Friday, September 7, 2007

our means and message

Peter Bolt, in his book The Cross from a Distance, makes a compelling argument for the centrality of the cross in the Gospel of Mark. From a purely statistical standpoint, the cross is hugely significant for Mark. Bolt observes, “Of sixteen chapters, three are dedicated to the passion narrative (18%), but six more deal with Jesus’ journey to the cross (which takes it up to 56%)” (13). Through exegetical argument, historical investigation and theological examination Bolt seeks to understand the cross of Jesus as presented in Mark. He begins by arguing that the cross inaugurates the “abolition of religion” (18). “Religion” as Bolt harshly caricatures first-century Judaism is replaced by “faith” in Jesus. Bolt makes this argument in his first chapter by pointing out the opponents of Jesus clashing over fasting (2.18–22) and Sabbath (2.23–3.6) while the “supplicants” in the narrative are commended for their faith (pgs 37–40). Bolt’s second chapter argues for the “necessity of the cross” analyzing central narrative of Mark (8.27–10.52). He structures the chapter around the three passion predictions (8.31; 9.31; 10.32–34) that introduce the subsections of this central narrative. This second chapter shows Jesus’ prediction drawing heavily upon OT vocabulary and imagery to prove the necessity of the cross theologically. In chapter three, Bolt argues that the apocalyptic discourse of Mark 13, “is about Jesus’ death and resurrection rather than about the second coming or the destruction of the temple in ad 70” (90–91). This is a key section for his argument because it is the longest speech in Mark and comes immediately before the cross in the narrative (85). He also connects the apocalyptic discourse with the passion narrative itself. Essentially his argument is that Jesus is investing cosmic significance into his crucifixion. Chapter four argues that despite the fact that the cross was the supreme symbol of shame and defeat it becomes the symbol of God’s presence. Chapter five contrasts Jesus, the hope of humanity in Mark, with the Roman emperors, the hope of humanity in the propaganda of Rome. The resurrected Messiah becomes the hope of a humanity that has no hope.

The Cross from a Distance is a wonderful book. Peter Bolt argues with clarity and insight. His main argument is complimented with footnotes referencing exegetical details, theological arguments/debates and relevant historical references. Bolt does an excellent job of allowing sound exegesis to lead to thoughtful and informed theology (cf. 128–135). For example, while commenting on the crucifixion narrative Bolt points out the difficulty of illustrating the cross, “Any illustration can get into trouble simply by virtue of the fact that it requires saying God’s Word in other words . . . . Although the preacher needs to ‘illustrate’ the world to which the Word is addressed, the Word itself should probably be permitted to speak for itself” (128). He also footnotes Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. Barth is a personal hero, so anyone quoting Dogmatics is, in my book, on the right track. Also, Bolt does a good job of allowing the biblical text to speak to the contemporary world. I think he draws a connection between the imperial propaganda of the Pax Romana and the contemporary imperial propaganda of the “War On Terror” that must be addressed from the scriptures (112–115). Despite the many strengths of Bolt’s book, it is by no means perfect. He often finds the cross where it is doubtfully Mark’s intention. And even goes so far as to use conflicting arguments to prove his point. Both mistakes can be illustrated in his treatment of Mark 13. He references R.H. Lightfoot to point out, “that the verb paradidōmi is used three times in Mark 13 (of the disciples), and ten times in the passion narrative (of Jesus).” He thus concludes, “Jesus’ warning that the disciples must not be led astray (13.21–22) seems to find a counterpart in Judas’ betrayal, the disciples’ fleeing at the arrest, and Peter’s denial” (97). Bolt gives no indication that he disagrees with Lightfoot, and even allows the argument to strengthen his case. However, only five pages later Bolt will write concerning Jesus’ address to the disciples in Mark 13, “Once they see the desolating sacrilege, the disciples should flee urgently (vv. 14–16), which they later do in the Garden of Gethsemane (14:50)” (102). He makes the same point again several pages later (108). Unfortunately, the arguments are clearly inconsistent. How can the disciples be fleeing in obedience to Jesus’ warning (13.15) and at the same time betraying (paradidōmi) him (cf. 13.21–22; pg 97)? The logical inconsistency illustrates Bolt’s desire to find the cross occasionally overrides his logic, and pushes his exegetical ability to the breaking point. Despite this difficulty Bolt offers a wonderful book with a compelling argument and a much needed refocus on that which shapes our existence as Christians—the cross of Christ.

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