What Mark’s Episodes Do For Readers (and the real historiographical question to ask)

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by Neil Godfrey

As with any magic the spell works best when the audience does not know how it is done. On the other hand, understanding the way literary and rhetorical devices play with how we respond to what we read does help remind us that we are reading a creation of the human mind. Even if the words we read are telling a “true story” the words used to convey that information have been chosen to convey a certain meaning or feeling in relation to what we read.

One characteristic of the gospels, particularly the Gospel of Mark, that we sometimes hear is a mark of unsophistication and primitive literary skills, is the episodic nature of the first half of the Gospel — up to the Passion narrative.

Well, this post is an attempt to rescue something of the reputation of that part of the Gospel by pointing out what that episodic structure manages to achieve from a literary perspective. I am not going to argue that episodic writing is a sign of genius. But it did have an honourable history in ancient literature, at least from the time of Homer’s Odyssey (or even the Epic of Gilgamesh), so it must have been doing something right for many readers.

Whitney Shiner has a chapter titled “Creating Plot in Episodic Narratives: The Life of Aesop and the Gospel of Mark” in Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative. The comparison is helpful but I will confine this post to the comments on Mark.

Purpose of episodic style

Repeated action is extremely important for the purposes of the narrative. The author is using repeated actions to convey “many essential points about Jesus”. Shiner writes (and I think what he writes should be qualified):

Jesus’ ability as a healer or miracle worker can be shown only through repeated healings and miracles. The futility of trying to understand Jesus on a human level can be shown only through the repeated failure of those closest to him to understand his words or identity. Jesus’ superiority to his opponents can be shown only by his repeatedly outwitting them. (p. 165)

“Only” is a strong word and an easy target. Mark only needed one narrative episode ribboned with a “midrashic prophecy” to demonstrate how cowardly the disciples were. He only needed one passion scene to show Jesus’ ability to submit to unjust suffering.

But Shiner’s words do point to a certain validity. The episodic technique is used to tell readers what the author wants them to understand as “typical” of the central character.

Repetition is used by the author to express what he wishes to show is “typical of the activity of the hero, his antagonists, or the other characters concerned.”

Jesus becomes the one who can heal, who defeats his opponents in dispute, and so on.

Comparisons with the Life of Aesop prompt Shiner to further suggest that the repetition of episodes can likewise be used for an entertainment value. The readers can laugh at the repetitiveness of the failure of the Jesus’ opponents to understand him. Shiner overlooks what is surely a more obvious repetitiveness in Mark — the failure of his own disciples to understand him. Might “Mark” have expected readers to laugh at this, too? Or is he rather teasing them with frustrated agony?

Shiner suggests that when modern readers attempt to read the different episodes in Mark in the way they read modern novels, by looking for the narrative flow or psychological connections between them, then they can be puzzled by asking the wrong questions.

Shiner uses the repetition of the mass feeding miracles by Jesus to illustrate. Modern readers tend to ask how it is possible for the disciples to have forgotten so quickly — or simply how could they have ever forgotten at all — that Jesus has the power to feed multiple thousands with just a few loaves and fish. This is asking the wrong question, says Shiner. Ancient readers understood the discrete episodes, when repeated, to be drawing attention to particular characteristics of the protagonists. So Mark is using the two episodes to drive home the inability of the disciples to comprehend Jesus.

I think there is something more to it than this, however, at least with this particular example Shiner uses. The two feeding scenes are so similar to each other any reader must surely see the author is directing readers to think of them in comparison with one another, and Jesus himself, when in the boat with one loaf of bread and his uncomprehending followers, subsequently reminds his disciples he has just performed the same miracle twice.

But still, it is reassuring to think that Shiner’s point does let the author of the gospel off the hook of composing something so bizarre as disciples forgetting something unforgettable.

Divine causation and narrative plausibility

Discrete episodes do not easily lend themselves to developing plausible connections tying them together into a larger coherent narrative unity. But the ancients did have an “out” that made up for their relative lack of interest in human causation of events: divine prophecy and providential guidance.

The deity behind the scenes was usually understood from the beginning to be working out the events below according to a pre-ordained plan. We find this at the beginning of Mark’s gospel with the prophetic outline of what is to follow delivered in the “prophetic prologue” and message of John the Baptist. Later another prophecy enters to take the leading character into his suffering, death and resurrection.

So given this undergirding of the episodes, one can see that the episodes are each another step in the ordained plan of God. They don’t need a human-cause linking them to each other; indeed, human links would possibly undermine the theme of divine control.

Prophecy, the will of God being worked out, overcomes the potential randomness of the episodes and binds them into a purposeful whole.

Shiner even sees here Mark’s abrupt, present-tense style, the way he rams episode after episode without the lubricant of graduating introductions, as part and parcel of this effect:

The sense of an unfolding divine plan created by the prophecy and fulfilment of the Markan prologue is immediately reinforced by the immediate and unexplained response of the disciples to Jesus’ call (1:16-20), the immediate appearance in the synagogue of the demon-possessed man testifying to Jesus’ identity (1:21-28), the immediate presentation of Jesus to Simon’s sick mother-in-law that initiates Jesus’ healing ministry (1:29-32), and Jesus’ reference to the purpose of his coming (1:35-39). Through this rush of events, Mark masterfully creates the sense of an unfolding destiny, and the episodic style is central to the effect. (p. 168, my bolding)

So from this perspective the distinct episodes that appear to be otherwise disconnected do, by their episodic nature, support this larger theme of over-riding significance.

The appearance of a series of discrete events with relatively little causal connection between them that, nevertheless, immediately propel Jesus in less than a day to a position as a renowned teacher, healer, and exorcist is admirably designed to provoke a sense of wonder at the invisible hand of God working in apparently random events. (p. 169)

The question most fundamental to historical inquiry

There is more that I won’t cover at this time. There are other literary devices Mark uses to help build a sense of unity — or macronarrative — but they can wait another time.

I only wish to point to some of the functions of the episodic nature of Mark’s Gospel here.

What is most important for any historical study is to keep in mind that one is reading a literary creation.

It is no good simply picking up the Gospel and presuming that one can read it as if it is somehow speaking at readers from the past with the voice of ‘history’ or ‘historical intent’ blended with theological seasoning.

One is always reading words crafted to convey a particular meaning and reaction.

It is naive in the extreme to simply say that the Gospels give the dominant impression that Jesus was a teacher and healer, for example, and that we can therefore justify a presumption that Jesus really was a teacher and a healer.

That approach to the Gospels is mis-reading the Gospels. All we can say from the “dominant impression” they may convey about Jesus is that that is what someone wanted readers to think.

The truly fundamental historical question is to ask for any evidence — evidence, not assumptions — that will help us determine why someone wanted readers to think that.

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Neil Godfrey

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12 thoughts on “What Mark’s Episodes Do For Readers (and the real historiographical question to ask)”

  1. I think that Mark was written after Matthew and Luke. The purpose of Mark was to serve as the text for an initiation ritual for young Christians. Mark borrowed text in roughly equal portions from Matthew and Luke. The practice of putting youth through initiation rituals was borrowed from mystery religions.

    Mark adds one incident — the presence of a young man with Jesus in the Garden of Gesthemene. When Jesus is arrested, the young man escapes. The idea here is that Jesus had been putting this young man through an initiation ritual, and this young man escaped and eventually passed along the initiation ritual that these young Christians now were experiencing.

    As the text for an initiation ritual for youth, Mark emphasizes Jesus’s miraculous deeds and spends relatively little time on Jesus’s wise sayings. Miracles are extremely mysterious. Wise sayings are not so mysterious. If, like a mystery religion, Christianity tried to practice initiation rituals, then the rituals would emphasize the mysterious — the miracles. So, Mark emphasized the miracles.

    1. Mark adds one incident — the presence of a young man with Jesus in the Garden of Gesthemene. When Jesus is arrested, the young man escapes. The idea here is that Jesus had been putting this young man through an initiation ritual, and this young man escaped and eventually passed along the initiation ritual that these young Christians now were experiencing.


      1. There is quite a bit of evidence that Mark was written last. A Google search for “Synoptic Problem” will find you lots of arguments for that thesis.

        According to Eusebius, the earlier church historian Origen wrote: “As having learnt by tradition concerning the four Gospels, which alone are unquestionable in the Church of God under heaven, that the first was written according to Matthew, who was once a tax collector …. ”

        I think that the New Testament places the three major gospels into chronological order: Matthew, Luke and John. Then the minor gospel Mark is placed between Matthew and Luke because it is a compromise summary of those two major gospels.

        I don’t have strong evidence that Mark was written as a text for an initiation ritual, modeled on the common initiation rituals of mystery religions of that time and place. I think it is plausible that some Christians tried to establish an initial ritual for their youth. Apparently this effort was abandoned after a short time, and only The Gospel of Mark remained as a remnant.

        Mark’s unique inclusion of the story of the escaping youth during the arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gesthemene is, for me, an indication that Mark had a special purpose and meaning for youths. This youth escaped with the secrets of the ritual and passed those secrets on for further generations of youthful followers of Jesus.

        Also, the ending of Mark is separate. It seems that there was a Mark text that did not include the last verses, and there was a separate Mark text that comprised only the last verses. This last part was supposed to be the revelation of the mystery, concluding the initiation ritual. This last revelation was supposed to be secret, so its text was kept separate from the main text.

        The Mark-based initiation ritual turned out to be inapt for the Christian church, and so the practice apparently was abandoned quite soon. However, The Gospel of Mark remained as a useful text, and eventually the two parts were united.

        1. Neil, what is your explanation for why only Mark includes the story of the escaping youth? If Matthew and Luke were written based on Mark, then why would both of these much larger two gospels omit only this one story?

          1. It’s not the only omission. Luke omits Mark 6:45 through 8:26 (famous as “the great omission”), and there are two pericopes in that section that Matthew omits also: the healing of the deaf man and the blind man at Bethsaida. There are other examples. It’s notable that both of these healings feature Jesus using spittle as part of the healing act. This would have smacked of magic to the author of Matthew probably. And the healing at Bethsaida takes two applications to be fully effective, suggesting limits on Jesus’ power, so we can perhaps see the apologetic motives for their omission from Matthew.

            As far as the young man fleeing Gethsemane, I think the later authors found it obscure; a loose end that as far as they could see is never tied up so it was preferable to leave it out. Also, they both alter the empty tomb story in ways that make the parallels less obvious (completely obscure in Matthew) so it might be more accurate to say that given the way they constructed their endings, the young man at Gethsemane becomes a loose end. The thing to realize about Mark and the later evangelists is that they were deliberately rewriting what was for them a troublesome text with puzzling features they simply didn’t understand and a theological outlook they didn’t share.

            If one were to regard Secret Mark as genuine and original (i.e. canonical Mark is a redaction of Secret Mark and not the other way around), it is even easier to see why the other two synoptics would have left out the young man. In this view, his appearance at Gethsemane is the only remnant left in canonical Mark of the theme of secret and private instruction to an unnamed beloved young man, and the redaction of Matthew and Luke are just the final stage of removing all this material apparently deemed spurious and idiosyncratic by the later writers.

            I think it’s reasonable to read Mark as at least having concern with initiation and even that it was possibly used liturgically for such purposes in “the Markan community” if there was such a group. Even so, it’s over-literal to read some special concern with young people in particular. Initiations into the other mysteries of the era were on behalf of adult “converts”, not the children of the initiated.

  2. Mike, the case for the priority of Mark is not watertight but it is very strong. I am not closed to the possibility of it being the last of the gospels, but my “arguments” for this are speculative alternative explanations to certain features of the gospel. So for most part I continue to write on the assumption of Markan priority. (I am aware that there are “lots of arguments” against Markan priority but arguments need to be assessed against the weight of their counter-arguments, too.)

    Eusebius reports many traditions but he was ideologically driven, of questionable honesty, and is not particularly reliable when discussing miraculous and other “divinely inspired” events placed more than 200 years before his own time.

    Most of your claims are speculative and appear to me to lack any supporting evidence or even contrary to the evidence. For example, you say that Mark was placed between Matthew and Luke because it was a compromise summary of those two gospels, But what evidence do you have for this being the reason? By whom? What were their stated reasons? How does this thesis sit with those parts of Mark that are not summaries of either Matthew or Luke but expansions and variants?

    What evidence do you have that the scene of the escaping youth refers to the author having a special purpose for youths? I know of none. It is entirely speculative to suggest that the youth in the gospel is escaping with (or represents an escape with) cult secrets. There is absolutely no evidence for this.

    Your thoughts on the ending of Mark — that there was another ending that was kept separate because it revealed secrets — is again entirely speculative. There is no evidence to support this suggestion.

    On the other hand there are valid arguments — that are consistent with known evidence — that Mark’s gospel is complete as we have it. The inconclusive ending is typical of “classical endings” in other literature of the era; even the word “gar”(“for/because”) is known to end a narrative other than Mark’s; and the 16:8 ending is consistent with other narrative interpretations of the whole. (I once posted many arguments on this blog along these lines a few years ago where I spelled all this out in detail.)

    As for the fleeing youth, the most striking feature is his nakedness, not his youthfulness, surely. If I have no explanation for this, then I feel much more comfortable accepting my ignorance than running with baseless speculations that he represents a plan for youth or a guarding of cult secrets. These are as baseless as suggestions that he is the author, “Mark”, himself. But if we look at the gospel as a narrative unity, and at Mark’s reliance on midrashic allusions to OT passages, we do see some clues within the text itself to explain this young man. On the one hand, it would be consistent of Mark to be creating this scene in order to fulfill a passage in Amos (he creates other scenes to fulfill OT passages — e.g. the fleeing of all the disciples is itself a dramatization of a passage in Zechariah). On the other, Mark gives many indications that he refers to clothes as symbols, from John the Baptist, to the man exorcised of Legion, to the healed Bartimaeus, to the young man in the tomb, so we are invited by the narrative itself to see this event of fleeing naked as symbolic, and not historical. Mark often writes “inclusio” or “bookend” scenes where he brackets certain events with similar persons or narratives meant to cast meaning on the central event. Example: the raising of Jairus’ daughter bracketing the healing of the bleeding woman; the fig tree story bracketing the cleansing of the temple. Likewise we have an anonymous young man either side of the scene of Jesus’ being taken and delivered into the hands of his tormentors and murderers: at the beginning this young man is naked; at the end he is clothed in fine linen. If Mark is writing a symbolic narrative (there are many reasons like this to think so) then the simplest explanation is to look for meaning within the text itself. The young man represents death (nakedness) and resurrection (linen garments). There are studies that also tie this symbolism in with baptismal rituals, but there is no need to speculate any further about secret rites. (And youth represents new life? Compare some of the early Christian art depicting John the Baptist as an old man and Jesus as a young boy.)

    There may have been secret rituals hidden from a superficial reading of Mark, but we have no way of knowing that there were and without evidence we cannot argue a case.

  3. This post is not a good place for an argument about the Synoptic Problem, because you have addressed another issue, which is Mark’s episodic style.

    I have offered an explanation, which is that this style was appropriate for the genre, which is the text for an initiation ritual for young Christians. I think this genre would emphasize dramatic episodes involving miracles. I think also that the initiation ritual might have been presented as a drama, where older Christians acted out episodes for the young audience.

    Apparently, my speculation did not convince you. Well, we all are speculating about all of this.

    When I get some free time, I will look into Gnostic Christian groups and try to find out whether any of them practiced any initiation rituals.

  4. Eusebius reports many traditions but he was ideologically driven … events placed more than 200 years before his own time.

    Eusebius said that Origen said that the first of the four gospels was written by Matthew. Origen would have written this sometime around the year 240 (give or take a decade or two). Therefore, I think that Origen wrote that statement about a 100 years after Matthew was written.

    In my opinion, that’s pretty good evidence that Matthew was written first. Origen was close enough (100 years) to have some solid knowledge on that point.

  5. Mark’s insertion of a scantily clothed young man into the story of Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Geshemene raises some salacious concerns in the minds of many readers. Jesus been doing something with this scantily clothed young man for a long time during that night — such a long time that the waiting disciples fell asleep repeatedly.

    And why did the young man run away? Had he been doing something wrong, so that he too might have been arrested and punished?

    For a long time, when I thought there was a historical Jesus, I thought that Judas’s betrayal was not that Judas showed Jesus to the guards or that Judas showed the guards where Jesus was, but rather that Judas told the guards when and where Jesus would carry out an initiation ritual on a youth. The guards knew what Jesus looked like and the guards could follow Jesus around. What the guards did not know is where and when Jesus carried out initiation rituals, and the guards wanted to catch Jesus while he was doing the ritual with the youth.

    Now that I no longer think there was a historical Jesus, I look at this question somewhat differently. Mark’s inclusion of this element into the narrative is so odd — when compared with the three other gospels’ narratives of Jesus’ arrest — that I think that Mark added it for an extraneous reason. This element does not explain anything about the story of Jesus’ arrest — rather, it explains something about something else, separate from the story.

    This element in Mark explains the survival of an initiation ritual that was carried out by Jesus himself just a minute or two before Jesus was arrested. The youth escaped, and so the initiation ritual was preserved in the Christian community. Now, more than a hundred years later, Christian youths still were going through this sacred rite.

    However, in fact, the initiation rite was not practiced until after Mark was written. But the very first group of initiates was told by the older Christians conducting the rite that the rite had been performed continuously during the previous decades, ever since the night when Jesus was arrested.

  6. Apparently, my speculation did not convince you. Well, we all are speculating about all of this.

    I am never “convinced” by any speculation. Why would anyone ever expect “speculation” to “convince”? No, “we” are not “all” speculating by any means. You appear to be unable to see the difference between speculation and evidence-based argument.

  7. I have been looking for evidence that the early Christians practiced some kind of initiation rite, and I came across a webpage containing a “Google book” of a book titled Christian Initiation: Confirmation Then and Now, written by J.D.C. Fischer.

    The webpage is:

    Beginning on the book’s page 9, there is an analysis of the available information about an initiation rite practiced by the Marcionites. According to Tertullian, this rite included several elements: 1) a washing with water, 2) an annointment with oil, 3) a feeding with milk and honey, and 4) a feeding with bread.

    Then, beginning on the book’s page 11, there is an analysis of the information provided about the baptism rite mentioned by Justin Martyr in his apology. Fisher finds that Martyr’s baptism rite seems to include the the giving of seven spirits (understanding, counsel, strength, healing, prophecy, doctrine and fear of God).

    Then, beginning on the book’s page 17, there is an analysis of further information that Justin Martyr provided in his Dialogue with Trypho about the baptism rite. In this work, Justin Martyr seems to indicate that the baptism rite included an unction with oil and an offering of fine flour. In other words, Justin Martyr’s baptism rite and Marcion’s baptism rite included not only water but also oil and flour/bread.

    Then on page 18, there is an analysis that suggests that this initiation rite was based on the procedure for healing a leper, as described in Leviticus 14. This procedure began with a seven-day quarantine period, followed by an eighth day during which the person was washed with water, annointed with lamb’s blood and annointed with oil, and then there was a sacrifice of lamb’s meat and of fine flour on an altar.

    The seven-day quarantine corresponds with the giving of seven spirits, and then there are the various procedures involving water, oil, and flour/bread. This suggests that perhaps there was a rather complicated initiation rite that lasted seven or eight days.

    Then, beginning on the book’s page 25, there is an analysis of a work titled Odes of Solomon, which is dated to about the later part of the Second Century. This work seems to include hymns that were sung in relation to baptismal rites. The Odes include references to a special baptismal robe, a feeding of milk and honey, an annointment with oil.

    On the following pages, the book provides more information about baptismal rites in and soon after the Second Century, and there are various indications that the rite might have lasted several days and included various procedures and instructions. During the rite, the person wore a special robe, which I assume was a scant covering over the person’s naked body — like the robe worn by the youth in the Garden of Gesthemene.

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