Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel

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Topics: Theology & Religious Education. Ages: Adult. Texts: Mark. Resource Types: Books.

Review & Commentary

One thought on “Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel

  1. Review

    This book was conceived by the author while teaching a course on Jesus and the Gospels. He was structuring his presentations to his students the way he had learned in graduate school. Following an introduction to the Jewish background he and his students "focused on particular passages from the Gospels arranged according to topics." One day it dawned on him that something was missing from the course. He writes, "Of course! – since in studying Jesus and the Gospels we never paused to read a whole Gospel." Thus Richard Horsley, Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts and the Study of Religion at the University of Massachusetts, with the help of students in class and clergy in workshops, began to focus on studying and teaching the whole story of the Gospels.

    It is necessary to take two steps to change the focus of engaging the Gospel of Mark. The first step is to cease misunderstanding it as a collection of passages and verses and to appreciate it as a story of "intensive and disturbing drama" which has a setting, a plot, several sub-plots, and a cast of characters. Horsley emphasizes that the "particular parts and episodes make sense only as components of and in the context of the overall narrative."

    The second step is to understand the historical context out of which the story told by Mark arose and to which it was addressed. Unless we know something of the political, economic, religious and cultural context in which the story was told it will be impossible to understand the origin and purpose of the Gospel, and we will continue to misinterpret the story through the prism of individualistic Christian faith and theology. Taking these two steps will enable us to hear and read the "whole story."

    The story of the Gospel of Mark began in Palestine and was oriented toward the people of the rural villages of Galilee and Judah who suffered from the political oppression and economic exploitation of the Roman empire, its client king Herod Antipas and the ruling high priests in Jerusalem. In this historical context, the Mark presents Jesus, standing in the prophetic tradition of Israel, proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God, which involved a renewal of the Mosaic covenant of the political, economic, and social order. The mission and ministry of Jesus, through his teaching and healing, was to lead a movement "of revitalized, community life that is to be economically and politically egalitarian." It was this movement, in opposition to the Roman and Jerusalem rulers that resulted in the execution of Jesus. Horsley writes, "When we grasp Mark’s complete story it becomes evident that it was about and was addressed to the ancient equivalent of ‘third-world’ peoples subjected by empire." This is the "politics of plot" in the Gospel of Mark.

    Horsley also identifies several subplots. He points out that the story of Mark is often interpreted as a story about individual discipleship, with the twelve disciples as models. He suggests that this reading "works only insofar as the individual internalizes and spiritualizes what in Mark’s story is a concrete political struggle." In the beginning of the story the disciples who followed Jesus are representative of the twelve tribes of Israel engaged in sharing with Jesus in the renewal of the community. In the middle of the story it becomes clear that the disciples misunderstand the mission and ministry of Jesus and in the end they betray, deny, and desert him.

    Another subplot involves the contesting, between Jesus and the Pharisees, over the Torah and popular Israelite tradition. As interpreters of Torah, the Pharisees were representatives of the high priestly rulers in Jerusalem in dealing with villages and outlying districts such as Galilee. The people of Galilee, however, had their own "little tradition" which often was in conflict with the "great tradition" of the rulers in Jerusalem. Indeed, the Jesus movement involved a renewing and mobilization of the popular "little tradition" of Israel. Horsley points out that some of the encounters between Jesus and the Pharisees were "about fundamental political-economic matters such as adequate food, the disintegration of marriage and the family, and the siphoning off of economic resources needed locally to support the Temple and the empire."

    There is also a subplot in startling contrast to the one focused on the negative example of the twelve disciples in following Jesus. Horsley points out that recent scholarship has called attention to the evidence that Mark "portrays women in the story as both representatives of renewal and positive paradigms of faithfully responding to and ‘following’ Jesus." Although particular women appear in individual episodes throughout the Gospel, it is not until the end of the whole story that their exemplary role becomes clear. They stay with Jesus, witnessing the crucifixion, going to his tomb to anoint him, and proclaiming the good news that Jesus is going ahead into Galilee.

    After reading this powerful, persuasive and engaging book, it will be impossible to read the Gospel of Mark as you have read it all these years. It is a major contribution to the current search for the historical Jesus. Playing off the title of Marcus Borg’s book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, one could title this book, "Hearing the Gospel of Mark Again for the First Time."

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