that he is not a ghost). Gundry, in other, words, refuses to recognize that Mark has created a narrative that might have a complex structure, wider significations, and its own agenda. Thus, he spends just a hair over 3 pages at the end of the book explaining Mark's purpose, but more than 20 trying to defend the pious position that Mark's gospel was dictated to him by Peter in Rome.

To demonstrate that all is history Gundry magics up his own set of criteria, each one adjusted for the pericope in question. Were it not for the fact that Gundry is deadly serious, it would almost be possible to read them as parody of NT historical Jesus scholarship. Here are some of his arguments:

  • Argument from Awkwardness: (7:1-20) in which he argues that Mark must be writing history because the grammar is awkward (but see 623 for his argument that the awkwardness there exists for emphasis). Awkwardness means, essentially, Whatever Gundry Wants.
  • Argument from Apparently Useless Details (p387), in which Gundry argues that no one would have made up the circuitous route through Tyre and Sidon, and the "functionally useless" reference to Sidon.It's useless, so it must be true. Of course, it is useless because Gundry has in essence ruled out all forms of explanation that rely on interpreting the text in more robust ways than he is willing to permit.
  • Argument from Opaque Reference (p403) about Dalmanutha he writes "For who would insert a regional name of opaque reference?"
  • Argument from Repeated Structures (p466) "Features of 9:1 that tend toward its authenticity include the characteristically Jesuanic asseveration, "Truly I say unto you." Gundry's imagination seems not to encompass the realm of fiction.
  • Argument from Uniqueness: (p520) where John's solo role in 9:38-40 is "unique" and therefore argues for historicity.
  • Argument from Twoness and Fervor (p627) The twoness and anonymity of the disciples sent to fetch the colt and characteristically Jesuanic [greek] "go," support the authenticity of vv1-7.
There are many more, but the reader will have gotten the flavor of Gundry's "historical" analysis by now. Whenever Gundry wants to denigrate more complex views of Mark, he always uses the word "fabrication" with its overtone of malicious intent ("If Mark had wanted to fabricate___we would expect___"). Gundry rarely takes on the issue of OT parallels head on; instead, he slides by them, either ignoring them (in the healing of the withered hand no attempt is made to deal with the obvious parallel in the OT), or arguing (for example) that people who think Mark 11:1-7 is dependent on 1 Sam 10 are making a philosophical judgment that rejects Jesus' predictive ability, or else by using absurd arguments that boil down to rejecting parallels because the details are not the same -- much as if someone argued that Barb Wire cannot be paralleling Casablanca because, well, Barb is a woman while Rick is a man.

Gundry's naive view of history often leads him to play up some of the more absurd details in the text, often in ways that reveal its inherent implausibility. For example, he expostulates:
  • Gundry (1993) notes: "Though Mark does not tell the mileage to Jerusalem (it is about two miles), the paving of the road from a point farther away than Bethpage and Bthany makes for a "red carpet" the astoundingness of whose length magnifies the VIP that Jesus is...the doubling of the pavement with straw as well as with garmnets despite the fact that since Jesus is sitting on the colt instead of walking on foot he does not need any pavement at all adds to the astoundingness of its length" (p626).
In other words, Jesus' path is lined with straw and garments for two miles! A more philosophically balanced scholar might see that as evidence that the scene as it stands is historically implausible, but for Gundry it is simply one more testimony to the glorious power of Jesus.

More serious than his amusing acceptance of historical absurdities is his attack on other scholarship. In his introduction Gundry essentially denies that the various forms of NT critical apparatus, such as form criticism or redaction criticism, are useful in studying Mark. To deny, as Gundry does, that redaction criticism is useful is to deny, essentially, that authors have identifiable styles, or that such styles can be identified. It is to negate not merely a vast mine of data in NT studies, but outside of it as well. And finally, it negates the very humanity of Mark. Everything is on the surface, says Gundry, as if Mark was a human being less complicated than Gundry himself, a sort of gospel writer in blackface, putting on a Jesus show for the evangelical crowd. The reality is, as anyone who has plumbed Mark’s complex use of the OT in his story knows, that Mark was a marvelously subtle and creative writer, well at home with different kinds of irony, and able to deploy his OT references in ways that highlight what is going on in his own story.

In the end, Gundry's vast erudition cannot quite overcome the limitations of his confessional position. Sadly, in many ways Gundry has written a book that is fertile, not because its point of view is fecund, but because it is fertilizer.

1 comment:

metis said...

Hi Prof. Murton,

Google brings me to your web and I am so happy to find this amazing blog. Admire your hard word and your passion!

I am a seminary student and currently I am working on a thesis on Mark 7:24-30 so I read some of the books in your references. I have the same impresson on Gundry's book.

Best wishes!