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Book Review: Understanding Mark's Gospel

Derek Tovey —

MARK J. KEOWN TYRANNUS TEXTBOOK SERIES. EUGENE, OR: WIPF & STOCK, 2021. XV + 383 PP. ISBN 978-1-7252-8551-4. $106.95 (Hardcover), $16.25 (Kindle).

Mark Keown has written what might be called an expository commentary and introduction to the Gospel of Mark. It functions both to unpack the text of the Gospel, and to provide exhortations and insights into how the Gospel’s story and teaching should be applied to Christian living today. The Gospel’s contents, and the book’s expositional comments, are divided into eleven “lessons”. Within each “lesson” the text of the Gospel is treated pericope (short discrete passage) by pericope.

As an example of how Keown weaves in exegesis of a passage with exposition related to Christian living, we might look at his treatment of Jesus’s temptation (Mark 1:12-13; pages 37-38). Keown outlines how the Spirit “immediately” thrusts “Jesus out into the desert to combat Satan for forty days” (37). He mentions that the Greek word for Jesus being driven out is the same one often used by Mark to describe Jesus casting out demons. He writes of how Israel’s kings would often go out to battle following their anointing (Jesus’s baptism has been described in terms of a royal anointing). Keown writes: “The thrusting of Jesus into temptation indicates that the leading of the Spirit does not always take us into prosperity and material blessing. It is vital to grasp this. Prosperity teaching suggests a limited view of God’s purposes”. And again: “This passage speaks to us. We will face times of tempting and testing” (Keown reminds the reader of 1 Cor 10:13) “Jesus was tempted in every way but was without sin (Heb 4:15). By the Spirit, who was in Jesus and is now in us, we have the power to overcome temptation, and we must seek to do so” (38).

A feature of Keown’s exposition, as the above example shows, is that he weaves in texts from other parts of the New Testament, and at times refers also to the Old Testament, in drawing out expository points. In his exegesis, he will take some space, often in a quite cursory way, to fill in some background information, for example, in writing about Jesus’s visit to his hometown in Mark 6:1–6, Keown expands upon “intriguing features” about Jesus’s family (102). Or when Jesus appears before Pilate, he draws on material from Philo and Josephus, to indicate something of Pilate’s character.

The book has characteristics that derive from its origin as a textbook to be used in a Malaysian context (though references to the author’s New Zealand context are also made). It is quite crisply written and has some nice punchy sentences. In places different scholarly views are set out in brief compass. At times the writing is a bit too terse: and betrays perhaps its origin in lecture notes. In a number of places I felt that a student, new to the Gospel or even New Testament studies, would need a bit more guidance as to what was meant.

As an instance of this, though a minor point, is when Keown states that one possibility of a link of Mark (he means the putative author, not the Gospel) with Rome–where the Gospel may have been written–is “the mention of a certain Rufus in Rom 16:13”. The reader is left to guess at who Rufus is, and why this would link Mark with Rome (11). On the next page, he mentions that “[i]n AD 49, Claudius kicked all Jews out of Rome because of tensions over Chrestus, who is likely Christ” (12). This would be puzzling to someone who did not know anything about Suetonius’s statement about this incident: and even then, it would require explanation about what this would have to do with Christ, and Christians. Perhaps a more substantial issue comes in his discussion of Jesus’s calming of the storm (Mark 4:35–41), in Lesson Four, when Keown states links in the story with Jonah, “indicate that Jesus is the new Jonah” (87). How, why? And given that Jonah actively attempted to avoid God’s call to mission, this analogy might even confuse some students.

In one or two places, Keown writes sentences or clauses that are not only ungrammatical but would be puzzling to readers for whom English is a second language. For example, he writes: “Simon [one of the twelve disciples] is designated a Zealot. The Zealots peaked in the AD 60s, and some question whether this is read back onto Simon” (69). This is a bit cryptic: for a start, what is read back? What I think Keown means is that, though the Zealots were a group that only came into existence in the 60s AD (well after Jesus’s ministry), the epithet is applied to Simon who is portrayed as a Zealot. Another example on page eighty-seven reads: “Cushions were customary furnishings on boats used for reclining, sitting, or rowing”. On page 253, we read: “Jewish leaders sending a mob to arrest Jesus sounds crazy from our point of view from ‘men of the cloth’.

Unfortunately, there are places where a good editorial eye and a better proof-read was needed. On page four, discussing the Farrer-Goulder hypothesis which dispenses with Q, Keown writes: “…Matthew used Mark and that Luke then used both Mark and Luke” (he means, “both Mark and Matthew”). On page ten, he writes about “Luke’s use of Acts” when I think he means “Luke’s use of Mark”. In writing about the link between fear and faith, in the story of the calming of the storm, Keown writes: “It appears here that the presence of faith is evidence of a lack of faith”. I think he means “the presence of fear…” (88).

These few blemishes aside, Keown provides a clear, sure guide to Mark’s Gospel. Lesson One provides a quick overview of background issues, such as Mark’s place amongst the Synoptic Gospels, authorship, date, and a number of the key themes (among other issues). He provides some fresh insights into a number of passages: an interesting one, I thought, is the suggestion that Peter’s offer to build booths on the Mount of Transfiguration was because he thought of creating a military encampment prior to “the new Joshua” leading them into battle (154). Each chapter concludes with questions for the reader’s continued reflection. He provides one of the most comprehensive subject indexes I have ever seen. This should aid a student wanting to follow up on a particular line of inquiry.

Derek Tovey is the book review editor for Stimulus.