The Gospel of Mark: A Beginner’s Guide to the Good News, by Amy-Jill Levine

Review by Russ Resnik

Amy-Jill (“AJ”) Levine is a prominent scholar and academic, Professor of New Testament Studies Emerita at Vanderbilt University, the first Jew to teach New Testament at Rome’s Pontifical Biblical Institute, and coeditor of the Jewish Annotated New Testament. In recent years, she has produced a number of popular and accessible studies in the Gospels, each subtitled A Beginner’s Guide to _____. Her latest contribution to this series, The Gospel of Mark: A Beginner’s Guide to the Good News, is notable for readers of Kesher because Levine combines a thoroughly Jewish perspective on “the earliest of the extant Gospels”1 with a deep respect and sensitivity toward the text itself.

This sensitivity yields fresh and fruitful insights throughout, and also reflects the typical Jewish approach of remaining open to various interpretations in exploring the deep implications of the text. Accordingly, the Guide doesn’t seek to resolve all of the hermeneutic and theological questions it raises, but allows the reader to process them and go on learning. I capitalize Guide here to reflect the book’s subtitle and also to highlight its general approach as a handbook to lead the reader into a deeper experience and appreciation of Mark. The term “Guide” also avoids the perhaps more expected term, “Commentary,” and it’s a virtue of the book to provide a level of accessibility and real-life relevance not always available in more traditional commentaries. It’s also an honest statement of the book’s limitations: it doesn’t cover every scene in Mark or examine every issue of interpretation. Rather, it follows the course of Mark’s narrative to select events and teachings that are particularly relevant in a guidebook to the Good News — for beginners as well as the more advanced.

Because of Levine’s staunchly Jewish perspective and deep regard for the text, her guide is essential for anyone reading or interpreting Mark’s Gospel. Some examples from Mark 1 illustrate Levine’s unique perspective and poignancy.

Mark 1:9–11

John is preaching a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sins, and a reader, especially one familiar with other New Testament texts like Hebrews 4:15, might wonder why Yeshua undergoes baptism — did he sin or not? Levine suggests a third option to explain Jesus’s baptism:

Jewish life then, and now, is communitarian. On the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), we pray: “forgive us. . . .” The “Our Father” (note that “our”!) prayer includes the verse, “Forgive us our” debts, sins, trespasses — all are viable readings. Atoning in the plural, as being a member of a community means that one person’s sin impacts the many. Even if we were not personally responsible for committing a particular sin, we still atone as a community. By accepting John’s baptism, Jesus can be seen as accepting his role as a part of the human community. He also sets an example for his followers.2

Mark 1:10–12

When Yeshua comes out of the waters of baptism, he “immediately” sees the heavens ripped or split apart in the first of forty-two appearances of the Greek word euthus in Mark, followed by a second appearance two verses later when the Spirit “immediately” drives Yeshua into the wilderness. The frequent use of this simple word gives the whole Gospel a sense of urgency: “repent now, decide now, act now.” Levine continues:

After two thousand years-plus, the idea of imminent in-breaking of the kingdom of God may seem exaggerated. It should not. It is never too late; it is always the right time to repent. As Rabbi Eliezer says in Pirke Avot 2:10 (Ethics of the Fathers, a tractate in the Mishnah), “repent [Hebrew: shuv, as in teshuvah) one day before your death.” We contact the people with whom we need to reconcile; we apologize for the harmful comment or the failure to send a greeting or a get-well wish; we live as if what we do matters. And it does.3

It’s quite a commentary on Mark’s well-known use of euthus, immediately/straightaway, striking in its mobilization of a related Jewish text and in its bold connection to our current circumstances. Rather than arguing for Yeshua’s Jewishness, Levine simply embraces and runs with it, an approach that is both highly effective and distinctly Jewish, searching the text for real-life ethical relevance.

Mark 1:16–20

A third example of this approach comes after the baptism scene, as Yeshua begins his ministry in Galilee by calling the fishermen Simon and his brother Andrew. Levine comments, “Underlying the call is Jeremiah 16:16, where God announces, I am now sending for many fishermen. . . .” She notes that the fisherman James “(actually, the Greek reads ‘Jacob’) and John follow suit (1:19), as they leave their father and follow Jesus.”4

In many years of reading both texts, I had never connected Yeshua’s calling of the fisherman at the outset of his ministry with Jeremiah’s prophecy of God sending for fishermen and later hunters. It’s a midrashic sort of connection that helps the reader understand Yeshua’s ensuing ministry more fully, and again illustrates the richness of Levine’s Jewish approach.


At the same time, these examples also reveal the inevitable limitations of the compact guidebook approach, as much as it also has to commend it. It would seem worth a few more words to point out that Jeremiah’s fisherman are mobilized to search out the errant people of Israel and bring them back (the Hebrew employs that shuv root again) to their own land (Jer 16:14–15). Yeshua’s fisherman are likewise mobilized, at least at first, within Israel and for the purpose of returning errant Israel to God’s promises.

The same limitation applies to my first example above, Levine’s comments on Yeshua undergoing John’s “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). Yeshua may not need forgiveness, but he undergoes baptism in solidarity with his people, just as we confess sins on Yom Kippur that we might not have personally committed, but in solidarity with all Israel. Levine comments here: “Jesus can be seen as accepting his role as a part of the human community. He also sets an example for his followers.”5 But the Yom Kippur analogy suggests that Jesus is first accepting his role as part of all Israel. The universal application comes later.

Both these examples point to the motif of Yeshua as living and serving within Israel, fulfilling Israel’s calling, and bearing Israel as his people toward its prophetic destiny. Levine consistently reveals Yeshua’s Jewishness in a wide variety of ways, but this foundational theme doesn’t receive as much attention as it might.

An additional limitation of the guidebook approach is evident in its treatment of Mark 1:4 — “John . . . was proclaiming a baptism of repentance regarding the forgiving of sins.” Levine notes,

Many commentaries suggest that John is engaging in an anti-Temple protest by taking away the priests’ monopoly on granting forgiveness. According to this reading, one need not go to the Temple or pay for a sacrifice; one only needed to go to John, whose penitence is cost free.

However, as Levine continues, citing Romans 9:4 and Acts 21:26, “None of Jesus’s followers, as far as we know, rejected Temple worship.”6 It’s an important point, especially in a Messianic Jewish context, but the reader would benefit from a citation of at least a few of the “many commentaries” that suggest an anti-Temple protest. I didn’t find that sort of interpretation in the widely-used commentaries of R.T. France, Joel Marcus, or William Lane, for example.7

Arguing with the Text

As part of her unique approach, Levine takes the liberty to disagree with Mark and, assuming Mark’s depiction of Yeshua is accurate, even with the Master himself. For example, she takes exception to the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Mark 12:1–12), which is often interpreted allegorically, with the tenants representing Yeshua’s opponents in the Jewish establishment. “It is to them, as the current representatives of Israel’s leadership through the centuries, that the vineyard has been entrusted, and it is they who face dispossession and punishment.”8 Or as The Jewish Annotated New Testament (coedited by Levine) presents it, “Some Christian traditions see Jesus’ parable as announcing the replacement of Judaism by the church.”9 Levine announces that she doesn’t like the parable, although she initially objects not to the story itself, but to those who historically misinterpret it.

They saw the parable supporting the claim that the promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob shifted from the Jewish people to the Gentile church. This interpretation, known as replacement theology or hard supersessionism, makes God unfaithful, ignores the sins of the church over the past two millennia, and counters the teachings of Jesus and Paul. We can do better.10

From there, Levine goes on to argue with the parable itself, not just its interpreters. As the landowner continues to send messengers to the recalcitrant tenants, she says, “At this point in the parable, I want the owner to stop sending enslaved representatives; I want the tenants to stop torturing and killing.”11 Then, when the owner sends his son to collect what is due from the tenants, thinking they will respect him, Levine pushes back again.

The absurdity of sending the Son (capital S) when the enslaved emissaries are abused only makes sense if we think of all these brutalized messengers as indicative of God’s consistent outreach and, so, mercy. Even here I find myself frustrated: rather than continually send prophets, only to have them ignored if not worse, I’d prefer a direct divine intervention.12

Toward the end of her critique, Levine reveals that she has a problem with Mark, not just his interpreters, because he perceives the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE as the “result of the killing of Jesus. It’s an easy step from here to the charge against Jews of being Christ-killers. This is not a step I want to make.”13 Instead, Levine raises questions that might arise from a non-allegorical reading of the parable and that would reflect the teachings of Yeshua. Can the tenants repent and be forgiven? Can we see the parable as a criticism of any institution that chooses violence rather than other options to resolve conflict? With each step the owner or the tenants take, we might ask what other steps can be taken.

Such a reading seems to ignore the immediate context of Mark, and yet it does invoke the broader vision of Yeshua. It’s also valuable to interpreters who might not draw on such interpretations directly, but can question a simplistic or rigidly allegorical reading of this story, as of any of Yeshua’s teachings, that somehow overlooks the compassion of Yeshua himself.

Another virtue of the “Beginner’s Guide” is that it often raises questions and even challenges Mark, not from the perspective of enlightened modernity or postmodernity, but from the perspective of Yeshua’s own teachings.


Serious students of Scripture shouldn’t be put off by the “Beginner’s Guide” framing of this commentary. It has much to commend it and provides a rich resource for sermonizing and group study, particularly in Messianic Jewish circles. Mark opens his account, “The beginning of the Good News of Yeshua the Messiah, the Son of God.” The “beginner” terminology therefore may be especially fitting in the study of Mark, which is often misunderstood as a simple and rudimentary Gospel, but which, as Levine helps us realize, is filled with profound relevance and pathways for exploration.

1 Amy-Jill Levine, The Gospel of Mark: A Beginner’s Guide to the Good News (Nashville: Abingdon, 2023).

2 Levine, 9.

3 Levine, 11.

4 Levine, 12–13.

5 Levine, 9.

6 Levine, 6.

7 R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2002); Joel Marcus, Mark 1–8: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 27, Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008); William L. Lane. The Gospel according to Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974).

8 France, 458.

9 The Jewish Annotated New Testament, Second Edition, eds. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 95.

10 Levine, 97.

11 Levine, 102.

12 Levine, 102–03.

13 Levine, 104.