The First Biography of Jesus

The First Biography of Jesus: Genre and Meaning in Mark’s Gospel by Helen K. Bond 2020

About the Author
Helen K. Bond is senior lecturer in New Testament at the University of Edinburgh and director of the Edinburgh Centre for the Study of Christian Origins.

About the Book
What difference does it make to identify Mark’s gospel as an ancient biography?

Reading the gospels as ancient biographies makes a profound difference to the way that we interpret them. Biography immortalizes the memory of the subject, creating a literary monument to the person’s life and teaching. Yet it is also a bid to legitimize a specific view of that figure and to position an author and his audience as appropriate “gatekeepers” of that memory. Biography was well suited to the articulation of shared values and commitments, the formation of group identity, and the binding together of a past story, present concerns, and future hopes.
Helen Bond argues that Mark’s author used the genre of biography to extend the gospel from an earlier narrow focus on the death and resurrection of Jesus so that it included the way of life of its founding figure. Situating Jesus at the heart of a biography was a bold step in outlining a radical form of Christian discipleship patterned on the life – and death – of Jesus.

“This is a beautifully crafted study that soundly explores the Gospel of Mark and probes its meanings, written by one of the world’s most eminent scholars in the field. In taking its genre seriously, Bond demonstrates that the Gospel’s curious characteristics fall into place. Mark is an innovative work, recrafting the Jesus tradition into a form that would serve as a model for discipleship. With this insight in place, Bond takes the reader through the world of ancient ‘lives’ to this one, allowing us to see the Gospel with fresh eyes, to admire both its literary craft and its message.”
— Joan Taylor
King’s College London

“Despite the now widely held view that Mark’s Gospel is an ancient biography, few Markan scholars have explored the narrative-critical implications of this genre. In this groundbreaking work full of fresh insights, Helen Bond skillfully redresses that deficiency and shows how reading Mark’s Gospel as ancient biography can fruitfully inform how we understand its message.”
— Craig S. Keener
Asbury Theological Seminary, author of Christobiography

“With characteristic insight and clarity, Helen Bond places Mark’s Gospel in the company of other ancient lives of philosophers. The result is a fascinating reading of Mark’s Gospel as a bios that both reflects and subverts the literary conventions of that genre, all in light of its intent focus on its protagonist, Jesus of Nazareth. Bond’s considerable achievement is to hold in tension both the narrative world of the Gospel and the social and historical circumstances of its first-century readers, demonstrating not simply how to read Mark as a bios, but what difference it made, and makes.”
— Chris Keith
St Mary’s University, Twickenham

“In her well written study Helen Bond makes a strong case for reading Mark’s Gospel as an ancient biography. Her careful analysis of ancient bioi shows why the genre of the gospels matters. Moreover, Mark’s Gospel is approached from a literary as well as a historical perspective to demonstrate that the work was written by a creative and learned author who provides a vivid portrait of Jesus. This study opens up a fresh reading of Mark which overcomes less-helpful alternatives of previous scholarship.”
— Jens Schröter
Humboldt University Berlin

Summary of Introduction (partial)
The purpose of this book is to explore exactly what it means to say that Mark’s Gospel is an ancient biography. We have no way of knowing whether Mark was in fact the first to adapt his material to this particular literary form. Mark’s work was an attempt actively to reappropriate and reconfigure selected material from the mass of unstructured, ahistorical sayings and anecdotes.

My approach in this study is both literary and historical. I imagine the gospel to have been written by a reasonably educated, creative author. His adoption of a simple, “popular” style should not blind us to his theological insight, sensitivity, and literary sophistication. As we shall see in subsequent chapters, ancient biographies were very different to modern ones.

Biographies range wildly from the serious and educational to the far-fetched and imaginative, with everything in between. Bioi are socially circumscribed, creating generically specific “worlds” of meaning, drawing on conventional features, expectations, and topoi. In broad terms, biography is not only produced by a particular age but is also a reflection of it.

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