Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Problem of History in Mark

One hallmark of narrative fiction, which distinguishes the writing of fiction from the writing of history, is the novelist's ability to move in and out of a character's mind and tell the reader what a character is thinking. This shift in the reader's point of view from seeing events from the narrator's perspective to seeing the situation from within a paper-character's mind is a primary feature of the rhetoric1 of fiction by which a flesh and blood author develops characters and furthers the plot of the novel.2 Historians, on the other hand, work with theories as to what constitutes the chronology of past events; in doing so they are obligated to reconstruct their historical plan by a plausible cause and effect sequence. They do not have the luxury of appealing to what a participant in an event was thinking at the time in order to further their reconstruction of events. Historians cannot read the minds of flesh and blood people who are involved in historical events; it is easy, however, for novelists to read the minds of the characters they invent.
            The Author of the Gospel of Mark makes extensive use of interior views of a character's thoughts; two of Mark's characters even read the thoughts of other characters in the narrative: Jesus (2:5, 8; 12:15); Pilate (15:10).
            A technique the author uses repeatedly throughout the narrative is the feature of registering "astonishment" by characters or groups of characters to the presence of Jesus, to something he has said, or to something he has done (1:27; 2:12; 5:42; 6:51; 7:37; 9:15; 10:26, 32; 11:18; 12:17).  Mark also employs this technique with the young man at the empty tomb (16:5, 8). When one is astonished, one is struck with sudden great wonder and surprise. Astonishment is an inner emotional response to some exterior element, and reveals what is going on in the mind of the character. Providing interior views of characters is more prevalent among primitive storytellers, but modern fiction writers are artistically more self-conscious and use a variety of techniques.3
            Mark uses the technique excessively, providing access to the inner thoughts of individuals and groups throughout the narrative: Jesus (1:41; 5:30; 6:6, 34; 8:12; 10:14, 21; 11:12; 12:15; 14:33), the scribes (2:6), the disciples (4:41; 6:51-52; 10:41), minor characters (5:29; 14:4; 16:8), Herod (6:20, 26); Peter (9:6; 11:21; 14:72); chief priests and scribes (11:18); chief priests, priests, scribes and elders (11:32; 12:12), David (12:36), Pilate (15:5, 15, 44), Joseph (15:43).
            The most extensive instance of the use of an interior view is in the case of Jesus' tortured prayer in Gethsemane (14:34-36) in which he seeks a reprieve from the crucifixion—possibly the most realistic moment in the narrative, but oddly it was not information available to Mark from an outside source.
            These interior views provided to the reader by Mark are not traditional lore passed forward over time to the author orally by participants in the actual events. How could anyone have known, for example, what Herod "felt" (6:20, fear; 6:26, sorrow), unless Herod specifically told them? And the prayer of Jesus in Gethsemane may have even been an audible prayer, but Mark clearly rules out the possibility that it was overheard; Jesus was alone and Peter, James, and John were asleep (14:34-41)—hence it becomes an interior view. The interior views can only be accounted for as Mark's literary creations. It might very well be true, for example, that Joseph "took courage" (i.e., had mental or moral strength) in going to Pilate (16:43), but it is not historical data. The observation only represents how Mark wanted the reader to regard his paper-character Joseph in the situation presented in the story.
            What should one then say about the Gospel of Mark as historical narration, in light of the fact that Mark uses the conventions and literary techniques of novelistic fiction? Several years ago, I argued that Mark's realism (i.e., how Mark views objective reality) is more akin to literary works portraying a romantic realism (i.e., to works relatively free of realistic verisimilitude) than it is to historical realism.4 Mark's pronounced tendency to inform readers what characters are thinking in his narrative lacks verisimilitude (i.e., lacks in the appearance of truth), because no one can actually read minds, and know precisely what others are thinking—except omniscient narrators who invent characters and have absolute control of events in the novel. Mark appears to be such an omniscient narrator (i.e., knows everything)—even what his characters in the narrative are thinking.
            What should a reader think of Mark's reconstruction of the dialogue in the scene where Jesus appears before the High Priest (14:55-65)? Should the dialogue be regarded as what was actually said? Or did Mark the omniscient narrator create it as dialogue readers might expect in that situation?
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
1That is the art of speaking and writing effectively.
2Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (2nd ed.; Chicago: University of Chicago, 1983), 16-20.
3Laurence Perrine, Perrine's Literature (edited by T. Arp and G. Johnson; 8th ed.; Fort Worth: Harcourt, 2002), 238.
4Hedrick "Realism in Western Narrative and the Gospel of Mark," Journal of Biblical Literature 126.2 (2007): 345-59.


  1. Hi Charlie,

    Speaking of "making use of interior views" what do you imagine Mark has in mind when Jesus addresses the singular High Priest with a plural quote from Daniel 7:13: "You (plural; Greek opsesthe)will see the son of man seated at the right hand of the Power," and "coming with the clouds of heaven."

    Some options:
    (a)Jesus addresses the High Priest, the quote from Daniel just happens to be plural.
    (b)Jesus includes the Council in his thought processes when he is addressing the High Priest.
    (c)The Daniel quote is an aside in which Mark has Jesus addressing Mark's generation (see also 9:1 and 13:30).
    (d)The comment is to be understood in terms of Jesus' "generation" such as is found in 9:1 "Some standing here will not taste death until they see that the Kingdom of God has come," or at 13:30, "...this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened." That is,for example, a 15y.o. who saw Jesus could easily still be alive when Mark wrote post 70C.E., a person broadly included in Mark's generation.

    Of course, under any of these options Jesus proves to be wrong. But what if the words on Jesus lips are actually Mark's beliefs. Reading Mark, Jesus was able to predict everything accurately, including his death and resurrection. Why would Mark hang him out to dry in this case. I have to go with the theory that, since Jerusalem and the temple fell, Mark expected the return of the Son of Man Messiah in his own generation and put that idea on Jesus' lips.

    Mark hedged his bets but only a little. He "knew" that the Father was the only one privy to the day and hour (13:32), but he felt that he could speak confidently of Jesus knowing the generation.

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    1. Good Afternoon Gene,
      Excellent analysis. I can only add a few comments. In the mini-drama before the High Priest and the others assembled (14:53)that Mark invents (how could he know the exact words that were spoken?) Jesus is likely addressing all assembled (your b option). And in my view you are also correct that the allusion to Daniel (it is clearly not a quotation) is Mark's belief that his generation lived in the last days (to your citation of 9:1 and 13:30 add 13:20). But for Mark the end would not come immediately, since Mark stated that the gospel must first be preached to all nations (13:9-10), and that would certainly take an unspecified amount of time. I would agree that the expectation of a near end on the part of Mark's Jesus and Mark makes them both wrong, but in my view we don't really know what Jesus's view of the end-time was.

  2. Before studying with you and Victor Matthews, I spent my whole life in churches without asking the question, "Who is speaking in a passage." While writing about "Song of the Vineyard," I was struck by insight about my discovery of Voice in the poem. It seemed to be an interchangeable voice between the prophet and God. I connected my idea to all the vineyard imagery in the Bible. New comprehension for me. Now when I read your Mark passage I see his internal view of Jesus in the garden and I understand that all the writers in the Bible tried to reveal something of Jesus' personality by inserting imagination of his thoughts.

    1. Good Morning Sandy,
      Thanks for adding your voice to the discussion. You are correct that sensitivity to the numerous voices in a text makes the text come alive in a different kind of way. But at the level of theory it is always the narrator who provides the voices and the narrator is the puppet of the flesh and blood author who always pulls the strings and speaks as the author decides. Even in the prophets when the prophet says "thus says the Lord," it is the voice of the narrator who speaks the Lord's lines that are supplied by the flesh and blood author. And that is true of the voice of Jesus even when he is involved in dialogue with his interlocutors.