The Genius of the Gospel of Mark: The Unveiling

This is the seventh post in a series discussing literary features of the Gospel of Mark. You might first look at the Introduction, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.

“Let the reader understand…”

There is perhaps no phrase in the Gospel of Mark that reveals the author’s intentions more than this small parenthetical remark in Mark 13:14. Mark breaks the “fourth wall” and addresses his reader directly. It is a plea. He is trying to show the reader something. He is pulling back the curtain for the reader that they may see the truth in full light. A Gospel is no simple history. It is not an academic exercise. It is not presented as general information to be cataloged by the reader. Mark is trying to reveal to the reader theological significance in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. To borrow from the Gospel of John, Mark is writing these things “in order that you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”[1] For Mark, this revelation of Jesus as Messiah is a matter of life and death.

N.T. Wright has noted this “revealing” aspect of Mark and argued that the Gospel is best understood as an apocalypse. Characteristically, Wright refuses to play by the generally accepted rules and uses his own definition of apocalypse.[2] To summarize, Wright dismisses the idea that Jewish apocalyptic writing is a form of escape from the suffering of the present physical world. Jewish apocalyptic was not hoping for the world’s end. It is not longing for a spiritual heaven for a disembodied soul. It actually sees the hope for the physical world. God is acting in space and time to redeem the world. It is rather meant to “invest the space-time events of Israel’s past, present, and future with their full theological significance.”[3]

It is then appropriate that Mark makes his appeal to the reader in chapter 13, which is the most “apocalyptic” section of the book. Mark is taking the reader on a journey through the history of Jesus of Nazareth illuminating its full theological significance. As Wright points out, “The reader is constantly invited by the gospel as a whole to do what the disciples are invited to do in the parable-chapter, that is, to come closer and discover the inner secret behind the strange outer story.”[4] Mark’s story of Jesus is subverting the norms of Jewish apocalyptic hope. This Messiah is different. He is not a political messiah or a warrior-king in the sense that Jews of the day would expect. He will not rule a physical kingdom among other kingdoms like David. Yet, he is still the Son of David. Mark is methodically lifting the curtain for the reader to see how this crucified messiah actually fulfills all the promises God has made to Israel and the world through Abraham.[5]

This concept of Mark as a revealing apocalypse coheres with the tension found in the Gospel between openness and secret. A past post was on the Messianic Secret in Mark. However, Mark has been open about Jesus’s identity from the first line of the Gospel. Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Mark’s first major recorded event is Jesus’s baptism. In that episode, a voice comes out of heaven telling Jesus and the reader, “You are my beloved Son, in you I am pleased.”[6] The reader is fully aware of Mark’s claim. However, the base claim is not enough. Mark takes the reader on a journey unveiling the full truth. You need to be fully convinced. Additionally, you need to understand the nature of Jesus’s Messiahship because it does not fit the general expectations of the Jewish world.

Most of Mark’s original readers were probably aware of the general contours of the history he was presenting. After all, it was most likely first read at church meetings. Mark is imbuing that common history with its full theological import. It reminds me of Karl Barth’s discussion of eschatology in a little book entitled Prayer. For Barth, Jesus is already victorious over all creation. Unfortunately, the full nature of the victory is covered or veiled so that we cannot the world as it truly is. “We [then] pray in order that the covering which still veils the reality of the kingdom may be removed, in order that the reality of everything already changed in Jesus Christ may be made visible. All of God’s depth is there.”[7] Using Barth’s language, Mark is an eschatological prayer that pulls back the curtain on space-time history and reveals its full theological depth. Reading Mark is similar to going to a play or movie for the first time. You probably know the plot synopsis. However, it is only after the credits or curtain call that you see the full reality.

 I believe that two healings of blind men show the progress of unveiling the full truth in the Gospel of Mark. In the introduction to this series of posts on Mark, the healing of the blind man in Mark 8:22-26 was discussed as a kind of narrative frame. It highlights the gradual unveiling of the truth through its two-part structure. There is a second healing of a blind man in Mark. On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus heals blind Bartimaeus in Mark 10:46-52. I believe that there are significant differences in the two healings and that they serve as important keystone passages for the unfolding drama.

In Mark 8, the blind man was brought to Jesus. He was taken away from the village and Jesus touched him and spit in his eyes. The first attempt to heal him was incomplete. He could only see vague shapes. Jesus tried again and the man was healed on the second attempt. In the introduction, we showed how this seemingly botched healing serves as a literary device illustrating the progress of the narrative. Things are beginning to come into focus for characters in the story and for the reader.

In the healing of blind Bartimaeus, the narrative has progressed even further. Peter has uttered his confession that Jesus is Christ. Jesus has been transfigured on the mountain. He has taught many things concerning the Kingdom of God. He has foretold of his impending death and resurrection many times. The reader is prepared for the passion narrative and the full truth of the Gospel.

Blind Bartimaeus symbolizes this progress. The blind man sees Jesus in truth. Bartimaeus cries out over the crowd, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Even before his physical sight is healed, the blind man recognizes the nature of Jesus. The crowd rebukes him, but Jesus calls him to his side. The man is not escorted away from the throng. In the full view of the crowd Jesus engages Bartimaeus. There is no botched healing. Jesus does not even have to touch Bartimaeus. There is only the proclamation, “Your faith has made you well.” Mark’s foundation is complete. The blind can see. We are prepared for the passion narrative. The reader is ready to greet Son of David with the crowds at the gate singing, “Hosanna in the highest.”

 These two healings of blind men serve as key frame events that mark progress and transition within the Gospel. They indicate forward motion between the opening and closing statements of the Gospel. The first claim at the beginning of the Gospel is an introductory statement from the author/narrator, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God.” This statement is closely followed by a confirming voice from heaven at Jesus’s baptism, “This is my beloved son, in whom I am pleased” (Mark 1:11). The ending of Mark has a similar structure. At the crucifixion, the claim of the author/narrator in 1:1 is placed in the mouth of a Roman centurion, “Truly this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39). This proclamation is confirmed at the tomb of Jesus by another voice from heaven, “Do not be alarmed, you seek Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified, He is risen! He is not here!” (Mark 16:6).[8] In fact, the resurrection of Jesus serves to confirm the entire Gospel of Mark. The claim of Jesus as Messiah is vindicated by the fact of the physical resurrection of Jesus. In between the beginning and the final victory of the resurrection, Mark has taken the reader on an extended historical/theological journey. He does not want to leave any doubt. He does not simply make claims about Jesus. He establishes them with historical evidence and theological subtlety. He reinforces the truth with incredible skills in storytelling and narrative structure. He masters a tension between openness and secret that forces the reader to peek behind the veil and see the full theological depth of the life of Jesus of Nazareth. He is molding his reader hoping to fully convince all doubters. Mark’s purpose and sincere hope is that by the finish of his Gospel the reader can join with the centurion saying, “Truly, this man was the Son of God.”

[1] John 20:31.
[2] This is not a slight. It is one of my favorite things about Wright’s work. For his definition of apocalyptic see N.T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, vol 1 of Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 280-299. For his discussion on Mark as Apocalypse see ibid, 390-396.
[3] Wright, 286.
[4] Wright, 395.
[5] See Genesis 12:1-3.
[6] It is worth noting here that the voice out of heaven is addressing Jesus personally with singular second person pronouns. In the story, it is a one-sided conversation between Jesus and the voice. However, the reader is allowed to hear the declaration along with Jesus.
[7] Karl Barth, Prayer, 50th anniversary edition, ed. Don E. Saliers (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 38.
[8] Technically, the text describes the person in the tomb as “a young man sitting on the right side dressed in a white robe.” I interpret this to be an angel and thus a voice from heaven.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. ljhooge says:

    I thought I would leave a quick comment here. It’s not really related to your post as a whole. Sorry about that. It’s more of a little side ‘interest’ thing regarding Mark 13.

    I like to think of Mark 13 as a kind of intercalation. To my mind Mark could have written this chapter in the following order: 13:1-23, 13:28-37, 13:24-27. In other words, 13:24-27 could have been placed at the end, but Mark chose to pull it into the centre. I think he did this because these verses represent the ‘all-important, most-important, high-lighting ‘end game’’. In other words, in his chiastically conditioned mind (lol), he decided to give these climactic verses the prestige of the ‘chiastic’ centre (I view intercalation as a form of chiastic thinking). In other words, and I guess all I’m saying is, that if you decide to unravel Mark’s tendency in writing, you actually, I think, come up with a reading that makes a little more sense then if you don’t. Eg., by reading it in this ‘unravelled’ order, I think you may help to alleviate the problem of Jesus’ returning within the generation of Jesus’ followers. No? Hmmm.

    I think I’ll leave this at that for now. But I think I’ll come back and add to this proposal sometime relatively soon …

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  2. ljhooge says:

    Ok, I thought I would continue this a bit. The chiastic match for Mark 13, in my view, is Mark 4. Ched Meyers once referred to Mark 4 as Jesus’ fist sermon, and Mark 13 as Jesus’ second sermon. Both are lengthy teaching sections that focus primarily on the future. And, in my opinion, both can be divided into three parts (five of the six overall parts deal with the future). Because Mark 4 and 13 form a match within a chiasmus, they can be analyzed together. It might be helpful to imagine Mark sitting at a table, working out how to produce this match, considering how the parts might mesh, and work together.

    Just as Mark 13 has a centre that points to the most distant future (Jesus’ return), Mark 4 also has a centre that points to the most distant future (the parable of the seed, vs. 26-29; specifically, v. 29, which likely refers to Joel 3:13, and eschatological judgement).

    So anyway, to cut to the chase, I think the centre sections of both Mark 4 and 13 can be pulled to the back of their respective sections. In a way, it’s putting everything into chronological order.

    Again – cutting to the chase – I like to read Mark 4 and 13 in the following order: Mark 4 part 1, Mark 13 part 1, Mark 4 part 3, Mark 13, part 3, Mark 4 part 2, Mark 13 part 2. In other words, I’m doing two things: 1). Pulling the centre ‘parts’ of each section back into chronological order, and then 2). Reading the ‘parts’ of the two sections in parallel (I think Mark has written the 3 parts in Mark 4 in parallel with the 3 parts in Mark 13).

    And I guess I should say one more thing, the primary reason for the Mark 4/Mark 13 match is to contrast the success of Jesus’ mission with the demise of the temple. In other words, one path is successful, while the other is not – it faces judgment. Perhaps one key Markan verse in the Mark 4/Mark 13 match is 4:25, “For whoever has, to him more shall be given; and whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.”

    ___

    Anyway, on to the chiastic read of Mark 4/Mark 13:

    1). Mark 4 part 1 (Mark 4:1-25)

    This is the parable of the soil and the sower. It’s a relatively lengthy passage. I break it down as follows:

    A. Parable given (its meaning is hidden)
    B. Interlude on hiddenness, 4:10-12
    A’. Parable explained (no longer hidden, but revealed (revelation))
    B. Interlude on ‘revelation’, 4:21-23
    C. Conclusion, 4:24-25: “Take care what you listen to …”, ~more will be given; … what you have will be taken away.

    When reading this ‘part’, one needs to read it in its entirety. There’s parallelism going on here, which ties it all together. … There’s the possibility of both hiddenness and revelation. How you ‘listen’ is important. There’s results.

    2). Mark 13 part 1 (Mark 13:1-23)

    This is the story of the destruction of the temple. It’s a lengthy passage. I would say this follows nicely from Mark 4 part 1. Unfortunately, the warning in 4:25 (“take care how you listen”) is not heeded. The temple will be destroyed and “taken away”.

    This passage is also a chiasmus (see my blog). The centre of the chiasmus is vs. 10, “The gospel must first be preached to all the nations.” Usually something important is placed at the centre of a chiasmus. The chiastic centre points to the next part.

    3). Mark 4 part 3 (Mark 4:30-32)

    This is the parable of the mustard seed. The tiny mustard seed will grow into a large tree-like shrub and the birds of the air will nest in it. In other words, Jesus’ mission will grow into something large. So large in fact, that the nations of the world will benefit.

    From the Pillar commentary: “But the mystery of the kingdom is not present in the cedar; it is present in a tiny mustard seed. “What appears to be the smallest is nevertheless the greatest. In that which is hidden, the foundation of a work is laid that will encompass the whole world.” [*A. Schlatter, “Die Evangelien nach Markus und Lukas”] … In addition to the surprising growth of the kingdom, the parable of the mustard seed contains a hint of God’s grace to all peoples. … “Out of the most insignificant beginnings, invisible to human eyes, God creates his mighty Kingdom, which embraces all the peoples of the world.” [*J. Jeremias, “The Parables of Jesus”] …

    4). Mark 13 part 3 (Mark 13:28-37)

    The ‘part’ above uses a mustard seed. This ‘part’ uses a fig tree. Basically, 3) and 4) covers the time between 1/2 and 5/6. It’s the time period between the beginning/destruction of the temple and judgment/Jesus’ return.

    The destruction of the temple will occur within a generation. At that point in time, Jesus is ‘at the door’, if you will. But no one knows exactly when he will return. “Take heed, keep on the alert; for you do not know when the appointed time will come.”

    5). Mark 4 part 2 (Mark 4:26-29)

    This is the parable of the seed. Harvest time (eschatological judgment/Joel 3:13) does finally come. “But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

    6). Mark 13 part 2 (Mark 13:24-27)

    Jesus returns. “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then He will send forth the angels, and will gather together His elect from the four winds, from the farthest end of the earth to the farthest end of heaven.”

    The end. The overall climax of the Christian story is reached.

    In my view, this part is also a chiasmus. See my blog.

    ___

    Anyway, sorry for the length of this. I’ve tried to keep it short, believe it or not. ;-). I also understand that many people will have a hard time with this. It’s such a different paradigm. Something entirely new. … But I think it’s just taking Mark’s chiasmus seriously.

    Oh, I should also say, playing off of 4:10-12, Mark seems to emphasize ‘hearing’ in Mark 4, while emphasizing ‘seeing’ in Mark 13.

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    1. I need to make sure my notification settings are correct. I saw this comment come across this weekend, but I completely missed the one on 1/27. I will try your reading structure of Mark 4 and 14 out. I will also dig more into what you’ve posted on your blog to see if I can offer up any constructive comments.

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    2. Daniel Hulsey says:

      After reading Mark 4 and 13 together, there are definitely connections between them. I’m not sure I agree with Meyers and the 1st and 2nd sermon designations. As a quick rebuttal, what are the extended teachings of Mark 12? Are they not sermons? However, before I go too far with that I would want to look at his argument in full and in context.

      I left some comments on your site about Mark 13. I agree with you that 13:24-27 is a chiasmus. I also agree that Mark 4:26-29 is a nice prelude to that passage. I certainly think it is valid to view the two in conjunction. I will admit that I struggled some with parts 1-4 of your proposed reading. Parts 1 and 2 I can perhaps relate together through the concepts of hiddenness/revelation. I had a rougher time trying to see the connections between 3 and 4. They are both agricultural metaphors that concern growing, but I am failing to find the conceptual links between them. They also seem to be unbalanced in terms of length. I have admitted before that I am no expert in chiasmi, but I have always been under the impression that the related parts should have roughly equal “weights.”

      All that being said, I will reiterate that I do think that Mark 4 and 13 are related and inform one another. I like the relationship between hearing and seeing that you mentioned. That is worth exploring. Have you ever compared the two chapters in Greek? I wonder if there are vocabulary connections that would support the idea that they were written together. If Mark is using similar vocabulary, then it helps to make the case that he is considering the two sections together. I am curious enough that I might check into that (always looking for ways to keep up with my NT Greek).

      I do not want to let this go unsaid: I really admire how closely you pay attention to the structure of these biblical passages.

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      1. ljhooge says:

        Regarding Ched Meyers and his ‘first sermon, second sermon’ designations. I can’t remember which of his books I read this in. I did a ‘google scholar’ search on it and came up with the following PDF where he uses the terms in an outline on page 6. It might not be helpful.

        http://web.cerritos.edu/tstolze/SitePages/Myers,%20Mark's%20Gospel%20-%20Invitation%20to%20Discipleship.pdf

        Re Mark 12, I would say that the majority of this chapter is made up of 5 (or 4) controversies. It’s basically a mix of ‘problem raised’ and ‘answer given’. I would say that Mark 4 and 13 represent a more continuous, uninterrupted body of teaching. I think Mark 4 and 13 are also the largest 2 bodies of teaching in Mark. … I did a rather quick graphical analysis once via verse count – narrative vs. Jesus speaking – and it indicated that Jesus’ teaching is consistently placed at the centre of his chiastic structures.

        Re matches between the various parts in Mark 4 and 13, chiastic writers can develop ‘matches’ in numerous ways. Eg., the matches may be similar, or they may be contrasting, or they may be continuous. An example of continuous might be a question, matched with the answer. I would say that Mark may be more interested in the latter form in his 4/13 matches. Ie., one sub-section flows into the next sub-section. E.g., the first sub-section in Mark 4 – hidden parable, hidden comment, parable revealed, revelation comment, a choice – leads quite nicely into the first sub-section in Mark 13 – wrong choice: temple lost. In other words, Mark is telling a story that flows through time. For me, the difficult sub-section is Mark 13:28-37. On the one hand, if we take the view that Mark/Jesus thought that Jesus would return within a generation, it seems to work fine. On the other hand, if we take the view, as I do, that 28-32 refers back to 4-23, and 33-37 refers to 24-27, then the flow doesn’t quite work as well. Eg., in the former view ‘summer’ in 13:28 could be translated as ‘harvest’, which would lead nicely to the use of ‘harvest’ in Mark 4:29. In the latter view, I would translate 13:29’s “… recognize He is near, right at the door” (NASB) as “… recognize it/they (the Romans) are near, right at the gates”.

        Re matches that are ‘imbalanced in size’, I’m not sure where this idea comes from. I wonder if it’s more of a modern (imposed) rule than an ancient rule? I would view it as an option a chiastic writer could make use of, but wouldn’t necessarily have to. Perhaps it would be more present in poetry or short sayings and writings, than prose or narrative? Eg., I believe on my blog you mention that the C/C’ matches in my Mark 13:4-23 chiasmus are imbalanced. This is true. Personally, I think it’s because C’ is the key, most important point that Mark/Jesus wants to get across to his readers, and as a result, Mark is kind of pausing and filling this area up with more info for his readers. … Personally, I don’t really have a problem with imbalance.

        Anyway, thanks for the dialogue. Take care.

        PS. I found these comments by Eugene Boring in his Mark commentary regarding Mark 4 and 13 interesting:

        “The apocalyptic discourse of chapter 13 corresponds to the parable discourse of chapter 4.”

        “Mark has two, and only two, extended discourses of Jesus. The parables discourse course is inserted in the middle of part one, the apocalyptic discourse in the middle dle of part two, each providing interpretation of its major narrative unit.”

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  3. ljhooge says:

    Ok.

    My chiasmus for Mark 13:4-23 is here: https://biblicalchiasmus.wordpress.com/2010/05/30/mark-134-23-the-little-apocalypse/

    And my chiasmus for Mark 13:24-27 is here: https://biblicalchiasmus.wordpress.com/2010/06/04/181/

    I think these 2 chiasmi help delineate the first 2 parts of Mark 13.

    ___

    Mark 13 begins with a small chiasmi: stones … buildings … buildings … stones. Vs. 1-2.

    ___

    On a larger scale the 2 questions and their answers in Mark 13 appear to have been written chiastically:

    A. 4 Disciples: When will the temple be destroyed? 13:4a
    B. 4 Disciples: What will be the sign? 13:4b
    B’. The sign(s). 13:4-23 (13:14)
    A’. “When” is answered (the fig tree parable/no one knows but the Father). 13:28-32

    This is the same pattern used by Mark in Mark 3:22-30:

    A. Scribes: Jesus is possessed. 3:22a
    B. Scribes: Jesus casts out demons by Satan. 3:22b
    B’. Jesus answers concerning casting demons out demons by Satan. 3:23-26
    A’. Jesus answers concerning having an unclean spirit. 3:28-30

    Interestingly, in both these passages, Mark seems to have ‘added’ something between the answers. Mark 13:24-27 seems to have been added in Mark 13 (really, it’s not directly related to the 2 questions the 4 disciples have asked). Mark 3:27 may have been added in Mark 3 (it goes a bit beyond the 2 accusations given by the scribes – ie., it tells us what Jesus is actually doing regarding his battle with Satan). Anyway that’s how I see it.

    ___

    In your post you mentioned Wright’s “The New Testament and the People of God”. As a result, I pulled it off the shelf and read his short bit on Mark. Since I see a match between Mark 4 and 13, I enjoy it when scholars see a connection between the two:

    “But Mark 13 is not the only obvious ‘apolcalypse’ in the gospel. Were it not the case that the parables had been read for so long as ‘earthly stories with heavenly meaning’, and then for so long as stories making only one point, without any suspicion of ‘allegory’, the parallel between Mark 4.1-20 and the fairly standard ‘apocalyptic’ style would surely have been obvious long ago.”

    “But the deepest level at which Mark is to be considered an apocalypse is the level for which these two passages, Mark 4 and 13, are simply signs and symptoms.”

    Hmmm.

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