Thomas L. Brodie presents an argument that the Gospel of Mark was in its basic outline, plot and structure based on the Elijah-Elisha narrative in the Old Testament. I am not quite sure what to make of his case at times, but cannot deny its interest. I have no problem accepting that Mark used some of the miracle stories from Elijah and Elisha as templates for his Jesus miracles, but Brodie goes much further than this. His book is The Crucial Bridge: The Elijah-Elisha Narrative as an Interpretative Synthesis of Genesis-Kings and a Literary Model for the Gospels. It is published by the Order of St Benedict, Minnesota, 2000.
His discussion of the Elijah-Elisha narrative’s link with the Gospel of Mark consists only of ten of the last dozen pages of a 114-page book. The earlier section explains the reasons to see the Elijah-Elisha section of 1 and 2 Kings as a cohesive single narrative unit within the Primary History of Israel (Genesis-2 Kings), and also to argue that this section is a synthesis of the entire Primary History itself. I have a few questions about his overall thesis but need time to explore these. There are good reasons to opt for other models for Mark, too, and Brodie does not seem to deny this. There appear to have been a range of sources available to Mark and that potentially influenced the final mix that became his Gospel.
What I particularly like about Brodie’s discussion is that he addresses the verifiable evidence — the texts and the observable relationships between them. This stands in contrast to “historical” methods of many New Testament “historians” who work such hypothetical evidence as “oral traditions” and hypothetical redactions in order to “discover” some historical event “beneath the narrative”. Brodie is no Christ mythicist (he is a Dominican priest – an OP). My question, however, is this: Do we have logical and evidential grounds for treating the narrative of the Gospels as an attempt to write some form of history, or as originating in historical events, and if so, what are they? I can see such grounds for reading references to Cicero’s slave or Seneca’s philosopher colleagues as historical, but have yet to find in the scholarly literature any comparable grounds for reading the Gospel narrative as history.
Brodie’s demonstration of the Gospel of Mark’s indebtedness to the Elijah-Elisha narrative in 1 and 2 Kings:
Brodie sees the genre of Mark as “mystery-filled history expressed through biography” (p. 87) (compare my related comment on another post) and these features “set the scene for comparison with the Elijah-Elisha narrative.”
Brodie has earlier argued that the E-E narrative functions “as an interpretive interlude within a narrative that runs from creation to the fall of Jerusalem, [so that] it mirrors and synthesizes history in a way that emphasizes the presence not just of bare facts but of a deeper, divine dimension, God’s word, a word which effects everything from creation (1 Kings 17, rain and ravens) to death (2 Kings 13, bones and new life).”
My own interjection here: I have long wondered about what seem at times to be little signs that the Gospel of Mark was conceived as an attempt to write a new Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings) for a “new Israel”. The baptism scene with rending of heavens and wilderness at the beginning, and the conclusion with literal and midrashic allusions to the destruction of the Temple and failure of the 12 disciples, has sometimes brought to mind the story that begins with creation out of chaos through dividing of waters and a renewed creation from a great flood involving a dove, and concluding with the destruction of the Temple and failure of the 12 tribes of Israel. In both, there is also a final hint of hope, with the message that Jesus will be found in Galilee, and with the lifting of the king of Judah from the dungeon to sit beside his captors.
Brodie sees this as a similar type of “history” as we find in the Gospels. It is about God’s intervention into and controlling guidance of history.
Brodie also sees the E-E narrative as biographical, and its “history” is told through the lives of the prophets, although the biography “never dominates.”
Whether one uses the words “history” and “biography” or not, the main point is that the E-E narrative is seen as a similar genre to that of the Gospel of Mark.
Brodie remarks on the brevity of the Gospel of Mark. In this it is unlike other histories and many other biographies from the ancient world. Herodotus and Thucydides wrote the equivalent of 400 or more pages. Xenophon’s “biography” of Socrates and Philo’s of Moses are over 100 pages each. There are a few biographies that are short, there is no standard length.
Brodie’s point is that Mark chose to write a short account rather than an extended one, and notes the “striking” fact that Mark’s 16 chapters is close to the size of the 19 chapters of the E-E narrative. It is even more comparable if the formulaic reigns of kings in 2 Kings 8:16-29; 13:1-13 are seen as padding.
My own comment, departing from Brodie here: Some scholars attempt to attribute the brevity of the gospels, Mark in particular, to the shortage and expense of writing materials among the early Christian communities. Some narratives are even said to have been “pre-recorded” on small pieces and later collated for the Gospel. This creative explanation falls down at the point of the lengthy rambling tale of the martyrdom of John the Baptist at Herod’s birthday party. Extended tales could be written when desired. So Brodie’s argument for the E-E narrative being a synthesis and interpretive narrative for the same Primary History is one I find interesting.
Length of Episodes: The Spiraling Expansion of the Narrative
Mark’s gospel is in large part, especially at the beginning, episodic. Especially Mark 1:1-20 — these few verses contain very brief episodes:
- the preaching of John the Baptist,
- the baptism of Jesus,
- the wilderness scene,
- and the calling of the first 4 disciples.
“But gradually, most noticeably in chapters 4-5, the episodes or materials seem to connect more clearly and to expand. Eventually, once Jesus reaches Jerusalem and cleanses the Temple (ch. 11), the narrative becomes an essentially unbroken sequence.” (p. 89)
Brodie sees a similar pattern in the E-E narrative.
Thus 1 Kings 17:
- God’s prophetic word comes to Elijah
- Elijah goes to brook Cherith, fed by ravens
- Then goes to Zarephath
- Encounter and miracle with the woman of Zarephath
- Elijah raises the child from the dead
But by 1 Kings 18 there is greater length and continuity. The E-E narrative then concludes with an unbroken block of 5 chapters (2 Kings 9-13).
In both narratives — Elijah-Elisha and Mark — the overall progression is not linear but spiraling. The progression from very short episodes to longer ones is followed later by a partial return to episodes that are quite short (for example, 2 Kgs 2:19-22, 23-25; 4:1-7, 38-41, 42-44; Mark 6:45-52, 53-56; 7:24-30, 31-37; 8:1-10). But this contraction makes way for further, greater expansion, and eventually for the long sequence of the conclusion (2 Kings 9-13; Mark 11-16).
Again my own comment to interrupt Brodie’s argument: One finds a similar pattern of episodic narratives (often involving traveling expeditions) preceding a longer more cohesive denouement in the final “chapters” in nonbiblical epic literature, too, and in popular novels of the era.
Clear Connections at Key Points: Beginning, Middle, and End
The beginning, middle and end of literary works marked “key carriers for the larger momentum of the narrative”, and Brodie sees a “clear connection” at these pivotal points between E-E and Mark.
The opening Malachi-based messenger in Mark 1:2 is effectively identified as Elijah (Mal. 3:1, 23)
Mark 1:1-20 recalls Elijah at several points:
- the abrupt beginning
- the wilderness
- the Jordan
- the prophetic speaker’s external appearance
- the animals/ravens
- the angels
- the abrupt call to discipleship
(1 Kgs 17:3, 6; 19:4-8, 19-21; 2 Kgs 1:8)
At the dramatic centre of the E-E narrative:
- heavenly fire comes down on the mountain-top (2 Kings 1)
- fire carries Elijah to heaven (2 Kings 2)
At the dramatic centre of Mark:
- the mountain-top drama of the Transfiguration (unearthly light)
This Transfiguration is followed by a discussion that invokes Elijah’s name 5 times.
Again Elijah’s name is introduced in Mark when Jesus cries out on the cross. Onlookers ask if he is calling for Elijah.
Marks ending (16:8) is abrupt and enigmatic with the women fleeing in fear.
Brodie suggests that this corresponds in part to “the abrupt and enigmatic account of Elisha’s death and burial, including the dead man’s rising to life (2 Kgs 13:21). (Is it coincidence that Mark’s picture of the women fleeing frightened from the tomb is partly matched by the apparent fright of the pall-bearers and by their implied flight from the tomb of Elisha?)” (p. 90)
Further Connections, Especially Near the Three Key Points
The Beginning (Mark 1)
Mark’s account of Jesus calling the disciples is modeled partly on Elijah’s call of Elisha. “Mark both simplifies and doubles the older account”:
- the action begins with the caller (Elijah/Jesus) and with a motion towards those to be called;
- those called are working (plowing/fishing);
- the call, whether by gesture (Elijah) or word (Jesus), is brief;
- those called are to leave their means of livelihood (plow/nets);
- later, the means of livelihood are variously destroyed or mended: the plow is destroyed, but the nets are mended — a typical inversion of images (showing the other side of the coin);
- after further movement, there is a leave-taking of home;
- there is also a leave-taking of other workers;
- finally, those called follow the caller.
“Within the respective testaments the two healings are unique.” (p.92)
Despite the differences in length and complexity, distinctive similarities between the two accounts:
- the action begins with the leper, and with a motion towards Elisha/Jesus;
- the healer should/does extend his hand;
- the leprosy is cleansed immediately;
- there is an aftermath concerning worship (a Temple, the priest).
The Middle (Mark 6 and 8)
The multiplication of loaves
Mark’s two accounts of the multiplication of loaves (6:30-44; 8:1-10) dominate these chapters. The Gospel’s account blends several influences and factors, but its single closest OT precedent is, of course, the multiplication of the loaves by Elisha: 2 Kings 4:42-44
And there came a man from Baalshalisha, and brought the man of God bread of the firstfruits, twenty loaves of barley, and full ears of corn in the husk thereof. And he said, Give unto the people, that they may eat.
And his servitor said, What, should I set this before an hundred men? He said again, Give the people, that they may eat: for thus saith the LORD, They shall eat, and shall leave thereof.
So he set it before them, and they did eat, and left thereof, according to the word of the LORD.
Brodie remarks that “to some degree, the figure of Elijah — and the seven-fold use of his name — runs through the entire central section of Mark (6:14-9:13). Three elements stand out:”
- Herod and the opinion that John is Elijah (6:15);
- the miracles of the loaves (6:30-44); 8:1-10);
- the opinion that Jesus is Elijah and the five references during and after the Transfiguration (9:4-5, 12-13)
A point on methodology that Brodie also addressed elsewhere (and as I posted earlier) is made again:
Gerhard Dautzenberg does well in highlighting the role of Elijah in this central section and in connecting it with Jesus’ cry at his death, but before attempting to distinguish hypothetical tradition from hypothetical redaction (as Dautzenberg does), it is better to work with what is verifiable: the narrative of 1 and 2 Kings. (p. 92)
Again my own comment: It is here that I believe Brodie has the more justifiable methodology. So called “historians” of the NT are working with hypothetical “evidence” to explain something they think is beyond the narrative; Brodie is working with verifiable evidence to explain the narrative.
The End (Mark 11-15)
As noted above, both E-E and Mark “conclude with long sequences of virtually unbroken narrative (2 Kings 9-13; Mark 11-16).” (p.93) But the content is also distinctively connecting the two narratives, not just their form or shape.
The Purging/Cleansing of the Temple
Both the Elijah-Elisha and Mark narratives focus especially on the Temple(s) at their ends.
- Jehu’s actions climax when he purges and destroys the temple of Baal (2 Kgs 10:18-27)
- The aftermath in Judah centres on the takeover and renewal of the Temple in Jerusalem (2 Kings 11-12)
Compare the centrality of the Temple in Mark in the concluding narrative:
- Jesus’ first act on reaching Jerusalem is to cleanse the Temple (Mark 11)
- Jesus preaches in the Temple (Mark 12:35-40)
- Jesus predicts the Temple’s destruction (Mark 13:1-4)
- The Temple is an issue at his trial (Mark 14:57-58)
- The first effect of his death is the tearing of the Temple veil (Mrk 15:38)
Hurtado has also noted the “midrashic” allusion to the destruction of the Temple in the tomb carved out of the rock for Jesus — cf. Isaiah 22:16.
Further broad similarities
- Anointing and conspiracy (2 Kgs 9:1-11; Mark 14:1-14)
- Accession — with cheering, cloaks on the ground (2 Kgs 9:12-13; Mark 11:7-10)
- An apparent wait before taking over (2 Kgs 9:14-21; Mark 11:11)
- Challenging the authorities (2 Kgs 9:22-10:27; Mark 11:12-12:12)
- Giving money for the Temple (2 Kgs 12:5-17; Mark 12:41-44)
Brodie concludes this section with:
Whatever the full outline and final details, the basic point is clear: Mark’s long passion narrative, while using distinctive Christian sources, coincides significantly both in form and content with the long Temple-centered sequence at the end of the Elijah-Elisha narrative. The Old Testament text does not account for Mark’s narrative, but it has made an inextricable contribution. The shadow of Jehu’s accession to power, especially his purging of the Baalite temple, cannot be removed from Mark’s account of the cleansing of the Temple. Yet the final effect in Mark is radically different. The military and political aspects of the Old Testament account . . . have been transformed. (p. 93)
Location and Geographic Structure
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus begins in Galilee and eventually moves south to Jerusalem. (Mark 11)
In the E-E narrative, Elijah and Elisha work in northern Israel, but near the end, in the events concerning the Temple, the focus turns to Jerusalem. (2 Kings 11-12)
But there are complications to this overall simple structure:
In Mark, Jesus sometimes goes elsewhere —
- at the beginning, he is in the wilderness and the Jordan (1:9)
- near centre, he goes to Tyre and Sidon (7:24, 31)
- at end, he goes ahead to Galilee (16:7)
In the Elijah-Elisha narrative there are also complications —
- at the beginning, Elijah is east of Jordan and in Sidon (1 Kgs 17:2-10)
- at centre, Elijah is at the Jordan (2 Kgs 2)
- at end, Elisha faces east and Damascus (2 Kgs 13:17)
The details of these complications are debatbable. What is essential is that, even in the complications, there is some affinity. Overall, therefore, both in its basic north-south pattern and in its key variations, the geographic pattern of the Elijah-Elisha narrative provides an approximate precedent for Mark. (p. 94)
The affinities between the Elijah-Elisha narrative and Mark are multiple: genre (blending history and biography), overall length, length and shape of many episodes, the content of the three key points, and the geographic pattern. These affinities do not take away from what is distinctive in Mark . . . .
While there is no doubt but that Mark had his own specifically Christian sources and that he incorporated a wealth of Greco-Roman features, literary and oral, there can also be little doubt but that, in shaping these sources, he drew on the Elijah-Elisha narrative — the succinct interpretive synthesis which culminates the Scriptures’ greatest history. No other explanation accounts so well for the data. (p. 95)
Brodie additionally discusses the Elijah-Elisha narrative in relationship to the other Gospels. An important focus of his book is explaining how this central narrative explains and synthesizes the broader history from Genesis to 2 Kings in which it is found. What I have outlined here needs to be understood within that context.
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