Sunday, September 30, 2018

The Gospel of Mark: Setting expectations on its authors' terms

The goal is this: When trying to decide what the document's point is, we let the document define its own scope and intent. 

Because the approach may be unfamiliar, I want to start with material that is familiar, first reviewing the Gospel of Mark to show how the method works.

Analyzing a Document's Table of Contents : The Gospel of Mark

As we read along any document, we can recognize when the author has started a new topic, but it's often done without conscious recognition of how we were cued into the change of topic. Here we slow down to give some thought to how we recognize different items, and how each item is introduced. Here are the introductions of early items in the Gospel of Mark:
  • And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins
  • At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 
  • After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 
  • As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake 
  • They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach 
  • As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew
If every document is a collection of a certain kind of thing, our first goal is to find out: what kind of thing does it contain? For each item that it contains, the Gospel of Mark brings focus to generally three or four of the following items: who, where, when, and what. I've tagged the texts above in those colors showing the author's focus on establishing the people, places, timing, and actions. As the Gospel of Mark adds each new entry to its collection, it establishes a context of people and places and timeframe, and continues to the action (which generally continues beyond the brief introductions that I've included here; it may be helpful to follow along in a text of the Gospel of Mark). From this, we see that the Gospel of Mark is relating a collection of events.

How are the items related?

Beyond being a collection of events, we can also see that the events build on each other. In the first event, we see John the Baptist baptizing. In the second event, we see Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist. In the third event, we see what happened to John (put in prison) and see Jesus going into Galilee. In the following events, we see more detail of things happening in Galilee. One item often transitions into the next. The events then are not a series of unrelated events, but interrelated ones: a narrative.

With the Gospel of Mark, this may seem a little too obvious: of course the Gospel of Mark is a collection of events that forms a narrative. Those who have read the document will know that it is a narrative, whether or not they can explain how we identify it as a narrative.

The point here is that it is not merely someone's subjective opinion that the Gospel of Mark is a narrative (while someone with a different point-of-view might legitimately consider it to be a sayings collection or an editorial commentary). The point is that objectively its structure is that of a narrative. We can tell that by how the text itself embeds each collected item in a narrative framework: even sayings are treated as events in a narrative, with times and places, a human and social context where they fit, and a series of events to which they belong.

What is the focus of the collection?

While the Gospel of Mark is quick to start with the events, its prologue begins with a notice that this document is "the good news of Jesus the Messiah". We immediately have some idea of author's perspective and focus: the author will write about Jesus; the author considers Jesus' story to be good news, and the author attaches religious importance to Jesus as the Messiah (a title of religious significance and an eternal cosmic scope).

After the bold though brief prologue, the Gospel of Mark's focus starts on Jesus and stays on Jesus for almost the entire narrative. The starting point of the narrative is an introductory section on John the Baptist, which sets the focus and tone for what comes next as we read John the Baptist saying "after me comes one more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie" (that is, Jesus). Other than a follow-up on the death of John the Baptist, what qualifies an event to be in this narrative seems to be its relevance to Jesus within the author's area of focus.

There's more that may be of interest about how the author's focus (or scope of knowledge) may affect the events selected. For example, we're not given any boyhood stories in the Gospel of Mark. But as the first document that we analyze here, it's an example of how to focus on the author's introductions and transitions to gain insight into the author's point-of-view. After we have seen the contents of some other documents, we'll be in a better position to gain perspective from making some comparisons among them.

The long-term goal in this type of analysis is to get our preconceptions out of the way for the various documents under consideration, and let each document in turn set the terms for how we see it.