The Oral/Written Gospel (Finding Meaning in Mark’s “Bad Greek” . . . Pt.2)

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by Neil Godfrey

Alan Kitty as Mark Twain
Image by pplflickr via Flickr

It is not easy to think of Mark as a literary genius when 410 of his Gospel’s 678 Greek verses or 376 of the 583 sentences begin with “and” (kai).

While much has been written about the history-changing impact of Mark being the first to compose a written gospel, there is much in this written gospel to suggest that it was meant to be orally delivered. It was written for an oral performance. (I am repeating here what I have read by a number of scholars, most recently Bilezekian. But I have reservations about this as an explanation for its grammatical roughness. Even polished and over-flowery texts were written for oral delivery. It might be more to the point to argue that Mark’s style indicates an intent to reproduce natural and unsophisticated speech.)

(I am losing my conviction that Mark was the earliest gospel, too. But that discussion can wait. The grammatical “crudities” of Mark can be explained in ways to fit either hypothesis.)

Gilbert G. Bilezekian (The Liberated Gospel) is one scholar who has advanced that the best explanation for the extremely repetitive “and” as the sentence-linker (the scholarly term for this is parataxis) throughout Mark’s Gospel is it reflects the colloquial spoken language of the day.

[T]hose irregular features of syntax and style characterize Mark’s language as a very popular and colloquial brand of Greek. Vincent Taylor [The Gospel According to Mark p. 52] said that it has “striking affinities with the spoken language of everyday life as it is revealed in the papyri and the inscriptions.” . . .

If most of the Gospel was originally a transcript from oral sources, it is understandable that it contains this type of sentence structure. If the Gospel was destined for public reading rather than private study, it is even more understandable. Kleist has said that “sometimes parataxis is due to conditions extraneous to the mind. Perhaps foremost among these is the power to express the relation of thought to thought by other means than the spoken word. Gestures, tricks, and looks have expressional value, and may reveal one soul to another more intimately than bare words can do. ” [The Gospel of Saint Mark, p. 13] Parataxis could be an original feature of apostolic preaching that was kept in the Gospel to reproduce for the listeners the reality of oral delivery. (p. 115, my emphasis)

(Questions: What if Mark were written as a reaction against the formal written eloquence of Matthew and Luke? Did not Marcion stress the non-literal nature of the Gospel, insisting that the Gospel was primarily a matter of spiritual comprehension that could not be directly communicated by “the letter”?)

Just as a reminder of what this paratactic character of Mark looks like, here is a chunk of chapter one:

9.  And it came to pass in those days, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized . . .

10.  and immediately coming up from the water, . . .

11.  and a voice came out of the heavens, . . .

12.  And immediately doth the Spirit put him forth to the wilderness,

13.  and he was there in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by the Adversary, and he was with the beasts, and the messengers were ministering to him.

14.  And after the delivering up of John, . . .

15.  and saying — `Fulfilled hath been the time, . . .

16.  And, walking by the sea of Galilee, he saw Simon . . .

17.  and Jesus said to them, `Come ye after me, . . .

18.  and immediately, having left their nets, they followed him.

19.  And having gone on thence a little, he saw James of Zebedee, and John his brother, and they were in the boat refitting the nets,

20.  and immediately he called them, . . .

21.  And they go on to Capernaum, . . .

22.  and they were astonished at his teaching, . . .

23.  And there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, and he cried out,

24.  saying, `Away! what — to us and to thee, Jesus the Nazarene? . . .

25.  And Jesus rebuked him, . . .

26.  and the unclean spirit having torn him, and having cried with a great voice, . . .

27.  and they were all amazed, . . .

28.  And the fame of him went forth immediately to all the region, . . .

29.  And immediately, having come forth out of the synagogue, . . .

30.  and the mother-in-law of Simon was lying fevered, and immediately they tell him about her,

31.  and having come near, he raised her up, having laid hold of her hand, and the fever left her immediately, and she was ministering to them.

32.  And evening having come, when the sun did set, . . .

33.  and the whole city was gathered together near the door,

34.  and he healed many who were ill of manifold diseases, and many demons he cast forth, and was not suffering the demons to speak . . .

35.  And very early, it being yet night, having risen, he went forth, and went away to a desert place, and was there praying;

36.  and Simon and those with him went in quest of him,

37.  and having found him, they say to him, — `All do seek thee;’

38.  and he saith to them, `We may go to the next towns . . . .

39.  And he was preaching in their synagogues, in all Galilee, and is casting out the demons,

40.  and there doth come to him a leper, . . .

41.  And Jesus having been moved with compassion . . .

42.  and he having spoken, immediately the leprosy went away from him, and he was cleansed.

43.  And having sternly charged him, immediately he put him forth,

44.  and saith to him, `See thou mayest say nothing to any one . . .

45.  And he, having gone forth, began to proclaim much, and to . . .

Note the present and past-continuous/present tenses, the “immediately’s” or “straightaways” — harking back to the “Make His Paths Straight!” in the introduction, and the direct speech also in present tense . . . All these were discussed in my previous part 1 of this series. They are as important to think about as much as the literary allusions, puns, inclusios (book-end/bracketing narratives) and mimesis of classical and Jewish texts. Something is going on here and it needs addressing as much as those attributes that some see as marks of “literary genius” in Mark. (In the colour-coding above I have, I confess, relied entirely on the Young’s Literal Translation without having checked the Greek text itself.)

And when he does not use And he still gets it “wrong”

Thirty-seven times in the Gospel Mark not only avoided “and” as a connector, he omitted any connector at all to link sentences that cry out for some verbal joint. The technical term is asyndeta, meaning “not joined together”. While asyndeta has been said to have been a characteristic of Aramaic, it is also found as a characteristic of colloquial (and other, even literary) Greek. One example (unable to find the other 36 at the moment) :

Jesus said, ‘Truly I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.’   They began to be sorrowful. (14:19)

This too is a device used in emotional or deliberately impressive narration or discourse. . . . The unusual omission of a connective between the words of Jesus and the following sentence produces the same effect as silence in a conversation when a delicate point has been touched upon. (pp. 115-6)


These can be defined as a break or lack of sequence in the structure of a sentence. This is hardly tolerable in a written document, but it occurs constantly in everyday speech. Some thirteen instances of anacolutha can be found in the Gospel of Mark. Not all of these instances consist of confused sentence structure . Some, by reproducing the effect of oral narration, suggest very well the sequence of thought in life while they “illustrate the popular character of Mark’s Greek and . . . are due to the rapidity of the movement of thought and action.” (p. 116, quoting Taylor, “The Gospel According to Mark”, p. 50)


And that you may know that the Son of Man hath authority on earth to forgive sins — he saith to the paralytic — I say to thee, Rise, and take up thy couch, and go away to thy house. (2:10-11)

but to sit on my right and on my left, is not mine to give, but — to those for whom it hath been prepared.’ (10:40)

And they reasoned with themselves, saying, If we shall say, From heaven; He will say, Why then did ye not believe him? But should we say, From men —   they feared the people: for all verily held John to be a prophet. (11:31-32)

And whatever place does not receive you or listen to you, as you go forth from there, shake off the dust that is under your feet for a testimony against them. (Mark 6:11)

The last example is taken from the TruthOrTradition site, where it is correctly explained that the correct ending should be “it”, not “them”, to refer back to “place”. Mark is mimicking natural speech in preference to correct grammatical style.

Interim conclusion

The stylistic features here strongly suggest a Gospel that is to be read in a rush, with an emphasis on the oral performer’s gestures and tone of voice to bring out special emphases. Alongside the present or continuous past tense and repetition of immediately”, they suggest a Gospel to be read at a single performance, at a fast pace, but not without dramatic pauses. And all in Everyman’s everyday speech.

What implications does this have for other more literary features such as mimesis, inclusio doublet scenes, and the concluding chapter’s mirroring of those images and motifs found in the earlier chapters?

Thinking. Thoughts welcome.

To conclude this series in another post.

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Neil Godfrey

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15 thoughts on “The Oral/Written Gospel (Finding Meaning in Mark’s “Bad Greek” . . . Pt.2)”

  1. This reminds me of jobs I get where I have to translate unrehearsed transcribed speeches from Japanese to English. The result is a lot of technically ungrammatical stream-of-consciousness texts. You almost have to imagine them being spoken aloud to get the rhythm, and therefore the meaning, correct.

  2. In “How Mark Writes” (in The Written Gospel, 2005) Craig A. Evans sides with those who think Mark is a clumsy writer. Especially poor, they argue, is Mark’s use of gar clauses, quoting Margaret Thrall: “Writers who use gar frequently, as Mark does, are not always logical thinkers who develop an argument stage by stage . . . In the narrative they first mention the important or striking points in the story, and then fit in the explanatory details afterward by using gar, whether or not these details should logically precede the main points.”

    The classic case is the story of the women visiting the tomb.

    16:3 And they said among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre?

    16.4 And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great.

    I do suspect, however, that Evans has other reasons for arguing that Mark is not deliberately approximating the spoken word, but instead is simply a writer with limited abilities. By maintaining that Mark’s misplaced gar clauses are the mistakes of a simple mind, Evans can brush aside evidence of the Messianic Secret.

    Jesus forbids the demons speak, “for they knew him.” Evans says one might get the impression that if the demons hadn’t recognized Jesus he would have permitted them to speak. “But that, of course, is nonsense,” writes the scholar. He argues that in an exorcism, knowing names and identity is a power advantage. Since the demons know who he his, Jesus naturally shuts them up.

    And it all comes down to the use of a gar and the way Mark used it, for it was put in the wrong place. Evans says Jesus wasn’t keeping secrets, just squelching the spirits.

    (I don’t buy it, but it probably comforts the faithful.)

  3. Random thoughts, in no particular order:

    It’s my understanding that nearly everyone read aloud in antiquity, with or without an audience, and that the habit of reading silently to oneself was remarkable. If so, that would seem to blur the lines between “intended for oral performance” and “intended for private reading.”

    I’ve said before, in regards to Mark’s seeming lack of literary style, that it’s narrated in about the same way you or I would recount a recent car accident.

    I’m surprised that you entertain Lukan or Matthean priority. My doubts about the historicity of Jesus are founded first of all on the way the later authors interpreted and redacted their source. Mark just makes no sense to me at all taken as a digest of Matthew, even less of Luke. The development seems so clearly to run the other direction. The priority of Mark answers many more questions than it raises.

    1. I’m pretty well sold on Markan priority as well, at least as far as the Synoptics are concerned. However, sometimes I wonder whether John gets shoved to the end because of the historical Jesus bias. That is, have we all swallowed the idea that Jesus was a real human who became deified after death (even mythicists, without realizing it) such that we think we “know” John’s gospel must have come later?

      Bart Ehrmann can’t imagine a human Jesus saying, “I and the Father are one” — or at least, if he said it, without being stoned on the spot. But if there was no human Jesus, anything is possible. Perhaps the very earliest myth portrayed the pre-existent Word on Earth and the later Synoptics tried to humanize him.

      Not only that, but could it be that we have been trained to ignore evidence of high christology in Mark because of the historicist bias? Think of Jesus calming the storm. He didn’t need El Elyon to mediate his prayer; he directly addressed the forces of nature, telling them to be still. This is not the act of a prophet, but the province of Yahweh himself.

      In Mark 4:41, the disciples don’t say “What manner of man is this?” (cf. Matt 8:27) but “Who IS this?” Is he an angel? Is the manifestation of the Lord? Notice that the sea is calm and the winds have stopped, but the disciples are still scared out of their wits (phobon megan). They’re fully aware of what this means and who he is.

      1. In the spirit of “random thoughts”, I couldn’t help but think of Secret Mark. I remembered that the two excerpts in the Mar Saba letter were replete with the repetitive “and” (parataxis).

        For Tim, the section “Secret Mark and the Gospel of John” in the Wikipedia article is interesting–

        As to its form, Secret Mark represents a stage of development of the story that corresponds to the source used by John.

        Okay, enough of my foraying into unchartered waters of fantasyland. 😉

        1. One would imagine that Secret Mark was not intended for the same type of public oration as the rest of the Gospel.

          It would follow that stylistic features that are presumably meant to enable a fast paced oral performance would not likely be found in Secret Mark.

          So may we conclude

          • — either that the parataxis was not intended to serve the interests of the oral performance after all,
            — or the everyday unsophisticated speech patterns had a purpose that continues to elude us,
            — or maybe someone has tried just a bit too hard to forge Secret Mark?
          1. One would imagine that Secret Mark was not intended for the same type of public oration as the rest of the Gospel.

            Very possibly one could imagine that.

            It would follow that stylistic features that are presumably meant to enable a fast paced oral performance would not likely be found in Secret Mark.

            Oh, but as I can conceive of not only public ritual, but also ritual in a private setting, so can I easily imagine a fast paced oral performance directed to a private audience as well as a public one.

          2. The latest I’ve read on Secret Mark seems to exonerate Smith from forging it himself. My opinion is it is in fact ancient, but just a variant of Mark that tried to work in some of John’s stories. The grammar of Mark would is more apparent in the Greek to Greek speakers than the translations so if you were adding to Mark, the peculiarities would be noticeable enough that you would want to include them.

  4. I have just read Christopher Bryan’s “A Preface to Mark” The gist of the comments are as those here. His reasons for the style of mark was 1.oral performance 2.audience (Mark was a work aimed at what constitutes the middle class of the time, as opposed to most of the works we have, which for the wealthy) The important thing is an up-polished style isn’t a mark of a bad author, just not an elite one. Think of A Farewell to Arms vs Superman. No one will teach Superman comics in a grade school, but the much lager popularity of Superman speaks to its power as a literature. Thumbs up on the post.

  5. You have to feel sorry for Mark.

    He was pretty poor at Aramaic and Greek, and Maurice explains that the records which reached Mark were ‘incomplete’ (page 428), so that Mark was forced to try to create a coherent narrative from them.

    Although, of course, Matthew the tax-collector produced an ‘early and accurate tradition’ in these wax-tablets,although the author of Matthew naturally he would have had little idea from reading these ‘early and accurate’ wax tablets when Jesus began his ministry (page 181).

    Mark never had the ‘training which modern translators receive’ He had to rely on being a native Aramaic/Greek speaker, rather than a trained translator like Casey is.

    He would have been hampered by the way some Aramaic words look alike,although naturally Matthew the tax-collector wrote ‘legibly and accurately’ In fact , he wrote so legibly that Casey can still read these tablets perfectly well today, even after they have been destroyed. That is the standard modern translators expect to reach!

  6. JW:
    “It is not easy to think of Mark as a literary genius when 410 of his Gospel’s 678 Greek verses or 376 of the 583 sentences begin with “and” (kai).”

    And I previously mentioned, that near as I can tell I Am now the foremost authority the world has ever known on “Mark’s” Style of using words to set a tone of speed for different sections of his Gospel. And here is the related Thread at FRDB:


    Mark “I Am IronyMan”. How Much Ironic Contrast, Transfer and Reversal Did He kraM?

    Kaifer lovers should note that as Neil has righteously noted, the start of Jesus’ Mission (so to speak) has almost all “ands”. And note that the 3 exceptions all have different subjects (JtB, Simon’s house and the leper). And note especially the final “but” regarding the leper. “And” is overused to emphasize the SPEED of the Mission and the “but” is used ironically to show that the spread of Jesus’ reputation and the resultant crowds is actually going to slow it down.

    “And” is also overused at the Passion, but referring to Jesus’ enemies and there it shows their speed in their Mission of Passionating Jesus. And listen to this, during Peter’s “trial”, no “ands” or “ifs”, just 3, count em 3, “buts” showing Peter puts his emotional energy into denying Jesus. Caffeine the cause perhaps.

    Anti-criteria speculation maybe or I could just be a genius. AnyWay, it’s great to see the legendary Vorkosigan here. Maybe we could all collaborate on a Markan book. Vork on Chiasms, me on Irony, Neil on everything else and… a final chapter by Casey arguing that all the other chapters in the book are by Atheists because we hate “Mark” so much.


  7. Sorry about publishing this here. I have been sitting on an interview I arranged between Professor Charlie Hedrick and Agamemnon Tselikas a respected Greek paleographer on the question of the authenticity of the Mar Saba document. It is now published at my blog http://stephanhuller.blogspot.com/

    Hope you and your readers might want to check it out. Dr. Tselikas will be publishing an article on the same subject for BAR next year referencing the same material.


    Stephan Huller

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