The Gospel of Mark: A Liturgical Reading. By Charles A. Bobertz. Baker Academic. Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2016. 288 pages. Softcover. $27.99.
Charles Bobertz, professor of theology at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, offers a provocative commentary on the Gospel of Mark utilizing narrative criticism with an additional twist. As the title indicates, his interpretation is a “liturgical reading.” Bobertz notes: “The narrative of Mark reads differently if one presumes that the ritual practices of the early Christians (what I will refer to as Christian liturgy) inform the creation of the story, that is, why Mark was written in the first place, and why it was disseminated to its earliest readers” (xvi). By his own admission much of his interpretive approach relies on “a good bit of hypothetical reconstruction,” and throughout the book he qualifies many of his conclusions as probable and imaginative, but not absolutely conclusive. He openly admits that his interpretive approach “is not the usual way Mark has been understood within the tradition or by the vast majority of modern scholars” (xix). Nevertheless, he insists that this approach is the only reasonable one to use in interpreting Mark.
In keeping with his narrative critical approach Bobertz looks at Mark through the
hypothetical eyes of the “liturgical reader” or “ancient reader” as opposed to the “modern reader” or “casual reader.” This reader is part of Mark’s hypothetical “house church” which is supposed to exist in the time after the destruction of Jerusalem, which may be located in Galilee. In contrast to some biblical scholars who also take a liturgical approach to the interpretation of the scriptures (Shepherd, Hahn), Bobertz does not look for details of a specific liturgy, which too often requires the interpreter to read back into the book a form that dates after it. Instead he sees the liturgical reader as one who views the narrative of Mark through the sacramental rituals of Baptism and the Eucharist, which he also admits that he “reads back” into the narrative of Mark (4). What makes Bobertz’s approach unique in this sense is his effort to have most details of Mark’s gospel interpreted as symbolic reflections of Baptism or “ritual meals” (Eucharist). For example, while the story of Jesus’ calming the storm in Mark 4 might be seen as a demonstration of Jesus’ divine power over the forces of nature and a message to the disciples not to fear (as interpreted by the modern reader), Bobertz unpacks all of the details and words in such a way that the “liturgical reader will ‘see’ baptism, resurrection, and the dominance of chaos that follows” (47). He deliberately “locates the creation and reception of the narrative within the experience of a reality largely created by early Christian ritual practice” (xvii). Even the character of Jesus Himself, traditionally seen in a historic context in terms of specific acts, is reinterpreted here (through the eyes of the liturgical reader) as the “ritually enacted body of Christ,” or the members of Mark’s house church, gathered in worship around the table of the sacrament (xxv). He later contrasts the “historical Jesus” (also noted as the “individual Jesus”) with what he calls the “narrative Jesus” (148), deviating from much modern scholarship, even other critical scholarship.
To understand Bobertz’s approach one has to also recognize that he views the Gospel of Mark as largely symbolic, even “deeply symbolic.” Although he would not necessarily deny the historicity of the events in the narrative as they are reported, he does not feel that they were reported to convey “literal historical truth” (xxv). The primary purpose of this symbolism is to “answer a question at the heart of early Christian self-definition: What gives legitimacy, in the face of Jewish reluctance and opposition, to the presence of Gentiles in the Lord’s Supper of the house church?” (xxii) Bobertz develops the issue of Gentile inclusion at the Supper, it appears, mainly from the work of Stendahl in what would later be known as the New Perspective (xviii). Paul’s epistles, especially Romans and Galatians, are important sources for Bobertz in understanding why the mission to the Gentiles and their inclusion in the Christian church constitutes a central challenge for those in the house churches of Mark’s time. Bobertz interprets the entire text of Mark’s gospel with a fairly consistent matrix that involves repeated themes of inclusion of Gentiles and women at the Supper, usually in the context of the “house church” of Mark’s own time, a community formed and informed by the rituals of baptism and Supper, baptism as resurrection, and primeval chaos giving way to creation. Bobertz also sees Mark’s house church community as a persecuted community, and thus themes of suffering and martyrdom become additional interpretive keys within the narrative.
Given Bobertz’s liturgical Catholic background it is not difficult to understand how he would be inclined to view Mark through the lens of sacramental ritual acts and the community in which these rituals are enacted. For others committed to the historic liturgical character of the church his focus on the centrality of the sacramental life of the church will be intriguing, even encouraging, and his insights into the fuller meaning of the sacraments will also be informing. However, for the more conservative interpreter who approaches Mark as an historical record of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, Borbertz’s symbolic narrative-critical approach will seem to separate the gospel text from its true historical moorings. The stories serve primarily to illustrate contemporary issues (mainly contemporary to Mark’s time), not to explain eternal truths. Such an interpreter will also be frustrated by a distancing from the gospel as primarily the story of Jesus who lived in time and whose death and resurrection, as historical events, are critical to the present and future life of the individual believer, as well as the church. For Bobertz Jesus’ death seems not to be ultimately valued for the salvific benefit for the individual believer, but rather as a means of establishing the community (192). Admittedly, the believer is not to be seen as merely an individual apart from the body of believers, and Bobertz does navigate away from this modern malady. But in doing so he seems to leave behind the very story that brings this community into existence even though he acknowledges it and explains the exegetical details. One feels that the characters in the gospel only represent something else; that they are props for a larger, more contemporary story of Mark’s own time. As he summarizes it at one point: “the very heart of the narrative plot of Mark” is “Jesus rises from (baptismal) death to receive the Spirit of new creation and thereby to establish the house churches of Jews and Gentiles, men and women. And so he then must die in order to be the very death which ritually enacted in baptism, establishes participation in the ritual meal, the new creation of the church itself.’” (187)
Bobertz, by his own admission, clearly breaks with most modern scholarship on Mark. He also admits that the average “casual reader” may easily become confused by certain stories. The message of Mark is essentially hidden to such a reader and only seen clearly by those who would be inclined to view the narrative in the way Bobertz has imagined it. Some initial reviewers felt that his book represented a useful attempt to restore this gospel to its original context and demonstrate how its author used the language and practices of baptism and Eucharist to more fully explain its message. However, unless one accepts the premises of narrative criticism it will be difficult to accept uncritically the views of this author. If one wishes to see how narrative criticism is applied to a gospel account, especially with the added criteria of an imagined house church community in the late first century as the target audience, Bobertz’s work will prove an interesting read. Yet, for those who wish to approach the original text and learn more about it, and for those interested in learning more about the immediate historical setting of the events in the gospel, this book will unfortunately prove disappointing.