Review: Tom Boomershine, The Messiah of Peace

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.

Cascade Books (Wipf & Stock), 2015

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.

YouTube Channel GoTellStory: Tom Boomershine performing Mark 14-16 in English

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.”

Review: Acts of the Apostles and the Rhetoric of Roman Imperialism

Note: This review was originally published in April 2019 as a Book Note for Ancient Jew Review. However, a revamp of their website has apparently swallowed up the Book Note, which has been saved only via the Wayback Machine. For preservation purposes, I am reposting it here.


     Drew W. Billings. Acts of the Apostles and the Rhetoric of Roman Imperialism. Cambridge Press, 2017.

Cambridge University Press, 2017

Trajan’s Column (completed in Rome around 113 CE) memorializes the Roman victory in the Dacian Wars of the prior decade, with a spiraling frieze that depicts over 150 scenes, ranging from battle and subjugation to mercy and infrastructure development, pictorially. In Acts of the Apostles and the Rhetoric of Roman Imperialism, Drew Billings places Emperor Trajan and the triumphal Column erected to honor his reign into conversation with the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles. Billings’ central assertion is that the Column constitutes a text against which the output of Acts’ author can be read, even to the extent that historiographically, methodologically, and stylistically, it “provides the closest nonverbal analogy to the book of Acts existing from antiquity” (p. 27).

Underpinning the study’s central arguments, however, are larger debates about Acts’ date of composition and disposition toward the Roman Empire. Billings dismisses one common dating of 80–90 CE as “nothing other than a scholarly compromise” between those who regard its author as an eyewitness to events of the 50s and 60s CE and those who would place the book later (p. 12). Without engaging at length with scholars preferring an even later post-Marcionic date, Billings locates Acts as a product of Trajan’s reign (98–117 CE) and its attendant multimedia culture. Turning to the author of Acts’ attitude toward Rome, he suggests that attempts to portray the text as univocally for or against Empire are inadequate. Billings instead characterizes the author—whom he regards as the “Luke” also responsible for the Third Gospel (p. 1)—as largely ambivalent. He actively participates in the Trajanic discourse about idealized imperial citizenship, leadership, and benefaction while imitating or hybridizing imperial methods of representation to write Christians and particularly its Apostle to the Gentiles into a position of acceptance and status (pp. 162-3). Successful argumentation on these questions would add fresh affirmation to the early second-century dating for Acts advanced on other compelling grounds by, for example, the late Richard Pervo and the Acts Seminar.

Trajan’s Column, Rome
Livioandronico2013, CC BY-SA 4.0,
via Wikimedia Commons

The first chapter lays the foundation for the comparison of Acts and Trajan’s Column. For Billings, both “texts” venerate their male heroes in a continuous narrative style, with windows toward reality shaped by significant verisimilitude and the use of encomia to inspire praise, wonder, and imitation. While Acts and, to a lesser extent, the Column of Trajan have both been read historically as preserving an authentic record of events, Billings encourages readers to view Acts more in line with the propagandistic shaping of memory found in monumental historiography. A preliminary discussion of the Column of Trajan establishes its memorializing aims centered around the civilizing mission of the imperiumin general, and the benevolence of Trajan specifically. By comparison, Acts is interpreted as “a carefully crafted apostolic monument put in the service of early Christian self-fashioning” (p. 17).

Billings often analyzes specific depictions from the frieze, featuring Roman soldiers, captured Dacians, or Trajan himself. The relevance of these visual data to Acts’ representation of leadership, benefaction, women, and so on, may raise concerns. After all, standing at a height of 35 meters, the Column is hardly a readable “text.” Fortunately, Billings nowhere imagines the author of Acts directly transferring themes from the Column to his work. Instead, Acts is fashioned to participate in the expression of imperial rhetoric and ideals illustrated in an exemplary format on the Column, but not unique to its “text.” One could extend Billings’ argument by employing a greater diversity of such monumental “source texts,” but his prioritization of the Column is very clearly tied to his dating of Acts and developments observable during the reign of Trajan (p. 190).

The second chapter treats Trajan himself, focusing on how local benefactors throughout the provinces increasingly emulated the emperor’s virtues. In imperial rhetoric and self-representation, Trajan’s administration projected the values of generosity, liberality, and munificence. Billings notes that the emperor’s carefully crafted image as euergetes trickled down to shape practices of self-styling “as local versions of the emperor” (p. 70). Meanwhile, official imperial projects in the provinces focused on extending infrastructural expertise outward from Rome, but Trajan’s success in the region of Dacia also conferred benefits for the capital, inspiring a period of urban renovation and building projects that testified to the greatness of the Empire.

Shifting from Trajan to Paul, Billings’ third chapter engages Paul’s activity in the provinces according to Acts—in Lystra, Ephesus, and Malta—and demonstrates how his dispensation of miracles shares the benefaction of God to new locales. The Paul of Acts thus conforms to the second-century emperor’s imitable example, and furthermore, comfortably associates in circles with Roman officials, governors, and soldiers, who consistently find no fault with him. Billings asserts that Paul’s provincial deeds qualify him as a model citizen, all the while bracketing the veracity of Paul’s Roman citizenship. Absent some remarkable epigraphic discovery, he notes that there is little new to offer on the matter other than reiterating that Paul’s supposed Roman citizenship is crucial to Luke’s narrative, shaping both its account of Paul’s later travel to Rome and its portrait of Paul as an idealized herald of divine benefits made available to far-off lands. Connected to Trajan’s example and the significance of euergetism during his reign, Paul’s healings and miracles indicate narrative investment in a consciously developed “trans-regional patronage network” precisely at a time when an expansionist empire increasingly promoted such benefactions (pp. 119, 127). Christianity, and Paul in particular, are thus construed as exemplary participants in the ideals of Roman society.

Two further chapters extend Billings’ analysis, detailing Luke’s adoption of Roman anti-Jewish rhetoric and his presentation of masculinity in Acts. In a period when Roman authors portrayed Christians and Jews alike as deviants and undesirables, Luke willingly tapped into this rhetoric of misanthropy and in-group behavior for “the Jews” while seeking to exonerate Christians. Jews, for example, appear in the narrative as Paul’s primary opponents, and wield mob power even in places, like Thessalonica (Acts 17), where they were certainly a minority. Billings furthermore contends that Roman anti-Judaism reached a pinnacle during Trajan’s reign (pp. 147-9), and claims that Luke’s expansions on this theme represent an indisputable example of early Christian acquiescence to imperial rhetoric. Finally, though Luke-Acts stands apart from other Christian literature for the frequent appearance of women, he argues that their subtle disqualification from positions of leadership or speech reinforces male power—like images from Trajan’s Column, where expressionless women represent the pacification of the provinces. Men are instead the appropriate, divinely appointed leaders and virtuous guarantors of women’s peace and security. Luke actively suppresses observable examples of women connected to Paul serving in prominent roles in the early decades of the Jesus movement, and instead subjugates women through his exclusionary narrative (pp. 186-8).

Though recent decades of scholarship have questioned the historicity of Acts, scholars working on this text often express a near-universal appreciation for Luke’s literary achievements. In this same vein, Acts of the Apostles and the Rhetoric of Roman Imperialism focuses on “representational choices” made in the active shaping of memory (p. 52), calling to attention its author’s awareness and employment of imperial rhetoric in fashioning his narrative. It also propounds a new “source text” through which we can filter and comprehend the appearance of Luke’s second volume. Perhaps most importantly, by contextualizing Luke’s work and especially the portrait of Paul vis-à-vis the reign of Trajan, Billings contributes to a growing scholarly case for the Book of Acts as a composition of the second decade of the second century. As a result, the case for Acts as a first-century production, whether near the life of Paul or some decades later, rests on increasingly untenable ground. Billings’ convincing argumentation carries important implications not only for the dating of Acts and the historical caliber of its narrative, but also for the elusive nature of Christianity’s disorderly first century and—if the two books emanate from the same “Lukan” hand—for the Third Gospel as well.