Narrative Structure and Message in Mark: A Rhetorical Analysis by Robert L. Humphrey (Studies in the Bible and Early Christianity, V. 60: Edwin Mellen Press) The author of that strange and fascinating book (Mark), whoever he was, seems to have provided clearer indications of the divisions of his text as he draws closer to the end of it. The account of the passion of Christ and the empty tomb is de-scribed with frequent notes of time (e.g. 14.1,12,17; 15.1,15,33,42; 16.1). Before this, there is the one and only long speech in the book (133-37), a prediction of the events that lay in the future both for Jesus and for the disciples. One can also trace a description of a journey from the north to the south, concluding with events in and near Jerusalem (8.27-12.44). The problem of sections and divisions and arrangement of incidents is at its most puzzling in the first half of Mark's book (1.1-8.26). Any attempt to set out what the evangelist's mind was and what were his methods of achieving it, will have to succeed here if it is to be taken seriously.
Nor are we alone in finding the first half of Mark's book difficult to analyze; it is even difficult to remember the order in which he has presented the paragraphs to us; and we can see that others found it so, within a few years of its "publication' The author of the book we know as the Gospel according to Matthew, who seems to have used Mark as the major source for his own work, was dissatisfied with Mark's arrangement in the early part of that book, but not in the later part of it. After Matthew has used Mark 6.1-6, he only deviates from Mark's order on one occasion; whereas when he was using Mark 1.1-5.43, he imposed a new and clearer pattern upon it, arranging events and teaching in alternating strips.
The suggestion that Dr. Humphrey is making in this study is that Mark had a more subtle method than Matthew, and this certainly seems to be the case in general; Matthew's book was, from the first, more popular than Mark's—more frequently copied, more frequently quoted, commented on earlier and more often—until 1835 when Karl Lachmann suggested that Mark was the prior book, not Matthew, as Augustine had said. Part of the reason why Matthew was more popular may have been that it was far easier to remember where a particular passage came in Matthew than in Mark. Clarity and precision in arrangement were two of Matthew's strongest suits.
Dr. Humphrey's thesis may seem elaborate at first glance, but the attractiveness of it lies in its cumulative effect on the reader read on, and any lingering doubts will gradually diminish as Dr. Humphrey answers the questions that the readers of this book will raise. Moreover the outcome of such a study as this will make Mark's purpose more and more apparent: it is "a call to discipleship...losing one's life—as Jesus did—in order to save it" .
Students of the gospel of Mark have been convinced for some time that it is carefully structured so as to communicate the message its author intended, and a number of proposals have been advanced as to the nature of this structure. But so far none of these proposals has won the general approval of the scholarly community. This study examines the major rhetorical strategies employed in the narrative in the hope of developing a suggestion that will gain wider acceptance and shed additional light on the message of this gospel.
This examination focuses on three rhetorical devices employed by the author of Mark: 1) signaling the main themes he sought to communicate to the audience in three "key narrative moments" of the narrative; 2) the arrangement of the narrative into three major sections of equal length; and 3) employment of six narrative sequences of episodes loosely-connected by a recurring theme or themes and catch words or phrases. Since these appear to be the principal rhetorical devices employed by the author of the narrative, they promise to hold the best clues to the message he sought to convey.
At the beginning (1.2-13), middle (8.27-9.13), and end (14.1-16.8) of the gospel the author, whom I shall call simply "Mark," has placed progressively longer narrative moments which have four common elements: testimony as to Jesus' identity, an element of kenosis or death, affirmation of Jesus as God's Son, and an element of temptation or testing. These narrative moments are especially helpful indicators of Mark's message because they serve as signposts guiding the audience through the loosely connected episodes of the narrative and signaling the main themes of which the author wishes the audience to be particularly aware.
In addition to the periodic summaries of the major themes provided by the key narrative moments, the narrative is organized into three long sections of equal length which are structured as large "Markan sandwiches": 1.2-6.29, 630-11.19, 11.20-16.8. Each of is framed by three episodes at its beginning and three parallel episodes at its end, and at the center of each of these sections is an episode which provides interpretation for the section as a whole.
A third major feature of the Marken narrative is the arrangement of its episodes into six major narrative sequences which correspond to its three main sections. There are two in each section; one begins at the beginning of the section and concludes at its center, and a second begins at the center and concludes at the end of the section. These sequences serve in lieu of a plot since there are few, if any, causal connections between episodes until the latter part of the narrative. Most, but not all, of the episodes of each major narrative sequence share common themes and counter themes and are linked in some cases by catch words or phrases. Thus they create the impression of forward movement in the narrative, even though its individual episodes are but loosely-connected, and often juxtaposed to one another.
Mark's narrative has been called a biography, a Greco-Roman style tragedy, a comedy, a defense of a certain theological position, an apology for the cross, a simple transcription of Aramaic historical records, and a Christology. In certain respects it is all of these, yet, in my opinion, none of these characterizations adequately describes this gospel. As a result of this rhetorical investigation, there can be little doubt that Mark's narrative is best characterized as, in Augustine Stock's very apt words, a "call to discipleship," discipleship which requires losing one's life, just as Jesus did, in order to save it. Mark invites his audience to join with him in Jesus' story, and challenges them to take up their crosses and follow him.
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