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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 57, 2009

BRENDAN BYRNE, A Costly Freedom: A Theological Reading of Mark’s Gospel (Strathfield, NSW: St Pauls, 2008). Pp. xx + 283. Paper. $A29.95.

A Costly Freedom is the third study of the Synoptic Gospels by Brendan Byrne, in a style directed to non-specialists while providing further scholarly discussion and reading in the footnotes. As with his earlier studies, this book is a sensitively written exposition of Mark’s Gospel bringing together exegesis, theological interpretation and a pastoral approach suggesting how Gospel passages can be Good News for Christian communities today. The combination of critical scholarship and pastoral concerns provides an excellent example of what the 2008 Roman Synod on the Word of God termed a “theological-spiritual reading” of the Gospel. The text is in the usual style of a commentary in that is begins with general introductory issues such as the historical context and authorship followed by an exposition of the Markan text in narrative sequence.

In the introductory material Byrne provides a synthesis of Jewish apocalyptic thought as background to understanding what is meant by the Kingdom. This explanation provides a necessary key for interpreting the many conflict stories in Mark as an indication of a deeper, cosmic conflict between God and the powers of Evil. This conflict will liberate humanity from the dominion of the Evil One, but this liberation is won a great cost, as the title suggests. Byrne presents the overall design of the gospel in terms of three interacting stories. The first story involves the gradual identification of Jesus as the Messiah inaugurating the new reign of God, recognised and opposed by demonic powers and finally acknowledged by Peter at Caesarea Philippi (8:22). The second story which follows Peter’s declaration, involves the clarification that Jesus’ messianic program involves suffering and death. The third story transcends the narrative time in that it involves the future vindication and glorification of the Son of Man in his return as the eschatological judge. The third story is a unique insight and offers an explanation of the very brief Markan resurrection narrative which ends abruptly and without any appearance stories.

Throughout this book Byrne guides the reader to understand the narrative flow by providing diagrams and explanations of Mark’s structural techniques of intercalations and summaries. Taking such narrative strategies as clues, Byrne structures the gospel in eight major sections: A prologue (1:1–13), Early Galilean Ministry (1:14–3:6), Later Galilean Ministry (3:7–6:6a), Jesus Extends his Mission (6:6b–8:21) the Messiah on the ‘Way’ to Jerusalem (8:22–10:52), the Messiah in Jerusalem (11:1–13:37), Jesus’ Passion and Death (14:1–15:47) and Epilogue (16:1–8). Each of these large sections has further sub-sections.

In this brief review I will comment on some of the highlights of my reading. In the early Galilee sections, Byrne discusses some of the more troubling passages such as the lack of understanding of Jesus’ natural family, including Mary, and what seems like God’s will that some not understand (4:12). His thoughtful explanations shed light on these difficult texts. In discussing the parables, Byrne comments on the allegorisation that takes place in the Gospel in Jesus’ private explanation of the parable to his disciples. Here, he briefly notes the distinction between the parable in the life of Jesus and its later use within the Christian community.

The section 4:35–6:6a is linked under the title, “Jesus Displays the Power of the Kingdom,” as he confronts and vanquishes demonic rule in nature (4:35–41), possession (5:1–20), illness (5:25–34) and death (21–24, 35–43). I found this a helpful framework for grouping these particular miracles. Byrne’s rich exegesis of these passages continues to demonstrate how the Markan narrative works to convey its theological purpose by the many allusions to OT passages and symbols familiar to a first century audience. Footnotes provide links to further discussion allowing Byrne’s argument to develop with clarity and coherence. The next section, where Jesus’ ministry is extended to gentiles (6:6b–8:21) is indicated by the summary statement in 6:6b. Once again, Byrne demonstrates the theological depth and narrative skill of the evangelist and avoids simplistic literal approaches to the two bread miracles. A particularly difficult passage about Jesus’ teaching on divorce is discussed with deep pastoral sensitivity to the 21st century church context.

Across the entire gospel, and especially in the Passion narrative, Byrne continues to place Jesus’ teaching and ministry in its first century apocalyptic context of God’s final confrontation with the power of Evil. This cosmic theological perspective gives Byrne’s commentary a particular coherence and depth. This is a book I thoroughly recommend for parish discussion groups and as a very readable class textbook for college students.

Review by
Mary Coloe
School of Theology
Australian Catholic University, Melbourne