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Some Preliminary Thoughts on the Structure of Mark 1:1-8:26

mark and lionI am convinced that the wisest and most beneficial readings of the Gospels will pay attention to the skillful way the Evangelists have crafted their Gospel Biographies as pieces of literature. This crafting is especially apparent and important in the two overlapping but distinct aspects of literary structure (how blocks of material are placed together to communicate various themes and points) and narrative plot (what is the thread of the story and how does it unfold as a plot).

One of the projects I’m currently working on involves writing a summary of each of the Gospels, commenting on it very briefly in units. I have 5,000 words only to introduce and comment upon the Gospel of Mark. This strict word-count limitation actually provides a freedom to force me to not get stuck in the weeds but to keep the big picture and flow of the story as the most important thing.

As a result, I have been thinking a lot about the structure of the first half of Mark and I am offering here my preliminary thoughts on what is going on in Mark’s literary structure.

I have consulted several very good resources on Mark, including Mark Strauss’s Gospels survey book (Four Portraits, One Jesus), James Edwards’ excellent Pillar Commentary (The Gospel According to Mark), and Hans Bayer’s insightful A Theology of Mark, which, uncommonly, is a book on the Gospels mosaic mark and lionthat shows sensitivity to both literary and structure and plot (and recognizes their differences).

Each of these scholars (and most others) see Mark as split into two parts (1:1-8:26; 8:27-16:8), with the Caesarea Philippi Confession as the turning point of the book (8:27-30). I concur. But scholars differ on how much of the first part is the Introduction, what theme holds together the two parts, and what subunits they contain.

Here is my suggestion:

Introduction – The Messiah is Coming with His Kingdom (1:1-15)

Part One – The Powerful Son of God at Work in Galilee (1:16-8:26)

Part Two – The Powerful Son of God Must Suffer in Jerusalem (8:27-16:8)

Nothing overly new or spectacular here. But let me offer a few more detailed observations, particularly about 1:1-8:26 (as far as I’ve gotten in my project so far!).

  • The Introduction – 1:1-15

This section is framed by and includes three references to “the gospel” (1:1, 14, 15), making it hang together as a unit. This serves as a frame of reference for readers (and probably resulted in all four accounts eventually being called “the Gospel according to…”). Throughout this Introduction Mark explains “the gospel” in a variety of ways, thus filling out the readers’ understanding. He describes “the gospel” in 1:1 as the good news “about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God,” in 1:14 as simply “the good news about God,” and in 1:15 as the time being “fulfilled” and the “kingdom of God having drawn near.” The banner that hangs over the rest of Mark’s account flows directly from this announcement of the gospel – “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (1:15).

  • There are two Main Themes that drive the structure and plot of Mark’s Gospel story – Jesus’ Identity and the Call to Discipleship.
    • Each of the subunits in 1:16-8:26 contain and are built upon this dual theme.
    • In fact, the subunits of 1:16-8:26 can be identified by recognizing how each of them begins with a summary paragraph about the disciples:
      • 1:16-2:12 (1:16-20 about the calling of the first fisherman disciples)
      • 2:13-3:12 (2:13-17 about the calling of Levi and other tax collectors)
      • 3:13-6:6 (3:13-19 about the appointing of The Twelve)
      • 6:7-8:26 (6:7-13 about the sending out of The Twelve)
    • Within each of these units Jesus’ identity is increasingly revealed, even as the disciples stumble to understand.
  • There are some important geographical movement markers that hint at more than geography, but theological points. Specifically, Mark seems to be communicating that Jesus’ work is done apart from the synagogue/Sabbath and home, but rather is outside. This conforms with a larger, well-recognized plot and structure theme in Mark, that Jesus’ ministry is “outside” in the sense that it focuses on Galilee, not Jerusalem. As Jesus journeys toward Jerusalem, conflict escalates.

Here is the data on the inside/outside distinction in 1:1-8:26:

  • Disciple-calling and revelation stories tend to happen outside – almost always on or near water, in the wilderness, and once on a mountain.
    • 1:9-11 – Jesus’ baptism and declaration of him as the Son
    • 1:16-20 – the calling of the first disciples at the Sea of Galilee
    • 2:13-14 – calling of Levi “beside the lake”
    • 3:7-12 – gathering of crowds of disciples and confession of Jesus as the Son of God (by impure spirits) after withdrawing to the lake
    • 3:13-19 – appointing of The Twelve on a mountain
    • 4:1-34 – revelatory teaching in parables alongside a lake
    • 4:35-41 – revelation of Jesus’ authority over nature on the lake
    • 5:1-17 – healing of the demoniac and confession of Jesus as the Son in the wilderness of Gerasenes
    • 5:21-43 – healing of Jairus’ daughter and hemorrhaging woman “by the lake” (and then in Jairus’ house)
    • 6:30-44 and 8:1-13 – miraculous feedings in the wilderness
    • 6:45-52 – revelation of Jesus walking on water
  • Conflict stories tend to happen inside the synagogues and/or on the Sabbath, and in houses:
    • 1:21-28 – conflict with the unclean spirits in the synagogue
    • 2:1-12 – conflict with the teachers of the law over the forgiveness of sins and the healing of the paralyzed man in the synagogue
    • 2:15-17 – conflict with teacher of the law and Pharisees about eating in a tax collector’s house
    • 2:23-28 – conflict with the Pharisees about eating grain on the Sabbath
    • 3:1-6 – conflict with the Pharisees about healing on the Sabbath in a synagogue
    • 3:20-35 – conflict with Jerusalemites and his own family in a house
    • 6:1-6 – rejection by his hometown people and synagogue
  • There are some exceptions (1:29-34, healing of Peter’s mother in law in his house; 6:37-43, healing of Jairus’ daughter in her house), but this is a notable distinction, it seems to me.

So there are a few preliminary thoughts. I’m sure there is always more to be seen and I welcome any feedback or additional comments!


mark lion

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5 Comments so far
  1. Brandon June 16, 2017 5:12 pm

    The “inside/outside distinction” is very interesting, never noticed that before. Based on OT stories and themes, I can understand the connection between revelation and the wilderness or a mountain. Would I be wrong to assume the connection with bodies of water has some background in the OT prophets’ connection of water with the promises of God’s deliverance from exile and dwelling with his people in a righteous reign (e.g., Amos 5:24, Is 41:17-18, Ez 47)?

  2. Jamie June 19, 2017 1:22 am

    Hi Jonathan,
    Will you be commenting on RT France’s outline?
    He has a 3 part structure which seems very plausible. I imagine you are aware of it, but don’t see it as convincing?
    With appreciation,
    Jamie Houghton

  3. Jonathan Pennington June 19, 2017 12:36 pm

    I think that makes a lot of sense. Thanks!

  4. Jonathan Pennington June 19, 2017 12:39 pm

    I have long been convinced of France’s three part Galilee/Journey to Jerusalem/Jerusalem “geographical overlay” (as I call it). I think Mark used this and then both Matthew and Luke adopted and adapted it in their own biographies. John is remarkably distinct on this.
    France’s observation is what I was alluding to when I said in the original post — “This conforms with a larger, well-recognized plot and structure theme in Mark, that Jesus’ ministry is “outside” in the sense that it focuses on Galilee, not Jerusalem. As Jesus journeys toward Jerusalem, conflict escalates.”

  5. Jesse Morgan July 11, 2017 2:51 am

    Hey JTP, this was helpful, thanks! I was wondering how Bauckham’s three “relevatory events” he talks about in the last chapter of “Jesus and the God of Israel” would fit in (baptism, transfiguration, cry of forsakeness). I found your structure convincing as well, which just brings up the question of how to determine what is the prominent structure in the author’s mind? Is it geography? Jesus’ revealed identity? Something else? Looking forward to when the final form is available!