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

Front Page of The First Biography of Jesus by Helen K. Bond

This was an impulse buy for me. I was looking for another book on the life of Jesus to further my understanding of his life. When Helen K. Bond’s name jumped out at me. Having read her The Historical Jesus: A Guide for the Perplexed, where I enjoyed her style.

Initially, I was no, I am looking for a historical Jesus study.

The focus on Mark seemed to narrow.

The idea of a study of “Genre” was of putting. I like reading but literature studies. Smells too academic for my taste.

But I couldn’t resist the impulse to read another of Bond’s books. I really did enjoy her writing and perspective from A Guide for the Perplexed. Besides, isn’t Mark considered a “source” for Matthew and Luke and the earliest gospel?

Resistance melted, I ordered, and Bond did not disappoint.

Bond’s style was readable despite her academic training or maybe because of it. She is a well-researched writer. The Bibliography is 34 pages long(pp. 259-293). She has probably read and sourced more books researching Mark than I have read about the gospels, the life of Jesus and ancient text.

But she does a beautiful job of weaving in the sources and ideas as she develops her thoughts without making you feel like this is some reference textbook. Heavy in sources, hard to read.

At the same time, she references it all, in case you want to chase that rabbit (thought) down its native hole. You are not left wondering, who said that, or what book I can read to understand this better.

Enough praise for Bond’s style, let’s get into the meat of the book. What can you expect to gain from reading The First Biography of Jesus Genre and Meaning in Mark’s Gospel?

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

As the name says, she is looking at the Gospel of Mark as an ancient biography. I added ancient because, as she points out, the genre of biographies has changed. If you read Mark like a biography of Steve Jobs, (Which I have done), it’s not going to work. The ancients did it differently.

Overview of Ancient Biographies and the Gospel of Mark

The first section is not chapter 1 but an introduction. Where Bond sets up what she will be dealing with in the book.

You could skip this section, but I think you would be left wondering, why.

Why is she mentioning this or that?

Why is this so important to understanding Mark as a Biography?

The best part of this section is her personal story as a youth relating to Mark.

Intertwining her journey with the bigger scholarly development that has been going on over the last few years.

“Bioi,” Chapters 1 & 2

Is the Greek word used for biographies.

Bond examines how Mark, as a biography, fits into other ancient bioi.

The genres of the Ancient World, as Bond points out, are not always what we would expect from today’s genre of writing.

These chapters are about laying the groundwork of what to expect from an ancient bioi and how Mark is similar.

Two things I found interesting were morality and the death of a character.

Unlike today’s biographies which are often written to share information about a person, the ancient much more saw biographies as an opportunity to teach or share morals learned from the person’s life. The “application” is as important as the “facts,” or maybe even more. But this is key in how the material is arranged.

Second, is the person’s death, in particular, a philosopher’s death. Jesus, a teacher, closely resembles. How a person dies often affirms their philosophy. Along with revealing the true depth of their character of lacking of it.

Back Cover of The First Biography of Jesus by Helen K. Bond

The Author of Mark, Chapter 3

Moving beyond the simple answer that “Mark” wrote Mark. Rather analyzing Mark’s skills as an author and his relationship to Jesus and the early Christian community.

“not to overplay Mark’s literary ability, he was clearly a competent and reasonably skilled writer who was perfectly able to convey his ideas in the literary form of a bios.”

P.89

Along with what motivated Mark.

“His work, we can assume, was both an attempt to keep alive the memory of a figure with whom he was personally intensely invested, and also a bid to legitimize a very specific view of that figure.”

P. 92

She also spends some time on the structure of Mark along with what were his sources.

Interesting side note, she references Bagnall’s counting of the words of Mark, 12 076. Roughly the length of 1 scroll.

Mark’s “publisher” may have been concerned about the size of his work.

The Material of Mark, Jesus, Chapters 4, 5, & 6

The good part, of at least the focus of my interest, Jesus.

Bond bias comes out in this section, that Mark had a bias. Often referring to “Markan Jesus.” Which if you accept what she earlier has presented about ancient biographies makes sense. That Mark is writing for a reason and presents Jesus accordingly.

Touching on some of the highlights of Mark’s presentation and the significance of it.

As an ancient biography, Bond is open to the idea that the author may create anecdotes highlighting the character of the subject, even if these aren’t entirely historical.

They may or may not have actually occurred. The important point is how the subject behaves in such a context.

Beyond key events, are key or named characters that interact with Jesus. Who, she reminds us, are only there to highlight characteristics of Jesus or allow him to develop his teaching.

Highlighted Virtues of Jesus in The First Biography of Jesus by Helen K. Bond

I have read Mark numerous times, but it never occurred to me how few characters there are in Mark. Beyond the 12 who are not all named except in the official list, Mark 3:16-19. There are less than a dozen named or highlighted people. Many are not even named but simply referred to by relationship, “Peter’s mother-in-law”, or distinction feature, “man with the withered hand.” The rest are generic “Pharisees, Scribes, Herodians, which Bond refers to as peripheral characters. People who only serve to allow Jesus to act or teach.

The final chapter, which is the majority of Mark, is Jesus’ death.

As Bond has pointed out earlier, a person’s death is more than the end of their life but revealing of their character. Highlighting how the narrative confirms or draws attention to the depth of Jesus’ character. That how he died is praiseworthy.

“As a good philosopher, he dies in accordance with his preaching”

p.255

Along with how it’s possible that Mark’s original readers were also facing their own death. Mark is revealing in Jesus how to die well. Encouraging these early Christians.

Conclusion of My Review of The First Biography of Jesus

As I said in the beginning, I enjoy Bond’s writing style, and she did not disappoint.

She writes in an understandable way without dumbing down the subject matter.

Even the whole “genre” was not overwhelming. In fact, I think it will help me the next time I am reading Mark.

I struggle with the whole idea that the stories of Jesus are over 2 thousand years old and do need a little background to understand the full context. I would much rather be able to say that any one can pick up the Bible and understand it. But if you are questioning or trying to understand the full meaning of the words or actions of Jesus. Understanding the context, including who wrote it, why and when, is helpful.

I am not ready to fully embrace the idea that the stories in Mark are not “historical,” factual events, but it is possible that sometimes we get too hung up and the “how” we forget the “why.” The story is there for us to see what Jesus would have done in such a situation. What is this man Jesus like? Not how did he heal the withered hand (Mk.3).

Overall, if you are about to start a study of Mark or struggling to understand the life of Jesus in the gospels.

The First Biography Of Jesus is a good read and will better equip you to understand Jesus’s life. Helping you to understand how the ancients wrote and presented their heroes.

Mark believed Jesus was a life worth knowing and emulating.

But he also lived millenniums ago. His understanding of a good biography will not be in the style of the New York Times bestsellers, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a read. Understanding why he presented Jesus as he did, may help you to understand the Jesus he was writing about.