Icon, St. Mark the Evangelist by Emmanuel Tzanes (1657)
Mark’s Portrait of the Jesus and the World He Lived in Part 5: Structure and Reading in Light of the Cross
This final entry on these windows into how Mark presents Jesus and his world to us deals with two large topics which could consume a lot of space on their own right, but since these are designed more as an introduction to the way Mark presents Jesus and his world they will be shown briefly as a way to suggest some further work. When we look at the Bible in general and the sixty six books that make up the canon of many people’s Bibles if we pay attention we realize that the people who composed the scriptures do not tell stories the way that we tell stories. In the modern world, stories are written for the eyes and paper is cheap (and digital print is nearly free). We live in a literate, or as some would argue post-literate culture. We live in a culture where literacy in at least one language is assumed, where education is available for men and women to be able to read and write at some level of proficiency and where information is available on diverse platforms and especially with the advent of the internet and digital connectivity we are able to access a wide variety of media from a variety of perspectives with very little effort compared to previous times and places. With the easy accessibility of the written word, some would argue we have even gone as far as living in a post-literate culture where everyone has the ability to read but due to the increasingly visual nature of communication many people no longer utilize their literacy to be a primary source of information but instead rely upon the continual availability of visual media to be their source of information to interpret their world. Regardless of whether we live in a literate or post-literate world we live in a far different world than the world of the writers of scripture, like the Gospel of Mark.
The Gospel of Mark is written to an aural culture (aural having to do with the ear). Most people in the time of Mark’s gospel would not be highly literate or have access to written texts. One of the reasons the scribes receive the highlighting they do in the gospels is that they are among those religious and political elites that were both literate and had access to the written texts. Visual images were present in the time of the gospels but they were permanent, and they would be placed onto stones or coins where they would combine physical images with textual information so that information could be communicated that way, but to lock in images this way was costly and time consuming. These images did not change and became a static part of people’s environment. Most information was communicated by speaking and in ancient cultures they had ears to hear far better than we did. They would be familiar, for example with large pieces of Torah or the prophets or the Psalms being read and or sung. They were able to listen for longer periods of time than we are used to listening for and they also knew how to structure speech so that it could be remembered. That does not mean that written texts were not consulted, merely that people’s memories also became saturated with the images of scriptures and the stories they heard primarily through the spoken word. When you are telling a spoken story, you tell it differently if you want people to remember the details and Mark’s Gospel is an excellent example of an aural piece of literature, a piece of work that is written more for the ear and less for the eye.
When you tell an aural story you don’t spend all of your time on details, you allow the person hearing the story to fill in the details of the world. When we read a novel, for example, we expect the author to narrate for us a description of the world and to paint us a picture with words about how something looked, tasted, smelled, sounded like, felt like, what feelings it evoked in the person and more. If you read the Biblical stories they are incredibly short when they give descriptions and when they do it is something to pay attention to. Mark is incredibly terse in how he tells his story, but it is also designed to be able to be memorized by a storyteller and told over and over again. The telling of Mark’s gospel takes about two hours from beginning to end and was memorable enough to still be referred to over 2,000 years later.
Structure in Mark’s Story
Mark uses structure in a lot of ways to propel the story along. Sometimes Mark wants people to hear a linkage between various events and so uses shared vocabulary to link one event to another. And example of this is the linkage between the baptism story in Mark and the crucifixion story where the temple veil is torn. Mark uses a very unusual word for this- schizomenous a word that only appears twice in the New Testament and both occurrences are in Mark. Schizomenous refers to an irreparably tearing, the beginning of the work is where we get schizophrenia from, and it occurs on the front end of the story in the baptism with the heavens being ripped apart and at the end of the story where the temple veil is torn apart forming a linkage between the two event. Hearing this unusual word could create in the hearers a sense of wonder at the connection between the crucifixion and the baptism, between the temple veil and the veil of heaven and what it means that they are both now ripped apart. Through something as simple as shared vocabulary Mark is able to make a profound linkage between two events that a casual reader may miss.
Mark has a distinctive vocabulary as well that pushes the narrative along and like most storytellers has words that speed up the narrative or slow it down. Characteristic of Mark is the tendency to drive the narrative quickly, particularly with the word euthus, which is frequently translated immediately or at that time (which doesn’t carry the same level of urgency that the word is trying to convey.) Mark wants us to understand that things are happening quickly in this narrative and the terse manner of storytelling compels this even faster.
Mark also uses geographical features to give structure to the story. This not only helps in remembering the story by forming inclusions, it also links the stories together in very interesting linguistic ways. For example in Mark 4. 35-51 Jesus stills the storm as they journey across the water to Gerasene and in Mark 6. 45-52 Jesus now walks on water while the disciples are on the journey to Geneserret. The linkage in the two stories of wondering who then is this Jesus also brackets a section where this question comes up again, but the section ends with the disciples not understanding and their hearts being hardened. In a similar way mountain scenes tend to reveal, although in sometimes hidden ways who Jesus is: for example Jesus goes up a mountain to set aside the 12 apostles, later going up to the mountain to be transfigured before Peter, James and John. At times the mountains point back to times in the story of Israel, like the temple mount with Solomon or the Mount of Olives with David entering from that direction, other times the connection is less concrete as the hill of Golgotha is contrasted with the Temple mount and yet in many respects for Mark’s Gospel Golgatha comes to occupy the space of the temple mount and becomes the place where the disciples flee from but the Transfiguration in reinterpreted.
Sometimes Mark will use similar stories to form an inclusion, a set of brackets to what is within and the transition to what is to come. For example there are two feeding stories in Mark, the feeding of the 5,000 in Mark 6. 30-42 and the feeding of 4,000 in Mark 8.1-10 and could be looked at like this:
Feeding 5, 000
Jesus walks on water
Jesus heals sick in Gennesaret
What makes clean and unclean
Healing of Syrophonecian’s daughter
Healing of the deaf man
Now a lot more could be gone into with the breaking down and highlighting of how this structure is highlighting different parts of the story and how they go together but at the center of the story is a question about what is unclean and clean and it is surrounded by stories where Jesus heals and while the disciples do not understand the deaf man is enabled to hear. Another example is the use of healing of blind men in 8.22-26 and 10.46-52 to mark the beginning and end of a section on the disciples seeing and not seeing before transitioning into the crucifixion narrative.
Mark is a master storyteller and uses all sorts of structural elements to add flavor to his terse story and to evoke from that structure and highlights a broader story of God and God’s people that the story is a part of. Mark may focus primarily on what Jesus does, but in what is said and what is alluded to he also wants us to enter into the mystery of who Jesus is. It is a tightly woven story with many linkages and often there is benefit from both the wide reading of the entire narrative as well as paying close attention to the individual pieces that compose the narrative quilt.
Reading Backwards from the Crucifixion
Reproduction of Carl Heinrich Bloch’s, Christ on the Cross (1870)
Mark has been called a crucifixion narrative with an extended prologue, and six of the sixteen chapters of Mark deal with the final week of Jesus’ life. There are a variety of ways that the New Testament talks about the crucifixion, many times they want to explain what is happening in the crucifixion but Mark at best alludes to this and is much more interested in narrating the journey to the cross and beyond. Mark does not engage in any discussion about atonement theology or Jesus dying for our sins, in fact the closest he comes to that is in Mark 10.45 where he states “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus goes to a Roman cross, rejected by the leaders of the temple and executed as a low class political prisoner and Mark’s narrative understands the scandal of the crucifixion for the early followers of Christ in the Roman world but Mark also doesn’t back away from this part of the story, instead the rest of the story only makes sense in light of the crucifixion.
Beginning at the midpoint of the story in chapter 8, Jesus begins to tell his disciples that he is going to be rejected by the elders, the chief priest and the scribes and be killed (see Mark 8.31, 9.31 and 10.33). Even before we arrive in the story in Jerusalem we are told over and over again where the story is going. Once in Jerusalem we encounter a story that is full of scriptural, political and religious overtones. Jesus enters Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives, the way that David had entered the city in celebration in a way that intentionally echoes Zechariah 9.9, as the peaceful king who arrives on the donkey rather than the warhorse. It also has political implications as it implicitly mocks not only the pretensions of Kings like Herod Antipas in Jesus time, who ruled in Galilee, or Pontus Pilate and by extension Caesar. Jesus immediately challenges the temple hierarchy and much of the story over the preceeding chapters (Mark 11 and 12) involves the various groups trying to shame Jesus and separate him from his authority with the crowds. Mark links a group of passages around money with the story of the widows mite leading into a long statement about times to come (and particularly the destruction of the temple) with another anonymous woman who anoints Jesus with very costly ointment of nard (and how that money could have been used) and then Judas being offered money to betray Jesus. These stories link together suggestively and it is an interesting contrast between the anonymous women and the infamous disciple but they stop short of being declarative. We, for example, are never given by Mark a reason why Judas betrays Jesus, although the other gospels will supply us with different reasons. The Passover meal that Jesus shares with his disciples becomes a new covenant and a new meal to be done to tell again a different and new story of God’s deliverance of God’s people. Playing with the resonant images of the festival Mark paints a powerful picture of what is getting ready to occur as we approach the crucifixion, although again in a suggestive and mysterious way.
Jesus again takes Peter, and James and John, like in the transfiguration, to Gethsemane and the three disciples again are unable to respond faithfully. The location links it back to the times when Jesus is declared the beloved Son and it is contrasted with the Father who does not respond to the prayer for the cup to be removed. Again, suggestively the language of cup also links back to the language of the meal where the cup is the blood of the covenant. Jesus is betrayed and taken into custody by the ominous crowd bearing clubs and swords and put on the stand for blasphemy. This is only a trial in the loosest of terms, but in the midst of the trial what has been hidden is made known when Jesus claims in front of the elders, the chief priests and the scribes his identity in terms of the words of Daniel 7 as the son of man. Jesus is handed over to Pilate and the charge against him becomes a political one, he is crucified as king of the Jews and a freedom fighter names Barabbas is released in his place. It is an interesting note that Barabbas means son of the father, and so one obedient Son of the Father is rejected for a rebellious one.
The crucifixion narrative itself is often misunderstood in popular portrayals because of the excessive focus on the flogging. The flogging and the mocking by the soldiers is more to dishonor the person than to weaken them, the Romans wanted their victims not to be too weakened otherwise they would die too quickly on the cross. Crucifixion was a slow and agonizing way to die as the body fights against the limits of pain and suffocation. The people who were crucified where stripped and placed up as examples of what the cost of defying Rome was and not only were their bodies tortured by the long and painful process of crucifixion their honor was to die as well. Yet, in classic Markan irony it is from the mocking mouths of many of those around the cross that truth is said. Even the final statement from the centurion that , “Truly this man was God’s Son!” could be read as a final ironic (but true)mockery or an unexpected statement of faith from an enemy (much like the demons or the Syro-Phonecian woman). Mark brings us into the mystery of this God forsaken moment and invites us to wonder once again about the mystery of who this Jesus is, and is Jesus separated from God, is Jesus taking on the role of Israel, what is the linkage between these words of Psalm 22 spoken from the cross to the promised presence of God. Mark does not present nice easy answers, but invites us to go back to the story again and wonder who this Jesus is and what the kingdom of God means. By linking the crucifixion and the baptism we wonder again about this ‘Beloved son’ also being the forsaken one. We are invited into a mystery where words fail us and the truth can overwhelm us.
Mark leaves the story on an unsettled note, an unsettled resurrection where the women flee in terror and amazement and say nothing to anyone for they were afraid. Perhaps this ending reflects the ongoing nature of the story in the Markan communities, or the inability to put into words the mystery that they were a part of. Perhaps we are called to go back to the Transfiguration where the Peter, and James and John are terrified, or in the boat where Jesus passes by and tells them not to be afraid, or when the storm has subsided and they are in great awe. To me Mark asks us to go back to story after story and to wonder again, ‘Who then is this Jesus and what is this kingdom of God that has come near.’ What words can we use to describe this mystery and do we dare state what seems to be a reality that somehow in this Jesus that God has come down to be among us in the most unusual and unexpected of ways? Mark’s story point to the crucifixion and the crucifixion and resurrection points us back to re-enter the story and see things with eyes that can see and to hear it with ears that can hear.