Richard Horsley and Markhan Scholarship

As I begin working on a short apologetics commentary on Mark 1:1-13, I thought it important to supply some essays which address various elements of the Scholarship that the Commentary is supported by. This essay/book summary was composed for the 7302 course on Koine Greek at Perkins Theological Seminary.

JT Martin
GR 7302
Dr. Abraham Smith

Dr. Richard Horsley provides an incredibly dynamic way of understanding the plot of the Gospel of Mark in his book “Hearing The Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel”. From breaking down the biases and assumptions of western scholastic circles to the improper interpretation of the Gospel, Dr. Horsley sends rebuke to almost every circle of scholarship in this monumental analysis of the Historical and literary methods used in the current world of Markhan Scholarship, and in turn, offers key insights for understanding the plot and the world of Mark’s Gospel. 

From the outset of “Politics of Plot,” Dr. Horsley seems determined to refine and expand upon the fields of historical and literary criticism, with an emphasis on how the two should aid the understanding of the Gospel as a whole narrative. This first section of “Politics of Plot” is used to address the historical development of the literary, narrative, and historical criticism methods within the confines of the history of biblical studies as a field, this chapter, “Taking the Gospel Whole” also begins to address the impact of theological biases within the Christian academy that inhibit the proper understanding of the Markhan narrative due to the persistence and usage of pericopes for the purposes of preaching and curriculum development. Setting aside this chapter’s scholastic purposes, within the literature itself one finds that Horsley begins to outline a very general overview of what it would mean to understand the markhan narrative within the appropriate historical and literary context. 

In the second chapter titled: “Submerged People’s History”, Dr. Horsley begins to explore the thematic developments and historical realities that impacted the understanding of Mark’s Gospel in Jewish circles, it is from this section that we see Dr. Horsley’s perspective as a liberationist shines most affectionately. He begins by observing the setting in which most are familiar with the Gospel of Mark highlighting the significant impact theology plays into the understanding of Markhan literature in most situations due to its prevalence within the realm of Christian theology and teaching. His primary target of critique, within this context, appears to be the assumption of Markhan narrative as being a narrative about discipleship and growth in faith. Horsley posits that the narrative is rather about “a renewal movement among a people subjected by empire” (Horsley, 27) and that this understanding is veiled and obscured by the treatment of Mark as scripture for teaching and study within a religious context. Utilizing historical information and methods of reconstructing the audience Horsley sets out to provide evidence of his claim regarding the narrative purpose of the Gospel. 

“Mark as Oral Performance”, the third chapter in “Politics of Plot” is used to expand and critique the field of literary criticism by calling into question the perspective through which literary criticism observes the Gospel, as a text to be read. This challenge of perspective is utilized by Horsley to pivot into a discussion of the reasons for viewing Mark as an oral-aural tradition, a tradition that would have evolved out of and through an already established oral-aural culture within the Israelite community. This chapter marks the pivot point within “Politics of Plot” where we see Horsley begin to spend more energy and time considering the actual narrative as he is lead to understand it, not just deconstructing and reconstructing the perspectives through which one should engage and understand the study of the Gospel of Mark. 

If one engages with the narrative as Horsley suggests, what things might an individual become aware of? This question seems to underpin much of the remaining text within “Politics of Plot ” from chapter four through the end of the work, Horsley devotes his attention to laying out the tapestry, complexity, and development of the Markhan narrative. In “Disciples Become Deserters” Horsley traces the development of the Markhan disciples through the narrative highlighting the interactions they have with Jesus, and their journey from faithful but forgetful companions to individuals who flee from their master when things get hard. Of interesting note is how Horsley characterizes the extent of their forgetfulness, marking them as a never improving bunch of individuals who are consistently a foil for comparison to the teachings of Jesus (Horsley, 82), to the point that Jesus becomes rather annoyed with them (Horsley, 83). 

With “Disciples Become Deserters” as the swing chapter within the book, “Getting the Whole Story” is surely the overview of the final chapters, it is in this chapter that Horsley reveals an interesting methodology on how to arrive at an understanding of the narrative of the Gospel, start from the end and retrace the events to the beginning, and finish by adding in the historical details of the world. This chapter is uniquely organized in that pattern, he begins with an exploration of the conclusion of the Gospel and traces the story from end to beginning, then upon arriving at a hypothesis for the plot he begins to go through the process of reconfirming his hypothesis as the actual plot structure, from this point forward he begins to outline the historical details and sociocultural elements in play throughout the outline of the Gospel’s world. 

“The Struggle Against Roman Rule” focuses its attention on developing a thematic and historical construction of the Gospel of Mark in light of certain passages seeming to indicate a more political scope. The majority of the passages in question have to do with the exorcisms and spiritual warfare present within the gospel narrative. Horsley moves through several different supernatural encounters to flesh out the understanding that each episode of supernatural conflict was in fact representative of the resistance against imperial Rome within the region of Jesus’ ministry. Horsley also spends a significant portion of this chapter drawing parallels from 1st century Rome to the “structure of life in Algeria” (Horsley, 142). This comparison allows Horsley to emphasize the impact imperial rule has upon the subject people. Horsley then proceeds to examine the cultural details that provide the proper context for an understanding of the narrative, beginning with an overview of the conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees. Within this section entitled “Jesus Vs the Pharisees: Contesting the Tradition”, Horsley predominantly focuses on establishing this conflict around the central idea of the differences between local religious tradition and the official tradition established by the Torah. It is within this chapter that we begin to see Horsley flesh out a Jesus that is leading a local renewal that draws the ire of the religious authorities, though the further expansion of this Markhan Jesus is left for later sections. 

Having already begun a description of a Jesus that is leading religious revival, it should come as no surprise that Horsley devotes an entire chapter to this understanding of Jesus’ role in the gospel narrative: “Renewing Covenantal Community”. Horsley’s primary argument in this chapter is that Jesus did not bring a new covenant but rather is re-energizing the community’s faith in the mosaic covenant. An extremely important component of this argument is that it assumes a Christology which describes Jesus more as a prophet than a savior, Horsley expands on this at length in the chapter entitled “Prophetic and Messianic “Scripts” in Mark”. The work and argument that Horsley composes throughout this book dismisses and argues against long-standing theological positions with an extreme level of clarity and rationality, but one of the most intriguing components of his work is the second to last chapter entitled “Women as Representative and Exemplary”, wherein he renders an interpretation of the role of women in the Gospel of Mark as being more egalitarian than traditional interpretations, and in some cases places women as being more righteous than the disciples. An example of the latter is that Horsley treats Jesus’ bodily preparation for burial as being an anointing post-mortem, which was performed by women. Collectively these sections following the pivot point “Disciples Become Deserters” are all focused on the narrative itself rather than the classical and modern methodologies employed in the study of mark over the course of history. 

Considering all that Horsley does in and through “Politics of Plot” it should come as no surprise that he is most accurately described as a narrative critic who employs historical, literary, and oral critical methods to bring about a new perspective on the study of Markhan literature, the changes that the first Gospel had upon the style of the later Gospels and most importantly a restructured narrative that reflects the impact of imperial Rome on local religious traditions and the clashes that occurred as a result of a man leading a revival of older traditions. Horsley carefully combs through the complex and interwoven events and plot of the Gospel of Mark to bring about a truly revolutionary way of understanding the Gospel. Whether or not this work will have any impact beyond the scholastic circles it appears to have been written for is yet to be seen, but one cannot understate nor ignore the magnitude of what Horsley’s work in the “Politics of Plot” offers for the future of Biblical studies and the revolutionary steps Horsley has made by introducing Oral critical methods to the field of Markhan Scholarship. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: