Book Reviews

The Theological Role of Paradox in the Gospel of Mark

Laura C. Sweat New York, NY 2015-02-01

A paradox—two valid statements that appear contradictory or inconsistent makes a story unpredictable and gives it depth. Jesus commanded one person to sell his things and give to the poor (Mark 10:21), but he commended another for anointing him with oil that could have been sold and “given to the poor” (14:3–9). The Son of Man has the authority to forgive sins (2:10), but blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven (3:29). Rather than seeing these statements as contradictory and questioning their historicity, Laura Sweat argues such paradoxes contribute to Mark’s characterization of God and reveal the depth of the gospel message. In Mark’s Gospel, divine paradox comes to bear in Jesus’s parables and the passion narrative.

Sweat uses the parable of the sower as a point of departure for the first part of the book. She finds three paradoxes in the parable that Mark develops throughout the Gospel. First, even though God reveals the kingdom, it remains hidden through Jesus’s enigmatic sayings. Following the parable, Jesus cited Isaiah 6:9–10 to justify his use of parables (Mark 4:12). Even though the people could hear the message, they were unable to understand it and failed to respond. Second, God confirms Scripture, but he also counters it. Even though Isaiah anticipated a time when none would perceive God’s message, the parable suggests that some receive Jesus’s message. In the Gospel, blindness and deafness represent inability to understand; Jesus’s healing ministry is a dynamic representation of how God counters the text from Isaiah. The third paradox is seen in the way the sower works. He wastes much of the seed by throwing it on bad soil, so that it produces no fruit. Jesus’s explanation of this minor detail creates a jarring effect. It is not the quality of soil that causes the seed not to take root, but God hardening the hearts of those who hear the message.

In the second part of the book, Sweat finds similar tensions in the passion narrative. First, although Jesus predicted his execution and resurrection in clear terms (Mark 8:31; 9:30–31; 10:32–34), the disciples remained ignorant of the upcoming events or their meaning. The woman at Bethany anointed Jesus in preparation for his death, but the disciples rebuked her for wasting provisions that could have gone to the poor (14:3–9). The second paradox—confirming and countering Scripture—appears with an interesting twist. Jesus predicted his death by citing Zechariah 13:7, but then he prayed that God might “remove this cup” (Mark 14:36). This emotional insight is out of step with Mark’s description of Jesus’s faithful resoluteness. Jesus’s crucifixion presents a third paradox. By sending his Son to the cross, God is presented as wasteful, yet good. The parable of the wicked tenants (12:1–12) illustrates the waste. After the tenants had beaten and murdered his servants, the vineyard owner sent his son. The son’s murder was predictable. However, this apparently wasteful act has eschatological ramifications: “Good Friday’s waste becomes Easter Sunday’s bounty” (p. 145).

Mark refuses to relieve the tension of his paradoxes. In fact, the shorter ending of Mark (16:8) perpetuates it. The narrative ends with the women fleeing the empty tomb in fear. These women witnessed Jesus’s death and burial (15:40–47) and his resurrection (16:1–8), but they failed to report it to the disciples. With this ending, Mark makes a different point than the other Gospels that end with post-resurrection appearances. Mark’s ending calls the reader into the story to share the good news with others. Rather than resolve the contradiction created by the paradox, Mark extends the paradox beyond the narrative. Sweat concludes that, according to Mark, this is how God acts. The depth of the Gospel message, and the God who stands behind it, is best articulated through paradox.      Sweat bases her work on a careful reading of the Gospel. Even though these themes are linked to Jesus’s parables and the passion, Sweat shows how Mark develops them throughout the narrative. We might disagree with some of Sweat’s labels. For example, does God counter Scripture, or does he fulfill it in a way that might surprise the reader? Is God wasteful or abundant? These minor points of disagreement do not take away from the overall thrust of the book. Students interested in Markan studies, particularly with regard to literary analysis, will enjoy this book. Finally, the cost of the hardback is prohibitive, but the paperback edition is much more reasonably priced at $29.95.

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