The Smyth & Helwys Commentary series seeks to bridge the gap between the insights of biblical scholar and the needs of students of God’s written word. It’s a series that seeks readability and balance, one that can be read without long, technical discussions yet can still dig into the rich resources that biblical scholarship has provided.
Attention is paid to the cultural context of the passage by looking at history, geography, ancient literature, the literature of the church fathers, politics, sociology, and more. This all brings the Bible into a more 3-dimensional view. We’re simply reading stories written in a vacuum, but the story of what God was doing through the life of Jesus in our physical and historical world. This commentary is to prep you to study Mark on your own “with greater interest and insight” [pg. 1].
Culpepper gives us Mark’s Leading Themes with the intent of opening our eyes to 5 major themes early on (Jesus’ Identity as the Son of God, the Testing of God’s Son, the Testing of Jesus’ Disciples, the Temple Not Made With Hands, the Hope of the Kingdom). This section is fantastic in it’s scope and in it’s connections.
- Introduction [1:1-13]
- The Authority of Jesus Revealed [1:14–3:6]
- The Authority of Jesus Rejected [3:7–6:6a]
- Gathering a New Community [6:6b–8:30]
- The Journey to Jerusalem: The Way of the Cross [8:31–10:52]
- The Judgment on Jerusalem [11:1–13:37]
- The Passion and the Resurrection [14:1–16:8]
Every chapter starts with an Introduction to the chapter. Then there’s a Commentary on each divided section. There are sidebars with varying degrees of information. Examples are:
• Riots during Passover
• The Martyrdom of James
• Jesus’ Brothers and Sisters
• The Son of Man
• The Messianic Son of Man
Each chapter ends with a Connections section that brings Mark’s first century meaning to our culture today: “We are to live in confidence that the seed will bear good fruit (4.1-21), and it will germinate and grow to huge proportions that people from all nations will reside in God’s kingdom. The supernatural is seen in the most natural of processes” [a brief paraphrase from chapter 4]. Connections was often helpful for bringing the text to our modern world to help with discipleship and building up the Church body in ways Mark intended.
The Chocolate Milk
Culpepper does well in looking back and forth at surrounding texts/phrases/themes Mark uses to paint a picture of Jesus’ surroundings, treatment of others, and their dealings with Him. It’s in the simple details (such as the following example) that can give you a grander scope of what Mark is doing and is trying to portray.
In speaking to the young rich ruler (Mk. 10.17-31), the rich man couldn’t let go of his possessions to follow Jesus. “Jesus had said, ‘If your hand causes you to stumble, cut if off’ (9:43), but this man would not give up his possessions” [pg. 388]. Despite God’s statement, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him” (9.7), the rich man, though having agreed to have kept all of the law, refused God’s command. The rich man suffered from the “impediment of ‘cares of the world and the lure of riches’ (4:19) that choke the seed sown among the thorns” [pg. 334].
Culpepper gives good attention to the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (12.1-12). It’s a glimpse into Jesus’ self-understanding, and has a long history of interpretation and authenticity debates. He reconstructs the story with Luke and Matthew and looks at whether the parable is an allegory or not. He gives a well-warranted overview of the socioeconomic setting of the first century, and then elaborates on the Gospel’s story itself. Following this, he casts a keen eye on 1 Enoch and the eschatological hope that many held to become like angels in the next life (12.18-27).
The Spoiled Milk
One complaint I have about the commentary format itself was the lack of verse indicators. Each chapter had sectional subheadings to inform you on the topic and section in study (The Lesson of the Leaven and the Loaves, 8:14-21). However, since I had the PDF [CD] version it was a bit of a challenge to skim through the page to find a particular verse. For example, while the BECNT series would say 8:14-16, 8:17-20, 8:21, in this series sometimes a search became a hunt when trying to look for information on one particular verse.
Many commentaries I read didn’t give too much of a satisfactory answer to the large feedings of Jesus. One example from Culpepper show that he finds themes of the exodus wanderings and feedings in the feeding of the 4,000 [Mk. 8.1-9] (rightly so, I believe), yet I couldn’t quite grasp how the bread and fish being secondary roles to the Eucharist and how Jesus “gave thanks” (eucharistΣsas; 1 Cor. 11.24; Lk. 22.19) for the bread pointed to the Eucharist. Later (8.13) says, “The eucharistic overtones are further strengthened if the reference to the boat is a symbolic allusion to the church…” [pg. 260]. However, if there is a connection to the Eucharist, I was disappointed at the lack of reasoning to what this would mean for Mark’s readers (especially with how the boat would represent the church).
And as with many commentaries, there was information I didn’t know what to do with. For example, in 10.24, Jesus refers to the disciples as children, following after the section where Jesus blesses the children (10.13-16). But aside from its placement, how the word is used in John’s writing, and how the word is translated from Greek to English here, there’s not much else of a connection.
Is Jesus saying the disciples are like the children He blessed? They’ve been arguing about prominence for three chapters now, so I don’t think that’s it. This is but a minor quibble that happens here and there, but usually not for very long.
Overall, this is a great commentary, especially if you’re not on a budget. It is one of the more pricy commentaries I’ve seen, perhaps the most. Yet Culpepper is an established scholar who has the ability to say a lot with little and without getting wordy. This is a much needed gift in many commentaries today.
The negative examples above are minor. Though there were times where the side information was just that (“information”), and I didn’t know what to do with it, the breadth of helpful cultural information they often gave really placed Mark’s 21st century readers into the ownership of first century eyes, something we don’t have on our own. The pictures, illustrations, maps, accompanying CD (which I think is a really good idea), and sidebars are all appreciated in helping see in Mark’s gospel what he wanted us to see in it: Jesus.
- Author: R. Alan Culpepper
- Hardcover: 640 pages
- Publisher: Smyth & Helwys Publishing (August 1, 2007)
[Special thanks to Smyth & Helwis Books for sending me this book for review! I was not obligated to provide a positive review in exchange for this book.]