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
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.