Book Review (part 3) – ‘Neither Jew nor Greek’ by James D.G. Dunn

Mark-LionIn this third installment of my ongoing series of reviews and recaps of Dunn’s newest volume Neither Jew nor Greek: A Contested Identity I will examine the beginning of chapter thirty-nine. This chapter focuses on the first century sources within the NT itself. This post will cover §39.1-2a.

Dunn begins this chapter by citing Helmut Koester‘s remark that in order to reconstruct the historical developments of early Christianity, the student “must learn from the outset to understand the writings of the earliest period within their proper historical context.” This task requires the reader to do his/her homework with a critical and objective perspective. In regard to the number of sources available to a historian of early Christianity, there are many and most of these can be dated to the first century CE. Dunn notes that there are a variety of approaches when it comes to drawing upon these sources for his inquiry. One could easily place them in chronological order or organize them from a geographical standpoint. Dunn, however, chooses to look for broader trends and developments without trying to tie the sources down to particular places or dates. This seems like a wise choice, seeing that it is often difficult to determine precisely the date and location from which these sources were written. We will have to wait until the conclusions to see if this method brings about worthwhile historical fruit.

The first sources which Dunn examines are the Canonical Gospels. He notes that the textual data available to study pertaining to these Gospels is enormous; the fourth century uncials Sinaiaticus (א) and Vaticanus (B), manuscript fragments (some as early as the second century CE), the translations of the Gospels into Latin and Syriac (some as early as the fourth century CE), and quotations by the early Church Fathers (some as early as the second century). Each of these sets of data could be footnoted easily with qualifications to how they should be properly used, such as the need to distinguish an actual direct citation from the early Church Fathers and a mere loose quotation (as a shorthand allusion).

Dunn then begins to examine our earliest Gospel according to the majority of NT specialists: Mark. It is widely acknowledged that Mark was the primary source material for Matthew and Luke’s Gospel. The fact that Mark was used in this manner suggests the possibility that his Gospel was written for an audience in wider circulation rather than for one particular community. The only significant text-critical question regards the ending of Mark, about which most are comfortable concluding that the original Gospel ended with 16.8. Dunn suggests that Mark’s Gospel came to have some form of “Gospel According to Mark” attached to it during the early stages if its circulation (late first century CE). I find it interesting that the earliest written Gospel, which itself is a ‘Christianized’ Greco-Roman biography, was written by someone who was not himself one of the Twelve. Dunn notes that 1 Peter 5:13 links the Apostle Peter to John Mark, and suggests that this might be the key to linking an Apostle to Mark (whose identity is probably the same as the John Mark exhibited in the Book of Acts; Phlm 24; and Col. 4:10). When it comes to questions regarding Mark’s knowledge of Palestinian geography (such as the problem of Mark 7:31), Dunn cites Guelich, Marcus, and Collins as scholars who regard these concerns as exaggerated. When it is all said and done, Dunn  concludes that Mark’s Gospel probably bore the author’s own name from a very early period of circulation in addition to it being regarded as linked with the Apostle Peter.

The chapter then turns to discussing the date of Mark. When one reads typical critical introductions to the NT regarding Mark’s dating, one might wonder what else could be added by such a discussion. I was happy to find that Dunn offers a few interesting perspectives and asks some questions which might allow for some other data to contribute to the discussion. He correctly notes that it is difficult to date Mark in relation to Matthew and Luke (in fact, Matthew and Luke owe their dating to a plausible guess as to when Mark is dated). Dunn moves to the key passage which is most often cited as the most reasonable internal data regarding dating the Gospel: Marks ‘little apocalypse’ in chapter thirteen. This passage records Jesus predicting the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. Dunn carefully notes how Jesus’ prediction as recorded in Mark that “not one stone will be left upon another” could hardly have found fulfillment in 70 CE since the western wall still exists in modern Jerusalem. This could suggest that the prophecy had not found its fullest fulfillment. Either way, more data needs to be examined to ascertain a plausible date. Dunn then notes the Markan editorial comment in Mark 13:14 (“let the reader understand”), a comment certainly not spoken by Jesus. This is Mark’s way to direct the attention of the reader upon this passage and insisting that it requires a critical measure of thinking. Dunn offers a few possibilities as to what Mark 13:14 originally meant. First, he suggests that the earlier crisis involving Caligula (in the 30s CE) in which a statue of the Emperor was placed within the temple. But this does not make sense of Mark’s editorial note, written decades after Caligula’s episode involving the temple. Another option suggested by Dunn is that the bloodthirsty tactics of the Jewish revolutionaries during the Jewish War (66-70) were what desecrated the temple. I personally do not find this persuasive, as Mark offers a masculine perfect participle (“standing”) as the identifier of the neuter Abomination of Desolation in the Greek text. Dunn then suggests that it is not implausible to consider the Gospel as having been written during the wake of the Jewish Revolt, noting how Mark stresses the need for the followers (readers?) of Jesus to endure stress and suffering (Mark 8:34-35; 10:29-30; and esp. 13:9-20). These comments could very well be reflections upon which the dating of the Gospel might rest. In the end, Dunn offers a range between 65-75 CE as a sufficient guess.

Regarding the place of writing, both from where and to whom, Dunn trots out the usual suspects of Rome and Syria. Rome is highlighted as particularly noteworthy due in fact to the various Latinisms in Mark, such as exhibited in Mark 12:42 and 15:16 where the author clarifies the Greek term for coin (lepta) with the appropriate Roman coin (quadrans) and the courtyard of the palace is clarified with the Latin praetorium. However, this may simply reflect knowledge of Latin customs and thus not actually pointing to Rome as the place of authorship. Syria as a possibility is also discussed, pointing to the ‘brigands’ (Greek: lystes) common in the Syrian region, which are also exhibited in Mark’s text (11:17). Josephus too talks about the brigands, using the same Greek word. However, historians possess little to no hard evidence as to what Christian communities in Syria during and slightly after the Jewish Revolt were like, making it difficult to say much with any measure of certainly. Dunn ends up concluding that we cannot say anything with any confidence regarding the location of Mark’s Gospel’s creation. He therefore admits that any theories regarding the location cannot be valued too heavily when considering further questions regarding Mark’s purpose.

Stay tuned and subscribe for further updates on my thoughts of Dunn’s newest volume. Have a blessed day.


3 thoughts on “Book Review (part 3) – ‘Neither Jew nor Greek’ by James D.G. Dunn

  1. Geez there sure are a lot of assumptions here. The reality is that no one really knows and we need the Holy Spirit to build faith in us in the risen Jesus Christ.

  2. [you said] It is widely acknowledged that Mark was the primary source material for Matthew and Luke’s Gospel
    [reply] The priority of Mark has been maintained by the majority of scholars and I do agree since it is the shortest gospel, that it logically would be the first. See Bible writers had a tendency to add commentary to the biblical narrative, rather than subtract textual data. I am currently reading “ The Priority of John” where on page 229 John A.T. Robinson concedes: Those who see John as using and adapting Mark will naturally see his dependence on him here too.[ ft. Barrett, John 415f; E. D. Freed, “ The Entry into Jerusalem in the Gospel of John]. So its interesting to see that Matthew, Luke and John all extracted data from Mark as a primary source. I have also learn that Mark used the Hebrew two tense system in his usage of Koine Greek.
    Moreover, Dustin Smith I would like to thank you for taking out the time to post the details of Dunn’s final series. I believe every Biblical Unitarian should have all three volumes in their library.

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