Book Review – The Pillar New Testament Commentary on Mark (James R. Edwards)

The Pillar commentary series sits in between the devotional and academic styles of commentary. It is evangelical, and designed primarily for preachers and serious students of the Bible. This volume is the third gospel to be covered in this slowly growing series, under the editorship of Don Carson. It weighs in at over 500 pages of commentary (not counting indexes), which translates to a few paragraphs on each verse or group of verses, with room for a few excursuses and brief introductions to each pericope or section. Despite this reasonably generous size, there are a number of typical commentary features not found in this volume.

The biblical text is not included, and Edwards rarely interacts directly with other commentators (when he does, it is normally in a footnote). He only occasionally provides refutations to scholars who doubt the historicity of some of the accounts. Also, he does not often attempt to harmonise with parallel passages in the other gospels, prefering to simply note how the other accounts differ. This is no doubt in part due to his acceptance of the theory that Mark was the first gospel to be written, probably around AD65, and most likely by John-Mark, with the Christians in Rome in mind as the original intended readership. Finally, don’t expect exhaustive details of the Greek grammar and translation issues here. Where the Greek is discussed, it is usually to explain the meaning of one word, and is transliterated.

So what does Edwards fill the space with? His commentary emphasises the historical setting, the literary devices and the theological purposes of Mark. There are also a number of useful excursuses on key themes in Mark (for example, the Messiah and the transfiguration). An appendix rejects the “secret gospel of Mark” as a forgery. As with other Pillar volumes, key words are highlighted in bold at the start of a paragraph that defines them.

The historical aspect is served by Edward’s regular appeals to ancient literature, which he uses to help give a good picture of the historical context and meaning of the verses in question. The key word definitions are very useful for explaining terms, customs and places in a succinct way, but without intruding into the flow of the commentary. In addition, Edwards seeks to keep us alert to some of the literary techniques Mark uses, such as the “sandwich technique” (whereby Mark interleaves two mutually interpretive passages), as well as the irony and the insider / outsider motif. He gathers evidence for the theory that Peter was John-Mark’s primary source as he moves through the book.

On the theological side, Edward’s brings a number of Mark’s themes to light, particularly those of what true faith and discipleship is, of who the Christ is and the command to silence. But its not just about “Mark’s theology”, as he often makes brief yet profound statements of the theological and practical implications for believers.

Whilst Edwards rarely brings a highly controversial or obscure interpretation to a passage in Mark, he is not simply restating other people’s conclusions, and regularly brings fresh insights. Jesus’ prophetic teaching in Mark 13 is understood as referring alternately to the destruction of Jerusalem and the parousia, with the phrases “these things” and “those days” serving as delimiters between the near and far focuses. He argues that the women of chapter 16 are used by Mark as negative examples (in contrast the the normally positive role of women in the gospel) of fear rather than faith in contrast to Joseph’s boldness in approaching Pilate to ask for Jesus’ body. He sees the climax of the gospel as the centurion’s declaration at the cross in Mark 15:39.

Although unsurprisingly Edwards does not consider Mark 16:9-20 to be part of the original gospel, he does provide commentary on it in a chapter devoted to questions of the ending. While he notes that an ending at Mark 16:8 may “work” for some people, he strongly doubts that Mark did in fact stop so abruptly, again drawing on his thorough knowledge of ancient literature to argue that this type of literary technique was virtually unknown. He believes that the writer of Matthew had access to Mark’s original ending, as the end of Matthew provides the types of things required to conclude the themes Mark has been developing.

In conclusion, I highly recommend this as an excellent commentary on the book of Mark. I have been reading it over the last 18 months as I have been studying my way through Mark. It does not address every issue that could possibly be raised, but this prevents the commentary from becoming bloated and allows Edwards to give space to his areas of expertise. Those who read this will see Mark’s gospel come alive when viewed through the historical, literary and theological perspective that Edwards has brought in his commentary.

7 thoughts on “Book Review – The Pillar New Testament Commentary on Mark (James R. Edwards)

  1. No, it is a feature of the commentary that he rarely interacts with other commentators, and Wright doesn’t even get a mention in the footnotes in this section.

    I must admit that I’m not sure I could fully explain Wright’s position, so I might be missing something, but the closest Edwards comes to addressing it is in a footnote about the cosmic portents of v24-27 and whether they might be Hebraic metaphors describing divine judgement against the pagan gods. France, Hatina and van Iersel are cited as a proponents of this view. He responds “this view is extremely doubtful” and that the plain sense is eschatalogical (as in 14:62)

  2. As with other Pillar volumes, key words are highlighted in bold at the start of a paragraph that defines them.

    The only two I’ve spent time in are Carson on John and O’Brien on Ephesians. I don’t remember this feature in the latter, but I know it’s not in the former, unless they changed that when they reprinted it under the auspices of this series.

  3. You’re quite right. For some reason I thought I could remember seeing them in Moo on James, and re-reading Edward’s introduction, he mentions these as a place where he has departed from the Pillar format (I misread read it as him listing it as a feature in common with the others).

    I just started O’Brien on Ephesians last night, which I’ve been looking forward to for some time because everything he writes gets rave reviews. So far he is the opposite of Edwards – he is quite happy to devote a few pages to other commentators’ findings before dealing with them point by point (I’m still in the introductory section on authorship).

  4. Pingback: Commentary Series Review – Pillar New Testament Commentary « wordandspirit

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  6. Hi,
    Just some thoughts. I was looking for a commentary on Mark and had a brief look at James Edwards commentary and I must say its a very readable commentary. I had a look at Stein too and he does discuss more views and synoptic issues however Edwards commentary seems to flow better with the actual biblical text and seems better for sermon preparation. I have ordered a copy of Edwards commentary.
    Warm regards,

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