This week, in remembrance of his death nearly one year ago, Lexham Press will be running a series of blog posts honoring Larry Hurtado’s legacy and contributions to biblical scholarship. The first post was focused on Christology. This second post was written by Holly J. Carey.
Larry W. Hurtado’s work on the study of the New Testament and early Christian origins has left a lasting impression on biblical scholarship. In particular—as indicated by the title of a 2015 Festschrift published in his honor (Mark, Manuscripts, and Monotheism, T&T Clark)—Hurtado had three primary areas of interest and expertise in New Testament scholarship. He began his scholarly career in text criticism, concentrated much of his exegetical work on the Gospel of Mark, and contributed significant and novel insights into early Christian worship. In this article, I wish to highlight Hurtado’s most important work on the Gospel of Mark.
In thinking about Hurtado’s contributions to the study of the first gospel, a Markan image might prove useful. Distinctive to Mark’s Gospel is a literary and theological feature known as intercalation, what Markan scholars have often lovingly called “a Markan sandwich.” Such a sandwich involves the beginning of one story, an interruption of that story with another (often with additional or different characters, a new setting, and an increasingly dramatic situation), then a return to the original. The first story and its resolution form the “bread” of the sandwich, while the center story constitutes the meat. When this phenomenon is present, it becomes overwhelmingly clear that the center story—the interrupter, so to speak—is the most important. There is no sandwich without the middle, and the middle illuminates the meaning of the whole. In a series that honors Larry Hurtado’s life work, I find this image also fitting with regard to his scholarly interests. While text criticism was his first passion and foray into scholarship, and his groundbreaking work on early Christian worship was the major focus of his final years of study, it was his work in Mark that seems to have held it all together.
In fact, his first published full-length study (a version of his PhD dissertation) was a contribution on the origins and transmission of Mark’s Gospel. In Text-Critical Methodology and the Pre-Caesarean Text: Codex W in the Gospel of Mark (Eerdmans, 1981), Hurtado focused on the relationships between several ancient Christian manuscripts and what they could or could not tell us about the influences that shaped the Gospel. Although this work is necessarily an extremely detailed text-critical study (it is not reading for the faint of heart!), one of Hurtado’s greatest attributes was already on full display: his determination to connect the many intricate details of scholarly study to the larger goal of understanding the text as a whole. Whereas biblical scholars can often be inclined to “miss the forest for the trees,” his careful work was done to serve that larger purpose—in this particular case, to aid in our knowledge of how the content of Mark’s Gospel was transmitted through ancient Christian communities over time.
This early text-critical work surely led to Hurtado’s later particular interest in this first Gospel. Most of his exegetical work was done in Mark, and he first wrote a commentary on the Gospel in 1983, later revising it for the New International Biblical Commentary series in 1989 (Mark, Hendrickson). It can now be found under the more recently published Understanding the Bible Commentary Series (Mark, Baker, 2011). Consistent with the series, Hurtado’s commentary is an accessible and more generalized examination of the Gospel. Although he includes some critical engagement with scholars, his focus is more on an overview of the text itself, including helpful insights along the way. Not surprisingly, of particular interest for Hurtado is the cultural background of the New Testament and the ways this knowledge can aid our understanding of the Gospel itself. Not all biblical scholars can write in a manner that appeals to technical and highly trained scholars in their field and to those with less formal training, such as laity or new students. Hurtado had that ability, and it is evident in the way he approached this study of Mark’s Gospel. In it, he combines both depth of insight with ease of understanding, emphasizing the ways that significant and meaningful observations of the text can help illuminate our understanding of the story of Jesus.
Never one to shy away from a difficult text, Hurtado tackled the question of the ending of Mark’s Gospel in one of his most important essays on the subject, “The Women, the Tomb, and the Climax of Mark” (A Wandering Galilean: Essays in Honour of Sean Freyne, Brill, 2009). In this essay, he weighs in on the much-debated issue of whether the author intended to end his Gospel with the words, “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8, NRSV), or whether some other original ending has been lost. (The overwhelming consensus among Markan text-critical scholarship is that the other “longer” and “shorter” endings of Mark were later additions to the Gospel.) Hurtado argues that the women did not fail to tell the good news of Jesus’ resurrection, but rather that they were acting as was expected in their culture: they told the news privately to those of Jesus’ inner circle. Here Hurtado draws upon first-century beliefs regarding the restricted role of women, who were encouraged to limit their influence to the home (the private sphere), and discouraged to have a public persona of any kind. Thus, for Hurtado, Mark 16:8 does not contain a rebuke of the female disciples in the story, but rather depicts them as the first of Jesus’ followers to indeed share the gospel news. This essay demonstrates one of Hurtado’s underlying interpretations of Mark’s Gospel as a story that was primarily a message of hope. In an area of the discipline where many have viewed this Gospel as a Jesus story focused wholly on his suffering and death, Hurtado would often challenge this by pushing back against that more one-dimensional view. For him, Mark was not simply a message of the cross; it was a message of death and resurrection.
Hurtado was also willing to wade into the murky waters of another debate in New Testament scholarship: the question of the meaning of the phrase “the Son of Man” in the Gospels, and what light this use might shed on matters concerning the historical Jesus. (Did the man, Jesus of Nazareth, actually use this as a self-referential title, or was this an addition by the early Christian community?) This was of such interest to him that he coedited a volume of essays engaging with the latest scholarship on the subject (Who is this Son of Man?, T&T Clark, 2011).
The written works of Larry Hurtado have made a profound impact on the area of New Testament, Christian origins, and Markan studies in particular. His ability to communicate clearly, to write accessibly about complicated subjects, to weigh the evidence, and to think carefully and critically about long-held assumptions in the Gospel made him one of the most influential Markan scholars of our time. More than that, however, Hurtado’s work consistently disclosed his concern for biblical scholarship to be useful to the community of faith. He firmly believed that historical inquiry, knowledge, and sound scholarship would illuminate the texts we read in ways that would shape belief and praxis. In his life and in his scholarship, Larry Hurtado’s contribution to the world of biblical studies cannot be overstated. He leaves behind a legacy of good and faithful work from which pastors, laity, and scholars will benefit for years to come.
In honor of Larry Hurtado’s work, we’re offering Honoring the Son: Jesus in Earliest Christian Devotional Practice for just $5 through the end of the month.