The Genius of the Gospel of Mark: A Proposal for Structure

This is the eighth 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 5Part 6, and Part 7.

The Perception of Mark’s Organization

We have already noted in the introduction to this series that the Gospel of Mark is probably the least regarded canonical Gospel among the four in the New Testament. It is the shortest Gospel. It lacks some of our favorite stories because it lacks a birth narrative. Mark does not describe things in vivid detail. His language is often terse. Mark’s Greek style and grammar has been deemed simple and inelegant. Furthermore, it has not always been viewed as the most orderly of Gospels. Papias, the bishop of Hierapolis, wrote about the authorship of the Gospels sometime during the first few decades of the second century. Regarding Mark he wrote, “Mark, having become Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately everything he remembered, though not in order, of the things either said or done by Christ. For he neither heard the Lord nor followed him, but afterward, as I said, followed Peter, who adapted his teachings, as needed but had no intention of giving an ordered account of the Lord’s sayings. Consequently Mark did nothing wrong in writing down some things as he remembered them, for he made it his one concern not to omit anything that he heard or to make any false statements in them.”[1] According to Papias, Mark is a reliable witness, but not a writer who took the time to organize his work.

The Truth

If you have read any other posts in this series, hopefully you have come to the conclusion that Mark is far from a haphazard author. His Gospel is organized. He took care to construct a narrative that bolsters his primary point that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. The question then becomes a matter of defining the actual structure.

The Majority Position

Most things that I have read on Mark’s structure generally argue for a two-part structure. The first half of Mark is about the identity of Jesus. The second half is about the task of Jesus on the cross.[2] The dividing line between the two halves is generally argued to be around chapter 9. Peter has confessed Jesus as the Christ and Jesus has begun to tell them about his impending death and resurrection.

I do not have any huge problems with this two-part structure. It has explanatory power. However, I do have a few quibbles with this framework. First, Jesus’s identity and his purpose are closely linked together in Mark. The two things are not easily teased apart. Consider the first few statements of the Gospel. Mark identifies Jesus as the Messiah. Right after that statement, John the Baptist identifies Jesus’s purpose, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Identity and purpose are in close proximity. Furthermore, the two most important statements of Jesus’s identity are found in the last half of the Gospel. Jesus confesses his true identity at his trial in Mark 14:62. The centurion confesses that Jesus is the “Son of God” in Mark 15:39. These two instances show that Jesus’s identity is inextricably linked to his purpose and cannot be established without understanding Jesus’s mission.

My Own Proposal

In the course of writing this series, I have noticed another possible pattern in Mark. Therefore, I would like to submit my own proposal on the organization and structure of Mark. I have not extensively studied commentaries on Mark. This series on Mark grew out of reading the Gospel devotionally over the late summer. If someone has proposed this three-part structure somewhere else, I would love to know about it.

Mark is a Gospel centered around a claim and subsequent confirmations. Much has been made in this series about the opening statement, “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God.” This is central claim of the Gospel. That claim is quickly confirmed at Jesus’s baptism by a voice from heaven, “You are my beloved son, in you I am pleased.” Notice in Mark 1:11 that the voice from heaven is talking to Jesus in second-person pronouns. The conversation is between Jesus and the voice. It is not evident that the people around Jesus hear it.[3] The reader is privileged to hear it. The Gospel continues through a series of miracles and isolated teachings. These events begin to establish Jesus’s authority. Through the use of the secrecy motif, Mark is also molding the reader’s opinion on what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah. However, Jesus’s identity and purpose are primarily known to only Jesus and the reader at this point.

The Gospel moves forward to the healing of the blind man at Bethsaida in Mark 8:22-26. We have already discussed in other posts how this miracle serves to mark progress. People are beginning to understand albeit vaguely. This healing is followed by Peter’s claim that Jesus is the Christ. Here is another important claim to Jesus’s messiahship. It is also followed by a confirming event in the transfiguration in Mark 9:2-8. A voice from heaven again comes stating, “This is my beloved son, listen to him.” This time the primary disciples of Jesus hear the voice. The understanding of Jesus’s identity and purpose is unfolding and expanding.

We then come to another healing of a blind man in Mark 10:46-52. Blind Bartimaeus sees Jesus clearly calling him “Son of David” (a messianic title). Everything is coming into focus for the last third of Mark. Jesus claims his true identity at his trial in Mark 14:62, “I am [the Christ, the Son of the Blessed] and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” This claim is then followed by the events of the crucifixion and the proper response of the centurion in Mark 15:39, “Surely, this man was the Son of God.”

The resurrection then becomes the keystone event of the Gospel. Another voice from heaven appears in Mark 16:6 (in the form of a youth dressed in white), “Do not be alarmed, You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here.” The resurrection confirms everything claimed by the Gospel about Jesus. To use the language of 1st Timothy 3:15, Jesus and his claims have been “vindicated” by the resurrection. The following bulleted list outlines my tripartite structure.

  • Phase 1 (Jesus’s true identity known to Jesus himself and the reader)
    • The Claim: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God.” – Mark 1:1
    • The Confirmation: “You are my beloved son, in you I am pleased.” – Mark 1:11
  • Interlude Healing of the Blind – People are slowly beginning to understand
    • Blind Man at Bethsaida – Mark 8:22-26
  • Phase 2 (Jesus’s true identity spreads to His closest followers)
    • The Claim: “You are the Christ.” – Mark 8:29
    • The Confirmation: “This is my beloved son, listen to him.” – Mark 9:2-8
  • Interlude Healing of the Blind – We are prepared for Jesus’s passion.
    • Blind Bartimaeus – Mark 10:46-52
  • Phase 3 (Jesus’s true identity is proclaimed to the whole world)
    • The Claim: “I am [the Christ, the Son of the Blessed] and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” – Mark 14:62
    • The Confirmation: The events of the cross and the Centurion’s claim, “Surely, this man was the Son of God.” – Mark 15:39
  • Final Confirmation: The Resurrection – Mark 16:6

Unfortunately, we will never access the mind of Mark and know for sure how he intended his Gospel to be outlined. Different proposals for structure can highlight different aspects of the Gospel. Therefore, even if I do not agree with the two part structure examined above, I can still profit from considering it. I believe that my own proposal for structure highlights the growing knowledge of the identity and purpose of Jesus as Messiah and emphasizes Mark’s rhetorical style. It outlines the journey of the reader and how Mark wants to convince them fully that Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified and now raised, is truly the Christ and the Son of God.

[1] This quote is taken from Michael W. Holmes (editor and translator), “Fragments of Papias,” in The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translation, 3rd edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 739-741. We do not have any of Papias’s original works. We only know about him and his work through the quotations from other early Church figures. This quote is found in Eusebius in Church History 3:39. It is also worth noting the many scholars debate whether the work Papias is referring to is what we call the Gospel of Mark. We will discuss authorship of the Gospel in the next post.

[2] Tim’s Keller’s King Cross is a series of sermons on Mark that uses this two-part organizational structure. It is easily accessible for any reader.

[3] Other Gospels will expand the audience to those around Jesus.

7 Comments Add yours

  1. ljhooge says:

    Another interesting post on Mark. Thank you.

    Of course, there have been many attempts to discover Mark’s overall structure. I think there’s an article out there somewhere where the author examines something like 90 different attempts.

    I do in fact like your proposal. Personally, I like seeing Mark via my own particular chiasmus, but that doesn’t mean that Mark isn’t concerned with developing a progressing linear read of his work as well. And I think you’re right to highlight some of the passages that you do.

    Even though I rather like the ‘two halves’ proposal for Mark’s structure, that doesn’t mean that Mark couldn’t continue his first half emphasis at a couple points in the second half – ie., at Jesus’ trial and at the crucifixition. ‘Who Jesus is’ is an important consideration, and to see Mark bring it out again towards the end of his gospel should not be too surprising. ? But overall, I see what you’re doing, and I like it. I love the fact that you’re digging deeper into Mark. I like being forced to rethink my own conclusions.

    That being said, I’ll briefly show you how I think Mark has structured his first and second halves. In my view, Mark likes to give his structures inclusions (bookends). Here are his first and second half inclusions, imho:

    First half inclusions:
    1). From 1:1 ~Title: Jesus is the Christ/Messiah and Son of God … to … Peter’s confession (Messiah) and the Transfiguration (God’s Son/Son of God).
    2). From Jesus’ baptism (anointed/Messiah, God’s Son/Son of God) … to Peter’s confession (Messiah) and Transfiguration (God’s Son/Son of God). … The important, most obvious connection here is God’s pronouncement at both Jesus’ baptism and the Transfiguration (“This is My Beloved Son”, “You are My Beloved Son”).

    Second half inclusion:
    1). From Jesus’ first prediction of death and resurrection … to … Jesus’ actual death and resurrection (ends with 16:8)

    The problem here is that if these inclusions are correct, you would expect to see the centre of Mark look like this: Peter’s Confession, the Transfiguration, followed by Jesus’ prediction of death and resurrection. That is, you’d expect to see the first half end inclusions first, followed by the second half beginning inclusions. But you don’t! As we have it, they’re mixed up. We have Peter’s Confession, Jesus’ prediction of death and resurrection, the Transfiguration. Oops.

    Personally, I think the solution is that Mark has taken the first half end inclusions and the second half beginning inclusion and has created a centre chiasmus. So, I see the centre of Mark like this (once again, this structure has inclusions):

    Centre beginning inclusion: Jesus as John the Baptist/Elijah. 8:27-28
    A: Peter’s Confession (Jesus is the Messiah)
    B: Jesus’ prediction of death and resurrection
    B’: Jesus’ teaching on B (‘Pick up your cross …). 8:34-38
    A’: The Transfiguration (Jesus is the Son of God)
    Centre ending inclusion: John the Baptist is Elijah. 9:11-13

    By creating a chiasmus at the centre, Mark has done a few things. 1). He’s given himself a true centre. (With the expected Peter’s Confession, Transfiguration, ‘Predictions’ ordering, he wouldn’t have really had a centre. He would have had more of a gap.). 2). His ‘new’ centre matches the end of his gospel, which is what you like to see in a chiasmus. 3). His ‘new’ centre has a very good, strong, relevant message for his readers (‘pick up your cross’/~be willing to die).

    Anyway, that’s how I see the first half/second half structure, as well as the centre structure. Mark has managed to make a strong centre with his first half conclusions: Jesus is the Messiah (Peter’s Confession) and the Son of God (the Transfiguration). At the same time, he begins to descend from the centre to the cross by bringing in the theme of death regarding himself (‘Predictions’), John the Baptist (see centre end inclusion where John the Baptist is Elijah/‘they did to him whatever they wished’), and Jesus’ followers (be willing to ‘pick up the cross and follow me’). These two overall themes, it seems to me, are meshing at the centre.

    I guess I wouldn’t be too surprised if later in the second half – and towards the end – Mark once again takes up his strong and important first half theme of ‘who Jesus is’. After all, it’s a pretty important theme. Perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising if Mark hasn’t entirely dropped it at the centre.

    But I’m quite happy for us to once again see things a little different. I’m totally good with that.

    Thanks for your posts. I find them very good. Stimulating – to say the least.

    Peace.

    Like

    1. I’ve finally found a few minutes to think about your proposal. I think it has potential. I encourage you to keep working on it and offer it to the world in some form or another. I think you might have to find an innovative way to map out your structure to communicate it effectively. I like to try to visualize a structure like a chiasmus. Your proposal sounds like it would resemble intersecting sine and cosine waves (at least on the positive side of the y-axis) with one chiasmus rising as another ends. Is that far off the mark? I do think that your central chiasmus solves your problem at the midpoint of the Gospel. I hope I’ve interpreted your comments correctly because I really like the idea of intersecting structural elements. It helps to show that ideas and concepts do not exist in isolation. For example, Jesus’s identity and purpose are intertwined and neither one can be understood without the other (that is not a shot at the “two halves” structure, just a relevant example). As I said above, your greatest challenge might be finding a way to map out and explain the intersecting structures in an accessible way.

      I also really like point 3 in your discussion of the chiasmus at the centre. I think this has real power if we adopt the “second reading” strategy we discussed in other comments on this article. Presumably, the reader is convinced of Jesus’s identity and purpose. We are coming off the mountaintop in the story and structure (we are on the other side of the chiasmus). We are going to take Jesus’s journey as well. Christians are after all called to die to self for the sake of the love of neighbor. Seeing Mark in this way calls more concretely for a tangible response to Jesus’s identity and purpose than my proposal in the original post. That is okay by me. I think an expected first reading response is simple belief. A second reading should push us to go further.

      I hope your new year has gotten off to a great start!

      Like

  2. ljhooge says:

    I read this article at Academia.edu on the structure of Mark, by Kevin W. Larsen, a while back:

    http://www.academia.edu/4408202/THE_STRUCTURE_OF_MARK_S_GOSPEL_CURRENT_PROPOSALS

    I think you access it by clicking on ‘READ PAPER’, at the bottom. At least, I was able to.

    Like

  3. ljhooge says:

    I thought I would just address the two instances in Mark where the question of ‘who Jesus is’ arises in the second half: 14:61-62 and 15:39.

    Just as the themes of death and ‘who Jesus is’ are meshed at the centre of Mark, Jesus’ death and ‘who Jesus is’ also emerge at the end of Mark. In part at least, I think Mark is drawing out the tragedy – and irony – of Jesus’ death. Here you have the Jews (Jewish leadership) – chapter 14 – and the Romans – chapter 15 – seeking the death of Israel’s Messiah and Son of God! For me, this is huge. The drawing in of ‘who Jesus is’, contrasts heavily with the deed being done. This is not simply the killing of an ordinary citizen. This is the killing of the Son of God!!! Hmmm.

    In truth though, Mark addresses ‘who Jesus is’ in additional ways in the second half. Eg., for Mark, Jesus is the Son of David, a King, and acts like a prophet. More?

    Like

  4. ljhooge says:

    I read your post again. It’s actually really good. I think you’re right to highlight the events you do. I think they are key to understanding Mark’s linear progression through his gospel. And even though I tend to read Mark chiastically, I have always ‘bowed’ before Mark’s linear read. For me, a linear read is primary, a chiastic read, secondary. … This post continues to make me think – which is a good thing.

    Like

    1. Daniel Hulsey says:

      Hello,
      I have not had a chance yet to think about and reply to your comments in depth yet. I hope to this week. Having two small children around Christmas time gets very busy!

      I think your distinction between primary and secondary readings is helpful. I would argue that the more linear read should be primary. Then take the chiastic reading second in order to “see Mark again for the first time” (borrowing Borg’s phrasing). Examining different possibilities in structure can help one recognize different nuances of the Gospel or reinforce key themes even more.

      Thanks for the article! As always, I really enjoy our conversations. I hope you have a wonderful Christmas.

      Like

      1. ljhooge says:

        Merry Christmas and a happy new year! … (I agree with everything you just said. 🤓)

        Like

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