Note: This book review was composed during an independent study on the Gospel of Mark during my doctoral studies, in 2016, and has not previously been published. I have touched it up in very minor ways for posting to my blog now, some six years later.
Thomas E. Boomershine, The Messiah of Peace: A Performance-Criticism Commentary on Mark’s Passion-Resurrection Narrative. Biblical Performance Criticism Series 12. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2015. ISBN 978-1-62564-545-6. 464 pages. $55.00.
Thomas E. Boomershine’s The Messiah of Peace (2015) is the printed volume of an ambitious, first-of-its-kind project to apply principles of performance criticism and orality studies consistently to a biblical text in commentary format. The book is accompanied by a dedicated website (www.messiahofpeace.com) with videos, broken conveniently into commentary-sized chunks, of Mark’s Passion-Resurrection Narrative (Mark 14-16, hereafter “PRN”) performed by the author himself in both English and Greek. (As he insists in the written volume, the companion website is indispensable to this project and required viewing for the reader.) Boomershine assumes that the Gospel of Mark is the product of oral performance, and thus makes no overtures to argue this point against its detractors. Readers not convinced of the performative nature of Mark may stumble out of the gate, but Boomershine’s presentation, complete with a sound-mapped readout of the Greek text and thirteen criteria for the breakdown of cola, commas, and periods, will likely soon convince.
Slightly against the grain of scholarly consensus, Boomershine contends that the original audiences for which this gospel was formulated were comprised mostly of Greek-speaking Jews—or Judeans, to use his preferred term. Boomershine takes the occasional explanations of Jewish traditions not as a sign of original Gentile-majority audiences, but rather as intermittent concessions to the presence of Gentiles in Mark’s Judean audience. Boomershine evades any definitive declaration of the date of the gospel, though he assents to a chronology near the final throes of the Jewish-Roman War. One might imagine that a basic difficulty of dating the Gospel of Mark for a performance critic is its existence as an oral narrative well before it would be inscribed for more widespread public consumption, but Boomershine is curiously silent about the chronological or developmental relationship between performed narrative and written text.
Moving quickly beyond these conventional historical concerns, Boomershine covers the different types of rhetoric used by the storyteller, as well as how to distinguish between the narrative itself and asides intended to explain elements of the story to an uninitiated audience. The three chapters of Mark under consideration are broken down into eight sections linked either thematically or in story-time, each of which contain up to three pericopae. Each of the nineteen stories is introduced by a less detailed sound map than appears in the appendix, highlighting recurring words and word stems in addition to a translation and translational notes. Significantly, each pericope is accompanied by a concluding section on how the story might best be performed, but this reads most frequently as a menu of many options rather than a definitive guide.
In his analysis, Boomershine calls attention to the manifold ways in which the Markan composer builds suspense to successive climaxes and offers the hope that Jesus’s life might be spared. Parts of the commentary mirror conventional commentary series in order to touch on significant issues in the text, and the author shines by explaining how modern translations often fail to take account for the performative aspects of the text, translating distinct periods and points of impact out into minor details overshadowed by long English sentences. At times, however, Boomershine’s preference for performative repetition disregards sound principles of textual criticism to argue, for example, for poorly attested variants that sound better in performance.
Boomershine peppers his commentary with unmistakable traces of an evangelical bent. As the very title of the volume demonstrates, the author regards the Markan Jesus as a nonviolent Messiah who both confounded the expectations of his disciples and, perhaps most significantly, presented a different way to respond to Roman aggression than was followed by the Judean leadership. At several junctures, Boomershine takes advantage of the dual meaning of lēstēs (insurrectionist or bandit, etc.) and its cognates and synonyms to describe the Temple as a fortress of warmaking during the war of 66-73 CE. This is in line with Josephus’s portrayal of the Temple during the war, and is perhaps most clear during Jesus’s arrest at Gethsemane when his question—“Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were an insurrectionist to capture me?” (Mk 14:48)—implicitly thrusts the charge of being a lēstēs onto his captors (133; 144). Beyond this construction of Jesus’s Messiahship, Boomershine emphasizes additional points, arguing, for example, against the “myth of redemptive violence” (242) and advocating for national investments in peacemaking and conflict resolution (362). Even if one agrees wholeheartedly on these matters, such statements reasonably cause the reader to wonder where the author’s personal commitments end and whether the cross-pollination of advocacy and scholarship constitutes the best foray into performance criticism. In spite of these worries, Boomershine’s analyses are highly academic, and the reader can appreciate the up-front admittance of the subjectivity of interpretation.
Though Boomershine privileges performance criticism as the unique contribution of his work, it yet suffers from a lack of clarity in its primary intention(s). Does the author, accounting for the performative nature of the text, intend to produce a definitive translation of the Passion-Resurrection Narrative? If so, one might question why at certain points he seems to advocate different translations for performance and for interpretation. Does he seek to aid would-be performers of the Gospel of Mark with instructions on how to best achieve the task? If so, he allows for a great deal of guesswork and leeway in the delivery of nearly every pericope, from tone and volume to gestures and on-stage movements. Does the author endeavor to establish a more authentic division of the Greek text into cola and periods than is supplied in the leading critical editions? If so, despite an appendix that contains some of the methodology underlying his sound map of the Markan text, a full accounting of the scholarship supporting this will not be found here. Or, finally, does he intend to advance the interpretation of Jesus as a nonviolent Messiah, distinguishing him, in the construction of the Markan author, from the ill-fated ideology of the Judean leadership which is blamed for the disastrous outcome of the Jewish-Roman War? Boomershine readily concedes the “profoundly political” nature of his work, and this is a central theme of the commentary, but that said, it remains to be seen why the burgeoning approach of performance criticism would be the most appropriate venue to accomplish this.
Invariably, new exegetical methods purveyed for the first time simultaneously bear fruit and expose kinks. As with any commentary, one will find aspects that aid interpretation and others that distract from the course. But Boomershine best succeeds by calling a discipline infatuated by textuality to reckon with issues surrounding the performative nature of a story that, before becoming text, persisted by word of mouth in an overwhelmingly oral culture. Exegetes of Mark’s Passion-Resurrection Narrative will be forced to interact with this new analysis, adding performativity to the litany of criticisms through which to guide interpretation. Upon reading Boomershine’s impressive work, one yearns for an application of performance criticism to the preceding thirteen chapters of Mark, and might additionally be encouraged to take up the performance of the Passion-Resurrection Narrative to its worthwhile interpretive ends for himself or herself.
Although engagement with Boomershine’s commentary may not be enough to convince the guild broadly that Mark was composed in performance before its broader distribution in written format, with the additional groundwork of Antoinette Clark Wire’s volume in the same Biblical Performance Criticism Series, one can imagine the seeds of a pan-Synoptic theory whereby Mark fulfills the needs of the gospel’s performance while remaining unsuitable for the comparatively elite, literary purposes of subsequent evangelists. When searches for Mark’s sources are often found grasping at ghosts, composition in performance and other methods that highlight the orality/aurality of the initial gospel may be our best route forward for fresh insights into the invention of the genre and the designs underlying the “greatest story ever told.”