Notes on the fictive and parabolic character of Mark’s gospel
While Paul’s letters raise the question over their author’s lack of interest in the historical person of Jesus the same question is actually thrust at us with almost as much force from the gospel of Mark. That may at first seem a bizarre statement but a literary analysis of the gospel (as opposed to a form critical approach) makes it an entirely reasonable one: Mark’s Jesus is as much an impersonal theological construct as is Paul’s. The following discusses this issue from the perspective of a range of literary, rhetorical and symbolic factors, including the ending (yet again), in the gospel.
Literary analysis and form criticism
Approaching Mark’s gospel via literary analysis of its whole is of course in contrast to the form critical approach that studies each pericope in isolation in order to assess its likely origin. One justification for the literary approach as an alternative to form criticism in attempting to get to the roots of the gospel is that a study of parts of a story actually implies a rejection of the story as it was written. How can we be sure that we are really getting to the origin of a story of a miracle by a priori rejecting the miraculous element of that story when, as is most often the case, it is that very miraculous element that is the primary purpose and whole point of the story? To paraphrase Douglas Adams, if you take apart a cat to see how it works what you end up with is a non-working cat. For this reason the form critical approach, possibly more than Mark’s dualities, abrupt disjointedness and grammatical oddities, may predispose one to read Mark as a stylistically challenged “stumpy-fingers”. But it is not necessary to go to the other extreme and see Mark as a genius giant to appreciate that his work has somewhat more than basic literary competence. Nevertheless reading the gospel as something more than a crude pastiche of disparate sources may have the potential to challenge theories of the gospel’s origins derived from the form critical method.
Why focus on the parable approach to Mark
The most significant difference between Mark and the other synoptics for the question of historicity of Jesus, in my view, is that the entire story of Mark’s gospel can be read as a parable while Matthew and Luke cannot. There is a reasonable case to be made for the first gospel being written as a parable – with the implication that its characters and narrative are entitled to a presumption of being fictional and metaphorical only – while Matthew and Luke re-wrote Mark to create stories that sounded less cryptic, more literal, and hence more historically plausible. If Mark is a parable there are also implications for how one views the Little Apocalypse and the question of the original ending. The fictional nature of the characters does not depend on reading Mark as a parable. Nevertheless I have chosen to approach the topic this way because many of the characteristics of the parable that do support the fictional argument stand on their own regardless of whether one agrees that the entire gospel is strictly a parable. But further, the “Mark as a whole is a parable” case does appear to me to answer other questions about the gospel as well as the historical/fictive question. (Much of what follows is a collation from various readings including Kermode, Kelber, Tolbert and others, with a mix of interpretations of my own.)
Characterization in Mark
Before discussing Mark as a parable a word about the gospel’s portrayal of its characters, Jesus included, and the implications of this for the historicity argument. It is generally taken as a sign of the oral heritage of Mark’s stories that they portray actions and roles to the exclusion of character description or development. The oral medium of storytelling demands that the content told is essentially uncomplicated action involving characters who are nothing more than role agents to move the action forward. These are also the characteristics of the folk tale. (The application of this criterion to the synoptics risks falling over when it meets John the Baptist but more on this later.) The implications for Mark’s gospel are that Mark chose to rely on such oral tellings (or tales) for his sources, and that we cannot know anything about his characters apart from their narrative roles. There was no other source used by the author of Mark for any of his characters apart from what he took from other action and role-agent oriented narratives. In other words he had no interest in Jesus as a person, or certainly no way of knowing Jesus as a person, only as a narrative function.
Those who place Mark early (especially as early as the 40’s) and accept its essential historicity ought to be able to explain why this author did not use what surely must have been available to him – i.e. additional material about Jesus as a person, not just his name as a narrative role-agent. Paradoxical as it is, the questions raised against the Pauline epistles over their lack of interest in Jesus as a person apply with almost as much force to the gospel of Mark. Biographers, even contemporaries of Mark, know their audiences want to read little or big personal details of interesting names of the past. How could a person of half the historical impact suggested in the gospels generate a collection of narrative stories to last for decades before being recorded yet not a single tell-tale ancient rumour about any of that character’s more personal details? All we know is that a story tells us of a particular name who healed, commanded demons, was betrayed, killed, etc, -- all theological points in narrative form – yet we know more about Socrates and Apollonius and emperors “as people” apart from any narrow narrative function than we do about Jesus. We know what they wore; whether they were bald or hairy; medium or short build; whether they liked to burp and fart; we know amusing, touching or inspiring anecdotes with no point other than to demonstrate a likeable or unlikeable personality trait, and so on. Such details of course are the usual stock in trade of any good story teller and don’t in themselves prove historicity, but they certainly do add genuine historical touches. Authors know that audiences universally love those sorts of fellow-human details. That’s why good narrators use them (in the Hellenistic world as well as today), and why they may be changed and added to over time with the telling, to add plausibility and interest to the tales. Historians and biographers, including Mark’s contemporaries, rarely miss chances to include that sort of thing where possible. On the assumption of a historical Jesus with a massive impact on thousands of lives the absence of such details surely requires a special explanation as much as Paul’s lack of interest in them.
Mark’s Jesus is exclusively an agent for pronouncing and acting out theological or metaphorical messages. He is not a character of even the faintest whiff of personal biographical interest.
Mark vividly details John the Baptist’s dress and diet but not Jesus’ (except by vague tangential inference when scripture or rules or story function are the issues) and that requires explanation no less than it does of Paul when he wrote of rules for eating. If we reply that John’s dress was a theological construct and not a genuine biographical memory (to make him an Elijah forerunner of Jesus) then we come back to my #1 square: that Mark’s characters are unknown both to him and to us as real people. He only permits us to know them as literary or theological creations, not as real people of the past with non-functional historical or biographical interest or delineation. Mark’s Jesus is as much an impersonal theological construct as is Paul’s despite any narrative illusion to the contrary.
Jesus’ origins and family background are likewise only obliquely referred to when the author needs their function to make theological points (3:31, 6:3-4). The author can with equal facility strip them of their family relationship to Jesus in order to dramatize another spiritual or metaphorical point for his readers (15:40, 47, 16:1, 8 with 3:33-34 – this is discussed further below.) The only father Jesus appears in some adoptionist sense to have is God yet identification by fathers was the norm in biographies. (To dismiss this as an effort by the author to avoid reminding readers of embarrassing rumours regarding a less than honourable birth cannot be sustained. There is no other interest anywhere in the gospel of a real person apart from his textual theological function. Besides, this criterion of embarrassment is applied in a totally reverse manner when some critics excuse the account of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist by saying that such an incident “had” to be true because it was otherwise too much opposed to the author’s theological interests.) In other words the author has no historical or personal biographical interest in Jesus’ origins or family background. He is creating theological literature first and last and such references as there are to Jesus’ family are first and last personifications of specific theological messages. The author demonstrates no interest in nor even knowledge of a real flesh and blood person. The Jesus of his text lived entirely within his theological and literary imagination.
The same can be said of the death of Jesus. Both gospel and extra-canonical evidence informs us that it was the common and widespread custom of Jews of Hellenistic and later Roman times to reverence the tombs of their martyrs and honoured fathers. That the place and identification of the tomb of Jesus was not indicated in some way by Mark is incomprehensible if he had any biographical interest in Jesus. To argue that the resurrection made the tomb itself somehow irrelevant is perverse logic since such a miracle would only infinitely enhance, not diminish, the significance of some identifiable location of the tomb. Mark is rather following the Hellenistic literary motifs used to indicate divinity of a hero by having him vanish mysteriously from the scene of his death.
The point bears repeating: the author demonstrates no interest in nor even knowledge of a real flesh and blood person. The Jesus of his text lived entirely within his theological and literary imagination.
Characteristics of parables
Back to Mark as a parable. Some characteristics of the parable in no particular order:
- They are not self-explanatory and thus exclude outsiders from their mystery and are intended for insider knowledge only;
- Their characters and action are metaphors and are not meant to be taken literally;
- They do not have formal endings but leave the hearers with an air of unresolved expectancy;
- They reverse normal expectations;
- They do not lend themselves readily to embedding other texts in their story construction.
(Some of the following discussion of the disciples and family of Jesus may seem extreme but I have presented a justification for my slant in an earlier post that held that the typical interpretations are really a result of reading Mark through the eyes of Matthew and Luke and not taking Mark in its own right alone.)
- The insider/outsider characteristic – not with a self-evident meaning
When Mark has Jesus explaining the mystery of a parable to his special inner circle of followers (because, he explains, the meaning is meant to be hidden from outsiders) he is also telling his audience to sit a little closer and open their ears too because by this literary process he is including his audience, his hearers or readers (13:14 specifies ‘readers’), among the special insiders, alongside even the twelve apostles in the narrative, who are privileged to understand the mysteries of Jesus to the exclusion of all others. But then something in the story disturbingly begins to fall apart. The specially appointed twelve insiders with whom the audience at the beginning shared an understanding of the mysteries of the kingdom of God begin to “lose it”. The audience can only sit and watch/listen in helpless horror as those who were once with them cease to understand anything Jesus says and does, just as surely as the seed sown among rocky (petros/peter) ground initially sprouts with a flourish but quickly withers away to ruin. This fact adds special weight to Mark’s pronouncement that Jesus always spoke with a parable (4:34): the disciples cease to understand his most critical sayings and actions. This suggests that Mark intended his story of Jesus to be a parable that only his readers could understand. Mark is teaching his readers and listeners, the only true insiders after even the inner twelve prove themselves to be outsiders, the mystery of the kingdom of God through a parable (his gospel). When Mark’s Jesus earlier indicated that his generation would not see any sign, the reader can’t help but be a little bemused at the narrative blindness of that generation. Does Jesus mean he won’t give some new sign or does he mean the signs he has given are hidden, like the parables, from that generation? Neither the veil tearing nor the darkened noon were recognized for their significance if at all by those at the crucifixion, let alone the empty tomb. They, like the parables, are only recognized, and understood, by the readers. The reader can plainly see what the narrative generation cannot: Jesus showed many signs but none of his followers saw them as such although the generation reading Mark did. Surely this is a strong indication that the author was creating characters with metaphorical functions to serve a theological message to his readers and that anything resembling a “historical record” was not in his thoughts.
- The metaphoric quality – nothing literal
It is nonsense to imagine any of the above could have been historical. Historical people do notice and think about things like three hours of nightfall in the middle of the day, and real people don’t follow leaders who are totally incomprehensible. Peter (the stone) is as much a metaphor for the readers as is the seed that fell into stony ground. An earlier post gave other examples of the metaphorical character of Mark, in particular the stories of the mass feedings and the indication of their metaphorical quality by the fact that their hidden meanings actually “explain” (at least to Mark’s original audience if not to us today) Jesus walking on the water (6:51-52) and the leaven of the Pharisees (8:15-21). Those who see behind these feeding miracles some historical antecedent involving Jesus inspiring a generous sharing among the crowds must explain why Mark rather said the stories were actions to be understood and that the understanding had something to do with walking on water and the leaven of the Pharisees. If the earliest evidence we have of these stories comes to us as a “mystery” to be explained then we need reasons external to that text to justify any presumption of historicity.
Another apparent metaphorical tale is the story of the cursing of the fig tree, yet this is narrated as matter of factly as anything else Jesus is said to have done. The disciples of course miss the point and modern audiences think they understand that the fig tree curse is a metaphor representing the judgment to fall upon Jerusalem. But this interpretation leaves the modern reader troubled by what appears to be a very poorly applied aphorism on faith as its conclusion (11:22-24). Mark, we reason, has either incompetently chosen this metaphorical tale to sit incongruously with a message about faith and prayer, or he has his Jesus raise his eyebrows at the total denseness of his disciples and in exasperation proceeds to change his intended message to something simpler (about faith and prayer) that even they can understand. Neither completely satisfies because they are ad hoc rationales external to the text itself. But what if that little saying about faith was really the whole point of the fig tree and temple-entry metaphor (Jesus also speaks of prayer in the temple too thereby forming one more linking between the two episodes) and what if it is modern audiences who have lost the appropriate frame of reference? What if we see verbal and conceptual links between this episode and the equally “odd” conclusion of the gospel, and what if putting the two together begins to make coherent (metaphoric) sense of both?
1 (a) Jesus “sees” the fig tree “from afar” (in vain looks for fruit on it, and curses it, it not being the season for figs);
1 (b) the women “look from afar” (on Jesus as various groups look in vain to see if he will come down from the cross, but he dies instead).
2 (a) Jesus enters the temple in an action that anticipates its destruction and that provokes the plot to destroy him and at evening he leaves the city;
2 (b) at evening Jesus enters the tomb which is metaphorically linked with the temple’s destruction (Isa.22.16)
3 (a) In the morning Jesus and his followers again come to the fig tree and his followers marvel that it has been supernaturally destroyed so quickly;
3 (b) in the morning the women again come to the tomb to see Jesus and are amazed that he has supernaturally vanished – compare Pilate also marvelling that he had died so quickly.
4 (a) Peter remembered that he had heard from Jesus what to expect to see but he couldn’t believe it so failed to appreciate its significance;
4 (b) the women were reminded that Jesus had told what to expect when they came to the tomb but they couldn’t believe it and failed to appreciate its significance.
5 (a) The temple entrance and its bracketing fig tree scenes are joined together by themes of failed expectations and destruction of Jesus and the temple;
5 (b) the tomb scenes and its bracketing women scenes are joined together by themes of the perception of failed expectations and perceived destruction of Jesus and the “midrashic” allusion to the temple’s destruction.
6 (a) Peter is singled out as the one who remembered but without comprehension;
6 (b) Peter is singled out as the one who fails to receive a reminder of the message he has consistently failed to comprehend. (We know Peter fails to comprehend pretty much everything Jesus has said but when we erroneously read Mark through the eyes of Matthew we make the mistake of assuming he would have understood at least Jesus’ instruction that he (Jesus) would go ahead to Galilee and could be found there if followed. But a consistent reading of Mark without reference to later writers who re-wrote a parabolic tale as a literal history should rid us of this misconception.)
7 (a) The key lesson Jesus wants the disciples to learn is have faith that can even remove a mountain;
7 (b) the women lack faith even to remove a huge stone and run in fear when they encounter the meaning and consequences of it having moved. (It may also be significant that among the women is the mother of Jesus but no longer identified as such, thus inviting recall of Jesus’ earlier renunciation of her as his true mother, along with his brothers, in 3:31-35. This is all in keeping with Jesus naming his chief denier Satan
Jesus speaks of the importance of faith. Faith not only explains what happened to the fig tree; it can remove mountains. This message seems out of place at first but it quickly becomes apparent that it really is just the right message and the key to the tandem metaphor of the ending: the women never learned that the key was faith; they didn’t even have faith to pray for the removal of a huge rock from the tomb let alone a mountain! If they had faith in Jesus they would have recalled and understood Jesus’ words that explained the empty tomb. The message of faith at the end of the fig tree scene is the key that explains the ending to the true insiders (the original readers). In the narrative those who should have been the insiders (the women who followed Jesus) ran in such fear there was no one to remind them of this message, but by now we know they would not have comprehended it in relation to what had happened anyway any more than the disciples got it in relation to the fig tree. The inner twelve and the women who followed him, even his mother, are all a total loss according to the parable of the sower. The only ones who understand even that parable, as well as the whole parable of Mark, are the readers.
As an aside one also ought to feel the full force of Mark’s failure to identify Jesus’ mother as his mother at the closing scene. This is surely as startling as any other incongruity in the gospel and cannot be ignored. It is yet one more indication that the author is not giving us a biographical account but a mystery as baffling to outsiders as the ending. Insiders are probably meant to see Jesus’ mother is no longer his mother after 3:31-35, and thus it ought not be so surprising to find her fleeing in fear at the end. Mark didn’t care about saving his characters or protecting family reputations because they were all fictional and crafted only for the purpose of confronting his audience with the possibility of their failure too.
This is just one part of Mark and one of the most problematic. The whole gospel is essentially of the same character, however. Throughout episode after episode we can see how the author contrives a story that relegates the supposed insiders, the disciples, to outsiders, and the supposed outsiders, the audience, and even it seems the unnamed crowds who follow Jesus, as the real insiders.
This insider/outsider device is perhaps thrown into highest relief with the Little Apocalypse which can be read as the middle section sandwiched between two halves of a common gospel story in the same way Mark treats smaller story units bracketed by a two parts of a single episode (e.g. the fig tree and temple entrance above, the healing of the bleeding woman and Jairus’ daughter, et al.) Mark directly signals that this Little Apocalypse is for the comprehension of his audience (“let the reader understand”). It is strapped to the enfolding brackets of the rest of the gospel by a plethora of common images and motifs although these are not always readily recognized because of their cross-generational contexts. The instructions given in this prophecy to the narrative disciples are wasted. They are repeatedly warned to watch and avoid falling asleep, especially after seeing the fig tree in leaf, and we know that happened at Gethsemane. But the audience twigs to something else, another metaphor, that reassures them that they and not the narrative disciples are the true insiders. The fig tree in leaf in the Little Apocalypse is a metaphorical sign to the readers that the right season (summer) is imminent, while the fig tree seen by the disciples heralded a false hope (it was not yet the season for figs). Earlier Mark’s Jesus suggested that his generation would not see a sign but now Jesus is giving his readers (those whom he can remind really must understand) signs by the bucketload. Mark uses his character of Jesus to address two generations: the generation in the story and the generation reading/hearing it and only one will understand.
One does not have to think of Mark as a parable to see that his characters are metaphors however. Commentaries point to the symbolic meanings of names like Peter, Jairus, Joseph, Mary, Bartimaeus, Legion, Levi, Judas, Barabbas, Jesus and the list of his brothers. Many a reader has been left floundering for reality checks when confronted with the profusion of Simon’s whose images seem to invert clone ellipse eclipse oppose conjunct one another. Even historical characters like Pilate are recast out of all recognition in order to sustain the story metaphor. The number of characters identified by their parents is about equal to those identified by their children and given our knowledge of social mores that ought to signal literary artifice rather than historical memory.
There are as many reasons for taking geographical place names and events as metaphorical also. Most of us know of books that discuss Galilee versus Judea and Jerusalem as typological typography. Commentaries again point to lakes, storms, the Mount of Olives versus the Temple, dual miracles, blindness and leprosy, and such as symbolic.
Metaphoric use of people, places and events does not itself mean those people, places and events are nothing more than literary creations. But historicity cannot be sourced from metaphor alone. If the main supports we find for historicity of these events etc can be sourced to re-writings of their original metaphoric function then obviously historicity has a problem.
- The ending in unfulfilled expectancy
16:8 is not at all unusual or out of place as a conclusion if Mark is read as a parable. As a parabolic ending it is entirely consistent and rhetorically coherent. If one reads Mark as a parable of the kind outlined above then Mark is only being consistent by concluding with the utter failure of his narrative insiders who became narrative outsiders. This leaves the audience, the true insiders, to meditate in some shock on the responsibility that their insider status brings. The parable thus achieves its purpose. One might compare, or more accurately contrast, the response of the chief priests, scribes and elders to the parable of the wicked vine-dressers in chapter 12. This also concludes in a rejection of Jesus and failure of the protagonists. The only positive sign within this narrated parable is that the kingdom will be given to a vaguely assigned “others”. Readers come to know that those “others” are not to be found in the story. They are only to be found among those true insiders who are the sole comprehenders of the parables within the narrative and the parable of the narrative. Is the only seed that fell on good ground in the parable of the sower pointing to the readers of the gospel? I suspect so. At least that reading to me makes the most sense, without having to go beyond the text, of all those niggling issues that have long bugged readers – why Mark avoids calling Mary Jesus’ mother, why there is no meeting of Jesus with the disciples, why the gospel ends with followers fleeing and keeping quiet in fear. To add text beyond 16:8 would be like trying to improve the Mona Lisa by extending her smile.
Later readers who read Mark through Matthew’s and Luke’s texts and no longer saw it as a parable have been compelled to look for a more natural sounding ending. Yet surely this ought to seem a strange notion for a book that is composed almost exclusively with the unnatural (e.g. followers who haven’t a clue what their leader is doing or what he even means to say; characters blind to the extraordinariness of the signs and miracles performed under their very noses and subsequently forgetful of them) for the sake of rhetorical and theological purposes.
- Reversal of expectations
Those called by Jesus to become his inner circle of disciples and who are initiated into his mysteries and witness his greatest miracles and see him glorified are the same ones who fail to understand him, criticise him, betray him, are called Satan by him, deny him, and desert him, thus qualifying for inclusion among those of whom the Son of man will be ashamed at his coming in glory (8:38).
Jesus comes to preach kingdom of God but speaks in parables so others cannot understand.
Jesus is introduced as the great Messiah who will baptise with the holy spirit, is hailed as the heir of David, but he then is taken in the night, given a travesty of a trial and executed.
Jesus saves others but not himself.
Jesus is anointed for death not for kingship.
Blind beggars see but the disciples are blind.
Those commanded to keep silent speak and those commanded to speak are silent.
Those called to follow Jesus at the beginning flee from him and no longer understand they are to follow him to Galilee. A second fearful flight means they do not even receive the reminder of where he is going so they can follow.
Ad infinitum (almost) – this is possibly the most discussed facet of Mark in the commentaries and it would be pointless trying to make a final comprehensive listing.
Does not lend itself to the insertion of other texts
A parable is crafted for specific rhetorical outcomes with carefully carved metaphors and story structure and one would think it simply defeats the purpose to draw significantly on texts that were created to serve very different purposes. A parable is of necessity too much a work of the author’s imagination and creativity to allow much room for foreign insertions. This principle adds further weight for both mass feeding stories being original to Mark. This is also one more reason (a previous post stated another) for seeing Mark 13 as in essence original to Mark even if that puts Mark well into the second century. (But I have not read Herman Detering’s article on Mark 13 in English – only scattered sections with the aid of a computer translator.)
Above all it speaks against the view that Mark was artlessly quilting his story together from a grab-bag of oral and other traditions – in particular the supposed Christ-cultists and Cynic-like communities -- in an attempt to unify them.
The Parables within Mark
Kelber has proposed that the reason Mark does not include many parables and those that he does include generally lack the sting quality we normally associate with the genre is partly because he was throwing all his energy into creating the one grand parable and partly because, as discussed above, parables do not readily lend themselves to the insertions of other texts (other parables included of course). I wonder if there might be another possible reason. By making most of his internal parables relatively straightforward he was ensuring that his audience could confidently identify themselves as insiders with Jesus. It may have strained credulity a little to make the narrative disciples so dense as to not grasp them all but that was his right as the author and besides, it worked to the advantage of his rhetorical purpose to set the disciples off as such strongly contrasting foils to both Jesus and the audience.
One does not have to accept the view that the whole gospel of Mark is a single parable to see the literary arguments for the fictional character of the story and its characters. The gospel evidences no more knowledge of or interest in “a (historical) person of Christ” than Paul’s letters do. But if the gospel is a single parable of the kind discussed above then this does have the added advantage of being able to explain in terms coherent within the text several mysteries commentators have long pondered: the apparently poorly chosen message on faith beside the cursing of the fig tree; the “coincidence” of the two distinct fig tree signs and a more complete role for the Little Apocalypse within the whole; the subtle relationship between the tomb and the temple; why the author appears to deliberately avoid identifying the mother and brothers of Jesus as such; why the disciples never receive a reminder to follow Jesus again at the end; why the women flee and remain silent for fear and why this is such a very good ending for the parable (gospel) of the kingdom of God.
Afterthought on repetitions in Mark
As for the prolific verbal and image repetitions and echoes in Mark these may have much to do with sustaining the message of the parable orally to a listening audience. The only doubt I have about this comes from Mark’s intrusion to inform “the reader” to understand. How does a listening audience respond to that when it is read to them? Either way, the dualities and repetitions are a noteworthy characteristic of the gospel and I’d prefer to err on the side of simplicity in interpreting them as flags to help readers/listeners see and sustain the message of the parable throughout, to help him keep the plates spinning throughout the reading. Going beyond the obvious structural patterns such as stories bracketed by related stories, clear dualities, small-scale chiasms, increases the risk of the reader exceeding the creativity of the original author.