Bauckham’s eyewitnesses vs Petersen’s narrator

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by Neil Godfrey

Is there any evidence in Mark’s narratives that the author is reporting the point of view of anyone other than his own? Is there any indication that he is relaying a third party’s “eyewitness” testimony?

Do we ever catch the author stepping outside his own perspective for a moment and finding himself reliant on the testimony of an “eyewitness” in the telling of a story?

(companion posts to the following would be notes from Kermode and less professionally, an essay of mine on the fictive character of Mark.)

Notes from Norman R. Petersen’s article, “Point of View” in Mark’s Narrative (Semeia 12, 1978)

‘Distinctive in Mark are the consistent third person point of view and “voice” of the narrator, his implied presence as an invisible observer in the scenes he describes, his ability, shared only with the character, “Jesus”, to understand the mental processes and motivations of his characters, and his implicit identification of his own point of view with that of his central character, “Jesus.” The intrusive omniscience of the narrator in Mark’s Gospel is the principal guarantee that it is a literary narrative, and that its author is a bone fide narrator.‘ (p.97)

Case study: the story of the healing of the paralytic (Mark 2:1-12)

Narrator’s points of view:

1. Narrator opens with a view from a distance — looking from afar at the setting, the actors and their actions:

and when he returned to Capernaum, after some days, it was reported that he was at home.

2. The narrator then zooms to inside the home, bringing his audience with him, to hear the words spoken and see the action inside. The narrator even tells us what is going on in the minds of one set of characters:

some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, ‘Why does this man speak thus? It is blasphemy!’

3. The narrator now tells us that another one of the characters shares the same mind-reading powers as himself:

And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves . . .

Through these points of view the Narrator is informing the reader:

  1. how Jesus viewed the actions of those who brought the paralytic to him (approving of their faith)
  2. how other characters, the scribes, viewed Jesus (as a blasphemer)
  3. how “all the characters” viewed Jesus’ miracle (with amazement)

The narrator and his reader
The narrator through these viewing angles, distant and close-up, is reaching out to draw the audience out of their real time and place and into the time and place of this narrative, bringing the reader into a house in Capernaum where both reader and narrator together become invisible witnesses of the action — having been imaginatively carried into this time and place for the story.

The narrator and the characters
The narrator can read the minds of his characters, but more than that, the character he has placed at the centre of the scene, Jesus, is shown to have the same mind-reading powers. The narrator is thus psychologically aligned with the central character of the story. The reader is guided by the narrator and thus understands that the narrator’s view is the central character’s view.

The reader and the characters
The reader in this way, through the weaving of the narrative points of view and plot, is led to identify with and trust not only the narrator but also the central character, Jesus. The reader comes to rely on and trusts the viewpoint of the character Jesus. So when Jesus judges the scribes as bad and the paralytic and his friends as good, the reader agrees with and identifies with that judgment. The reader has been dependent on the narrator to arrive at this intended point of view and identification with Jesus.

A single voice or multiple sources?

‘If Mark’s text is a narrative told by a single voice, Mark’s use of sources is irrelevant for understanding his text as a narrative. On the other hand, however, if the text Mark has authored is not a narrative then, according to the hypothesis, each little story in the text has a separate, anonymous narrator. Mark may thus have authored the text but not narrated the story! . . . is there a single voice which tells and shows all that we read in the text? ‘ (p.103)

The remainder of Petersen’s article is an argument to demonstrate that ‘despite the plurality of “documents” employed by Mark there is a consistent and systematic rhetoric pervading his entire text.’ (p.105) The above case study of a single omniscient viewpoint (not sidetracked by reliance on external ‘eyewitness’ viewpoints) can be extended throughout the presentation of the whole gospel.

“The omniscient point of view.”

This is, M. H. Abrams writes (pp.105-6), the common term for the assumption in a work of fiction [narrative in general?] that:

  1. the narrator knows all that needs to be known about the agents and events
  2. the narrator is free to through time and place and shift from character to character, reporting as he chooses what is said and done
  3. the narrator knows the thoughts and feelings and motives of the characters as well as their overt words and actions
  4. the narrator is free to not only ‘report’ but also to comment on his characters

Ideological point of view
Ideological point of view is a term from Uspensky (A Poetics of Composition, 1973) and refers simply to a “conceptual” point of view. When the author evaluates the world he describes, whose point of view does he assume? The author often allows alternative points of view or evaluations to enter through different characters, but these are always judged by the narrator from the more dominant position of him and/or his central character, and such alternative or oppositional views are merely objects with which the author plays in his narrative construction.

Thus in the narrative of the paralytic the narrator’s view is in control from first to last — there is no sidetrack to an ‘eyewitness’ view on which the narrator himself must rely. The narrator decides who we hear, who we see and whose thoughts we understand — even though the narrator is not a character in the story.

And whose point of view do we find the author identifying with? An eyewitness? No. With Jesus — the central character. Other characters are allowed to express their views at the whim of the narrator, and their views are judged by the narrator and his textual mouthpiece, the central character Jesus.

In other scenes the narrator similarly brings in other viewpoints: the demons give their views of who Jesus is; the heavenly voice twice is allowed to express its opinion on Jesus’ identity (1:11, 9:7), likewise the high priest and the centurion (14:61, 15:39). And the narrator makes it clear to the reader through his plot and central character that there is a right way and a wrong way, a godly way and a human way (cf 8:33), of perceiving things.

Phraseological point of view
This is another Uspensky term for “the strictly linguistic means of expressing a point of view” (p.109). Applied to Mark’s gospel this is seen in his “consistent use of the third person of the omniscient narrator, the single ‘voice’ which tells the whole story.”

Yes, the author does include other speeches and quotations. But again, all these are subject to the evaluation of the central character (the author’s own voice) of Jesus. The narrator is in control the whole time, choosing what speeches and words to write, and how Jesus will be used to pass on the correct judgment about them.

In addition to evaluative commentary on characters and actions there is also the narrator’s use of explanatory commentary on Jewish customs. Such commentary sets up the difference in contexts between the audience and the narrative world, brings the readers to a closer understanding of it, and obliges them to rely again on the narrator’s omniscient guidance. Petersen also discusses the significance of the famous “Let the reader understand” phrase in Mark 13 and the many titles and names applied to Jesus in comparison with his own self-referential “son of man”. Time and space obliges me to cut these short for now.

Spatial and Temporal points of view

We have already seen that the owner of the constant third person voice governing Mark’s narrative spatially hovers over every episode, able to see them all from a distance, in both space and time, yet free to descend at will into the action of the episode, locating himself as an invisible observer even in the most private councils, be they in houses, boats, banquets, synagogues, or “court rooms”. Indeed, the narrator is “with” Jesus even when no other actors are present or capable of knowing what Jesus experienced (1:10-11; 6:46-48; 7:33-34; 14:35-36). (p.112)

The narrator’s location moves with Jesus. The narrator never enters a viewpoint beyond the range of Jesus, his central character and expression of his own theological views.

As for the temporal location of the narrator, Peterson shows that this is located between the last event he narrates and “just prior to the parousia (cf. Mark 13).”

Most importantly, the reader must distinguish between these spatial and temporal locations that belong to the world of the narrative itself, and the real world of the real author who presents himself as the narrator of this text. And then:

‘It is, I think, a most sobering experience for a biblical critic to realize that no single narrative can demonstrate by itself, or out of itself alone, whether it is fictional or historically factual. To demonstrate the congruence of a narrator with a real-world author, or of a narrative world with the real world, requires information from other sources than the isolated narrative. . . . . In the case of Mark, for example, the only suggestion that there might be some factual basis behind his narrative comes from other texts like the Gospels and Paul’s letters, which refer to things that Mark refers to.’ (pp.113-114)

(One corrective comment is called for here: where “the Gospels” are clearly dependent on Mark they cannot be independent confirmation of Mark.)

Fictional rhetoric: note we have the . . .

‘narrator’s presence in almost every incident he describes, from the baptism of Jesus to the women’s discovery of the empty tomb, including Herod’s birthday party (6:21-29), Peter’s denial and the meeting of the priests and the council (14:53-72) and the hearing held by Pilate (15:1-15). In addition, on the psychological plane we will also see that the narrator knew the thoughts, feelings, and motives of numerous characters in his story.’ (p.114)

Question: Was the narrator really present at all the events he portrays and did he really have the powers to read minds — as his narrative implies?

Answer: There is no evidence that the narrator was present at any of the events he describes nor does the narrator ever imply he was an actor in the events. “His rhetorical devices are typical of narrative fiction.” (p.114)

‘Mark’s rhetoric is the rhetoric of fiction, and it provides the most compelling evidence that his Gospel is a bona fide literary composition.’ (p.115)

In the last analysis, therefore, our conclusion only supports the first principle of historical criticism, which holds that a text is first and foremost evidence for the time in which it was written. The rhetoric of point of view in Mark’s narrative is evidence for the time of writing, but not for the time to which the writing refers. (p.115)

Psychological point of view

The narrator tells the reader both what his character do and say as well as what they think and feel. But he never enters the mind, the consciousness, the point of view, of a character to relate his or her view point of view of the events and Jesus. My comment here on this observation of Petersen’s: eyewitness sources would call for a compiler to do just this — but this is exactly what we do not find in Mark’s (or any) gospel. We only have the author’s perspective, never the perspective of another person. We only have the words and actions and even thoughts of others, but only as the author has chosen to narrate them and evaluate them through his central character, Jesus.

‘The narrator openly tells us what the characters were thinking and feeling; he does not, as it were, enter into their consciousness and describe what they perceived as they perceived it. Rather, he tells us in the third person that they thought and felt various things. Indeed, he does so frequently enough to produce the impression that he always has this mind-reading capability but uses it at will. He thereby also reinforces the reader’s confidence in his, the narrator’s, omniscient power to move in and out of the minds of the actors as well as in and out of the scenes describing their actions. The narrator’s feats are numerous. He knows:’ (pp.116-117)

  • that Jesus silenced demons because they knew him (1:34)
  • that he healed people because he was moved with pity (1:41)
  • that the scribes questioned in their hearts and Jesus perceived it in his spirit (2:6-8)
  • that Jesus was grieved at the Pharisees’ hardness of heart (3:5)
  • that a woman felt healed and Jesus perceived something in himself (3:29-30)
  • that Jesus marvelled at the unbelief of others (6:6)
  • that Herodias had a grudge (6:19)
  • that Herod’s knowledge made him fearful while certain information made him glad, that Herodias’s daughter pleased him but also made him sorrowful because he did not want to do what she asked (6:20-26)
  • that Jesus had compassion on a crowd (6:34, 8:2)
  • that the disciples thought he was a ghost and were terrified because they did not understand (6:49-52)
  • that the Pharisees thought to test Jesus (8:11)
  • that the disciples forgot to bring bread (8:14)
  • that Jesus was aware of their discussion (8:17)
  • that a blind man came to see things clearly (8:25)
  • that Peter did not know what to say (9:6)
  • that the disciples did not understand Jesus’ prediction of his passion (9:32)
  • that Jesus knew of the disciples’ conversation (9:33-35)
  • that the Pharisees again sought to test Jesus (10:2)
  • that Jesus was indignant (10:14)
  • that Jesus was hungry (11:12)
  • that the authorities feared Jesus (11:18; 12:12)
  • that Peter remembered (11:21)
  • that the authorities perceived Jesus’ intent (12:12)
  • that no one dared ask Jesus a question (12:34)
  • that the disciples did not know what to answer him (14:40)
  • that Pilate perceived teh envy of the chief priests and wished to satisfy the crowd (15:10, 15)
  • that the women fled out of rear and astonishment, and said nothing because they were afraid (16:8) — (p.117)

Add to the above list all the textual indications of what the characters saw and that they saw certain things:

‘When such information is given in the narrator’s voice, not that of the characters, it is implied that he is privy to their perspectives, that the knows independently of their testimony that and what they saw.’ (p.118)

Ditto for the regular references to characters being stricken with ‘fear’, ‘amazement’, etc. These are expressions of inner feelings. The normal eyewitness portrays what is seen, actions, the behaviours that might indicate ‘fear’ and ‘amazement’. The author simply goes for the quick subjective feeling he divines — not for what witnesses have seen or done from which others might infer these feelings.


Mark’s rhetoric is “that of the third person, omniscient and intrusive point of view and voice.” (p.118) The single narrative viewpoint is sustained throughout. There is no occasion where the author is led by the viewpoints or limitations of outside sources, such as eyewitnesses. The author narrates the story with the same omniscience, reader manipulation and single viewpoint that we find in fictional narrative.

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Neil Godfrey

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  • 2007-03-04 07:45:09 GMT+0000 - 07:45 | Permalink

    Well done, Neil.

    It should be immediately obvious to any rational being, approaching the Gospels without having been indoctrinated in the belief that they are sacred writings and thus are not to be viewed critically, that what he (or she) is reading is a fictional tale told by an omniscient narrator. Miracles aside, the narrator relates things that he cannot possibly know, so he is creating, not reporting.

    I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one to whom this has occurred.

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