Resurrection in Mark’s Literary-Historical Perspective (Library Of New Testament Studies)

Through a careful reading of several ancient texts such as Chariton’s Callirhoë, Fullmer identifies an ancient storytelling convention with roots in the Homeric tradition in which narratives of death and revival accentuate significant points in a story. In Mark’s Gospel, resurrection narratives accentuate the power of Jesus’ ministry (Mark 5:21-43) as well as the ironic disloyalty of Jesus’ disciples as their failure is first assured (Mark 9:14-29) and later realized (Mark 16:1-18).

The reader of this study will come to appreciate how the irony of the Gospel — a literary feature that is prominent in novelistic literature — is furthered by a novelistic application of the resurrection theme. These observations affirm an identification of the genre of the Gospel as novelistic literature.

The study also examines themes of death and revival in texts of the Hebrew Bible, revealing a recurrent constellation of motifs. In these texts, Fullmer convincingly traces a Prophetic resurrection topos with characteristics that are compared to an Epic resurrection topos identified in the Homeric tradition. He then demonstrates how the two topoi merge in later, novelistic texts of Hellenistic Judaism such as the Gospel of Mark, witnessing to a widespread amalgamation of cultures that characterizes the Hellenistic period.

This study supports a growing appreciation of the ethnic hybridity of the context that produced Mark’s Gospel, contributing to the work of scholars who question an often overdrawn dichotomy between Jewish and Greek culture in the Hellenistic period. Moreover, the significant influence of epic, non-biblical traditions upon the Gospel becomes manifest without an assertion of direct dependence upon Homeric epic. Overall, the study provides a model for the examination of specific themes of the Gospel in light of related ancient literature which enhances modern understanding and appreciation of Mark’s story.

Review

‘A significant study…Fullmer contributes greatly to understanding the literary precursors of Mark that influenced the Gospel author’s storytelling.’ – John Dart, RBL
‘Fullmer’s research challenges a long-standing scholarly assumption that “resurrection” is sui generic, unfamiliar to Greco-Roman readers. Fullmer has collected a great deal of interesting material from ancient literature on the resurrection motif … He has made a persuasive case that ancient readers would not have considered the crucifixion, tomb, and resurrection narratives peculiar or sui generic.’ – Pheme Perkins, Professor of New Testament at Boston College of Arts & Sciences

About the Author

Paul Fullmer teaches at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania. He has co-authored a series of Greek grammars entitled Read Greek by Friday, with Robert H. Smith.

Review & Commentary

One thought on “Resurrection in Mark’s Literary-Historical Perspective (Library Of New Testament Studies)

  1. Review

    Book Review: Fullmer, Paul M, Resurrection in Mark’s Literary-Historical Perspective, T&T Clark, London, 2007; ISBN 0-567-04553-6; 256 pp.

    The priority of Mark’s Gospel in relation to Matthew and Luke is now very widely accepted but the actual intention, aim or purpose of this Gospel’s author still creates endless research, debate, frustrated readers and, to the publishers’ great delight, a steady flow of new Markan books. What should we make of its supernatural and travelogue-like narrative, its mainly short episodes, its fast-paced and action-packed sequences (p.22), its frequent use of “immediately”, a noticeable lack of grammatical conjunctions between juxtaposed clauses and its various interpretational enigmas?

    In his brave and challenging book, Paul Fullmer, who teaches at Lebanon Valley College in Annville Pennsylvania, reveals very clearly his personal quest for an answer to some or maybe all of Mark’s literary puzzles and enigmas. These relate to Mark’s literary style, ideas, structures, chosen genres or literary categories, themes, motifs and patterns which he has drawn on from the wider context of Epic, Hellenistic and Hebrew literature, written before, during or shortly after the composition of Mark in about 70 C.E.

    A Quest not for the faint-hearted

    His quest is therefore to locate Mark’s inspiration and to establish possible literary or oral sources and styles used by Mark in his Gospel’s composition. Every page of Fullmer’s book is dense with data, charts, novelistic examples and literary references relating to this in-depth and enlightening investigation. However, in view of Christianity’s traditional, dogmatic claims and its desire and demand for loyalty, sharing in this sort of literary investigation may not be a task suitable for the faint-hearted.
    In short, Fullmer has observed that many features in Mark also appear in this Jewish-Greco-Roman literature. He thus identifies and labels some general genres like the Homeric epic and the Hellenistic novelistic literature in the West and the Hebrew prophetic literature in the East. He sees these genres as providing appropriate literary aspects at all of their levels for the creation of an imaginary or fictional, artificially-created but intensely entertaining novel.

    Novels and their Gruesome Descriptions

    In the Hellenistic novels, he observes the usual narrative in three-parts: the beginning already in the midst of the action, a central turning point and a finale, climax or recognition (pp.41-5). Common general themes in such novels, including romance novels, usually develop some biographical information about the hero, extensive travel by land and sea, references to historical contexts, dates and places and the involvement of the heavenly, Olympian super-natural realm of divine beings and miraculous actions (pp.34-40).

    Various specific topics or features often appear in sequence, such the display of intense emotions, the presence of large crowds of supportive and enthusiastic people, trials, gruesome descriptions of human experiences, displays of violence and the cruel inflicting of torture (pp.26-34).

    The theme of the death, which is often qualified and not absolute, and the subsequent resurrection, resuscitation or revitalisation of a novel’s important character, often occurs at a time of intense change in the context of the family, society or religion and the series of motifs which accompany such dramas are usually the presence of a small or a large crowd, confusion, death, resurrection and finally enlightenment or exaltation, motifs very familiar to both the composer of Mark and also to Mark’s readers (pp.192-96).
    Irony in Mark’s Gospel has been extensively researched, especially in relation to the Crucifixion scene, where in Mark 15:31-2, the observers mockingly refer to Jesus as “the Christ” and as “the King of Israel”. Ironically, the audience reading Mark’s Gospel has traditionally accepted these Messianic tiles being mocked as in fact being true (p.47).

    Another feature is rhetoric, which focuses more on style and the art of persuasion than on the conveying of historically-correct and realistic events and persons (p.206).

    In the context of novelistic literature, the author suggests that perhaps the “primary interest of Mark’s story is entertainment” (p.205). These novels were probably read as part of the Greco-Roman entertainment industry, where they were clearly enjoyed by the literate and by the less literate who could listen to them being read. These novels can be seen to have their analogy in the present-day cinema and television films and dramas, which also thrive on many of these above themes, topics and motifs, with realistic-looking violence and the imposition of death, in the interests of present-day entertainment. The present world also seems to need its gladiators and its gore!

    Since Fullmer’s book-title focuses on “Resurrection”, he lists in his second chapter some of the examples of the Resurrection theme in Greco-Roman literature. He includes the resurrection of Aristeas in Aegea and in Italy (p.62), the promise of resurrection by the deity Salmoxis (p.65) and several Imperial Roman authors who use this theme. These include Ovid, who describes the death of Hippolytus and his resurrection with the help of Asklepius with his magic herbs (p.68) and Propertius, who narrates the resurrection of Androgeon (p.71). The romantic novel written by Chariton during the first century titled Chaereas and Callirhoe is dealt with in considerable detail and the author includes for each death and resurrection the motifs of confusion, death, resurrection, enlightenment and the crowd. (pp 84-116).

    This theme is further developed within the context of the narrative structure of beginning, middle and end in Homeric and Hellenistic novelistic examples, with such characters emerging as Sarpedon a son of Zeus, who was resurrected by Zeus (p.118), Odysseus, who was resurrected by Athena (p.121), Hector by Zeus (p.127) and finally Laertes, the father of Odysseus, who died and returned to life (p.130).

    Death and resurrection in Jewish Literature

    The Hebrew prophetic death and resurrection theme and pattern differs in some ways from the Epic themes, and includes a breach of divine trust, a progression through death and resurrection and a culmination in the restoration of trust and the re-establishment of communion (p.137). This pattern occurs in Hosea 6:1-3 labelled the “Song of Hope” (p.140), in the prophetic vision of dry bones in Ezekiel 37:1-14 (p.144), Elijah’s resurrection miracle in 1 Kings 17:17-24 (p.146), Elisha’s resurrection miracle in 2 Kings 4:18-37 (p.149) and various other sections of the Hebrew Scriptures are explored, including Daniel.

    Fullmer goes on to highlight this resurrection theme by writers associated with Hellenistic Judaism and he includes the apocalyptic vision of 1 Enoch 25:1-7 (p.155), the resurrection of Tobias in the Book of Tobit (p.158), Esther’s death and revival in Additions to Esther (p.161) the tortures and the resurrection hope in 2 Maccabees 7:1-43 (p.163) and the love story of Joseph, the son of Jacob who was famous for his coat of many colours and Aseneth, the daughter of the Priest at Heliopolis [City of the Sun] in Egypt (p.165). Fortunately, some of this literature is readily available as “deutero-canonical” literature included in the “Jerusalem Bible”. Readers of Tobit will certainly sympathise with Tobit when they learn from Tobit 2:11 that he was blinded when a sparrow landed its “hot droppings” in his eyes while Tobit was resting outside under a tree. This was clearly tragic and may have once had a deeper meaning but today it sounds just a little comical!

    Fullmer’s analysis of the death and subsequent resurrection theme in Mark’s Gospel , including the associated changes, draws on Mark’s three examples of this theme. [1] Mark 5:21-43 presents the account of the daughter of Jairus, a synagogue official, who was pronounced dead but who responded to “Talitha, kum” and returned to life. This episode is said to occur in order to accentuate the miraculous power of Jesus (p.172). [2] Mark 9:14-29 describes the epileptic demoniac, who foamed in the mouth, experienced “violent convulsions”, lay still on the ground like a corpse, was pronounced dead but who then arose and stood up when Jesus held his hand. This occurs in the context of the certainty of the disciples’ disloyalty and failure (p.182). [3] Mark 15:16-16:8 depicts Jesus’ torture, crucifixion and death at a point where the failure of the disciples is fully realized, where Judas betrays Jesus, Peter denies him, sleep overtakes some of them and general desertion becomes the order of the day. However, there remains the message of the young man [who is possibly the personified constellation Aquarius as herald of the post-Winter Solstice solar rebirth] in the tomb that “he has risen” (p.190).

    Each of these above deaths and resurrections in Mark are analysed in relation to the five commonly-used death and resurrection series or constellations of motifs also known as “topoi”, including the crowd, confusion, death, resurrection and eventual enlightenment or exaltation.

    Mark’s Gospel as a hybrid Hebrew and Hellenistic Novel

    Fullmer’s final chapter is a bold exploration of some of the implications of the above assembled data, charts and literary examples of the commonly-developed death and resurrection theme. Mark is seen to fit comfortably into the broad category of the hybrid Hebrew and the Hellenistic culture and religion. Hence, Fulmer depicts the Gospel of Mark as a hybrid Gospel (p.211).

    He refers to two scholars engaged in genre research, Gian Biago Conte and Glenn Most, whose article on this topic in the Oxford Classical Dictionary indicates that they have identified as important in communication back in the first century the following four features: imitation, the strategic use and arrangement of series of motifs, conspicuous stylistic features and conspicuous thematic features (p.201).

    These features of the novelistic genre indicate that the writer of Mark’s Gospel has also made use of such features and has therefore participated in the genre or category of novelistic literature.

    Homer and Mark

    The author raises the issue of the parallels and possible direct connections between the works of Homer and the Gospel of Mark and concludes that the Homeric epic contributes to the general Hellenistic culture, which is in turn shared by Mark (p.211) but direct and specific connections and influences need to be treated with care.

    The connection between the resurrection theme and change is fully confirmed by the author in his exploration of the pre-Markan Mediterranean world. There were wide-scale changes socially and politically after Alexander the Great’s conquests, as countries were occupied, the Greek culture was spread and the resulting social mobility took place. Persecution under foreign rulers such as the Seleucids and then the imposition of the Roman Empire over Palestine also brought huge changes, along with the desire to free the land from occupiers (p.216). Fullmer concludes his book on an optimistic note, that he would like to see the continuing promotion of the traditional Christian values of Hope and Love (p.219).

    This work contains very scholarly and detailed footnotes which are readily accessible at the bottom of each page and its extensive bibliography of over 400 books fills over twenty pages. Any difficult concepts and terms are carefully explained and its contents, which are well set out in its five chapters, are arranged as distinct themes and the sub-sections are logical and easy to follow.
    In my view, future academic, scholarly and critical analysis of the Gospel of Mark will not be able to ignore this extensive and meticulously documented survey of Mark’s literary and novelistic context and background. Fullmer’s most impressive identification of this Gospel’s standard, first-century novelistic features and his study of their wide-spread use before and during the life of the composer of Mark’s Gospel will help to clarify the genre and literary form for his readers and provide answers for some enigmas. However, will it solve the still debatable question “Is the Gospel of Mark actually an imaginatively-created fictional novel depicting an earthly mission of a humanised but not actually human ‘Yahweh Saves’ or Yehoshua or more commonly Jesus, now being increasingly and conceptually identified with the Jewish heavenly deity Yahweh?”

    John Noack, January 2012.

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