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The Narrative Shape of Mark

August 3, 2010

In my essay “The Women, the Tomb, and the Climax of Mark” (manuscript of the published version on the “Essays, etc” page of this site), one of the cited studies that has not been sufficiently noticed is an essay by the Canadian scholar Philip G. Davis (University of Prince Edward Island):   Philip G. Davis, “Christology, Discipleship, and Self-Understanding in the Gospel of Mark,” in Self-Definition and Self-Discovery in Early Christianity:  A Study in Shifting Horizons, Essays in Appreciation of Ben F. Meyer From His Former Students, ed. David J. Hawkin and Tom
Robinson (”Studies in Bible and Early Christianity,” 26; Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990), 101-19.

Davis’ intriguing observation (so far as I know, he was the first to make it) was that what may look like Markan “omissions” actually are deliberate, and for the author’s purpose of making the Jesus-story a blueprint for the intended Christian readers.  Here’s a key quote:

“Indeed, it is striking that many of the most notable Markan ‘omissions’ involve matters which are not susceptible of imitation, including the virginal conception and the pre-eschatological resurrection.  Mark’s whole story of Jesus can be read as a blueprint for the Christian life:   It begins with baptism, proceeds with the vigorous pursuit of ministry in the face of temptation and opposition, and culminates in suffering and death oriented towards an as-yet unseen vindication.” (p. 109)

I think it fits the Markan data nicely, and is what I think scientists mean by referring to an “elegant” hypothesis.

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18 Comments
  1. I still find it difficult to attribute the ‘anti-disciples’ thing in Mark 8-10 to Mark. The evidence from Luke seems very strong, coupled with the contents of this Lukan Omission material, to indicate that this is all foreign material to Mark’s gospel, at least as Luke knew it.

    The anti-(Jewish)-Inner Circle Disciple (apostle) attitude appears blatantly Samaritan (its in this inserted Samaritan section), and this provides both an adequate and hard to dismiss explanation for it.

    That is, the Samaritan editor couldn’t resist taking some shots at the Jewish disciples, especially given their bad performance in the Passion narrative. The dumping on them almost provides an excuse for their later failure, or an attempted explanation for it. (ignorance leads to denial).

    But the whole section is plainly fabricated, with a horribly unrealistic storyline (two Feedings?, “Don’t you understand?” – the what, mystical meaning of the numbers 12 and 7? This is pure Jewish-magician flakiness, amplified by a bad plotline).

    As an experiment, try reading Mark as Luke did, skipping the whole section which is non-Markan in the same way that 2nd Peter doesn’t look or sound anything like 1st Peter.

    peace
    Nazaroo

    • Well, the problems with your proposed “solution” are (1) the alleged “problems” aren’t necessarily there to solve, and (2) the proposed “solution” involves invoking a whole flotilla of hypothetical factors each of which is debatable and has no compelling basis. E.g., the two feedings are not a problem and have been quite adequately shown to fit within the Markan narrative aim: Robert M. Fowler, Loaves and Fishes: The Function of the Feeding Stories in the Gospel of
      Mark
      (Chico: Scholars Press, 1981). And, yes, the numbers are symbolic, as they were for a lot of people in the ancient world.

      Anyway, a blog site isn’t the place to work out and justify your proposal. Work it out, get it published properly, and let the scholarly world see what to make of it.

  2. Steven Carr permalink

    I forgot to ask if the centurion who saw Jesus die and proclaimed him the Son of God was also intended by Mark to be a model for how Christians should react when reading how Jesus died.

    • The centurion is actually a more ambiguous character in Mark. E.g., his “confession” is grammatically ambiguous: “this one was (a) son of God”. It’s not likely that the centurion was intended by the author as a role-model. Instead, he functions ironically (Mark’s passion account is full of irony), the officer in charge of crucifying Jesus dimly able to acknowledge his virtue.

  3. Steven Carr permalink

    In Mark, one of the disciples betrayed Jesus.

    Is this a very good example of what Mark thought Christian followers should never do?

    Mark 8:34
    Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.

    Simon of Cyrene literally picks up the cross and follows Jesus.

    Is this a pattern of discipleship?

    • In Mark, the twelve are often presented as not fully comprehending who Jesus really is, and in particular why he must suffer and die and be raised. There is a well-known e-fold cycle of Jesus predicting his death and resurrection, followed by disciples portrayed as misconceiving things, followed by Jesus teaching what discipleship involves, that runs through Mark 8–10. It appears that Mark uses the ancient literary device of disciples’ misunderstanding as a foil for the teacher/master to give and model the true teaching. The failure of the disciples is widely acknowledged by scholars as intended by the author to serve as warnings to readers. Other figures, such as Bartimaeus, the Syro-phoenician woman, the woman who anoints Jesus, etc., seem to function as contrasts hinting more positive examples. But Mark’s clear aim is to present Jesus as the true model and example for disciples.

      • Steven Carr permalink

        It is interesting that James 5 does not use Jesus as a blueprint

        ‘Brothers, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about.’

        And Hebrews 12:16 uses Esau as an examplar of somebody who betrayed something valuable for small gain.

        ‘See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son.’

        I wonder why Mark did not also use Old Testament figures as examples.

      • James does seem to most scholars to make use of Jesus-sayings (see the commentaries). And Hebrews does make much of Jesus as fully human and so the pioneer of salvation (Heb 2).
        Since Mark was writing a Jesus-book, that’s probably why he used Jesus as example and not some OT worthy.

  4. John Stackhouse permalink

    Thanks for highlighting this point. It dovetails with my own recent interest in recovering kenotic Christology from its dubious 19C antecedents, with a view toward a gospel that concentrates particularly on a Jesus I can imitate–while giving due attention in this gospel and the others to all the ways in which Jesus is Lord and Saviour and thus NOT imitable.

    I’m reviewing a provocative collection of essays on kenotic Christology, just released by Regent College Publishing in paperback and originally published by OUP, in the next issue of Books & Culture. Most notable in this collection, in my view, is the way philosophers (especially editor Stephen Evans) calls upon his fellow philosophers and systematic theologians to pay more attention to what the Bible actually says about Jesus and God rather than what our “perfect being theology” (my phrase, but his gist) says the Bible MUST be saying about Jesus and God.

    As an old-fashioned Bible-believin’ historian only latterly involved in theology, I’d say, “Well, DUH.” But it seems oh, so important to keep saying, and here’s a very interesting scholarly site upon which to say it.

    • My own focus has been on trying to understand the earliest efforts to articulate Jesus vis-a-vis God, so a historical/exegetical approach. But I would entirely agree that theology might well benefit (indeed, find highly stimulating) these early efforts as well, and the more dynamic ways that “God” is portrayed in biblical texts. Along these lines, I shamelessly will plug here my own small and forthcoming volume: God in New Testament Theology (Abingdon, forthcoming October 2010).

  5. Mark Preece permalink

    “so far as I know, he was the first to make it”

    I wonder if this is because we live in a Markan Priority world, where speculation on Mark’s “omissions” is less inevitable (because we don’t know if Mark even had access to stories about Mary’s virginity). Back in the days when Matthew was presumed to be first, I imagine people wondered more why Mark made the choices he did.

    • Well, we live in the world we live in, unless someone can persuasively show us a better one, and the Markan-priority world seems overwhelmingly more plausible. I wrote “so far as we know” about Mark being first, simply to allow formally for the possibility that someone might have beat him to it but the work didn’t survive. (Again, almost anything is possible in history; the critical task is to judge what is more likely.)

      Yes, for emphasis, we don’t know that Mark did or didn’t have access to birth-stories about Jesus. Their absence in Mark proves nothing. We often think that Mark is “missing” something because of centuries of preferring Matthew and the other canonical gospels, and judging Mark against them. But Davis’ point (which I echo) is that we should first ask whether what Mark does write makes sense as it is, whether there are internal indications in the light of which the narrative shape fits. And I concur that there are these, esp. the many indications in Mark that discipleship = literally following Jesus as the true pattern for disciples.

      • Mark Preece permalink

        Thanks for your response, Dr. Hurtado. I think I was unclear, though. When I quoted ““so far as I know”, it wasn’t about Markan priority, but about Davis being the first to make the observation about Mark. I was just wondering whether more research into Markan commentary in the pre-Markan-priority world would turn up somebody who made the observation first. I know the idea of Mark as a manual for discipleship in general is an oldish one.

      • Ah. My mistake. I rather doubt that we’ll find Davis’ observation in “the pre-Markan-priority world” (early 19th century and earlier??), as it wasn’t so common then to look at the NT texts with our literary questions in mind.

  6. Dr. H. “The ignorance and failures of the (male) disciples”….

    I didn’t notice this on my own. Is there a feminist theme lurking or streaking through Mark that has gone unnoticed? It seems to me that although all the Gospels have consciously raised the honour of women from say, surrounding Jewish/Greek(/Roman?) & M.East. cultures, are you saying there is a complimentary intent to depreciate *male* disciples, i.e., based on gender?

    Are the disciples made out to be goofs because they are male? Is this moving toward a female author for Mark?

    curious minds want to know!

    peace
    Nazaroo

    • “Feminist” may be a bit anachronistic; I doubt that Mark was either a woman or had a his focus to alter across the board the nature of female gender-roles in society of his time. But it is interesting that until 15:40-41, there are no women disciples mentioned, and then suddenly a whole crowd of them are effectively retrojected back into the preceding narrative as there all along.
      A lot depends on how you take 16:8. The still-dominant reading, I think, is that here the women disciples too are failures and disobey out of fear and shock. So, on this reading, the males fail and the women do too: an egalitarian condemnation! (At least it effectively queries the dubious idea that the point of portraying the disciples failing was a power struggle against Jerusalem leaders.)
      But on the reading of 16:8 that I find persuasive, the women do as they are told, and don’t go public (observing/reflecting ancient Roman-era conventions that women should not be too visible in public).
      The author’s main purpose, rather clearly I think, was not gender-politics, or even politics (apologies to Richard Horsley), but to urge the significance of Jesus and the commitment and steadfastness of believers in the face of opposition.

  7. This is a great observation.

    My only reservation is that this does not sufficiently account for many other editorial choices that Mark (or Final Mark) seems to have made.

    For instance, the inclusion of the Great Lukan Omission is not an omission at all, but appears to be the insertion of a chunk of Galilean/Samaritan/Northern Area material which appears to offer an alternate tradition (duplications), wedged in with modified bits of John. If Mark’s (Final M.) goal was simply to pattern a disciple-blueprint, why include this? The motive seems to be simply to preserve alternate tradition in the process of incorporating Northern congregations into Mark’s market-share.

    If we apply the observation instead to “Ur-Mark” (solving some glaring holes in this explanation), We still have some choices that seem less than ideal as a blueprint: the man fleeing naked? Peter’s denials? The Disciples’ ignorance?

    There are strong themes running through any reconstructed version of Mark that seem to be outside the scope of this idea (disciple-patterning).

    peace
    Nazaroo

    • Hmm. I have to demur from your characterization of some things: e.g., Ur-markus (which in every purported incarnation seems dubious and unnecessary), “Northern congregations”??? (there were likely Jewish believers in Galilee, but we don’t know much about them, now do we??).

      Philip Davis’ proposal wasn’t intended to account for every single item in Mark, so it’s a bit of a red-herring to point, inter alia, to the naked youth, etc. But Peter’s denials?? Absolutely! The ignorance and failures of the (male) disciples?? No problem! These latter all fit well with the stated pastoral purpose of making Jesus the sole exemplar for believers. See, e.g., Larry W. Hurtado, “Following Jesus in the Gospel of Mark–and Beyond,” in Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament, ed. Richard N. Longenecker (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 9-29.

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