The Genius of the Gospel of Mark: A Sprint to the Finish

This is the second post in a series discussing literary features of the Gospel of Mark. You can find the introduction to the series here.

A Passion Narrative with a Long Introduction

The German New Testament scholar Martin Kähler once called the Gospel of Mark “a passion narrative with an extended introduction.”[1] His description is apt because it is clear that Mark’s primary focus is on Jesus’s final week in Jerusalem leading up to his death and resurrection. The first ten chapters of Mark rush along at a breakneck speed and then the brakes are applied at the triumphal entry into Jerusalem in Mark 11. More details are worked into the narrative. Jesus’s teachings are more fully fleshed out. Seemingly minor details are included. For Mark, the events of the passion week are what make Jesus the Messiah. He needs the introductory material because it helps to establish Jesus’s authority (this will be discussed in a separate post). However, it is at the triumphal entry where the story begins to gain its ultimate meaning. There are a number of literary cues that Mark uses to maintain the reader’s momentum and propel them to this heart of the story. The literary features we will discuss here that builds this momentum are his use of grammar, language, and foreshadowing.

Conjunction Junction

Mark loves conjunctions. Reading through the Gospel of Mark, one gets the impression that he starts every sentence with “and” (καί in Greek). We are taught to avoid this in English. In fact, some would remark that Mark’s Greek is not as refined as Luke’s or Matthew’s. That is possible, but these conjunctions probably serve a purpose. My contention is that they drive the narrative forward and give it a sense of urgency.

Mark loves to use the Greek conjunction κάι (most often translated “and”). Καί is a coordinating conjunction in Greek. It connects what came before it with what comes after. In narratives, καί connects events that the writer considers to be of equal stature.[2] Linking events with κάι forms a straight-line story with little development.

Another coordinating conjunction in Greek is δέ (often translated “but”). However, unlike καί, δέ signals development in a narrative.[3] It slows down the narrative and signals to the reader to pay close attention to what follows. These conjunctions can control the pace of the narrative. Unfortunately, this pacing sometimes does not transfer over when translating the Bible into English. For example, consider Mark 1:9-21 in the New International Version (NIV):

9) At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10) Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11) And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” 12) At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13) and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

14) After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15) “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

16) As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 17) “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 18) At once they left their nets and followed him. 19 When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. 20) Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.

21) They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach.

Now consider the same text in a more literal rendering [my own translation with pacing conjunctions highlighted]:

9) And [κάι] in those days, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. 10) And [κάι] immediately upon coming up out of the water he saw the heavens splitting and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him. 11) And [κάι] a voice came out of heaven, “You are my beloved son, in you I am well-pleased.”

12) And [κάι] immediately the Spirit drove him into the wilderness. 13) And [κάι] he was in the wilderness forty days being tempted by Satan. And [κάι] he was with wild animals. And [κάι] angels ministered to him.

14) Now after [Μετὰ δὲ] John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming the good news of God. 15) And [κάι] saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

16) And [κάι] passing by the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother, Andrew casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. 17) And [κάι] Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” 18) And [κάι] immediately they left their nets they followed him. 19) And [κάι] moving further along he saw James the son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in a boat mending nets. 20) And [κάι] immediately he called them, and leaving their father Zebedee with the hired hands, they followed after him.

21) And [κάι] they went into Capernaum, and [κάι] immediately upon entering into the synagogue, he was teaching on the Sabbath.

Do you see the difference? Do you notice all the conjunctions that many English translations cut out? The reader is taken from the baptism immediately into the wilderness. We get a chance to breathe and process that John has been arrested before proceeding immediately to Jesus’s first proclamation of the gospel. Then, it is immediately to the calling of the disciples, and we are then whisked off to Capernaum. When is the reader to come up for air?

In contrast, these events occupy an entire chapter (plus a few more verses) in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew allows the reader to process between the baptism and the wilderness. He expands the wilderness temptation. He then gives the reader a break before Jesus’s first proclamation of the gospel. Further, there is a break before the calling of the disciples. Matthew certainly uses language cues to move his narrative along. In this passage, he often uses the word “then” (Greek τὸτε) to transition between the events and develop the narrative. However, “then” separates the events more than “and.” Mark’s gospel is more urgent. His use of conjunctions makes reading his narrative more like looking out a car window while driving on the interstate compared to Matthew’s country road.

Immediate Urgency

The above passage also highlights another well-known literary cue Mark uses to move things along rapidly. He uses the word “immediately” five times in the passage. It is one of his favorite words. He uses it eleven times in the first chapter alone. In total, he uses it forty-two times in the Gospel. By contrast, Luke only use the word once.[4] This repeated use lends the text more urgency, particularly when combined with the use of conjunctions studied above. Mark is racing to the finish line.

The Morbid Jesus

So far, we have seen how Mark uses Greek grammar and language to move his narrative forward with urgency. Mark also employs foreshadowing to remind readers that the truth of Jesus lies at the end of the story. As early as Mark 2:20, Jesus insinuates that he is not long for this world. He will be taken from his followers.

Jesus grows more morbid right before his passion properly begins in the Gospel. Jesus begins to describe his impending death in specific terms. He will predict his death three times over Mark 8-10. These foreshadowing predictions begin in Mark 8:31 after Peter’s confession. They serve to point the reader forward to Jesus’s death and resurrection. The suffering and vindication of the Messiah is what gives Mark’s Gospel its ultimate meaning. The readers are constantly reminded to look forward to those events so that they will not confuse that meaning.

Conclusions

We should be careful to not disregard Mark 1-10 in concentrating on the Passion Narrative of Mark 11-16. If Jesus’s last week of life was the only important thing to Mark, then he would have only written chapters 11-16. He is obviously not concerned with leaving out key events and details. After all, the Gospel of Mark has no Christmas stories. The miracles, events, and teachings in Mark 1-10 serve a purpose for Mark. However, there were other miracle-workers and teachers in ancient Palestine. There was only one messiah who would die on behalf of the world. Mark is in a rush to get to the cross because the cross is what gives everything else meaning. He uses language, grammar, and literary technique to push his readers forward and not allow them to linger long before getting to the heart of the story.

Back to the Introduction

Footnotes

[1] A passion narrative is an account of Jesus’s final week in Jerusalem leading up to his death and resurrection.

[2] Steven E. Runge, Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament: A Practical Introduction for Teaching and Exegesis (Peabody, MS: Hendrickson, 2010), 26.

[3] Runge, 31.

[4] I first came across these numbers in Mark Allan Powell, Fortress Introduction to the Gospels (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 1998), 41. This is an excellent introduction to the Gospels and highly recommended.

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