The Gospel of Mark as a Dramatic Performance

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

If we are serious about the idea of expanding our horizons with interdisciplinary studies, even those of ancient theatre, there is much that is thought-provoking here.

From time to time I encounter the idea that the Gospel of Mark was in some way related to dramatic performance or Greek tragedy. Mary Ann Beavis brings much of this literature together in her commentary on Mark (I have hyperlinked the bibliographical references):

A generic influence on Mark that may seem much more far-fetched to the modern reader is the suggestion that the Gospel resembles a Greek tragedy. Nonetheless, as noted above, many contemporary scholars see Mark as modeled on ancient drama (e.g., Bilezikian 1977; Standaert 1978; Stock 1982, 16–30; Beavis 1989, 31–35; S. Smith 1995; Lescow 2005 [link is to PDF]). Many others describe the Gospel more generally as having a dramatic quality (e.g., Perrin and Duling 1982, 237–39; Hengel 1985, 137; France 2002, 11–15; Burridge 2004, 239–40; Collins 2007, 91–93; for further references, see Beavis 1989, 192n134). Since Greek tragedy was very much a part of Greco-Roman education in the first century, it is plausible that Mark and the educated members of his audience would have had some familiarity with dramatic works, even if they had never attended a play, although attending theater was not confined to the upper classes in antiquity. Moreover, in Mark’s time the “closet drama,” a play written for private presentation rather than for public performance, was popular, at least among the social elite: all of the plays of Seneca belong to this genre. As Stephen H. Smith (1995, 229) remarks, “Mark’s Gospel was written with just this kind of situation in mind—to be read expressively by a lector before a closed circle of Christians in the setting of a private house” (cf. Beavis 1989, 33–35). As I have noted elsewhere,

If the author were a Jewish-Christian from Palestine, as the tradition asserts, there is no reason to rule out the influence of the theatre; Herod the Great built theatres in Jerusalem, Caesarea Maritima, Sepphoris, Damascus, and Sidon. There are records of Roman Jewish actors, and hellenistic Jews, like their Gentile neighbours, were avid theatre-goers. It has been argued that Job, Judith, 4 Maccabees, and the Apocalypse were modelled on Greek tragedy; the Alexandrian Jewish dramatist Ezekiel wrote a play based on the Exodus story. (Beavis 1989, 35)

In fact, Ezekiel the Tragedian’s Exagōgē, a drama about the Exodus written sometime between the second century BC and the first century AD by an Egyptian Jew, is the most complete surviving example of a Hellenistic tragedy (R. Robinson 1985, 805). Unlike the Exagōgē, Mark is not a play, but a Scripturelike narrative; however, as Collins (2007, 91) puts it, Mark is “written in the tragic mode,” and the Gospel’s plotting and structure show dramatic influence (see the section on structure below).

From that section below on structure . . .

. . . . Like an ancient drama, Mark begins and ends with a welldefined prologue (1:1–13) and epilogue (16:1–8). The first half of the narrative corresponds to the desis (“complication”) of a Greek tragedy, “the part from the beginning up to the point which immediately preceded the occurrence of a change from bad to good fortune or from good fortune to bad” (Aristotle, Poet. 18.2, trans. Halliwell 1927). In Mark, this corresponds with the Galilean mission (1:14–8:26), where Jesus teaches, preaches, and performs healings, miracles, and exorcisms with great success. This section of the Gospel is punctuated by choral outbursts from the crowds and the disciples, such as “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He even commands the unclean spirits, and they obey him!” (1:27; 2:12b; 4:41; 7:37). Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi (8:27–29) is a classic recognition scene (anagnōrisis), the discovery of an identity previously concealed—Jesus is the messiah (see Aristotle, Poet. 11, 16). This incident marks a “change of fortune” (“reversal,” peripeteia); immediately after Peter’s confession, for the first time, Jesus prophesies the suffering, death, and resurrection of the son of man (8:31–33). According to Aristotle, a recognition scene “is most effective when it coincides with reversals, . . .

As I have noted elsewhere, whether the author intended it or not, the physical layout of the Gospel “resembles that of a five-act Hellenistic play, with the place of the four choruses taken by teaching scenes” (Beavis 1989, 163). . . .

Beavis, Mary Ann. 2011. Mark. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. pp. 16-17, 25-26.

The above summary by Beavis was indirectly cited by Danila Oder in her book, The Two Gospels of Mark: Performance and Text. Danila knows how theatre works. She has both studied playwriting and worked as an actor. In her book on the Gospel of Mark as performance and text Danila examines in painstaking detail how the Gospel of Mark might have been performed in an ancient Roman theatre. I found the insights of someone who has worked in theatre and clearly has an in-depth knowledge of ancient theatre a fascinating exploration of possibilities behind our gospel text. An entirely new world opened up to me through this book.

Note: Danila does not say that our current text of the gospel was written as a drama. Hence the title of her book, The Two Gospels of Mark. There is enough in the way our canonical text has been associated with ancient drama (see the links above) to lead one to seriously consider the possibility that what we are reading today is a summary or prose encapsulation of a play. Danila discusses what scenes in our received text are stageable and which ones are not, and why the unstageable ones have been added to the original work. Readers are given a clear picture of what the stage setting would have looked like, the role of the chorus and even the audience. I was keen to try to capture in my mind’s eye how it all would have appeared in performance so happily a proposed text for dramatic performance is included in an appendix. It’s a new world, a seriously fresh approach to the Gospel.

Much of what Danila Oder discusses must necessarily be hypothetical but it is nonetheless tightly argued and does oblige one to consider possibilities that are currently outside the standard view. If we are serious about the idea of expanding our horizons with interdisciplinary studies, even those of ancient theatre, there is much that is thought-provoking here.

Oder, Danila. 2019. The Two Gospels of Mark: Performance and Text. Los Angeles: Domus Press.