Mark: Wisdom Commentary (Warren Carter) -- A Review
MARK: Wisdom Commentary, Volume 42. By Warren Carter. Sarah J. Tanzer, Editor. Barbara E. Reid, OP, General Editor. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press (A Michael Glazier Book), 2019. Lxxii + 506 pages.
A long time ago a word of wisdom was imparted to me concerning biblical commentaries. That word suggested that one should consult several commentaries representing different perspectives on the text. When it comes to the Gospel of Mark, there are many very good commentaries to choose from. As we have come to learn in recent decades there are perspectives that have often been shut out from the conversation that warrant our attention. One of those perspectives is a feminist reading of Scripture. The Wisdom Commentary series offers us the first full series of commentaries that engage with feminist interpretations. Regarding the series and its emphasis, Barbara Reid, OP, the General Editor, writes: “The title, Wisdom Commentary, reflects both the importance to feminists of the figure of Woman Wisdom in the Scriptures and the distinct wisdom that feminist women and men bring to the interpretive process” (xxii-xxiii). Note here that while the commentaries represent a feminist perspective that doesn’t mean that only women are included as authors of the commentaries. What it does is represent, as Reid notes, that “feminism is a perspective and a movement that springs from a recognition of inequities toward women, and advocates for changes in whatever structures prevent full human flourishing” (p. xxiii).
This particular commentary, which is focused on the Gospel of Mark, is written by a white male author. But while Warren Carter is a white male, he brings a feminist lens to the interpretation of the text. This includes interacting with feminist scholarship, and most especially with women scholars. So, what qualifies men to take up this task? Barbara Reid notes that "men who choose to identify with and partner with feminist women in the work of deconstructing systems of domination and building structures of equality are rightly regarded as feminists" (p. xxiv). It is this question of domination and equality that marks the focus of the commentary.
The author of this commentary, Warren Carter, serves as the LaDonna Kramer Meinders Professor of New Testament at Phillips Theological Seminary. Before this posting, he taught New Testament at Brite Divinity School. Both seminaries are related to my denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He came to the United States from New Zealand. In addition to Carter’s interpretation, this series makes use of other voices, which are placed strategically throughout the commentary in gray-scale sidebars. Some of these voices involve alternate perspectives and some interpret the text through poetry. This is another uniqueness of this series.
While Carter writes as a male ally of feminist scholars and engages with them throughout, Carter also makes wide use of the broader category of gender studies. More specifically, in order to understand Jesus and his context, he makes use of the emerging discipline of masculinity studies. Here he engages with the concept of "hegemonic masculinity." This is perhaps where Carter makes the greatest contribution to our understanding of Jesus and his message. Carter writes that while feminist scholarship has dealt with structures of patriarchy and androcentricity, whether in the text or in largely male-dominated scholarship, "much feminist work on Mark has largely bypassed attention to male characters and to the Gospel's constructions of masculinities." While this is understandable, due to the desire to foreground women participants in the story, it has serious implications for understanding the Gospel and its context. Most importantly, this neglect "leaves male presence and power in this Gospel narrative untroubled and normative" (p. xlix). In other words, women’s voices might be highlighted, but they become isolated from the broader story.
Because the central figures in the Gospel are male, starting with Jesus, the question that Carter seeks to address concerns how the Gospel portrays Jesus and his closest followers. Carter pursues this question in conversation with feminist scholars, while also giving attention to the women who are present in the story. To do this, Carter wants to place Mark's story of Jesus in a broader Roman imperial context, which privileges male dominance. He focuses on the idea of manliness and its relationship to the hierarchy present in Roman society. In this structure, the imperial elites are the manliest of men, and this moves down a step at a time until we get to the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, where even men have little control over their destinies. If men have little control, then women are in an even more difficult position.
In Mark’s story of Jesus, he is a nonelite provincial male. Therefore, he is far down the ladder, and yet through his rhetorical power, he attracts followers and crowds, giving him status normally not accorded to one of his station. The story moves forward with Jesus exercising power not normally given to nonelite males. In other words, he demonstrates manliness. This status changes as he moves from Galilee toward Jerusalem in chapter eight. As he moves toward his death on the cross, he begins to assume a less manly role. He loses power and status.
In commenting on the opening of the Gospel, Carter notes that Mark introduces Jesus to us as "the most powerful man." He sets Jesus against the great male leaders of the age, that is the emperors. In other words, Mark assumes Jesus to fulfill the manly role—as a hegemonic male. He is portrayed at least until we reach the final stages of the story as the most dominant male in the room. While the Gospel may decenter male dominance at points, it doesn't portray Jesus as a modern feminist. That point is important as many have tried to make Jesus a feminist actor, but that is a rather anachronistic view, as Carter notes. That doesn’t mean Jesus doesn’t offer liberating words, but to understand Jesus, we must understand his context. He’s not a 21st century liberal Protestant!
Since this is a rather detailed biblical commentary, I won't go into the details. As one would expect, Carter engages with recent scholarship focused on the Gospel of Mark. It offers a strong, scholarly, interpretation of a familiar text of Scripture that draws most specifically on feminist and gender studies. It does so both to deconstruct the context and interpret the text in ways that should be useful not only for scholars but also for clergy and others who wish to dive deep into the Gospel narrative.
In his afterword, Carter addresses once again the perspective he takes regarding this Gospel and his participation in this series. He writes: "My personal commitments to justice for all align with the commitments of this series to advocate for the full flourishing of humans and all creation, and specifically to be an ally in the work of redressing the particular inequities that women experience" (p. 455).
Many are the commentaries written on the Gospel of Mark. I’ve found a number of them helpful for my preaching and teaching. I believe Warren Carter's Wisdom commentary on Mark is a worthy complement to other important interpretations. It is deep, technical, and yet not inaccessible for the non-specialist. It opens our eyes to questions that are often left unexamined. It is also a reminder that white men (including me) can be allies to women scholars, but we can even be feminist in our perspectives when it comes to Scripture.