The Gospel of Mark is a beautifully-written masterpiece. It is generally believed to be the first written and organized account of Jesus; it’s dramatic and encapsulating, carrying the listener or reader along an emotional journey through the ministry of Christ. The exciting nature of this book has led many scholars to seriously examine Mark’s Gospel as a three-act drama.

The following is an abridged excerpt from the New International Greek Testament Commentary Series.

Dramatic literary features

The features which make Mark so easy to read are to a large extent characteristic of ‘oral literature’. Many have commented on the pace at which the narrative moves, emphasised by Mark’s famous overuse of the adverb εὐθύς (euthys) both to signal narrative developments within a pericope and to link successive events (42 uses, with 7 within the short sequence 1:16-31 alone); a similar effect is produced by his frequent use of ἤρξα(ν)το (erxanto) as an auxiliary verb, while πάλιν (palin) occurs 26 times to enable the reader to link a new incident with the previous story. The sense of rapid movement is enhanced by the fact that his narrative clauses are generally linked paratactically rather than subordinated into the adverbial clauses which a more sophisticated Greek stylist would have preferred.

Two turning points in Mark

Attempts to explain the structure of Mark’s book, while differing considerably in detail, generally recognise a similar plot development pattern. Towards the end of chapter 8 a division forms by Peter’s recognition of Jesus as Messiah (8:29) and by Jesus’ declaration that his messianic mission culminates in rejection and death (8:31), which those who follow him must expect to share (8:34-38). Up to this point the story has been of Jesus’ public ministry in and around Galilee, and of his disciples’ gradual perception of who he is. After that, the story moves downhill to Jerusalem where the rejection and death are to take place. The focus here is less on public ministry and more on the preparation of the disciples for what’s ahead. A further turning point comes at the end of chapter 10, when Jesus and his followers arrive in Jerusalem and the predicted confrontation begins.

Three stages

As a result, the gospel’s plot often resembles a drama consisting of three main stages, focused on three geographical locations:

  1. In and around Galilee (up to roughly 8:21),
  2. On the road to Jerusalem (roughly 8:22–10:52),
  3. In the capital itself (from 11:1 on).

Within each of these main stages various subsections may be discerned, most obviously with the movement from the period of Jesus’ public activity in Jerusalem (chs. 11–12) to the passion narrative (chs. 14–16), with the discourse of chapter 13 as a bridge between the two. Several interpreters have taken the three-stage geographical progression to be the principal structural basis of Mark’s story.

Storytelling via geography

This conclusion is more probable when it is noted how artificial this geographical outline is. In Mark, Jesus visits Jerusalem only once, and the whole story seems designed to build up to that visit. Note the two references in the Galilean phase to Jerusalem as the place from which opposition comes (3:22; 7:1), and the references to the hostility of the Jerusalem establishment (even where the city is not named) which punctuate the journey from north to south (8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34).

All this contrasts strongly with the pattern presented in the Gospel of John, which has Jesus making frequent journeys between Galilee and Jerusalem (generally in connection with Jewish festivals), so that even in the period before Jesus’ dramatic entry to the city in Jn. 12:12-19 he seems to have spent at least as much time in Judaea as in his own territory. This Johannine pattern seems historically more probable, in that most Galilean Jews made regular visits to Jerusalem at Passover time.

Had Jesus been to Jerusalem or not?

Moreover, there are indications in Mark’s own narrative that Jesus has in fact been in Jerusalem before the final week, such as his already existing links with his hosts in Bethany, with the owners of the donkey on the Mount of Olives and of the guest room in Jerusalem used for the ‘Passover’ meal. While there is perhaps enough material in Mark 11–12 to prompt the religious authorities’ hatred of Jesus, their settled hostility (and Jesus’ prior awareness of it) would be more adequately explained if he had already come to their attention before this final Passover visit.

This suggests that Mark’s simple outline of an extensive ministry in/around Galilee followed by a lengthy and carefully marked journey southwards culminating in a single climactic visit to Jerusalem owes more to his dramatic reshaping of the story than to a naive recording of events just as they happened. As a purely geographical datum it resembles a structure deliberately imposed on the story.

Was Mark written as a drama to be performed?

That is why I find it appropriate to read Mark as ‘A Drama in Three Acts’. This doesn’t suggest either that Mark designed it for ‘performance’ in three sections, or that it is possible to discern clear breaks between the ‘acts’. It is an observation about how I discern the development of the plot, not about how Mark may have planned the structure of his text. Few early Christian writings offer explicit structural markers. It is not surprising, therefore, that there is disagreement among interpreters of Mark about just where one section ends and another begins. It seems clear, then, that Mark did not write in sections, but a single flowing narrative, and that any structure we discern is a matter of our reading of the text, not of Mark’s direction.

The outline

With that necessary caveat, I set out below the outline of the development of Mark’s story which I have found it convenient to follow. There is no symmetry about it, only a ‘narrative flow’, within which the different elements weave to carry the reader forward through the drama. This is a broad outline rather than a detailed breakdown of the text.

  • 1:1 The Heading
  • 1:2-13 The Prologue: Setting the Scene — The Dramatic Personae
  • 1:14-8:21 Act One: Galilee
    • 1:14-15 ——– Introduction: The Essential Message of Jesus
    • 1:16-20 ——– The Formation of the ‘Jesus Circle’
    • 1:21-39 ——– Preaching and Healing: General Impression (A Day in Capernaum)
    • 1:40-3:6 ——- Controversial Aspects of Jesus’ Ministry
    • 3:7-12 ——— Wide Recognition of Jesus’ Authority to Heal
    • 3:13-35 ——– Varying Responses to Jesus: Supporters and Opponents
    • 4:1-34 ——— Explanatory discourse: The Paradox of the Kingdom of God
    • 4:35–5:43 —– Further Revelations of Jesus’ Unique Authority
    • 6:1-6 ———- Not Everyone Is Impressed by Jesus
    • 6:7-30 ——— Jesus’ Mission Extended through the Disciples
    • 6:31-56 ——– A Sequence of Miracles around the Lake: Who Is Jesus?
    • 7:1-23 ——— A Foretaste of Confrontation in Jerusalem: The Issue of Purity
    • 7:24–8:10 —– The Mission Extended to Neighbouring Peoples
    • 8:11-21 ——– Summary So Far: Both Opponents and Supporters Still Have a Lot to Learn
  • 8:22-10:52 Act Two: On the Way to Jerusalem (Learning about the Cross)
    • 8:22-26 ——- First Healing of a Blind Man
    • 8:27–9:13 —– Learning to Recognise Jesus
    • 9:14-29 ——- Success and Failure in Exorcism
    • 9:30-50 ——- More Lessons about the Way of the Cross
    • 10:1-31 ——– The Revolutionary Values of the Kingdom of God
    • 10:32-45 —— Following Jesus in the Way of the Cross
    • 10:45-52 —— Second Healing of a Blind Man
  • 11:1–16:8 Act Three: Jerusalem
    • 11:1-25 ——– Throwing Down the Gauntlet
    • 11:27–13:2 —– Confrontation with the Jerusalem Establishment
    • 13:3-35 ——– Explanatory Discourse: The End of the Old Order
    • 14:1-11 ——— Setting the Scene for the Passion
    • 14:12-42 —— Last Hours with the Disciples
    • 14:43–15:15 — The Arrest and Trials of Jesus
    • 15:16-47 —— The Crucifixion, Death, and Burial of Jesus
    • 16:1-8 ——— The Empty Tomb

Many of these sections contain within them a number of separate pericopes, which I have grouped together because they seemed to me to have a prima facie coherence of subject matter and/or of function in the development of the narrative.

What are the “explanatory discourses”?

The only feature of my outline which needs to be commented on now is what I have labelled the two ‘explanatory discourses’, which fall roughly in the middle of Acts One and Three. Within Mark’s gospel there are two prominent concentrations of teaching material in chapters 4 and 13.

Discourse in chapter 4

In chapters 1–3 Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God and his associated works of power have led to a wide variety of reactions, from the enthusiastic commitment of the disciples to the hostility of the scribes from Jerusalem. So far the narrative has moved on at a breathless pace. Now in chapter 4 Jesus sits down to explain what is happening to the crowd and then to the disciples. The parables explore what happens when the message of the kingdom of God spreads and why people react to it so differently and the explanation of why Jesus teaches in parables gives a new perspective against which to set his continuing ministry in the chapters that follow.

Discourse in chapter 13

Similarly, in chapters 11–12 a rapid sequence of encounters commences between Jesus and the religious authorities of Jerusalem, located in the courtyard of the temple and culminating in Jesus’ prediction that the temple will be destroyed. The discourse on the Mount of Olives, for which Jesus again sits down, explains the significance of what is happening with special reference to the fate of the temple, but setting this more widely in terms of ‘the end of the old order’, the coming sovereignty of the Son of Man which will succeed the collapse of the present power structure.

No discourse in Act 2?

The two discourses of chapters 4 and 13 thus allow the reader a pause in the otherwise rapid pace of the narrative to think through the implications of the story so far, and provide a theological framework for understanding the new thing that is happening with the coming of Jesus of Nazareth. The fact that each occurs roughly halfway through what I have termed Acts One and Three of the drama suggests that there may be a literary as well as a theological purpose in the discourses, to provide a narrative pause which gives the reader time to reflect on the events as they unfold.

Why, then, is there no comparable discourse in the middle of Act Two? Even to ask the question in that form is to bestow on my three-act scheme an unearned authority. I am not arguing that Mark consciously structured his work in three acts; he was under no obligation to conform to the structure which I have thought fit to discern in his work.

Instead, let’s ask why Mark did’t feel the need for any other such explanatory discourse between chapters 4 and 13. Perhaps now we might point to the less hectic narrative pace of Act Two, much of which, even if not structured in long, coherent discourses, consists less of public activity and more of teaching material addressed to the disciples. In this more ‘discursive’ part of the drama there is perhaps less need for a reflective pause.

Keep Reading the NIGTC

New International Greek Testament Commentary Mark as drama

This section on Markan drama was a shortened selection from the New International Greek Testament Commentary Series. If you enjoyed it, we’ve got a copy just for you. This series is full of valuable exegetical insight of the Greek text, so head over to our store to read more about this magnificent work and add it to your library today!

1 Comment

  1. David Miller Reply

    It may be of interest to note that this dramatic nature of Mark’s narrative was well noted in 1979 when New Testament Scholar, Willard Swartley and Playwrite Urie Bender collaborated to write a two volume set that included a commentary – Swartley, Willard M. 1981. Mark, the Way for All Nations. Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press.and book of dramatic scripts – Bender, Urie A. 1979. To Walk in the Way : Dramatic Interpretations from the Gospel of Mark with Major Credits to Johanan Marcus. Kitchener, Ont.: Herald Press.

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