Engaging the Gospel
I might be alone here, but I occasionally think it must have been exciting to have been around biblical scholars in the late 1970s and early 1980s. For years the dominant approach to the gospels had been the literary equivalent of an archeologist's dig: look beneath the surface of the text at the layers accumulated from this or that source, reflecting this or that issue in this or that early Christian community; the exercise was sometimes carried out for its own sake, and sometimes with the vague hope that one might, if one dug deep enough, get back to the 'real' Jesus. The danger, apparent in hindsight, was that the approach missed out (and even messed up) what mattered most of all: the actual text itself and the account of Jesus related there, an account told in the form of a story.
So it was that some scholars encouraged their peers to allow 'historical' concerns to give way to 'narrative' approaches, and to consider new ways of doing justice to the story features of the gospels: paying attention to plot (the drive towards the cross), characters (Jesus and the disciples), settings (wilderness, sea, city), the narrator's point of view (guiding the way we read), and so on. It's easy to forget how revolutionary it must have been at the time, to read the gospel as a unified account, an artistic creation, which uses rhetorical devices in order to move the story forward.
David Rhoads was at the forefront of such concerns. His 1982 essay 'Narrative Criticism and the Gospel of Mark' has become a standard reference point which most look back to, and was subsequently expanded into a book with Donald Michie, Mark as Story, first published in 1983 (revised with Joanna Dewey in 1999). This collection of essays is significant, then, partly for the name it bears, and partly because its eight studies of Mark gospel (most of which have been published before) provide a window on to the changing nature of gospel criticism over the last twenty-five years.
The volume begins with the landmark 1982 essay already mentioned, and is followed by a 1999 piece which sums up of the state of play since that first article, answers some criticisms, and takes on board insights from those who have asked that 'narrative criticism' be supplemented with other approaches. Some of these are associated with how readers respond to texts, with postcolonial concerns, with using models from sociology and cultural anthropology, and with oral performance (Rhoads has memorised the gospel of Mark and performed it to audiences more than two hundred times).
The following chapters show how these things work out in practice, allaying the fears of those who might worry that reading the gospels has now been reduced to abstruse theoretical reflection. In one essay, Rhoads explores how Mark's 'standards of judgment' involve being willing to lose status, even life itself. In another, he argues that Jesus loses out to the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30, a passage which has a bearing on issues about men and women, purity and defilement, and anticipating mission to gentiles. Yet another offers an understanding of Mark as oriented to mission in the models of sowing seeds (4:14) and fishing (1:17). The final essay looks at the 'ethics' of reading the gospels, the importance of being aware of one's social location in shaping our interests, how we deal with our subjectivity in reading and allow for the different readings of others.
As such, something of the movement of Rhoads' own thinking is shown, as well as scholarship on Mark and the gospels more generally. Criticisms aside, this is the main value of the volume. It will be of importance to those interested in the gospels, Mark in particular, especially those who have already done some work in the area. Even so, the amount of overlap between the essays means that even those who are fairly new to gospel study will be reminded of important points as they make their way through this engaging work.
Antony Billington, January 2006
Antony Billington teaches Hermeneutics (that's Biblical Interpretation to you & me) at London School of Theology. He's a frequent contributor to the School's monthly webzine, Eis, is heavily into film and contemporary culture and spends most of his wages in the LST Bookshop (enter at your own risk).Augsburg Fortress | Order from www.christianbookshops.org | Order from St Andrew's Bookshops
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