In a time of rapid globalization, scholars are quickly needing to push aside ethnocentric views of both history and theology and reinspect old prejudices in light of new findings. Thomas C. Oden, author of The African Memory of Mark, seeks to do just that in this new release from IVP Academic.
Oden sets out to construct a biography of John Mark using African sources from the early church as his guide. In this way, he hopes to advance both church history and biblical studies. The results are refreshing and courageous. Oden proposes some fairly radical things. He argues that John Mark and Peter may have been distantly related. Likewise, he proposes that the upper room where the disciples had their last feast was owned by John Mark's parents. Similarly, he proposes a radical re-reading of traditional history in regards to John Mark's own location during the events of Acts. Rather than seeing Mark as a somewhat quiet figure in the Bible, Oden suggests that Mark was active and courageous in his proclamation of the Gospel.
The reader will be struck by these radical readings of the history of Mark. The question is, are they persuasive? This question is much more difficult to answer because they lie, says Oden, in how one views the original sources. Oden argues against Bauer and attempts to reinstate trust in the original sources--primarily the African sources. Often we, in our modern "enlightened" mindset, think we can reconstruct history better than the early church fathers themselves. Oden, as one might guess, opts for an honest reading of the fathers--one that takes them both truthfully and seriously. He allows for the possibility that the "legends" behind some of Mark's miracles (such as the conversion of his father) was not in fact legend but truth. Thus I would label Oden as optimistic and hopeful when it comes to early church history and the reliability of sources.
To answer the question above--is Oden persuasive?--the simple answer is: sort of. As one might guess, much of Oden's arguments are based off hypothesis and theoretical possibilities. How much weight one will assign to any conclusions Oden makes will be based upon whether they think Oden is theorizing too much. Personally, I found his arguments plausible. The author himself is tentative in proposing too much and acknowledges when he might be stretching things a bit. At the end of the day, I felt his book was more to win over my trust in the early church fathers than it was to really educate me on Mark (although I learned quite a bit in the process).
Perhaps the greatest thing that Oden's book does is give voice to the often marginalized African church. This is a book that should both excite and encourage young African theologians! They have a great legacy and much to contribute to theology. The job of the Western Church now is to have ears to hear.
*Thanks to IVP for providing a free review copy in exchange for an unbiased review*