Word Biblical Commentary 34B: Mark 8:27-16:20

Author describes his volume on Mark and the Word Biblical Commentary series.

By Craig A. Evans
Professor at Trinity Western University

    Plans for the Word Biblical Commentary were laid in the 1970s. David Hubbard (long-time president of Fuller Theological Seminary) and Glenn Barker, both now deceased, launched the commentary with Word Books of Waco, Texas. John Watts and Ralph Martin, though both now retired, continue to serve as Old Testament and New Testament editors, respectively. The aged and much-respected Bruce Metzger was recently appointed as the new General Editor.

    The original plan called for approximately 50 volumes, covering both Old and New Testaments. Because of the distinctly Protestant and evangelical complexion of the series, it was decided—in contrast to the Anchor Bible and Hermeneia commentaries—not to produce commentaries on the Old Testament Apocrypha (or deutero-canonical books, as Catholics describe them). This is not to say, however, that none of the volumes were composed by Catholic scholars; Roland Murphy wrote the commentaries on Ecclesiastes and Proverbs. The first volumes appeared in the early 1980s (e.g., F. F. Bruce’s 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and P. T. O’Brien’s Colossians and Philemon, were the very first to appear—in 1982).

    The series is now nearly complete. The commentary on Acts, which had to be reassigned twice, will not appear for some time. 1 Corinthians was also reassigned not that long ago, so its appearance is not imminent. All else in the New Testament is complete. In the Old Testament we still await the volumes on the second half of Deuteronomy, Judges, the second half of Job, and the volume devoted to Song of Songs and Lamentations, which had been started by David Hubbard and now will be completed by others. The commentary on Mark falls in this category; the first half (i.e., 1:1–8:26) was written by Robert Guelich, while the second half (8:27–16:20) was written by Craig Evans. More will be said on this aspect shortly.

    The evolution of the Word Biblical Commentary

    The format of the commentary is well conceived. The commentary unfolds pericope by pericope. Each pericope breaks down into six distinct elements: (1) Bibliography (alphabetically arranged, sometimes subdivided according to special topics of interest; author’s name set in bold print), (2) English translation of the pericope, (3) textual and grammatical notes relating to the translation, (4) discussion of form, structure, and setting, (5) comment (usually verse-by-verse, though in some cases in larger components), and (6) explanation. I have found this format to be very user friendly. Long before I was asked to write the commentary on the second half of Mark, the WBC had become my favorite. The bibliographies are current and rich, the textual notes are detailed, the verse-by-verse comment is very helpful, and despite the high level of technicality, surprisingly readable, and the explanation sections are quite clear and helpful for regaining a sense of the flow of the whole biblical book. Some volumes come with an excursus or two, while all volumes are fully indexed and come complete with lengthy and very helpful lists of abbreviations. Sales continue to be strong; and if they are any indication, the WBC is a widely used series.

    Like other commentary series (especially the Anchor Bible and the International Critical Commentary), the WBC has grown over the course of its history of production. At the outset, not too many of the commentaries were expected to run beyond a single volume. Genesis was expected to be two volumes and the Psalms three volumes, but that was all. As it turns out, however, Deuteronomy will be two volumes; Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, and Lamentations have gone to two volumes. The New Testament has seen the greatest amount of unplanned expansion. Matthew, Mark, Acts, Romans, and Hebrews expanded to two volumes each, while Luke and Revelation grew to three volumes each! (Contrast these to George Beasley-Murray’s commentary on John, which was the first commentary on a Gospel to appear and which appeared as a single volume.) General Introductions grew longer; section bibliographies grew longer; critical discussion of form, setting, history, and so forth saw considerable expansion; while the verse-by-verse comment sections grew substantially. Only the explanation sections seem to have remained constant.

    The commentary series has clearly oriented itself a bit more toward the scholar and serious student. Fortunately, the busy pastor and the novice student will still be able to dig out much that is comprehensible and useful (and here the explanation sections remain very helpful). One other big change in the series is that it is now published by Thomas Nelson of Nashville, Tennessee, which acquired Word Books a few years ago.

    Why the commentary was necessary

    The need for the WBC was quite clear in the 1970s. Apart from the New International Commentary, published by Eerdmans, there was very little that was scholarly, evangelical friendly, and current. The classic commentaries by B. F. Westcott and J. B. Lightfoot, as well as some of the vintage commentaries in the ICC, although still of value, were hopelessly out of date. All had been written before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, before many of the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, and before most, if not all, of the papyri. Moreover, most of these venerable old commentaries had been penned before serious archaeological work in Palestine had gotten under way. Therefore, the need for current, serious commentaries on Scripture had become increasingly felt.

    Although the NIC had produced some fine volumes (and one immediately thinks of William Lane’s commentary on Mark), by the 1970s the series was growing dated (with some volumes reaching back to the 1950s and reflecting scholarship of the 1940s) and was, moreover, making very slow progress. Indeed, the NIC has been overtaken by the newer WBC, which commenced some 25 years after the NIC. (It should be noted that under the new leadership of Gordon Fee, the quality and timeliness of the volumes appearing in the NIC have markedly improved.)

    The WBC was designed to meet the need for critical, current, relevant commentary on Scripture that was respectful of the authority and religious value of Scripture. As biblical research and archaeology in the last 25 years have burgeoned, so have the volumes of the WBC, especially those that have appeared in more recent years. The WBC promises to continue in its usefulness because of the editors’ commitment to update and, in some cases, to replace older volumes.

    Some commentary on the commentary on Mark

    It is no easy thing to take up where someone has left off. Robert Guelich wrote a very fine commentary that enjoyed positive reviews. It appeared in 1989, but he died suddenly and unexpectedly in 1991, with very little of the second volume completed. All that Guelich left behind was a rough translation of Mark 8:27–16:20, several sectional bibliographies (mostly for chap. 13), and rough drafts of three pericopes from chap. 11. I was able to carry over most of this latter material. 

    When approached to consider taking on the second volume, I was asked if I was sympathetic to Guelich’s approach. I was, indeed. In fact, there was no point of importance in his commentary that I could not accept or work within. Guelich had concluded that Mark’s Gospel was essentially hellenistic biography. I largely agree, though I place more emphasis on the Judaic substructure. Guelich is sympathetic to early church tradition, to the effect that the Gospel may have been composed by John Mark, though he is not insistant upon this point. Again, I concur. Guelich leans cautiously toward Rome as place of original publication. I see no reason to demur. He dates the work to somewhere between 67 and the siege of Jerusalem in the summer of 70. I am in essential agreement, narrowing the date to 68–69, for I think Mark reflects the Empire’s upheavals in the wake of Nero’s death and uncertainties as to the outcome of the Jewish war. I also share Guelich’s skepticism with regard to many of the recent literary interpretations of Mark, in which the Gospel is taken as a sort of cipher and whose characters function in symbolic, even allegorical ways. As does Guelich, I find these hypothesis far too subjective.

    Where readers will notice a major difference between the two volumes is in approach and emphasis. Guelich’s volume emphasizes form and redaction criticism—methods in full vigor in the 1960s and 1970s, which was when Guelich was trained and was engaged in his foundational research. My volume emphasizes historical and social/religious context, which admittedly reflects the sensitivities of the 1980s and 1990s. Whereas Guelich provides a form-critical analysis and a detailed tracing of the evangelist’s editorial work, my volume takes a comparative approach. To be sure, issues of form and redaction are not ignored in my volume; however, they are not emphasized (the latter primarily because—unlike in the cases of Matthew and Luke—we do not possess Mark’s sources and so cannot be sure where tradition ends and the evangelist begins). Instead, readers will find my volume peppered with references to archaeology and intertestamental literature (especially the Dead Sea Scrolls). A glance at the “Biblical and Other Ancient Sources” indexes in our volumes will highlight this difference.

    The great challenge facing commentators today is the immensity of the secondary literature. I made extensive use of some 40 commentaries on Mark and more than 125 other commentaries and monographs on Mark and the Gospels. Articles from journals, dictionaries, and encyclopedias numbered somewhere near 1,500. What is appalling is that this is selective only, not exhaustive. And, of course, one must not forget the primary literature: the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha, Dead Sea Scrolls, papyri, inscriptions, ostraca, rabbinic literature, Josephus, Philo, and a host of Greco-Roman writings. This burgeoning literature only feeds itself, so that it is no wonder that scholarly commentaries have in recent years grown to such great size. The ICC commentary on Matthew by Dale Allison and W. D. Davies (three volumes) runs to about 2,400 pages; Joseph Fitzmyer’s Anchor Bible commentary on Luke (two volumes) runs to more than 1,700 pages. Craig Keener’s recently published single-volume commentary on Matthew runs to 1,000 pages. It is, by the way, rich with parallels and background material. I see no end in sight; more hefty commentaries and reference works are sure to appear. However, some of the newer commentary series plan to aim for the less technical readership by limiting critical discussion. The New Cambridge Biblical Commentary, of which only a portion of the volumes have been assigned and none yet published, plans to run 300-350 pages per volume. The Blackwell Biblical Commentary will seek to address educated laity and scholars interested in the contribution the books of the Bible have made to human history and culture. These commentaries are also expected to be smaller in size.

    What does the future hold?

    As I have said, we may anticipate the appearance of yet more heavy-duty commentaries. But we may also anticipate the appearance of more special interest commentaries, focused on particular issues and/or targeting particular segments of society. We may also expect to see more commentaries on extra-biblical books. Eerdmans has launched a commentary on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some 16 volumes are projected. James Davila’s commentary on the liturgical scrolls appeared in December. There have also been discussions with Eerdmans about the production of commentaries on the books of the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. Stanley Porter is heading up a team of international scholars to produce a commentary on the Septuagint, not as translation or interpretation of the Hebrew exemplars, but as Greek literature in its own right. Other reference tools are in the works, such as a new English edition of the Kommentar zum Neuen Testament aus Talmud und Midrasch by Paul Billerbeck, or the impressive multi-volume commentary on the writings of Josephus, under the general editorship of Steve Mason (my T.A. many years ago at McMaster!).

    Bible students thus have a great deal to look forward to: more secondary literature to sift and study, but an array of helpful tools—both written and electronic—to aid the process of sifting and studying. Whatever the downside, there has never been a better time to engage in biblical studies.

Craig A. Evans is a distinguished Professor at Trinity Western University

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.