- Clifton Black, Mark’s Gospel. History, Theology, Interpretation, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2023), pp. 556, $46.00 hardcopy.
The blurbs for this book are stellar, and do not involve the usual hyperbole. This is probably the best monograph all around I’ve ever read on the Gospel of Mark, and worth every penny it costs. What we have in this book is the collected essays over various decades of Clifton Black on this earliest of Gospels. Unlike some collections of essays, which are about as exciting as a potted plant, this collection is far more than Cliff Notes, about the Gospel that this author sees as a cliffhanger (which he believes ends at 16.8, from which conclusion I demur). No, this is a collection of essays from a person who has spent the better part of his academic career starting with his dissertation in the 1980s at Duke, on Mark’s Gospel. He has spent no little time and no little energy in the Markan vineyard, and in this volume you see page after page of the fruit of doing so. Indeed, I would say Clift makes a case for more scholars spending their careers in this very fashion, doing one thing very well with one source— provided the document is what Kasemann said about John’s Gospel— ‘it’s shallow enough for a baby to wade in, but also deep enough for an elephant to drown.’ You can explore it at any depth, and get a rich return, without exhausting the content. It’s turns out, Mark may be the shortest Gospel, but it is not less rich or profound, or frankly disturbing and befuddling, than the other canonical Gospels.
One of the things that contributes to making this an excellent read, is that Cliff is a very gifted writer, whose eloquence shows up on page after page, along with good and challenging insights. He has a gift for apt analogies or metaphors or zingers, and the book is full of great quotes as well—‘Accepting the foolproof, will prove you a fool’ (p.79), or consider his quote of Edna St. Vincent Milay “A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down. …If it’s a good book, nothing can harm him. If it’s a bad book, nothing can help him.” (p.76). This for certain is a very good book, and I shall be requiring it in my Mark courses.
In this collection of essays, basically the whole Gospel is covered in one way or another, and at the end of the book, Clift walks through the Gospel providing fodder for preachers, particularly those who preach the lectionary, helping them to see how Mark can be a word on target today, even though it partakes of the character of an ancient Jewish apocalyptic biography of someone who changed the world— Jesus. At the other bookend of this book, namely the very first chapter Clift provides an excellent summary of the structure and content of the Gospel. The essays that follow are more focused on specific.things for instance scholarly work on the redaction of this Gospel, the contribution of Donald Juel to that enterprise, a survey of recent scholarship on Mark, a conspectus on Mark’s Theology, followed by a chapter on Mark as a historian of the Kingdom, a chapter on how suffering functions in Mark’s Gospel, and its possible pedagogical value, then a fascinating argument, looking at Mark as the photographic negative of John’s Gospel. There is in addition a treatment of Mark’s creation theology, and a detailed look at the longest speech in Mark— the Olivet discourse in Mark 13.
Reading this book is like going to a Thanksgiving feast and discovering there is way more good food than one can consume at a single sitting. This book needs to be carefully digested, over a considerable period of time. This is not the fast-food treatment of Mark’s greatest hits. And I would be remiss if I did not point out that Clift makes clear how Mark’s Gospel both comforts the afflicted, but also will afflict the comfortable. Be prepared to buckle your seat belt up tight, because if you really engage with the earliest Gospel you will find it both enlightening and confusing, both reassuring and disturbing, both what you expected and also what you never imagined was in this Gospel. It is probably no accident that the early church fathers dealt with it the least of the four canonical Gospels—they were so far removed from Jewish apocalyptic thinking that they hardly knew what to make of it— especially when at no point are the disciples in this Gospel said to have had real or adequate faith in Jesus. They appear to be more like the DUH-sciples than the learned followers. They constantly don’t get what Jesus is saying and doing, and in the end the Twelve in particular deny, betray and abandon Jesus.
I have known Clift Black for a very long time. We were both born in High Point, N.C. both were ordained Methodist ministers in the Western N.C. Conference, both attended or even taught at Duke for a while, and both eventually became scholars at academic institutions after having done, and continuing to do, some pastoral work. And both are professors of NT and Biblical Theology. Perhaps there are other medium to small towns in America which have spawned two ordained clergy who became NT scholars, but I don’t know of any.
I am very thankful that Clift has left us this sparkling legacy of his long study of Mark’s Gospel. Cliff has long been a ‘marked’ man, and it has done him and all of us who care about the Gospel a world of good. I can hardly praise this volume high enough. Well done good and faithful servant, and thanks for putting all these essays in one volume where they can be easily accessed.
Here are some easy links to Clifton’s excellent books including the one just reviewed.
Mark’s Gospel: History, Theology, Interpretation (Eerdmans, 2023)
Mark, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries (Abingdon, 2011)
Mark: Images of an Apostolic Interpreter (Fortress, 2001)
The Disciples according to Mark, 2nd ed. (Eerdmans, 2012)
The Rhetoric of the Gospel, 2nd ed. (Westminster John Knox, 2013)
A Three-Dimensional Jesus (Westminster John Knox, 2023)
Anatomy of the New Testament, 8th ed. (Fortress, 2019)
When The Witherington–Black Summit begins, please send me a link!