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How to Read the Gospel of Mark in the Context of Second Temple Judaism

Categories New Testament

9780310534457The Gospel of Mark is widely considered the earliest and most influential narrative of the ministry and passion of Jesus Christ. Although undervalued for centuries, Mark’s Gospel is now celebrated as a cleverly crafted ancient biography, emphasizing action, irony, and intrigue over more direct and discursive modes of theologizing.

Yet not all readings of Mark are equally illuminating or transformative.

Over the last several decades, the Jewishness of Jesus has been at the forefront of scholarship and students of the New Testament are more than ever aware of the importance of understanding Jesus and the Gospels in their Jewish context. Reading Mark in Context (edited by Ben Blackwell, John Goodrich, and Jason Maston) sits at the center of this conversation by helping interested readers see the contour and texture of Jesus’ engagement with his Jewish environment. 

Through a series of accessible essays that compare and contrast viewpoints, theologies, and hermeneutical practices of Mark and his various Jewish contemporaries, this resource illuminates the Gospel of Mark in light of Second Temple Jewish literature. As N. T. Wright explains:

It introduces the reader to many of the most important Jewish texts of the period, but it does so by following through the sequence of Mark’s Gospel, thus providing a kind of running commentary on the whole of this vital and early Christian text. The book will thus be of great value both to anyone wanting a text-based introduction to the first-century Jewish world and to anyone wanting to think their way through Mark’s Gospel in its original setting. (14–15)

Below is a brief introduction to the substance of this resource, offering insight into how interested students can read the Gospel of Mark in light of Second Temple Judaism.

Reading the Gospel of Mark Wisely in Its Jewish Context

As most second-year biblical-studies students will know, reading the Gospels wisely requires careful consideration of a passage’s historical-cultural context. The study of Mark’s Gospel is no different. The Second Gospel, like the rest of the Bible, was written at a time and in a culture quite different from our own, which necessitates contextual immersion.  As Blackwell, Goodrich, and Maston explain: “failure to immerse oneself within the religious environment of the New Testament world will likely result in not only unconscious imposition of alien meaning onto the biblical text but also a poorer understanding of the person and work of Jesus Christ” (27).

A prime example of this failure are the so-called quests for the historical Jesus that began in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, producing historical portraits through academic methods of inquiry. Driven initially by post-Enlightenment rationalism and later by the psychologizing and moralizing tendencies of late nineteenth-century Romanticism, these portraits separated the “authentic” Jesus of history from the “mythical” Christ of faith (presumed to be manufactured by the evangelists and early church) in an effort to get at the real Jesus of Nazareth and make him relevant for a modern age.

However, such scholarly profiles have been exposed as distortions, plagued by uncritical subjectivity and contextual neglect. “Most notably, Albert Schweitzer decried how each of those modern biographers had simply ‘created Him [Jesus] in accordance with his own character.’ Moreover, Schweitzer criticized these historical reconstructions for failing to situate Jesus properly within the milieu of ancient Jewish apocalyptic” (27). Even Schweitzer himself succumbed to the same misrepresentations, portraying Jesus as a failed eschatological prophet, as well as for having exaggerated the separation of Judaism from Hellenism.

Since then, scholars have challenged students of the New Testament to read the Gospel accounts against a more reliable historical backdrop—most notably E. P. Sanders’s Jesus and Judaism. His approach was to examine Jesus’s teaching and actions in the milieu of Jewish restoration eschatology, seeking to recover the authentic Jesus of history from canonical accounts colored by later Christian theology. “Similar to Schweitzer’s reconstruction, Sanders maintains that Jesus envisioned himself as an eschatological Jewish prophet who expected the imminent onset of a new world order in which God would build a new temple, reassemble Israel’s twelve tribes, and welcome the wicked” (29).

Not all of Sanders’ proposals have been widely accepted. Nevertheless, as a result more readers of the New Testament are aware of the importance of situating Jesus within his Second Temple Jewish context and interpreting the Gospels in close relation to contemporary Jewish literature. Reflecting this changing attitude the editors contend, "students must not ignore Second Temple Jewish literature but engage it with frequency, precision, and a willingness to acknowledge theological continuity and discontinuity” (32).

Why Readers Ignore Second Temple Jewish Texts when Reading Mark's Gospel

Many readers of the Bible today, especially in the evangelical tradition, give little, if any, attention to early Jewish texts. There are several reasons for this.

First, the reason why some ignore Second Temple Jewish works is simply a matter of familiarity. “Being generally unaware of the literature produced during the Second Temple period, many assume that the so-called ‘silent years’ between the Testaments witnessed little to no development beyond the inherited traditions of the Hebrew Scriptures” (29–30). So it’s because readers are unfamiliar with Jewish literature that they overlook it, assuming that the New Testament was written in a literary-theological vacuum.

Others avoid this literature as a matter of canonicity. “Although aware of the existence of extrabiblical Jewish literature, these readers often consider ancient religious books lying outside of Scripture to be theologically irrelevant or even dangerous” (30). Thus, they bar these works from consideration when interpreting the Bible, usually because of their commitment to sola Scriptura or related post-Reformation doctrines on the clarity and sufficiency of Scripture.

Finally, Second Temple literature is often neglected as a matter of utility. While some may realize that the Jewish people authored important religious works between the Testaments, “many remain unsure how these noncanonical texts can be studied profitably alongside the Bible. They therefore disregard early Jewish literature, being either regretful they don’t have the training to apply extrabiblical insights or anxious they might distort the New Testament message if they tried” (30).

The editors and contributors to Reading Mark in Context understand these concerns. However, they believe the rewards for studying Second Temple texts far outweigh the challenges and supposed risks.

Why Readers Shouldn’t Ignore Second Temple Jewish Texts when Reading Mark's Gospel

Blackwell, Goodrich, and Maston insist “there are many advantages to becoming familiar with early Judaism and the relevant literature” (30). To better explain, they quote Bruce Metzger’s helpful assessment of the importance of these works for biblical studies:

Though it would be altogether extravagant to call the Apocrypha the keystone of the two Testaments, it is not too much to regard these intertestamental books as an historical hyphen that serves a useful function in bridging what to most readers of the Bible is a blank of several hundred years. To neglect what the Apocrypha have to tell us about the development of Jewish life and thought during those critical times is as foolish as to imagine that one can understand the civilization and culture of America today by passing from colonial days to the twentieth century without taking into account the industrial and social revolution of the intervening centuries. (30 [Metzger, An Introduction to the Apocrypha, 151–152])

Although the issue of canonicity is often why readers don’t engage Second Temple texts, especially the Apocrypha, such concern is hard to justify. “We, too,” write the editors, “embrace the evangelical and wider Protestant belief in the authority of inspired Scripture. Refusing to engage early Jewish literature on theological grounds, however, goes well beyond this commitment” (31).

Particularly since such venerable voices as Martin Luther famously insisted that the books of the Apocrypha were "useful and good to read,” and the highly vaunted King James Bible included the Apocrypha in most early Protestant printings. Yes, such texts have been and continue to be mishandled. “Yet the appropriate solution to the misuse of comparative literature is not its outright dismissal but its responsible handling by students of Scripture” (31).

Overview of the Gospel of Mark Context: From the First Temple to the Second

When reading the Gospel of Mark, and really any of the Gospels, it is helpful to understand the Jewish context in which they were written—cultural, political, religious. Which means understanding the Second Temple period and early Jewish literature that came from that period. But this requires a step backward to grasp Jewish history.

The pivotal turn in their early history came with the exodus, when the Israelites were liberated and led by God into the desert, where they were given the Mosaic law to their life and religion. Eventually they were brought to their promised land, inhabiting it for almost five-hundred years—during which King Solomon built the first temple in the mid-tenth century BC. However, after his death the kingdom divided and fell into exile: Israel’s northern kingdom of Israel was captured and exiled by Assyria in 722 BC; in 586 BC the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, including the first temple, and exiled the southern kingdom of Judah (2 Kg 24:10–25:21; 2 Chr 36:17–21).

“The Babylonian captivity marks a low point in Israel’s history,” explain the editors. “The nation had faced the full brunt of the Deuteronomic curses as a result of their covenant disobedience. Consequently, the Israelites were without a homeland, just as Yahweh had promised would happen through Moses and the prophets” (33).

Yet even before they were captured, God had promised they would return to the land as a fully restored nation. In 539 BC that happened. Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon and famously decreed that all exiles could return to their ancestral homelands (2 Chr 36:22–23; Ezra 1:1–4). Zerubbabel helped rebuild the temple, while Nehemiah reconstructed the city walls (Ezra 3:8–6:15; Neh 2:9–6:15). It is the building of this second temple in 516 BC that marks the beginning of the Second Temple period.

The Second Temple period (516 BC–AD 70) began with the Jews under the control of the Persians and ended with them under the control of the Romans. The reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes was particularly fierce. In 167 BC, Jerusalem was raided, the temple was desecrated, covenant observance was outlawed, and possession of the Torah prohibited. But Antiochus’s persecution was not passively tolerated. The Jewish resistance of the Maccabean Revolt in 167–160 BC resulted in the Jews’ repossession of the land, rededication of the temple, and institution of the festival of Hanukkah. However, Israel was seized by the Romans in 63 BC. Although they largely tolerated Jewish religious practices, pressures leading toward political, cultural, and religious assimilation were ever present. Eventually the Zealots Jewish resistance group stoked the hopes of another successful revolt. But the Romans defeated the Jews and destroyed the Second Temple in AD 70, bringing an end to the Second Temple period.

“This was without question a time of crisis for the Jewish people, and devout men and women reflected on their experiences in a variety of ways. With the continuous pressures of consecutive foreign nations pushing the Jews toward assimilation, numerous Second Temple Jewish literary works preserve their thoughts and hopes about God and life in the covenant” (35).

These reflections during the Second Temple period survive in numerous literary works, which form an important backdrop to the Gospels generally and the Gospel of Mark specifically.

Overview of Second Temple Jewish Literature

The Second Temple Jewish writings were composed by numerous authors in multiple languages over several hundred years. And since they derive from geographical provenances extending over much of the ancient Near East, there is no easy way to characterize or categorize these texts. Still, scholarly surveys of ancient Judaism normally assign individual Second Temple Jewish texts to one of three main literary bodies:

  1. The Septuagint (abbreviated LXX) is a collection of Jewish texts in Greek that includes the Greek translation of the Old Testament as well as other Jewish writings. It was the most widely used Greek version in antiquity, though other Greek versions also existed. 
  2. The Old Testament Apocrypha (also called the deuterocanonical books) are a subset of the texts found in the Septuagint (though not in the Hebrew Bible) that were accepted as authoritative by patristic (and medieval) Christians and included in the Latin Vulgate translation. The primary collection includes the books of Tobit, Judith, Additions to Esther, the Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), Baruch, the Epistle of Jeremiah, Additions to Daniel (the Prayer of Azariah, Song of the Three Young Men, Susanna, and Bel and the Dragon), and 1 and 2 Maccabees. Certain churches also afford special status to works such as 1 and 2 Esdras (= “Ezra” in Greek), the Prayer of Manasseh, and Psalm 151. The LXX also includes, in certain copies, the books of 3 Maccabees, 4 Maccabees, 1 Esdras, the Psalms of Solomon, and Odes of Solomon (including the Prayer of Manasseh).
  3. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (meaning “falsely attributed writings”) is a diverse body of ancient Jewish works, many of which claim to be authored by famous Old Testament persons although they did not write them. Some Septuagint works mentioned above are also falsely attributed—like the Wisdom of Solomon and Psalms of Solomon from the above category. All early Jewish religious literature not considered to be (deutero)canonical are commonly placed in the open category of pseudepigrapha—aside from Philo, Josephus, and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

However helpful these classifications are, an alternative and more descriptive way to group these writings is according to genre. Reading Mark in Context offers an informative survey of mainly Jewish literary genres, which are briefly summarized below:

  • History. Several works fall into this category, including 1–2 Esdras and 1–2 Maccabees. The books of 1–2 Esdras (Vulgate) refer to the books of Ezra and Nehemiah and thus report Israel’s immediate postexilic history. The books of 1–2 Maccabees chronicle important events between the biblical testaments, including the Maccabean Revolt. “Together, the early Jewish histories are essential for understanding the events, influences, challenges, and commitments of the Second Temple Jewish people” (37)
  • Tales. These are stories that make no serious claim to historicity but instead aim to instill in their readers wise teachings through the stories and the speeches they narrate. To this category belong such books as Tobit, Judith, Susanna, 3 Maccabees, and the Letter of Aristeas. “These works normally cast important, sometimes heroic, men and women at the center of their narratives in order to model Jewish piety and inspire trust in God’s promises” (37)
  • Rewritten Scripture.  This group typically takes a narrative form, since these works reproduce, paraphrase, and elaborate on the accounts of specific Old Testament events and characters. This category includes Jubilees (a retelling of the biblical events from creation to Mt. Sinai), the Genesis Apocryphon (an expansion of select patriarchal narratives), the Life of Adam and Eve (an account of the advent of death and restoration of life), and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs (an elaboration on Jacob’s final words to his twelve sons in Genesis 49). “Works such as these are important for demonstrating how biblical literature was interpreted during the Second Temple period, when exegetical commentaries were quite rare” (37).
  • Apocalypse. Written in the second and third-centuries BC during times of great distress, these works normally consist of otherworldly visions given to a human recipient (seer) through the mediation of a supernatural, sometimes angelic, being. “They therefore seek to bring comfort to suffering Jewish communities by providing a heavenly perspective on past, present, and future events. Often coded in elaborate symbolism, these visions typically anticipate the eventual cessation of evil and political oppression” (37). Early Jewish apocalypses include 4 Ezra, the Sibylline Oracles, the Testament of Moses, and several portions of 1 Enoch: the Book of Watchers (1 Enoch 1–36); the Similitudes/Parables of Enoch (1 Enoch 37–71); the Astronomical Book (1 Enoch 72–82); the Book of Dreams (1 Enoch 83–90); and the Apocalypse of Weeks (1 Enoch 91:11–17; 93:1–10).
  • Poetry and Wisdom Literature. Similar in both content and style to Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the songs written during this period of Jewish history commonly entreat the Lord for deliverance from pain and oppression; wisdom literature appeals to common experience in order to instruct people how to live virtuously. Examples of poetry and songs include the Psalms of Solomon, the Prayer of Manasseh, and the Prayer of Azariah and Song of the Three Young Men. Wisdom examples include Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), the Wisdom of Solomon, and perhaps Baruch and the Epistle of Enoch (1 En. 91–108).


9780310534457Following the progression of Mark, each chapter in Reading Mark in Context does three things:

  1. Pairs a major unit of the Gospel with one or more sections of a thematically related Jewish text
  2. Introduces and explores the theological nuances of the comparator
  3. Shows how the ideas in the comparator illuminate those expressed in Mark

Each chapter ends with a short list of other thematically relevant Second Temple Jewish texts recommended for additional study and a focused bibliography pointing students to critical editions and higher-level discussions in scholarly literature. The end of the book offers a glossary where readers will find definitions of important terms. 

This book will help you gain a new appreciation for extrabiblical Jewish texts, begin to see the many benefits of studying the New Testament alongside of its contemporary literature, and acquire a better understanding of Jesus as he is presented in the Gospel according to Mark.

Why Do We Need to Read the Gospel of Mark in Context?
Why Do We Need to Read the Gospel of Mark in Context? One reason? Scripture is not a 21st century text. The recently released Reading Mark in Context: Jesus and Second Temple...
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