Interpreting Mark like any other work of literature

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by Neil Godfrey

For those like me who end up going in circles trying to follow the studies of the Gospel of Mark by authors with theological interests, reading a literary criticism of GMark by a trained and renowned literary critic, Frank Kermode, will be a refreshingly stabilizing experience. Kermode himself writes of this failure of biblical (implying ‘theological’?) scholarhip to guard its literary texts against the treatment secular literary critics have honed: “it is astonishing how much less there is of a genuine literary criticism on the secular model than there ought to be.” (p.137)

Listed below are extracts from Frank Kermode’s “The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative” (Harvard University Press, 1979). Many would make excellent bylines for email signatures or ‘quote of the day’ bites — but that is the result of how I have made the selections and ought not be seen as a reflection on the depth of Kermode’s analysis. Publisher blurbs are normally to be played down as little more than hard sell but I encourage anyone new to this book to read Harvard Press’s summary — it is in my opinion spot on (except that Kermode’s focus is predominantly on the Gospel of Mark.)

Extracts with particular focus on the Gospel of Mark:

… the most naive reading of a text, that treats it, for example, as a transparent account of reality … is an interpretation.” (p.16)

It takes very little to make a character: a few indications of idiosyncracy, of deviation from type, are enough …” (p.98)

The conclusion [of Mark, 16:8] is either intolerably clumsy; or it is incredibly subtle. One distinguished scholar [W.L.Knox], dismissing this latter option, says it presupposes ‘a degree of originality which would invalidate the whole method of form-criticism.’ This is an interesting objection. Form-criticism takes as little stock as possible in the notion of the evangelists as authors … If it comes to a choice between saying Mark is original and upholding ‘the whole method of form-criticism’ the judgment is unhesitating: Mark is not original.” (p.68)

“… it was important to the survival of the new religion that the evangelists’ reports should be taken as true, against rival accounts. So they used all means to assert their truth; John’s metanarrative voice is one such device, the provision of verisimilar detail is another.” (p.109)

That these accounts [the canonical gospels] have seemed plausible is not the point; for to seem plausible is the aim of a great deal of fiction.” (p.112)

The gospels sound like history, and that they do so is the consequence of an extraordinary rhetorical feat, one without which the Resurrection would not have had its place in a context of sober fact.” (p.113)

Nor is it merely that we are more likely to remember a plotted narrative; we are also less likely to ask awkward questions about it. This is why historians as well as novelists (traditionally) place such value on ‘followability’; it limits the possibility of awkward questions, it leaves less open to explain; for historians usually write narrative rather than explanation if they can.” (p.113)

We should never underestimate our predisposition to believe whatever is presented under the guise of an authoritative report and is also consistent with the mythological structure of a society from which we derive comfort, and which may be uncomfortable to dispute.” (p.113)

“… such elaborate internal [literary] structures [in Mark] as I have just spoken of … call for explanations — of the senses of [literary] sequences and junctures that are not those of chronicle, but may be those of history, and are characteristically those of fiction.” (p.116)

The advantage of a third-person narration is that it is the mode which best produces the illusion of pure reference. But it is an illusion, the effect of a rhetorical device.” (p.117)

A ‘convincing’ narrative convinces mainly because it is well-formed and followable, though for other reasons also; for instance, it reassures us by providing what appears to be an impartially accurate rendering of reality. When John gives the distance from Bethany to Jerusalem, and names the place where Pilate sat in judgment, he may well be wrong in both cases, but the detail is immediately reassuring.” (p.118)

But of the confusion between history-likeness and history there is no doubt; we still suffer from it, though later criticism reduced the historical Jesus to a shadow, and the interpretative and metahistorical motives of the evangelists have been minutely examined. The claim that the gospels are truth-centered continues for many to entail the proposition that they are in some sense factual, even though the claim takes the form of saying that the fact they refer to is a theology. It remains exceedingly difficult to treat them as stories, as texts totaly lacking transparency on event.” (pp.120-121)

Lest they should be disbelieved or misunderstood or corrupted, there was a need for realism …” (p.121)

[Jean Starobinski] … suggests that an outsider may see what escapes the exegete de metier … by treating [the narrative] simply as narrative, rather than a report …. Such a study will not attempt to decompose the text, but will treat it in its entirety.” (p.136)

“…. it is astonishing how much less there is of a genuine literary criticism on the secular model than there ought to be.” (p.137)

The above extracts from Frank Kermode’s “The Genesis of Secrecy: On the Interpretation of Narrative” (Harvard University Press, 1979)

Neil Godfrey

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