Reviews of

Mark 13 and the Return of the Shepherd

In Bloomsbury, Gospel of Mark, Intertextuality, Paul Sloan, Samuel Freney, T & T Clark, Zechariah on April 27, 2021 at 3:04 pm
Mark 13 and the Return of the Shepherd

2021.4.10 | Paul Sloan. Mark 13 and the Return of the Shepherd: The Narrative Logic of Zechariah in Mark. Library of New Testament Studies 604. London: T&T Clark, 2019.

Review by Samuel Freney, Bible Society of Australia.

In my experience, the best books—certainly the best technical books—are those that engage you as a reader in a conversation that is richer and deeper than what you may have experienced previously. Paul Sloan’s book is one of these. His central claim is that Mark had the prophet Zechariah front of mind as he composed his Gospel, and that Zech 13–14 especially so imbues Mark’s narrative that it provides an interpretive key for the widely contested Olivet Discourse. Scholars have disagreed for 200 years over why Jesus seemingly answers his disciples’ question about the destruction of the temple with a reference to his second coming (p. 1).

Sloan’s argument is that Zechariah’s depiction of an attack on Jerusalem followed by a theophany with angels is a blueprint for Mark’s arrangement of his material. Mark presents Israel’s Messiah as entering Jerusalem on a donkey and ushering in God’s kingdom as the stricken but returning Shepherd (pp. 222–23). His introduction to this striking set of parallels at the beginning of chapter 6 is worth reproducing in full, as it demonstrates the correspondences investigated throughout the book. He suggests this plot summary could describe Zech 13–14, or Mark 13, or both:

The Shepherd has been struck. The people of the shepherd are scattered and tested. Jerusalem is attacked, and the women and children are especially in danger. And then the savior comes with his angels. That day that he comes, there will be no light, the earth will respond to the presence of God, and the kingdom of God will be recognized among all the nations. That day is known only to the Lord. (p. 149)

To make the claim that Zechariah shapes Mark’s presentation, chapter 6 is where the real action is, but some preparatory work has to be done first. The opening chapter sketches the shape of the question, outlines competing claims about Mark 13, surveys the history of research on Mark’s use of Zechariah, and presents the “semiotic exegesis” method Sloan employs—examining intratextual, intertextual, and extratextual relationships (p. 12).

Chapters 2 begins to establish precedent: Sloan demonstrates that the kinds of citation, allusion, and echo that he claims Mark makes regarding Zechariah are also found across a broad swathe of Second Temple literature, from Enoch, to Qumran, to elsewhere in the New Testament, to the Targums. Chapter 3 continues this theme by demonstrating that Zechariah is used by Mark all throughout his Gospel, and not just the widely recognized allusions to Zech 9–14 in the Passion narrative (p. 57). Some of the instances he outlines are clearer than others, but the weight of the argument is cumulative: Mark’s scattered references to Zechariah in all their varied forms shows reference to Zechariah in Mark 13 would be consistent with his usual practice, shapes the way he constructs his narrative, and ought to shape our reading of it. These references are not placed without reason; Sloan notes the ubiquitous element in all these allusions is a reference to prophetic fulfilment “on that day” and suggests this ought to be understood as applying to a single individual at a single time: namely Jesus (pp. 85–86).

Chapters 4 and 5 begin to focus in our attention on Mark 13 by first examining the use of Zech 13:7 and 14:5 in Mark (ch. 4), then surveying the various scholarly options for interpreting Mark 13 (ch. 5). Sloan calls these two references (a citation and an allusion, respectively, p. 89) the “bookends” to the Mark 13 material. He examines in detail the citation of Zech 13:7 in Mark 14:27, and concludes that the language of Zech 13:7–9 is found throughout Mark so the most plausible reference to the disciples “falling away” is not their flight from Gethsemane but “their future tribulation that they endure in Jesus’ absence, beginning at his death and culminating at the coming of the Son of Man” (p. 111). Zechariah 14:5, Sloan argues, is alluded to in Mark 8:38’s phrase “coming of the Son of Man.” Significant thematic and lexical correspondences between both these Markan passages and Mark 13 suggest to Sloan that, if Mark 13 contains lots of Zechariah references to what will happen during the period Jesus talks about, these two references about when are also relevant to interpreting ch. 13, and thus constitute the bookends regarding timing.

Chapter 6 is the heart of the book, and where you get your money’s worth. This chapter is where each of the sections of Mark 13 gets close exegetical attention, and the relationships to Zechariah are teased out in detail. He begins with an overview that charts out the sequential correspondence of Mark and Zechariah, giving further substance to his earlier claim that Mark displays “prophecy narrated, rather than prophecy repeated” (pp. 86, 149–50). That is, Zechariah not only shapes Mark’s language but also shapes his narrative construction. Again there are intertextual relationships through this chapter that are clearer and those that are more subtle, but even if some can be contested the overall claim is compelling: Zechariah shapes Mark’s Olivet Discourse in both language and structure. Sloan’s conclusion is that this is useful for understanding Mark in and of itself, but also provides a solution to the Mark 13 crux interpretum: reference to Jesus’s parousia alongside the destruction of the temple is a natural fit if Zech 13–14 is in the background.

This book is enjoyable to read. It is an excellent application of deep, thick analysis of textual correspondences. Sloan does not limit himself to verbal similarities but identifies well the “cultural encyclopaedia” of the world surrounding the text (p. 7), which helps him do detailed and imaginative work looking at Mark’s influences and sources. Furthermore, the narrative thrust to his understanding of Mark is fascinating, and in my opinion is the major contribution of this work. The prophetic background shapes not only Mark’s words but also his structure, and seeing this helps us to read his narrative better. The fit of Sloan’s argument is elegant; it works with available material for the author and original readers, and is coherent in that interpretive universe. It makes excellent sense.

Speaking of structure, however, I struggled with one aspect of this book: I did not properly appreciate the why of the book until the start of chapter 6. The opening of that chapter I referenced above is excellent, showed clearly how the correspondences between Zechariah and Mark might sound to early readers, and is something I as a reader would have appreciated earlier and more often throughout the work. In fact I would recommend reading the first three pages of chapter 6 first, then going back to the start of the book. Perhaps this is a touch of expertise blindness—the author knows full well the textual similarities and the broad thesis of the book, but I as the reader need reminding a bit earlier and more often. I found myself similarly a little lost in the weeds of detail elsewhere too, such as the minutiae of scholarly construals of Mark 13. Sloan does a good job generally of providing interim summaries and conclusions to keep things straight, so this may say more about my particular failings. Hopefully your mileage may vary.

Like any good book, this study raised several questions for me, which I hope to ask the author someday. But in the meantime, I recommend getting a copy of this book, read it closely alongside Mark and Zechariah, and see what additional ideas the narrative logic of the return of the Shepherd in Mark 13 sparks for you.

Sam Freney
Bible Society of Austrailia
sam.freney [at] biblesociety.org.au

  1. […] Mark 13 and the Return of the Shepherd, a review by Reviews of Biblical and Early Christian Studies […]

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