A Preface to Mark -- Recommended Reading

A while ago, Richard Burridge wrote one of the most influential books in New Testament studies in the last 30 years: What Are the Gospels? A Comparison with Greco-Roman Biography. At the time Burridge began his study, the prevailing view of the genre of the Gospels was that they were sui generis -- of their own unique genre as pioneered by Mark. While Burridge was undertaking his study, some stirrings had arisen questioning the majority opinion (most notably by Charles H. Talbert and his books arguing that the Gospels were ancient biographies). As Burridge began his inquiry, he expected to refute the notion that the Gospels were akin to ancient biographies, but ended up confirming the dissenting view. So influential was Burridge's argument that the majority opinion has shifted and the view that the Gospels were written according to the genre of ancient, Greco-Roman biography is ascendant.

Burridge's work, however, is not easy reading. If someone is looking for the case for -- and significance of -- identifying the Gospels as Greco-Roman biographies that is an easier read, I recommend Christopher Bryan's A Preface to Mark. Weighing in at 183 pages, the first half of the book discusses Mark's genre and the second focuses on its orality -- that it was meant to be read out loud in public performances. Bryan is openly indebted to Burridge, but condenses the argument and adds his own stamp on it. His knowledge of ancient literature is obvious and well used in support of his argument that Mark is a clear member of the genre of Greco-Roman biography.

One of my favorite parts of A Preface to Mark is the author's discussion of how genre idenfitication works by detecting characteristics common to the genre, but also those that may depart from the genre and why. It is not a simple matter of math, adding up all the elements and identifying the genre. This makes genre detection more art than science, though not unduly subjective. Bryan uses the example of High Noon, one of the classic Westerns, to good effect as an example of how genre detection may work. High Noon has obvious elements of a Western (geographic and temporal setting, outnumbered good guy versus bad guys), but is lacking others (such as a sidekick, bad or flawed character made good, or a noble saloon girl). It also has important elements of a Romance film, with an old flame competing for the affections of the sheriff with a new wife. Despite the missing elements and elements of other genres, there is no doubt that High Noon is a Western. It is not a Romance despite having clear elements typical of that Genre. Such an approach to the issue of genre, with a clearly anachronistic but helpful explanation, is most welcome. Indeed, I have many books and articles on genre, and Bryan's is one of the most helpful on how it genre identification should work.

I also benefited from the second part of the book, which explores characteristics of Mark that indicate it was meant to be read orally. I was not as convinced as with the first part on genre, though as a short commentary on Mark the blow-by-blow discussion of parts of Mark is well worth it. Unfortunately, Bryan seems to rely on more recent examples, such as Beowulf and old English tales, to make points about composition of written works intended for oral consumption; not just by the author reading out loud to himself or small groups, but to entire churches and large groups. Still, if one takes the case as made, Bryan's discussion is almost riveting as points as he explains how the oral performance of Mark would have involved the audience.

A very good book on two distinct topics.


joshua said…
It's so nice for me to have found this blog of yours, it's so interesting. I sure hope and wish that you take courage enough to pay me a visit in my PALAVROSSAVRVS REX!, and plus get some surprise. My blog is also so cool!

Feel free off course to comment as you wish and remember: don't take it wrong, don't think that this visitation I make was a matter of more audiences for my own blogg. No. It's a matter of making universal, realy universal, all this question of bloggs.

I think it's to UNITE MANKIND! Don't see language as an obstacle. That's not the point. Open your heart and come along!!!!!
Jason Pratt said…
I feel like we were just propositioned by a tramp with veneral disease at a port... Take courage enough to pay me a visit and plus get some surprise! (Hey, my computer is now infected with worms and viruses... surprise! {g})

Oh, and thanks for the book ref, Chris. Glad to see you back! {bow!}


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