Why does Mark Arrange his Stories in Patterns?

January 22, 2016 — Leave a comment

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.

Matthew Scott Miller

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