Archives For Gospels

It’s time to take a closer look at Mark’s arrangement of scenes! So throw out graphic divisions, like chapter and verse, as indications of the book’s plan and listen instead to what Mark says! Mark wrote specifically for hearers and weaves his organization into the very words of his story.

Let’s start by reading Mark 1:1-15. Hear any repeated words?

“Gospel” and or “good news”
“Messenger” or angelos in Greek, which is the same word for Angel.
The phrase “baptized by him (John) in the Jordan”

Now consider where they occur!

The words in the first section are repeated in the last. And the ones in the second are repeated in a third. It’s A-B-B-A sequence. Though on the surface the story unfolds in a linear progression, the repetition creates an underlying pattern which packages these scenes together and, in turn, point to the start of a new unit.

Do you hear more repetitions in the scenes that follow? Mention of Jesus preaching in Galilee and the naming of Peter, Andrew, James and John? Where do they occur? Concentrically around Jesus’ ministry in the synagogue. It’s an A-B-C-B-A pattern. Once again, the echoes signal to a listening audience the units beginning and end.

Mark creates still a third sequence in the five stories after that. Echoes appear at the outer limits, in Jesus’ cleansing of the leper and his healing of the man with the withered hand. In both stories we find the phrase “stretched out his (your) hand” and the mention of Jesus becoming “angry.” Now most translations of Jesus encounter with the leper still say Jesus was moved with compassion. But the majority of scholars today have come to the conclusion that Mark originally said angry. And that incidentally finds a correspondence in the later scene when Jesus becomes angry at the religious leaders. Echoes within these five accounts also occur in the second and fourth stories, the story of Jesus forgiving the paralytic and the account of the disciples picking grain on the Sabbath. In both scenes, Jesus uniquely cites his authority as the Son of Man. Again these echoes appear concentrically around a center, Jesus’ calling of Levi, and are packaged together in A-B-C-B-A sequence.

Its here at the end of the third sequence where we encounter Mark’s inciting incident, the first indication of a plot to destroy Jesus. But Mark further emphasizes this narrative turn by packaging these three sequences together, revealing in this turn a termination to this larger unit.

We see this in the expressed parallels between the beginning of the first sequence and the end of the third. In chapter 3, Mark summarizes the effects of Jesus ministry, stating that people came from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon. Three of these place names (Jerusalem, Judea, and Jordan) appear in a remarkably similar summary of the Baptist’s ministry at the beginning of the gospel, though we don’t hear them mentioned elsewhere together. And it’s here we find another parallel. Immediately before Mark introduces John the Baptist, he tells us that Jesus is “the Son of God.” A title which we’ve already seen is extremely significant though its only repeated three times in this form. The first is here in Mark 1:1 and the last, the centurion’s climatic statement in Mark 15. Which leaves the summary of Jesus’ ministry in Mark 3, as the only other instance. Which further suggests a connection between this summary and Mark’s beginning. Though these parallels, Mark has packaged these sequences together and brought this section to a close.

The termination of these three sequences simultaneous with the first mention of a plot to destroy Jesus marks this point as major turning in the narrative. In the next episode, we’ll explore where the turn leads and how Mark builds his story to the next major point.

See you then.

Mark is Like a Movie

February 23, 2016 — 1 Comment

So I’ve hinted at this over the last few episodes, but it’s time I come out and say it. Mark is the first-century equivalent of a modern day movie. By that, I don’t mean fiction. I mean Mark recounts Jesus’ ministry in the same way today’s filmmakers typically tell true stories. Working in a remarkably similar venue (something we touched on in Episode 3), Mark has, in fact, stretched historic events over the same structural canvas still used today.

Think of what you know about movies. While characters and settings change, movies share a sequencing of events which is remarkably similar; Five basic plot points divide three structural acts.

We can refer to these points as the inciting incident, the lock-in, the midpoint or first culmination, the second culmination and the third act twist.

When a film opens, we’re introduced to a status quo. But an incident soon occurs which challenges a hero and sets the plot in motion. Within several film minutes, the challenge grows to a point where the hero can no longer ignore it. The hero takes on the problem, setting a new course of action.

This new course of action makes up the second act. Here, the hero faces one obstacle after another, the struggle mounting until the midpoint where they seem about to achieve their goal. But then everything falls apart. And they’re forced to start over again.

Act 2 ends with a hero’s major success or failure. This propels them to a new goal and creates a new tension for the final act. Here the story reaches its maximum tension between forces in opposition. And the hero faces their ultimate test. Finally, in the third act twist, the story is resolved, leading to a brief period of peace at the films end.

Now let’s look at what we’ve learned about Mark so far. In the last episode, I noted the parallels between Jesus baptism, transfiguration, and crucifixion. These three scenes act as signposts to Mark’s larger organization and message. The links between the baptism and crucifixion make up Mark’s major sandwich, tieing the story’s end to its beginning. While their connection to the transfiguration, in the middle, bisects the book into two major halves.

It’s not by accident that the transfiguration follows so closely after Jesus’ partial healing of the blind man (an incident we looked at in Episode 2). This is Mark’s midpoint, not only in terms of length but in structural plot design. It’s the point at which the growing tension between Jesus and the disciples seems to break before it sets in once again. The disciples finally see that Jesus as the Christ but then refuse to accept his declaration that he’s going to suffer and die.

What about the other points?

Mark’s inciting incident occurs at the beginning of chapter 3. While Jesus has done many remarkable things up to this point, It’s here that we first learn of the plot to destroy him. This introduces the challenge and sets the plot in motion.

Mark’s lock-in occurs at the beginning of chapter 6. Jesus returns to his hometown and is promptly rejected by his own clan. This represents the ultimate rejection in a series which has grown only more pronounced since the inciting incident. Jesus engages the problem, by turning his focus to his disciples and a broader mission to the outside world.

Mark’s final culmination occurs in chapter 11 when Jesus enters Jerusalem to the shouts of royal acclaim from the people. Jesus has taken his fight to the very den of religious authority. And he’s winning!

The third act twist, however, occurs when, in chapter 14, the religious authorities hatch a plot to put Jesus to death, a plot which proves successful when Judas agrees to be their inside man.

Mark stresses these points in the way he has arranged the scenes between them. Through repetition and the patterns they reveal, Mark has packaged these scenes into complete units. Over the next five episodes, we’re going to zoom in on these units and see how Mark’s arrangement of scenes ties these plot points together.

See you next time.

Repeating a pattern three times is a common storytelling technique and Mark uses it to great effect. Through it, he ties his book together and highlights his message that Jesus is the Son of God.

Have you noticed the parallels between Jesus’ baptism and transfiguration?

If you haven’t read Mark, take the next hour and read it all in one sitting, just like you’d watch a movie. Finding these parallels and patterns is just part of the fun of a good story’s game.

Let’s start with the transfiguration in chapter 9. Jesus goes up on a mountain with some of his disciples and there, his clothing begins to glow. Suddenly, Moses and Elijah appear! And the disciples are utterly terrified. Then a cloud envelops them and we hear God say, “this is my son…”

Sound familiar? Well, that’s almost identical to what we heard in Mark 1. When Jesus comes up out of the water, the heavens are torn open and God says, “You are my son…”

Do you see the others?

In both scenes, there’s a major shift in the heavens. The enveloping cloud in chapter nine and the ripped sky in chapter one.

And then there’s Elijah. He appears at the Transfiguration and yes, also in the Baptism. You might have missed this one! But Mark implicitly describes John as Elijah when he tells us that he wore a garment of hair with a leather belt around his waist. If you know the Old Testament, like Mark’s original audience, you’ll know that it’s this same description which leads a king in 2 Kings 1:8 to identify the person so dressed as Elijah.

So in the baptism and transfiguration, we have these three parallels. Elijah, Movement in the Heavens, And the identification of Jesus as God’s Son.

Pretty cool! Right?

Now think of Mark’s description of the crucifixion. Darkness covers the land! And Jesus cries out in Aramaic, “Eloi, Eloi…” which means “My God, my God…” But the bystanders think he’s calling for Elijah. Then Jesus breathes his last and the temple curtain is torn in two, from top to bottom. And the centurion remarks, “truly this man was the Son of God.”

There it is, again! The pattern is in fact repeated three times.

What’s Mark doing?

Well if you think about the whole book of Mark, you’ll remember that stories told in threes happen quite regularly. There’s Jesus’ three passion predictions, the three times he wakes his sleeping disciples, and the three times Peter denies him.

Three is huge! And not just for Mark. This is, in fact, the way we tell stories. Think of Goldilocks and the three bears (bowls, chairs, beds) or Charles Dickens Christmas Carol (Ghosts of Past, Present, Future). It’s a common literary device.

Three shows completeness. Emphasis. It’s the smallest number that forms a pattern. The first instance is chance. The second a coincidence. But three times reveals a design.

And this is what Mark is doing in some of these triads. In telling us three times, he stresses to his listening audience the disciples inability to change. And at the same time, drives home the point to his hearers. Don’t be like them! Don’t miss the point!

Mark is for sure creating emphasis in the parallels between the baptism, transfiguration, and crucifixion but he’s also at the same time doing something more.

This too is common in storytelling: because twice suggests a pattern, we naturally anticipate its continuation at the partial appearance of a third. Which allows the storyteller to hit us with the twist.

Think of the way jokes are told. Three guys walk into a bar. The first guy says something. The second guy says something similar. But the third guy takes it in a whole new direction. But the twist isn’t only found in punchlines. We find it in the third part of three little Pigs and the boy who cried wolf. We even see it in longer films like the Shawshank Redemption. Remember Red’s third parole hearing?

Mark, having built a pattern in the baptism and transfiguration, hits his audience in the crucifixion with a twist. This time, it’s not God’s voice declaring Jesus His Son. It’s a person. The first person, in fact, in of all of Mark’s story to express this idea.

Now think of the progression in these three scenes. In the baptism, it’s Jesus alone who hears God say “You are my Son.” It’s a private experience. No one else seems to know what’s going on. But in the second instance, that experience is repeated for others, God tells a few of the disciples “This is my Son.” But in the crucifixion, we find this idea finally taking hold and being repeated at last by a person. And what’s really remarkable, it’s not one of the disciples. It’s not even a Jew. he’s a Roman soldier. The enemy! The person, we least suspect. Declaring it, at the point we least suspect it.

See you next time.

To understand Mark you have to open your ears. Mark’s arranges his stories in recognizable patterns to help a strictly listening audience hear and interpret their meaning.

Mark has this way of telling stories which appears frequently in his gospel. He begins with one story, then switches to another, before once again returning to finish the first. If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s one example:

In chapter 6, Mark recounts how Jesus instructed his disciples and sent them on a mission. He then jumps to an involved and yet seemingly unrelated flashback dealing with Herod’s beheading of John the Baptist. Only then does he return to the disciples and their mission.

This basic A-B-A pattern is known as a sandwich. And its essence can be felt in other arrangements; for instance, as we saw last time, in the bookending of Mark 8-10 with the healing of two blind men.

The sandwich is not unique to Mark. It’s a common literary device. And as such its not something Mark derived wholly from chronology. Contrary to what you might think, Mark isn’t simply telling us what happened. He’s chosen to arrange his story this way. The question is why?

Well that has a lot to do with how Mark thought his audience would receive and comprehend his book.

In Mark’s time, a book was considered differently than it is today. If you happen to look at a surviving first-century manuscript you might be surprised to find it devoid of things like chapter numbers, section titles, paragraph indentations, highlighted words. Not even punctuation or spaces between words! Today, such graphic signals are indispensable to written communication. We depend on them to orient ourselves to a books structure and point.

But ancient authors and audiences couldn’t depend on such visual signals. Before printing, the copy of books was limited. Most people simply wouldn’t see the text. Besides literacy itself was a specialized skill; maybe 2 percent of the population could read. The book, consequently, wasn’t regarded as a silent and private flow between writer and reader. Instead it was a script to extend the voice of a speaker. Authors wrote not so much to be read but heard through public reading.

Interestingly enough. Those who could read, always read out loud, even when alone. Silent reading was in fact considered something strange when it first appeared some three hundred years later.

This means that Mark told his story in such a way that a strictly listening audience could hear and comprehend it.

Think about that! You’ve never read or heard Mark and then one Sunday, your pastor opts to read the entire gospel out loud in place of a sermon. That’s a lot of events to unpack in the roughly hour and fifteen minutes it would take. How could Mark’s original audience understand it all? Could you?

Of course you could. You do it all the time. Apart from a picture, listening to Mark isn’t that much different from watching a film. Because of the limitations of our minds, storytellers have always divided longer narratives into a hierarchy of units. In movies, scenes are bundled into sequences and sequences into acts. We call this bracketing or packaging.

In modern books, the division of units is typically found in the look of the page. But in a venue without text, organization is indicated in other ways. A preacher, for instance, might offer the blatant “first point, second point, third point, and in conclusion” in his sermon. While the filmmaker divides his story through subtle repetition and parallels. As in the same crossroads in the opening and closing in the film Cast Away – There’s that Sandwich!

Like a filmmaker, Mark divides and packages his story without using graphic signals on the page. And just as in a film, he does it through in the packaging of repetition. The Sandwich’s A-B-A pattern being the most obvious example.

Ancient authors and audiences were keenly aware of the application and use of parallels for hearing a stories organization. Repetition breaks up a linear progression and creates a beat-counterbeat effect. And the principle was used in varying ways. In Mark, for instance, we find the use of an a-b-c-a-b-c pattern. Mark, for instance, links Jesus’ calming of the storm and the healing of the woman with the issue of blood in just such a pattern. We also find a symmetric a-b-c-b-a pattern, known as a chasm, at work, for instance, in the feedings of the five thousand the feeding of the four.

Knowing all this should make a difference in the way you approach a book like Mark. For starters, you should recognize that the graphic divisions in our Bibles do not indicate Mark’s structure. These divisions are a referencing tool, nothing more! You can actually misread Mark, reading it chapter by chapter. Bracketing Mark’s story in the wrong place or failing to bracket it at all distorts Mark’s meaning. Just as in Algebra, the bracketing of different equations leads to vastly different sums. Or as in Grammar where the presence or absence of a comma changes the way a sentence reads.

We need to constantly hear and consider Mark’s larger picture, even as we hear and consider each individual story. And its to that larger story we shall turn, next time.

See you then.

The location of Jesus’ botched healing in the Gospel of Mark tells us a great deal about its meaning.

There’s this episode in Mark’s gospel which you might find particularly puzzling. Here it is in chapter 8:

And they came to Bethsaida. And they brought a blind man to Jesus and implored Him to touch him. Taking the blind man by the hand, He brought him out of the village; and after spitting on his eyes and laying His hands on him, He asked him, “Do you see anything?” And he looked up and said, “I see men, for I see them like trees, walking around.” Then again He laid His hands on his eyes; and he looked intently and was restored, and began to see everything clearly.

Ok. Besides the spit and trees, which are odd enough, what’s the deal with this two-part healing? In Mark, Jesus can raise the dead and overpower a legion of demons. But he botches this man’s healing on the first try? What’s the point?

This is a problem in reading Mark’s gospel. Short pithy episodes like this form the bulk of the narrative and can often seem quite random. As if Mark is simply stringing together every amazing Jesus story he knows. Jesus did this and then he did this and then he did this. Our modern bibles actually encourage us to read Mark this way, chapter and verse divisions and section titles break down the text, causing us to to consider these stories in isolation. But these episodes are from random. They’re skillfully arranged.

You’ve heard the mantra in real estate, right? “location, location, location.” Well in interpretation, it’s “context, context context”
The location of Mark’s stories actually tells us a great deal about their meaning.

Look at the episode just before this two-part healing.

In the two previous chapters, Jesus spent a great deal of time privately training his disciples. On their first mission he instructed them to carry no bread. Then he showed them how they could feed 5,000 and yet again 4000 with a few loaves of bread. And now he finds them totally misunderstanding his figurative teaching about the leaven of the Pharisees, wondering if they should have brought bread.

He tears into them. Are you so stupid?

“Why are you discussing the fact that you have no bread? Are you’re hearts hardened? Having eyes do you not see and having ears do you not hear?” Do you not yet understand?”

You see that? Jesus has just linked blindness with a lack of understanding. Encountering a blind man in the very next story is not by accident. His blindness illustrates the disciples lack of understanding. And his partial healing their partially opened eyes.

Look at this. The disciples actually get something right in the following episode. Jesus asks them, the one question everyone’s been wondering, “Who do you think I am” “You are the Christ” The King! Peter says.

They see it! But a faulty vision persists.

When Jesus next tells them that He, the Christ, is going to be rejected and killed, Peter rebukes him. That’s not at all what he meant by his answer. The student is now correcting the teacher. We find this sort of blind pride again a chapter later. When Jesus tells the disciples again that he’s going to be killed, they immediately start arguing with one another about which of them is the greatest. And still it persists a chapter after that. This time, to make sure they don’t miss the point, Jesus not only tells them that he’s going to be killed, but mocked, spit upon, and whipped too. To which James and John respond by asking if they can have the seats closest to his throne.
You can just see the dumbstruck expression on Jesus face. “You don’t know what you are asking for,” Jesus says.

Not at all.

They’re stupid. They don’t see. Though they can see that Jesus is the Christ they don’t at all understand what that means. They persist in thinking that being close to Jesus will some how make them great in the eyes of the world.

We find this pattern repeated three times in Mark 8-10. Jesus predicts his death and the disciples express some ironic pride. Which in turn leads Jesus to correct them through a paradoxical teaching. Up is down and down is up. To save your life is to lose and to lose your life is to save it. To to be first, you must be last. And to be first, you must be the slave of all. To be the Christ, the King, Jesus must suffer and die and for them to be his disciples they must live out that same heartbreaking contradiction.

What’s interesting is that its after the third time, Jesus once again encounters a blind man. The only other blind man in Mark’s gospel. And he cries out something akin to Peter’s earlier confession, calling Jesus “Son of David” heir to the royal throne. This blindman gets it. This time, when Jesus heals the man, there’s no spit. Jesus doesn’t even have to touch him to get him to see.

Opening of the blind eyes of these two men act as bookends around the correction of the disciples view of Jesus, his mission and what it means for them and by extension us.

Though the disciples still don’t get it, as we shall see, at least we should.

See you next time.