The Gospel of Mark

Written by Hugh Anderson Reviewed By I. Howard Marshall

We live in a time when the Gospels are being subjected to more detailed study than has possibly ever been the case; substantial monographs and almost innumerable articles pour forth continually and it is becoming almost impossible for any one person to keep up with the flow. There is, therefore, a continuing need for fresh commentaries on the Gospels which will harvest this material and make it more easily accessible to the non-specialist. In his new commentary on Mark, which is the last of the four Gospels to be tackled in the New Century Bible, Prof. H. Anderson of the University of Edinburgh has provided a useful and full treatment of the earliest Gospel which both reflects something of recent study and also presents the author’s own understanding of the Gospel. As befits a popular commentary, this book lacks the detailed reference to critical studies which would be useful to the student and especially the research worker, and there are places (as in the discussion of the apocalyptic discourse and the passion narrative) where are a closer engagement with recent literature would have been useful, but the reader will certainly pick up a good idea of how Mark is regarded in current scholarship.

The author gives a most helpful discussion of current theories about the origin of the Gospel in his lengthy introduction (60 pp.). His exposition takes us up to the valuable work of R. P. Martin, Mark: Evangelist and Theologian (Exeter, 1972), which he regards as over-precise in its speculation that Mark wrote to correct false understandings of Paul’s theology. Nevertheless, there appears to be a growing consensus that Mark wrote for a persecuted community to demonstrate that Jesus is more than a historical figure; he can be understood properly only in the light of his cross and resurrection and by those who are prepared to follow his own path of cross-bearing and self-denial. This means that Mark presents Jesus from a conscious theological viewpoint, and that the Gospel must be examined first of all to see what Mark was trying to say in each part. Anderson thus stands in the succession of D. E. Nineham, E. Schweizer and the more conservative W. L. Lane who are especially concerned with redaction criticism of the Gospel. The result is to throw light on the message intended by Mark and to find the unity of the Gospel as primarily residing in the evangelist’s theological purpose. It follows that to a considerable extent the evangelist himself has shaped the narrative, and that those who conveyed the tradition to him did likewise. The identity of the author cannot be definitely ascertained; Anderson musters the arguments against John Mark, especially the topographical difficulties and the author’s hostility to the Jews and their customs. I would question the strength of these difficulties, and would join R. P. Martin in placing more weight on the testimony of Papias than Anderson is prepared to do. The Gospel was written ‘in some unspecified part of the Roman Empire’ and is to be dated c. AD 65–70 or slightly earlier, certainly before the fall of Jerusalem.

Anderson is prepared to find a good deal of material in the Gospel which is not strictly historical, and he has certainly a sharp eye for detecting historical difficulties in the story as told by Mark. He insists that the ‘truth’ of the Gospel does not necessarily lie in a literal description of what actually happened, and that the audience of the Gospel would not have been looking for this. He is unconcerned whether the miracles actually happened: ‘were we able to lay hold of the miracle in itself we should then possess unequivocal proof of the supernatural, and proof and authentic faith in God are impossible companions’ (p. 142). Whether or not any miracles can be proved to have happened, I should want to examine that last clause with a very critical eye and to ask for some justification of it.

Although, therefore, considerable portions of the Gospel are regarded as unhistorical, the author is concerned to discover what can be reasonably regarded as historical, and he notes repeatedly where a historical basis can be postulated beneath Mark’s account. To accuse him of sweeping scepticism would be quite unjust. Nevertheless, there are many cases where his arguments against the historicity of particular sayings or incidents are weak and a more positive assessment of the historicity of the material may be allowed. To cite but one example, Anderson agrees with many scholars that the catalogue of vices and crimes in Mark 7:21f. comes from Gentile Christianity; he cites similar catalogues from Paul and also from Qumran, and states that such lists ‘betray the influence of Hellenism and are characteristic of the Hellenistic world generally’. But Paul was a Jew, and the Qumran sect was Palestinian; if in both of these cases Hellenistic influence was possible (and we know from M. Hengel that Palestine had been Hellenized over a long period), we may well ask why Jesus could not have been exposed to the same influence. W. L. Lane, while admitting that the list reflects catechetical influence, rightly claims that there is no valid reason why the list cannot go back to Jesus, at least in its essential form (The Gospel according to Mark, 1974, 256f.). It is an interesting exercise to compare the conclusions of these two commentators throughout their expositions. Anderson has had less space for his commentary than Lane, and therefore has not been able to go into the same detail, but he draws attention to points not taken up by Lane, and his commentary is in no way otiose for the possessor of Lane. Students anxious to find the conclusions of a conservative commentator on Mark will naturally turn to Lane, but study of Anderson will show them the existence of problems passed over in silence by Lane.

Probably the greatest value of Anderson’s commentary is that it offers a sane understanding of Mark’s theological presentation of Jesus, free from the imaginative subtleties found in some other works. At the same time, this is a comprehensive commentary which explains the difficulties in the text and does so clearly and succinctly.

I. Howard Marshall

I. Howard Marshall
University of Aberdeen
Aberdeen, Scotland, UK