Listening to Mark's Gospel

August 8, 2011

Unlike my Century
colleagues, I am not an avid book reader; I have no new history, novel or
memoir to commend for our summer reading list. My spare-time reading consists
mostly of seeking research gems or insights in critical biblical journals. Yes,
sounds like work.

But this exercise brings great pleasure. The growing
ranks of professional biblical scholars
make this a dynamic field. My special interest
is the Gospel of Mark. Within a single generation of scholarship, Mark has been
upgraded from a cut-and-paste, less-than-elegant Gospel to a marvelously
crafted narrative filled with irony, intrigue and inspiration.

Many researchers are now examining how the
mostly illiterate audiences in the Greco-Roman world were likely to have heard
the Gospels recited--or rather performed, with theatrical flourish. In the Journal of Biblical Literature's summer
issue, Kelly Iverson draws on oral/aural studies to
interpret Mark 15:39, the centurion's confession that "truly this man was God's
Son!" (subscription required).

Recently some scholars have suggested that the
Roman soldier speaks sarcastically, just as earlier in the passion story when
the soldiers viciously mock Jesus. Iverson argues instead that the centurion
offers a "sincere affirmation." While a godly voice calls Jesus his beloved son
at the beginning of Mark (1:11) and near the middle (9:7), the soldier is the
first (and only) human to identify Jesus as God's son. Placed so close to the Gospel's
conclusion, the centurion's confession offers a great applause line for the boisterous
audiences of that era, according to Iverson.

Iverson also points out that Mark typically uses
descriptive words to let audiences know who the good and bad guys are. But the
centurion simply "said" his belief. This is another example of Mark subverting
audience expectations, as when Jesus eats with sinners or breaks Sabbath
rules--or when people behave out of character. One of the scribes seeking to
test Jesus instead praises him (12:32-33); Joseph of Arimathea, a respected
member of the council, boldly asks for the body of Jesus to bury him (15:43) in
the absence of Jesus' disciples and brothers.

Louise Lawrence also emphasizes the importance
of the spoken word in Mark. Writing in the Journal for the Study of the New Testament (subscription
required), she notes the Gospel's frequent portrayal of people hearing and
listening (or failing to). According to Lawrence, Mark is ambiguous about the
importance of sight: "Mark's was a world in which one did not have to see to
believe." But the Parable of the Sower illustrates the power of spreading the
word, and the Gospel ends with the failure of the frightened women running from
the empty tomb and telling no one what they saw.

Lawrence could have cited the Transfiguration,
in which a heavenly voice identifies Jesus as God's beloved son (9:7). God
doesn't go on to say, "follow him faithfully," "watch him and do likewise" or
"believe him with all your heart." Instead, God says this: "Listen to him!"