Background Check

If we do not make use of historical background to the New Testament, we are in danger of misreading these books and letters with 21st-century eyes. Reading Mark in Context introduces us to important historical and religious writings from the Second Temple Period (roughly from the Jewish return from Babylonian exile in 516 BC to the destruction of the temple by Rome in AD 70). These range from the works of Josephus to the Dead Sea Scrolls to the apocrypha to Rabbinic writings, and more.


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book progresses through every section of Mark’s gospel, which each chapter written in the same concise, dictionary-like format–an introduction to a periscope of Mark, a discussion of a single key, related Second Temple text, discussion of the Markan text, and further reading related to Second Temple Literature.

What we find is that Mark is not so much dependent on Second Temple Literature as they are both dependent on the Old Testament. Mark and Second Temple Literature run on parallel tracks. By comparing and contrasting them, we see more clearly their often different purposes.

This book does not dramatically alter our view of Mark or add much new information, but, via contrast, helps highlight Mark’s key ideas. There are exceptions of course. For example, why did Herod execute John the Baptist? Josephus sees the motive as political while Mark sees it as religious and ethical. These are complementary not contradictory views, with Josephus filling out a more three-dimensional picture for us.

Each chapter is written by a different contributor, including senior scholars like Rick Watts, Michael Bird, Mark Strauss, and Craig Evans. Some of the most interesting material comes from such scholars as Sarah Whittle on defilement (Mk 7:1-23), Suzanne Watts Henderson on blindness and sight (Mk 8:1-26), Jeanette Hagen Piper on imperfect faith (Mk 9:14-29), and Helen Bond on Pilate (Mk 15:1-15).

One question the introduction does not address is why there may be no direct quotes from and so few allusions to Second Temple Literature (especially compared to the Old Testament) in Mark and the other gospels. Was Mark not familiar with them, or were they generally not well known? Or are there other reasons?

As a reference book, this is not a text with a thesis or case to make about Mark, except that Second Temple Literature is valuable. It serves that purpose admirably, encouraging readers to go deeper into such material to mine its useful ore.

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

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