The First Biography of Jesus
Genre and Meaning in Mark's Gospel
- ISBN: 9780802874603
- Published By: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
- Published: April 2020
The First Biography of Jesus: Genre and Meaning in Mark’s Gospel by Helen K. Bond contends that although New Testament scholars have largely reached a consensus that the genre of the gospels is bios—ancient biography—this conclusion has yet to sufficiently shape the way scholars read the gospels. Bond undertakes an analysis of the Gospel of Mark as bios, comparing it with other ancient biographies, showing how the genre shaped its composition, and demonstrating how features of bios explain thorny issues in its interpretation. She persuasively argues that the author of Mark’s decision to write a biography was decisive in the formation of the “still-embryonic Christian ‘book culture,’” and in the formation of “a distinctive Christian identity based on the countercultural way of life (and death) of its founding figure” (5).
The introduction not only defines Bond’s argument and method for the book, but also presents her positions on Mark’s historical context, which are fundamental to situating her reading of the Gospel. She holds that Mark was written in the “early to mid-70s CE” in Rome by “someone with the common Roman name of Marcus,” who was both a “church leader” and “educated” (8–11).
Bond arranged the book in six chapters. Chapters 1 and 2 focus on bios. The first chapter surveys the debate on Mark’s genre with emphasis on the emergence of bios as the consensus view. Chapter 2 discusses examples of bioi, highlighting features of the genre that are most important for her comparison with Mark. The two most important of these are “a concern to commemorate a great life . . . and a moralistic desire to learn from it” (45). The moralizing impulse is essential for Bond. Ancient biographers intended readers to imitate the character of their subjects, which could be observed from their actions and most powerfully from their death. In this regard, the ancient biographies which correspond most closely to the gospels are those of the Greek philosophers.
The third chapter focuses on aspects of the composition of Mark as a biography and the text’s initial audience. She characterizes the author as a “creative biographer” (110) who crafted a life of Jesus from existing anecdotes and sayings, as well as generating new material. Bond notes that the author chose a genre at the height of its popularity in the Greco-Roman world but less so among ancient Jewish writers and readers. She describes Mark’s audience as a “reading community” (95) who would have read or listened to the text in a variety of settings. In such a group, Mark’s bios of Jesus “would have played an important role in binding the group together and validating its beliefs” (96). Thus, bios was an ideal genre for forming a community that imitated Jesus.
Chapters 4–6 demonstrate how a consistent recognition of Mark’s genre clarifies its meaning. Chapter 4 describes Mark’s characterization of Jesus from Mark 1:1–10:52. Bond argues that Jesus is presented as an “elite male, as befits the Son of God” (149)—an exemplary person with qualities admired throughout the Greco-Roman world. Yet, Jesus’s teaching on discipleship upends conventional codes of honor with a new ethic based on service and suffering. In chapter 5, Bond examines the other characters in Mark. She shows that these figures remain intentionally undeveloped because Mark, as seen generally in bios, focuses singularly on Jesus. The most important section examines the twelve disciples, who seem to resist categorizations. However, given the episodic narrative of the bios genre and its presentation of the subject as the supreme exemplar of ethics and morality, Mark's descriptive discontinuities become more intelligible. The minor characters in Mark are not the point. Their function is to reveal or amplify characteristics of Jesus. Finally, chapter 6 analyzes the Passion narrative in Mark (11:1–16:8). Bond establishes the importance of death in other ancient biographies and then elucidates how even a “bad” death like Jesus’s crucifixion reinforces the subject’s message. Jesus’s crucifixion validates his life and teaching because he obediently followed his own philosophy unwaveringly unto death. This is the crucial point for Bond and ties together these three chapters. If the intention of bios is to inspire readers to emulate the subject of the biography, then Mark’s exclusive focus on Jesus, his characterization of him as a praiseworthy person with a unique teaching, and his death—along with the vindication of resurrection—all serves this mimetic purpose.
One of the most impressive aspects of Bond’s work is the depth of its interaction with a plethora of critical approaches to the gospels and the literary and cultural history of the first century. She frequently connects her interpretation of Mark as bios with current research on Greco-Roman culture and the expectations of the first readers. This is a strength of her argument. However, Bond’s detailed analysis of Greco-Roman culture and literature at times leaves the Jewish context of Mark unexplored. The author of Mark demonstrates a deep awareness of ancient Judaism and casts Jesus’s work within the framework of Judaism. Yet, these connections often seem like a loose addition to Bond’s argument. For example, “the distinctively Jewish idea of resurrection” is “superimposed” (249) on Mark’s narrative of the empty tomb. What this might mean for the Roman reading community goes with little explanation. The Gospel of Mark’s interaction with its Jewish context could be further integrated into Bond’s presentation of Mark as bios—especially since the popularity of this genre differed between Roman and Jewish groups.
The First Biography of Jesus is thoroughly researched and written in an approachable, scholarly style. It makes a significant and persuasive contribution to the interpretation of the Gospel of Mark by explaining how Mark’s genre framed its composition and meaning. It should be consulted when one studies the interpretation of Mark. Likewise, the call to consider the mechanics and purposes of bios consistently during exegesis should be extended to the other gospels.
Andrew J. Patton is a PhD candidate in theology and religion at the University of Birmingham.Andrew PattonDate Of Review:September 27, 2022