Sharyn Dowd is a Southern Baptist theologian and is a professor in the religion department at Baylor. Dr. Dowd has a PhD. from Emory, which is a really good school, I think she got her masters at a Southern Baptist Seminary and her undergraduate at Wake Forest. She was on staff with a large Baptist church in North Carolina but has found some acclaim as an insightful biblical scholar and teacher. Her commentary on the Gospel of Mark has been really interesting to read.
Most commentaries are a little like reading a series of articles or an encyclopedia – they are meant more for reference than just to sit down and read. But this is a much more fluid work. The most remarkable thing about it is that she weaves a lot of historical, textual criticism into her commentary without boring you or grinding to a halt on the minutia.
My favorite thing so far has been that Dowd continually draws out meaning from the way in which the stories were arranged by the author of Mark. She works a lot with the structure of the Gospel as a whole, how each story is arranged and what meanings the original audience would have discerned by the way things were told and especially the context/structure. She contextualizes important ideas and meanings which the author seems to have intended and which would have been realized by the original audience simply by the way the narrative was arranged and ordered. Much of these meanings are lost on most of us on a simple reading just because we don’t know the background and we don’t discern the structure and the implications of each.
Here’s an example. In the Gospel of Mark from Mark 2:1 through 3:6 there is a string of 5 “Controversy” stories. They are arranged in what is called a chiastic structure, which is an ancient rhetorical argument form. It goes like this:
A – (2:1-12) Controversy over healing of paralytic / scene: indoor, house / response: crowd amazed but scribes question only in their hearts. Link word to next story = sins.
B – (2:15-17) Controversy over food / scene: indoor house / Jesus eats w/wrong people / scribes question only the disciples. Link word to previous story = sinners.
C – (2:18-22) Controversy over fasting / allusion to the crucifixion / pits two sayings of new against old / “they” question Jesus directly
B’ – (2:3-28) Controversy over eating / scene: outdoor / Picking grain & eating it on Sabbath / Pharisees directly question Jesus about “unlawful” behavior. Link word to next story = Sabbath.
A’ – (3:1-6) Controversy over healing withered hand / scene: indoor at the synagogue / Pharisees go out with the Herodians and conspire to kill Jesus. Link word to previous story = Sabbath.
Usually I would read through these stories as sort of independent accounts of what Jesus was doing and how they Pharisees/Scribes didn’t like it. Healing people, eating with people who were sinners, eating food, what can any of that mean? Well when you take it in context and look at the actual structure tons of meaning pours forth from the text.
In context we see that the development of hostility toward Jesus is progressive:
- First, scribes question only in their hearts.
- Second, they question only the disciples.
- Third, they question Jesus only about the disciples.
- Forth, they question Jesus about his disciples “unlawful” behavior.
- Fifth, they plot to kill him.
Dowd says “Here the audience begins to get a sense for what is at stake in the proclamation and activity of Jesus. The reign of God will not be welcomed by everyone. If the reign of God has drawn near, that means that all other regnant [ruling] structures are radically relativized and soon to be eliminated,” which includes the reigning religious structures of the day and the agenda they hold so tightly to.
A and A’ are both heavily ironic – the scribes are actually correct when they note that no one can forgive sins except God…this is part of Marks way of establishing the way in which Jesus understood his own divinity. Jesus was doing things only Yahweh could do! Mark was saying, for those with ears to hear, Jesus is divine. Ironically in A’ Jesus has not done anything illegal on the Sabbath, it’s not considered work to tell someone to stand up or reach out their hand. However, “Jesus points out, it is not legal to do evil or kill on any day of the week, let alone the Sabbath. The Pharisees and Herodians violate this law by plotting on the Sabbath to commit murder.”
Dowd works through the rest of the structure in similar fashion. I’m probably not doing it justice because it really sort of reads like a Sunday school lesson. If you are looking for a fun devotional guide, working through this commentary slowly can make for an incredible understanding of how much is going on underneath the plain reading of the text.
The rule and reign of God is dangerous to the religious elitists of Jesus day. Religious power and control is a slippery thing. In the Gospel of Mark, those who had their own agenda and idea of how God was going to bring about the redemption of his people were always at odds with Jesus’ way of bringing about the Kingdom. He did it through self-sacrifice, through healing, through caring for those who were considered unclean by the religious elitists and eventually through dying on the cross. The Pharisees thought the kingdom would come through power and force after Israel became holy once more. They, along with the religious elite, wielded their power without care for others involved in the situation. Especially those who needed Jesus the most.
What about the man with the shriveled hand? The healer was standing right next to him and the Pharisees actually thought it was wrong to tell him to reach out his hand. To say they were not open to new ideas is quite an understatement! They would not hear of other ways of understanding how God’s power could work in the world because they were holding so closely to their own agenda. What was the result? They talked about him behind his back, they tried to stir up trouble and controversy, they tried to subvert his influence with the disciples, they had heated confrontations with him and eventually they burned with a hatred so strong they wanted to kill him. They never stopped to really hear what he was saying. They could never “repent and believe in the good news.”
Maybe holding tightly to our own religious agenda can keep us from experiencing new life in God. Insisting that the ways we’ve always understood things, our systems of theology and dogma, our traditions are simply right and refusing to listen to other points of view can make us blind to the ways Christ is attempting to work in this world. Being open to Jesus requires us to be open to the reality that he can always break forth in new ways and produce new understandings in our hearts and minds of who God is, what God is like, what God is doing in our day and time. Those who dogmatically oppose this are generally forced to respond to God’s working in ways which run contrary to the character of God, just like the Pharisees.
I’m really thankful for this wonderful woman of God and scholar, (especially in such a male dominated sphere), and I feel like an open posture to new understandings of Mark is helping me to follow Christ more closely and remain open to the work of God which is always breaking forth in new and inspiring ways. It’s pretty cheap on Amazon and it’s a great way to study the Gospel of Mark.