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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