Is the Gospel of Mark’s Syntax Evidence of Oral Tradition?

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by Neil Godfrey

I’m posting here just one more detail from Barry Henaut’s disagreement with Werner Kelber’s argument that our earliest gospel, the Gospel of Mark, originated as an attempt to capture stories that came to the author via oral traditions. After this we will dive more deeply into the question of oral traditions being the source of the canonical narratives. All posts in this series are archived here.


Kelber confidently assures us that there can be little doubt that oral heritage lies behind the short stories that are stitched together in the first thirteen chapters of Mark to give us a life of Jesus.

The many stories are linked together by stereotypical connective devices: 

  • pleonastic archesthai [=began] with infinitive verbs, preferably of action (2.23; 6.7; 11:15, etc. [=’began to make their way’; ‘began to send forth’; ‘began to cast out’]) and speaking (1:45; 8:31; 14:69; etc. [=’began to proclaim’; ‘began to teach’; ‘began to say’]),
  • the adverbial euthys and kai euthys (1:29; 3:6; 6:54; etc. [=’immediately’, ‘and immediately’]),
  • the iterative palin and kai palin [=’again’, ‘and again’], preferably with verbs of movement (2:1; 7:31; 14:40; etc.) and speaking (4:1; 10:1, 10; etc.),
  • the formulaic kai ginetai or kai egeneto [=’and it came to pass’] (1:9; 2:15, 23; etc.), and abundant use of paratactic kai [=’and’] (9:2; 11:20; 15:42; etc.).

These connectives are for the most part derived from the oral repertoire of the gospel’s primary building blocks. (Kelber, The Oral and Written Gospel, p. 65, formatting and bolding mine in all quotes)

These connectives serve to link the different stories into a chronological sequence and build a sense of urgency as the narrative proceeds.

Stylistic and rhetorical features

A number of stylistic and rhetorical features contribute to the gospel’s oral flavor.

  • Folkloristic triads have deeply penetrated the narrative:
    • three disciples are separated from within the twelve,
    • three times Jesus predicts his passion and resurrection,
    • three times he enters Jerusalem,
    • and three times Peter denies him.
  • The prolific use of the third person plural instead of the passive (5:14; 8:22; 14:67; etc.)
  • and erchesthai [=’comes’] (1:40; 3:20; 16:2, etc.), magnifies the gospel’s dramatic intensity.
  • Preference for direct speech (1:14-15; 9:11; 11:17; etc.)
  • or the tendency for indirect discourse to become direct speech (1:40; 10:32-33; 14:57-58; etc.) heightens the narrative immediacy. 
  • Parenthetical clauses (3:30; 13:14; 16:8c; etc.) enliven the style and serve ad hominem directives.

Even if some of these features are traceable to Aramaisms or Semitisms, this does not preclude their oral propensity. Their cumulative effect in Mark adds vividness to the narrative. As for the quality of Mark’s Greek, finally, it is a commonplace that it is removed from Attic elegance and more akin to a colloquial version of Koine Greek. (p. 66)


Duality in Mark is interpreted as a trait “typical for Mark’s way of thinking and writing.” (Frans Neirynck, Duality in Mark, p. 49, quoted by Kelber, p. 67):

A few examples of duality in Mark:

  • compound verbs followed by the same preposition (1:16; 10:25; 15:32; etc.),
  • multiplication of cognate verbs (2:15; 8:6–7; 14:45; etc.),
  • double imperatives (4:39; 14:38; 15:36; etc.),
  • double negatives (1:44; 13:32; 16:8; etc.),
  • ouk … alla [=’not. . .but’] constructions that restate in positive terms a preceding negation (2:17; 6:52; 16:6-7; etc.),
  • local and temporal redundancies (1:32; 11:15; 15:42; etc.),
  • repetition of motifs (3:21, 22; 10:32; 14:41, 42; etc.),
  • double questions (2:7; 8:17; 14:37; etc.),
  • inclusions (1:15; 4:3, 9; 15:16, 20; etc.),
  • repetition of request by realization ( 5:12, 13; 6:56; 15:11, 15; etc.) . . . .

Above all else duality is a concession to oral needs, not a “sign of the limitations of Mark’s art as a writer” . . . In a culture dependent on speaking, repetition is neither a stylistic quirk nor a flaw, but a dire necessity. . . . How else are words to be retained and transmitted? (p. 67)

Exact repetition is very rare in Mark and Kelber sees this as further evidence of orality behind the text. Very often the first statement is general while the second adds precision. Kelber calls this “progressive duplication” and holds that it both enhances the narrative momentum and aids recall.

Christopher Marshall builds on Werner Kelber

Christopher Marshall has picked up Kelber’s argument for Mark’s Gospel being built on a substratum of orality:

But how can equally competent scholars reach such opposite conclusions regarding Mark’s literary capabilities? The self-same features cited as proof of Mark’s ineptness as a writer are called upon by others as evidence of his literary skill. How can this be explained?

At least part of the answer lies in the extent to which allowance is made for the fact that Mark’s style is that of a speaker rather than a literary writer, and that his gospel was written not principally for private reading but for public recitation, probably in its entirety at one sitting. Indeed the written gospel could well be the result of Mark writing down, more or less verbatim, the story which he had already told several times in oral form.

Many of the features of Mark’s style, then, are not the result of strenuous efforts to produce a sophisticated written work but are concessions to the needs of oral communication. The expressive looks and dramatic gestures, the hand motions and pregnant silences, the variations in tone and pitch of voice and speed of delivery – all of which are essential to effective oral communication – have as far as possible been verbally integrated in the text, so that the effects of oral performance could be renewed at every public reading of the gospel. Features intended to appeal to the ear in oral story-telling may now sometimes offend the eye as written prose. But what is lost in literary smoothness is more than made up for in dramatic effect. (Marshall, Faith as a Theme in Mark’s Gospel, p. 18)

Henaut’s doubts

An oral flavor to a narrative, however, does not prove an oral tradition. (Henaut, Oral Tradition and the Gospels, p. 68)

There is room to debate some of Kelber’s interpretations.

  • Thus the adverbial euthys and kai euthys [immediately, and immediately] are not restricted to those sections of the gospel that are often thought to be traditional — chapters 1-13.
  • Stylistic devices like palin and kai palin [‘again’, ‘and again’] and kai ginetai or kai egeneto [‘and it came to pass’] are likewise found throughout the gospel. 
  • Geographic connectives or links, also — not just in chapters 1-13.
  • The triads supposedly derived fromfolkloristic speech? These . . .
    • belong to Mark’s overall narrative structure, and are clearly part of his literary technique. (p. 68)

By claiming these features as indications of Mark’s oral heritage Kelber has not sufficiently questioned the appropriateness of his model of oral tradition. Recognition that these features are part of Mark’s literary style should have caused Kelber to modify his view of the deep chasm between orality and textuality. (p. 68)

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Neil Godfrey

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4 thoughts on “Is the Gospel of Mark’s Syntax Evidence of Oral Tradition?”

  1. This, as usual, smacks of basic “affirming the consequent”.

    Luke writes like a doctor, therefore he is a doctor. The Testimonium sounds Josephan, therefore it is written by Josephus.

    I’ll be the first to admit that falsification isn’t the be all and end end all of science, but it’s still a good place to start.

    1. You have reminded me of another post I have long wanted to do: scotching the popular belief that “Luke writes like a doctor”. After your comment I again pulled out my sources putting this one to rest and was again reminded why I have delayed. It would mean I’d have to find a way to post dozens of Greek words and related sources, biblical, Josephan, as well as from the LXX, Plutarch and Lucian. Maybe more suited for a webpage than a blog post. But so much work!

      1. Maybe use a word processing program to write up the document and convert to PDF for download, or upload to Scribd and embed the Scribd PDF for viewing in a blog post? WordPress and Blogger are useful, but sometimes using a real word processor is easier. I have a link for open soruce Greek fonts you can use in Word, etc.

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