Early in the third century Hippolytus (“Philosophumena”, VII, xxx) refers to Mark as ho kolobodaktulos, i.e. “stump-fingered” or “mutilated in the finger(s)”, and later authorities allude to the same defect. Various explanations of the epithet have been suggested: that Mark, after he embraced Christianity, cut off his thumb to unfit himself for the Jewish priesthood; that his fingers were naturally stumpy; that some defect in his toes is alluded to; that the epithet is to be regarded as metaphorical, and means “deserted” (cf. Acts 13:13). (From the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia)
Some have suggested that the nickname was used to refer to the crude Greek style of his Gospel. WikiAnswers speaks of Mark’s Gospel being “written clumsily and ungrammatically, in an unpolished Greek style”.
It is sometimes said that Mark’s Gospel was written for oral presentation, even dramatic performance, and that this explains certain features of the Gospel’s style. Maybe, but Greek tragedies were written for oral presentation, too, and their language is polished; Seneca also wrote tragedies that were meant to be read aloud and used some of the most bombastic and flowery language imaginable just for this purpose.
So oral performance alone cannot be the explanation for the oddities of his Greek.
Dennis MacDonald suggests that Mark was writing an “anti-epic”, and deliberately cultivated an “anti-polished/poetic” style of “natural speech” to match his anti-epic theme.
(It might seem odd to some to speak of “deliberately cultivating” a “natural speech style”. But it is not easy to express the way we really talk in writing. For most of us it takes effort. Pick up the pen, sorry, sit at the keyboard to write just what we’ve been talking about and bang, for a few moments at least writer’s block as likely as not hits. And the words we type rarely come out just the way we would say them.)
Gilbert Bilezikian has argued that many of the unusual features of Mark’s style can be explained as a mix of the spoken language of everyday life and literary devices characteristic of dramatic performances (The Liberated Gospel: a Comparison of the Gospel of Mark and Greek Tragedy). This post looks at Bilezikian’s explanations for a wide range of the unusual features of Mark’s style. (Where technical terms such as “aorist tense” are used I link to off-site explanatory notes; I also link to the Bible Study Tools Lexicon to enable comparison of frequency of use of certain words across the Gospels.)
I also refer to additional insights by Paul Nadim Tarazi.
I begin immediately with two of my favourite Markan so-called infelicities of style:
Began . . . immediately
I can imagine some of today’s professors rebuking Mark for repeating certain words too frequently. “Use a thesaurus!” they would demand. “Find alternatives. Variety is the spice of writing.” I can also imagine Mark shrugging them off impatiently and muttering under his breath: “Idiots. I’m trying to make a point here. If they can’t see what it is I’ll quit this class.”
Bilezekian says that the auxiliary verb “hrxato”, began is found 26 times in Mark, 6 times in Matthew, twice in Luke.
The word “euthus”, immediately, is found 41 times in Mark, 8 times in Matthew, 3 times in Luke.
The obvious effect is to convey a sense of fast-moving immediacy.
But I am sure there is more involved. Does not the repetition of both these words keep the audience focused on the opening pronouncement in the Gospel?
The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ . . . The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight (euthus) . . . .
This is the view of Paul Nadim Tarazi in Paul and Mark:
The relative importance of the passage from Isaiah becomes even clearer when one realizes that a text with the word eutheias (straight) was the perfect choice for Mark due to his remarkably frequent of other forms of the same word, especially the adverb euthys (straightaway/immediately). The latter appears no less than 42 times in this short book, compared to only 12 times throughout the rest of the New Testament — so often that English translations ignore many of these 42 instances because it is so repetitive and would not sound natural in English. But the word should not be written off so lightly, as if Mark sprinkled his carefully planned gospel text with accidental and superfluous extras. In fact, the connection between the adverb euthys and the adjective eutheias found in 1:3 will have been unmistakable for Mark’s hearers. The two words sound alike and are closely related in meaning. Given the fact that the other form of the same adverb, eutheos, occurs 34 times in the New Testament but never in Mark, one may conclude that the choice of euthys was deliberately made because its link with eutheias of Isaiah would be more apparent. Each of the 42 times Mark uses this word he is effectively pointing out how this prophecy of Isaiah’s is fulfilled. (p. 135)
We can conclude that Mark’s repetition of “immediately” or “straightaway” or “following straight on” was also intended to convey that the details of the narrative were themselves showing how the “way” was being made “straight” for the life of the Christian.
Recently we were discussing the allusion to “making a path” in the story of the disciples plucking corn on the sabbath. The same story also uses “began”:
and his disciples began to make a way, plucking the ears (Mark 2:23)
This would lead us to conclude that what Mark meant by “the beginning of the Gospel” was not simply the opening words, but that his written narrative itself was the “beginning” of a “Gospel” that referred to something more than the written text alone.
|[The leper] went out and began to publish it much and his disciples began, as they [made a way] to pluck the ears of corn
And he began to teach by the seaside
And they began to pray him to depart out of their coasts
And he departed, and began to publish in Decapolis
he began to teach in the synagogue
And he called unto him the twelve, and began to send them forth
and he began to teach them many things
and began to carry about in beds those that were sick
And the Pharisees came forth, and began to question him
And he began to teach them that the Son of man must suffer
And Peter took him, and began to rebuke him
Then Peter began to say unto him, Lo, we have left all
And he took again the twelve, and began to tell them what things should happen
And when the ten heard it, they began to be much displeased
he began to cry out, and say, Jesus, thou son of David, have mercy on me
and Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them
And he began to speak unto them in parables
And Jesus answering them began to say, Take heed
And they began to be sorrowful
and began to be sore amazed, and to be very heavy
And some began to spit on him
And a maid saw him again, and began to say to them that stood by
But he began to curse and to swear
And the multitude crying aloud began to desire [Pilate] to do as he had ever done
And began to salute him, Hail, King of the Jews!
|And straightway coming up out of the water
And immediately the spirit drives him into the wilderness
And straightway they forsook their nets
And straightway he called them
and straightway on the sabbath day he entered into the synagogue
And immediately his fame spread abroad
And forthwith, when they were come out of the synagogue
But Simon’s wife’s mother lay sick of a fever, and anon they tell him
and immediately the fever left her
immediately the leprosy departed from him
and forthwith sent him away
And straightway many were gathered together
And immediately when Jesus perceived in his spirit that they so reasoned
And immediately he arose, and took up the bed
And the Pharisees went forth, and straightway took counsel with the Herodians
and immediately it sprang up, because it had no depth of earth
Satan comes immediately, and taketh away the word
when they have heard the word, immediately receive it with gladness
immediately they are offended
immediately he puts in the sickle
immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit
And forthwith Jesus gave them leave.
And straightway the fountain of her blood was dried up
And Jesus, immediately knowing in himself that virtue had gone out of him
As soon as Jesus heard the word that was spoken
And straightway the damsel arose and walked
And she came in straightway with haste unto the king
And immediately the king sent an executioner
And straightway he constrained the disciples to get into the ship
And immediately he talked with them
And when they were come out of the ship, straightway they knew him
And straightway his ears were opened
And straightway he entered into a ship with his disciples
And straightway all the people, when they beheld him, were greatly amazed
and when he saw him, straightway the spirit tare him
And straightway the father of the child cried out
And immediately he received his sight, and followed Jesus in the way
and as soon as ye be entered into it, ye shall find a cold tied
and straightway he will send him hither
And immediately, while he yet spake, cometh Judas
And as soon as he was come, he goes straightway to him
And straightway in the morning the chief priests held a consultation
Frequent use of the historic present
The effect of the frequent use of the present tense is to create “the impression of vividness and directness”.
Mark’s Gospel uses this 151 times.
Matthew’s Gospel, much longer than Mark, uses it 78 times.
Luke’s Gospel, also much longer, uses it 10 times.
Even when Mark gave the speaker’s words in indirect narration Mark used the present tense or the perfect:
And again he entered into Capernaum, after [some] days, and it was heard that he is in the house (Mark 2:1)
Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. (Mark 15:44)
and Mary the Magdalene, and Mary of Joses, were beholding where he is laid. (Mark 15:47)
And having looked, they see that the stone hath been rolled away — for it was very great (Mark 16:4)
Other times, in the past tense Mark used the imperfect rather than the aorist. He thus brought the events somewhat closer to the reader in a descriptive tense. (p. 113)
Teachings of Jesus and debates involving Jesus are expressed in direct speech “as though written to be repeated by an actor in the same circumstances.” (p. 113)
The Gospel’s dialogues follow the stichomythic form found in Greek tragedy. Examples include Jesus’ conversations with
And cried with a loud voice, and said, What have I to do with thee, Jesus, thou Son of the most high God? I adjure thee by God, that thou torment me not.
For he said unto him, Come out of the man, thou unclean spirit.
And he asked him, What is thy name?
And he answered, saying, My name is Legion: for we are many.
the Syrophoenician woman
But Jesus said unto her, Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it unto the dogs.
And she answered and said unto him, Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs.
And he said unto her, For this saying go thy way; the devil is gone out of thy daughter.
father of the epileptic boy
And he asked his father, How long is it ago since this came unto him?
And he said, Of a child. And ofttimes it hath cast him into the fire, and into the waters, to destroy him: but if thou canst do any thing, have compassion on us, and help us.
Jesus said unto him, If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth.
And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.
the rich young man
And when he was gone forth into the way, there came one running, and kneeled to him, and asked him, Good Master, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?
And Jesus said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God.
Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Defraud not, Honour thy father and mother.
And he answered and said unto him, Master, all these have I observed from my youth.
Then Jesus beholding him loved him, and said unto him, One thing thou lackest: go thy way, sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, take up the cross, and follow me.
And Jesus answered and said unto him, What wilt thou that I should do unto thee? The blind man said unto him, Lord, that I might receive my sight.
And Jesus said unto him, Go thy way; thy faith hath made thee whole.
Bilezekian sees Mark following the close relationship between this sort of dialogue and recognition scenes in Greek tragedy. Sophocles’ Electra, for example has the following recognition scene:
ELECTRA And where is that unhappy one’s tomb?
ORESTES There is none; the living have no tomb.
ELECTRA What sayest thou, boy?
ORESTES Nothing that is not true.
ELECTRA The man is alive?
ORESTES If there be life in me.
ELECTRA What? Art thou he?
ORESTES Look at this signet, once our father’s, and judge if I speak truth.
ELECTRA O blissful day!
ORESTES Blissful, in very deed!
ELECTRA Is this thy voice?
ORESTES Let no other voice reply.
ELECTRA Do I hold thee in my arms?
ORESTES As mayest thou hold me always!
ELECTRA Ah, dear friends and fellow-citizens, behold Orestes here, who was feigned dead, and now, by that feigning hath come safely home!
Compare the recognition scene in Mark’s Gospel
And Jesus went out, and his disciples, into the towns of Caesarea Philippi: and by the way he asked his disciples, saying unto them, Whom do men say that I am?
And they answered, John the Baptist: but some say, Elias; and others, One of the prophets.
And he saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am?
And Peter answereth and saith unto him, Thou art the Christ.
And he charged them that they should tell no man of him.
Bilezekian cites Lyman’s book, The Christian Epic (p. 86)
Mary E. Lyman remarked that Mark used direct discourse in instances where it is “merely a way of bringing a scene more clearly or more impressively before us.” Such are some of the commands uttered by Jesus, which sharply intensify dramatic situations:
Be silent, and come out of him
I will; be clean
I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home
Little girl, I say to you, arise
Peace! Be still!
For an even more realistic effect the phrase is sometimes pronounced in Aramaic, but its translation always follows, being an element of the narrative so as not to attract attention:
Tali tha cumi (5:41)
Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani (15:34)
Mark’s use of Aramaic expressions and occasional Latin terms also has antecedents in Greek tragedy. Aristotle stated that “a certain admixture of unfamiliar terms is necessary. These, the strange word, the metaphor, the ornamental equivalent, etc. . . . will save the language from seeming mean and prosaic.” (p. 114)
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