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Home » Book Reviews

THE GOSPEL OF MARK. A Commentary by Francis J. Moloney

Submitted by on March 25, 2010 – 11:06 amNo Comment

Moloney is professor of New Testament at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He fulfills here a repeated request to “write something on Mark.” In his own words: “My aim has been to trace what Mark’s story said to an early Christian community perplexed by failure and suffering. The author presents Jesus as a suffering Messiah, Son of God, and highlights the failure of the Markan disciples. Failure and suffering continue to perplex all who believe that God has acted definitively and uniquely in the person of Jesus Christ” (p. xviii).

Moloney admits that guessing about what came to Mark by tradition and what he himself added is a speculative enterprise (p. 8), though he will often make judgments on such matters without stating his reasoning. He works from the perspective of narrative criticism and reader-response evaluations (pp. 9f.)  to suggest a sociopolitical world situation for which the book was written. He very tentatively suggests that the readers might be located in southern Syria (p. 15). He reads Mark as issuing a call to the hearers to follow “a suffering Son of Man to Jerusalem—and beyond ” (p. 18). “The Christology of the Gospel of Mark is clear: Jesus, the Son, wins through to life by his willingness to lay himself open to the ways of God, no matter how much these ways may question the absolutes of history and culture. In his acceptance of God’s will, through death on the cross, Jesus is Messiah and Son of God” (p. 22). The ambiguity in such a definition of Christology and in trying to reconstruct the situation of the readers is to be noted.

Moloney divides the body of the text into four major sections: 1. Prologue: Mark 1:1-13; 2. The Mystery of Jesus: Mark 1:14—8:30; 3. Jesus, the Son of Man and Son of God: Mark 8:31—15:47; and 4. Epilogue: Mark 16:1-8. The prologue is written so that the readers, who know the story ends with Jesus on the cross, are to ask: “. . . in what way does Jesus, the Son, respond to God’s understanding of him? How does he live a life, preach a message, and die a death which restore God’s original design and make the Father delight in him (1:11)?” (p. 40). Moloney sees the “Prologue” and “Epilogue” focusing intensely on the readers who will learn about Jesus in the body of the Gospel.

The “Mystery of Jesus” section shows Jesus constantly on the move. The disciples are to follow. The story is not about them. A funny comment is offered in light of Wrede’s messianic secret motif: “[T]his is the worst-kept secret in the history of secrecy (see. v. 45)” (p. 59). But the “nonsense of a crucified messiah” is central, not Jesus as miracle worker. Israel’s closed system cannot contain the eschatological event of Jesus’ death (p. 67). Jesus quickly chooses disciples and establishes for himself a new family, one which will ultimately abandon him. He takes the initiative. Moloney notes that no one understands the urgency of proclamation about the kingdom (91). Jesus moves on to explain to his chosen family who he really is, concluding with the Caesarea Philippi scene. Moloney stresses that “being with” Jesus is central to participating in his mission (p. 121). Conflict intensifies, and it is suggested that ongoing tensions within early Christianity are mirrored here (p. 143). Could the Christian community go forward with Gentile Christians at the table with Jewish Christians? One of many interesting observations is that all miracles done “at a distance” are done by the request of Gentiles (pp. 147f.). Moloney notes the increasing fragility of the disciples as the story moves along. It will dominate the second half of the story (p. 168).

“Jesus as Son of Man and Son of God” brings the reader to see that Jesus’ death and resurrection dominate the telling of the story. The three passion predictions frame the narrative. The narrative telling of the story drives the interpretation. What has been written (p. 181) points to God’s design in the matter. Moloney drives home the point that the powerlessness of the disciples is unique in Mark’s narrative and is not elsewhere in the evangelical tradition (p. 186). As Jesus finishes his teaching and healing, he moves to Jerusalem where he brings cultic practices, religious leadership, Jerusalem, and the world as we know it to an end (pp. 215ff.). The closest Moloney comes, in my opinion, to explaining Jesus’ death is to suggest that he heals the rebellious relationship between God and the creation (p. 293). The high point is seen when Jesus answers the high priest. “This first and only self-revelation of Jesus as the Christ and the Son of God in the Gospel of Mark is a christological high point of the narrative. Jesus is Christ, Son of God and Son of Man in his suffering and on the cross. It is as the crucified one that he will reveal himself as Christ and Son of God, but through the cross he will establish himself at the right hand of Power, and exercise ultimate authority as the Son of Man at the gathering of the elect” (p. 305). Only the passersby, who acclaim him mockingly, tell the real tale. The believing reader would catch the irony (p. 322).

What Moloney titles as “Epilogue” concludes the narrative. Jesus has not been abandoned (p. 346). Imitators of Jesus who take up their cross would bring about the restoration of God’s original creative design in imitation of Jesus.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this volume. Moloney is in dialogue with many scholars. He operates within the framework of narrative and reader, taking cues from the text, particularly at the beginning and the end, to help believing readers make sense of the story of Jesus. Many observations about individual narratives, and many helpful footnotes, make this an attractive volume.

But as I reread my many jottings in the margin, I am left wondering about the salvific nature of Jesus’ mission. Jesus’ suffering is unique, beyond what Maloney sees in Mark. I read Mark and note how Jesus was abandoned by everyone. Yet he went forth to the cross. I admit to reading the Gospels with the doctrine of justification in mind. Jesus does more than just teach a way of suffering, forgiveness for those who abandon him in time of need, and standing up to the powers that be. The restoration of the creation is not to be carried out by readers who follow Jesus and who are in a saving relationship with him. It is the action of God Himself who has settled eternal issues in the action of Christ on the cross. The empty tomb narrative leaves us wanting more, but it is not just epilogue.

I learned much on every page. It was interesting to follow the speculation about what group might have received this text and how they would have used it. Yet I wonder whether the subtle hints are enough to be clear about their situation. And I did not find any cogent discussion that would explain how Moloney determines whether a text was already in fixed form and available to Mark versus those passages that he suggests were added by Mark to give this evangelist’s “take” on the Jesus’ story. Individual stories are linked so as to draw the reader into the story of one who was absolutely unique in the history of this world. Discipleship ultimately involves being drawn by the resurrected one who pours out His grace on those who abandoned Him or would have if they had been there. Jesus’ followers are now healed for eternity. They are summoned by His grace to be with Him in Galilee and beyond. That is not epilogue; it is the prologue of things to come.

Dr. Thomas H. Trapp
Concordia University, St. Paul, MN

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