The Genius of the Gospel of Mark: The Story Within the Story

This is the fourth post in a series discussing literary features of the Gospel of Mark. You might first look at the Introduction, Part 2, and Part 3.

In this series thus far, we have examined Mark’s larger narrative structure. Now we will investigate a technique he uses in a number of smaller stories featured in the Gospel. In Mark 11, Jesus tries to find a fig on a tree that had leaves. However, he found no fruit, thus Jesus cursed the tree. Then, Jesus moves on to the temple and cleanses it of the moneychangers and vendors. After the temple cleansing, the narrative returns to the fig tree and finds it withered. Why would Mark place the temple cleansing in the middle of this story about the fig tree? These stories within stories give the reader an interpretive context. Mark is telling the reader how to interpret the stories by placing them together.

This kind of storytelling has a few different names. Some call it intercalation. If you want to sound pretentious, you could use the Latin inclusio. At least one scholar has called them “Markan Sandwiches.” These feature two stories in three parts. Story A begins. Story B is told before Story A is finished. After Story B is finished, then Story A is finished. Mark uses the technique to signal to the reader how to interpret a story. In the above example, the fig tree story gives the temple cleansing context. The temple is like the fig tree. It shows leaves, but no actual fruit. Mark is arguing that the physical temple and the practices surrounding it no longer bear fruit.

This interpretation is bolstered when investigating how Matthew changes the structure of the account. In Matthew 21, the two stories are told in succession, but the intercalation is taken apart. Arguably, Matthew is a more “Jewish” Gospel. He could be uncomfortable making such a strong statement on the fruitless nature of the temple and its associated practices.

In the fig tree/temple story, the framing Story A gives the interpretive framework to Story B. Sometimes the contrast between the two stories highlights a central point. In Mark 5, a synagogue leader, Jairus, comes to Jesus asking him to heal his daughter. Jesus consents and leaves to see the daughter. Then, Mark interrupts the story and shifts the focus off of Jairus and his daughter. In this “interruption” a woman with a bleeding disorder simply touches the hem of Jesus’s garment and is healed. After this episode, the focus shifts back to Jairus’s daughter and Jesus raising her from apparent death with a touch and a word. In the Jairus story, the is a great deal of intentional effort. Jairus seeks out Jesus. Jesus goes to Jairus’s house. He touches the daughter. He speaks to the daughter. One could mistakenly believe that all of that intentional effort is what saved the young girl.

The interrupting story of the woman with the bleeding disorder corrects that potential misunderstanding. The only person with intention in this story is the woman. She does not seek Jesus’s attention. She only wants a glancing touch of his clothing, believing that will heal her. It happens as she believed it would. Jesus notices and encourages her faith. It was her faith that made her whole. It is faith that heals and not the physical effort. Faith healed the woman and faith healed Jairus’s daughter. Mark’s literary technique and structure (which is kept in Matthew and Luke) keeps the reader from misunderstanding.

Another example of contrast in an intercalation happens at the Last Supper in Mark 14. This intercalation is more about emphasis than instruction. Jesus begins the supper with the prediction of his betrayal. After this depressing discussion, Jesus institutes the Lord’s Supper by breaking the bread and offering the wine. This offering represents his willingness to die on behalf of the rest of humanity. He will be faithful to his task even as it leads him to death. After the supper, Jesus tells Peter that even he will betray him (3 times!). The disciples’ betrayal contrasts sharply with Jesus’s faithfulness. By sandwiching this faithfulness with betrayal, Mark emphasizes the faithfulness by giving it a sharp contrast.

These intercalations peppered throughout Mark are another indicator of the author’s literary skill. They are examples of how Mark artfully guides his readers in interpreting the Gospel. Matthew and Luke keep many of these intercalations intact. If you are reading a Gospel and notice a story is left unfinished, pay close attention to what happens next. The author is telegraphing to you how to interpret the passage.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. ljhooge says:

    Intercalation?

    Like

    1. Daniel Hulsey says:

      Good catch. Thank you. In the past I have used “interpolation” erroneously to describe these features, which was repeating a mistake of my first NT professor. Intercalation is a new term for me.

      Like

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