Mark as a Literary and Theological Document: Mark 3:22–30 test case

I’m currently reviewing Elizabeth Shively’s Apocalyptic Imagination in the Gospel of Mark, and have been impressed with a number of her hermeneutical abilities and presuppositions.  Her clarity in thought is exemplary as tension and anticipation await each turn of the page.

One beneficial aspect of her project is her “close reading” of the text. As she analyzes Mark 3:22–30 (Beelzebul pericope), she utilizes narrative critical tools. Unlike other Markan resources, Shively demonstrates how this pericope is a “first of firsts.” This is the first lengthy discourse in the Gospel by Jesus. This is the first time Jesus is said to be speaking in parables. This is the first solemn declaration being introduced with ἀμήν. Moreover through an historical reading, Mark places this pericope in different place in his Gospel, distinct from Matthew’s and Luke’s placement. Mark exclusively identifies this discourse as a παραβολή. Finally, Mark places this parable at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, unlike Matthew or Luke. With this empirical data, Shively concludes Mark 3:22–30 demonstrates the “program for the whole Gospel. Specifically, Mark 3:22–30 constructs a symbolic world that shapes the literary and theological logic of the rest of the narrative.”[1] (Please wait until the book review is complete for a fuller analysis of her thesis).

There are two types (at least two) of readings when approaching the gospels. First, an historical reading will seek to uncover what actually happened. This will consist of reading multiple sources (Four Gospels, Josephus, other historical documents). This historical analysis is much like Historical Jesus research. Therefore, Mark 3:22–30 and its other synoptic parallels are viewed myopically in order to see what actually happened. A second type of reading is a literary-theological reading. This will dismiss all outside data in order to focus primarily on a single book. Therefore, when Mark’s pericope is placed around certain literary features, in varying historical order, and excluding various historical elements it has a literary impact when interpreting the gospel. Plot, character development, and tension are more prominent.

Various questions do arise when reading Mark in this two-fold reading. First, why is this the first extended public discourse by Jesus when Matthew and Luke have already included the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5–7; Luke 6)? Second, why is the first mention of παραβολή and ἀμήν in Mark 3 when they appear historically much earlier in Luke 4? Furthermore, Mark 6–16 describes the final year of Jesus’ ministry, why would Mark seem to make Mark 3:22–30 appear in the beginning of his ministry? In Mark 3:13–21 Jesus is still naming his 12 disciples? In Luke’s gospel, why does this account appear in the last year of Jesus’s ministry (Luke 11:17–22), whereas Mark and Matthew seem to place it in a similar historical place?

Patristic testimony asks and assumes different types of questions than modernists. When approaching the Gospels, New Testament scholarship assumes Markan priority, not only as being written first but also serving as an historical anchor for Matthew and Luke.[2] Patristic testimony may provide solutions to some historical questions thereby concluding Mark 3:22–30 (and Matt 12:22–37) purely to play a literary-theological role in Mark. That is, Mark is intending to communicate more theological concerns as opposed to historical concerns.

Patristic tradition assists this literary, non-historical interpretation by explaining the role of Mark and Luke. According to Papias (70–155 or 160), the Gospel of Mark is composed by transcribing Peter’s oral sermons.

Mark became Peter’s interpreter and wrote accurately all that he remembered, not, indeed, in order, of the things said or done by the Lord. For he had not heard the Lord, nor had he followed him, but later on, as I said, followed Peter, who used to give teaching as necessity demanded but not making, as it were, an arrangement of the Lord’s oracles, so that Mark did nothing wrong in thus writing down single points as he remembered them. For to one thing he gave attention, to leave out nothing of what he had heard and to make no false statements in them.[3]

There are two items of importance. First, Mark, according to early church, was not assumed to communicate historical order. Furthermore, Mark was understood to transpose Peter’s preaching. Though an argument by silence, Mark may have re-ordered Peter’s short sermons through redactional efforts. Therefore, with regards to historical matters, Mark appears to have a more literary-theological function than the other gospels.

The gospel compositional history of Luke, both by himself and Patristic tradition, contain theological and historical concerns. According to Luke 1:3, he desired to write a gospel both ἀκριβῶς and καθεξῆς. This two-fold adverbial use affirms truthfulness and sequential compositional order.[4] So, not only is Luke historical true and accurate, but Luke serves as the historical anchor for the other gospels. Moreover, Eusebius recounts Luke 1 as,

Luke himself at the beginning of his treatise prefixed an account of the cause for which he had made his compilation, explaining that while many others had somewhat rashly attempted to make a narrative of the things of which had himself full knowledge, he felt obliged to release us from the doubtful propositions of the others and related in his own gospel the accurate account of the things of which he had himself firmly learnt the truth from his profitable intercourse and life with Paul and his conversation with the other apostles.[5]

Eusebius understands Luke to be separating himself from other disparate gospel writers and to have written an accurate account.

The Patristic interaction is in no way representative of Shively’s argument. Rather her observations of Mark 3:22–30 have led to a close reading that seems to suggest a helpful literary approach. I suggest Patristic testimony to further bolster her methodological concerns (as simply laid out here, they are much more refined and nuanced; her methodological concerns will be discussed in my review). Mark’s placement of the Beelzebul incident bears no historical timing and has been redactionally rearranged; he has placed it out of historical order to serve a greater literary and theological purpose. If interested in this purpose, please consult Shively’s Apocalyptic Imagination.


[1]Elizabeth Shively, Apacalyptic Imagination in the Gospel of Mark: The Literary and Theological Role of Mark 3:22–30, Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschat 189 (Berlin, Germany: de Gruyter, 2012), 1–2.

[2]Consult Donald A. Hagner, The New Testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012); Andreas J. Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2009).

[3]Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica, III.XXXIX.15.

[4]Frederick W. Danker, Walter Bauer, and William F. Arndt, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2000), 490.

[5]Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica, III.XXIV.15.

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2 thoughts on “Mark as a Literary and Theological Document: Mark 3:22–30 test case

  1. Pingback: Palam, Aperte, Silentium – Something Hidden in Plain Site? (The Gospel of Mark) | Unsettled Christianity

  2. Pingback: Palam, Aperte, Silentium – Something Hidden in Plain Sight? (The Gospel of Mark) | Unsettled Christianity

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