A Narrative Outline of Mark

To adequately grasp the message of the Gospels, one must give careful attention to the flow of the narrative. However we understand the genre of the Gospels, they are narratives. Moreover, analyzing the movement of the narrative shows how the unity of the book as a coherent story. To that end, here is my attempt at a narrative outline of Mark’s Gospel:

 

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Most would agree that Mark wrote his Gospel with the dual purpose of introducing Jesus as Israel’s Messiah and encouraging discipleship to Jesus. With that in mind, I have divided the material into two main sections with an introduction, transition, and conclusion. The two major sections focus on answer the questions “who is Jesus?” and “what does it mean to follow him?”

The introduction anchors the story in the story of Israel. Thus Mark presents the story of Jesus as the continuation, and indeed, climax of the OT story. John the Baptist prepares the way for the return of Yahweh to Israel, thereby presenting Jesus as the embodied return of Yahweh.

Part 1 gives particular attention to the question of Jesus’s identity. Mark’s strategy is to tell the story vividly and leave the reader to ponder the issue. The story of Part 1 begins Jesus’s announcement of the kingdom’s arrival and then demonstrates Jesus as the kingdom-bringer through his authority over demons, sickness, nature, etc. Moreover, in his teaching, he is the prophet par excellence, perfectly bringing God’s Word.

Part 1 also draws attention to the meaning of discipleship as Jesus calls his followers to find a new identity in relationship with him. That is, as Part 1 defines Jesus’s identity through the narrative, Mark also invites readers to discover a new identity.

The short transitional passage in Mark 8:27-30 explicitly answers the question: Jesus is the Messiah. Of course, the multiplicity of messianic understandings in the first century demands that we read the entire Gospel in order to understand just what kind of Messiah Jesus is. And that’s just what we find in Part 2.

Part 2 defines the messianic mission of Jesus, beginning with a strong emphasis on his death and resurrection. The rest of Part 2 fills out the details of the mission with Jesus defeating the true enemy, beginning the restoration of God’s people, claiming authority over the temple and even replacing it, all leading up to the climatic moment of his death.

Thus Part 2 defines the messianic mission, focusing on the death and resurrection of Jesus as the means of restoring God’s people and bringing God’s blessing to the nations. In terms of discipleship, the call of Part 2 is for those who have found their identity in the Messiah to join his mission.

Finally, the abrupt ending of Mark fits beautifully with the movement of the narrative (I hold the majority position that the original ending is at verse 8). The question of mission is answered, through somewhat cryptically. Jesus brings restoration through resurrection. Mark is open-ended — the mission is to continue through Jesus’s followers. They are to live resurrection lives and bring the good news of Jesus to the world.

While Mark could be outlined in other ways, I think this narrative outline allows us to keep the focus on the both the message and the medium. The story invites us to participate in it: find our new identity in Christ and join him in his mission.

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Jesus the Storyteller

In recent years, scholars have applied the tools of literary criticism to the study of the New Testament. One important literary tool utilized is narrative criticism, the study of biblical narratives as narratives. That is, narrative criticism studies the various aspects of stories in the text: characters, plot, setting, etc. Within New Testament studies, the primary focus has been on the Gospels, though narrative features in Paul’s discourse are also recognized (more on this in another post).

In the Gospels, a primary feature of Jesus’s ministry was that of a teacher. One of his favorite teaching tools was the parable. Though this is true, many Christians misunderstand the parables or neglect them altogether. While there have been many scholarly and popular studies on the parables, few, have considered the narrative character of the parables. That is, the parables are not just pity statements, but they are stories. How might a narrative analysis of the parables aid our understanding? This is the focus of Stephen Wright’s recent study Jesus the Storyteller.

Wright begins the book with an assessment of the history of parable research. The parables have been used and abused in many ways. Some consider the parables within the Gospels to reflect vastly different beliefs and intentions than those of Jesus himself (Reimarus). Some see the parables as universal moral truths, the product of Jesus the moral teacher (Jülicher). Sometimes the historicity of the parables has been doubted (Wrede) while at other times heavy emphasis is placed on their apocalyptic outlook (Schweitzer). Along the way, the narrative character is often neglected.

Wright believes that to rightly understand the parables, a “two-level hearing” is required. First, they must be understood within the wider narratives of the Gospels. That is, it is essential to grasp the literary function of the parables within the stories of the Gospels. For Wright, this should not arouse doubt as to the historicity of the parables as stories told by Jesus. The authors of the Gospels no doubt shaped the parables to fit within their stories. This does not, however, imply that the Gospel writers changed the meaning of the parables such that they are unreliable records of Jesus’s own words. Rather, “the Evangelists preserve them [the parables] as ‘actions’ which play a crucial role in advancing their narratives” (44).

Chapters 4, 5, and 6 provide an analysis of the parables within Mark, Matthew, and Luke respectively. In my opinion, these short chapters provide an very helpful entryway into understanding the function of the parables within the Synoptics. Wright argues that the parables were strategically placed within each Gospel for particular purposes. In other words, these chapters aid students of the parables to avoid missing the Gospel forest for the parable trees. This is a helpful corrective as some parable studies have isolated individual parables and sought to understand them apart from their literary contexts.

Wright’s major contribution to parable studies, however, is found in the last 100 pages of the book in which he applies the tools of narrative criticism to the study of the parables. This constitutes the second-level hearing. Whatever the parables were, and many definitions have been offered, they are at least stories. Wright believes we should study them as such. Thus, the parables have characters, settings, plots, and points of view. Identifying these features helps us to “hear” the parables as they might originally have been heard.

For example, Wright examines the parable of the Sower (Matt 13:3-9; Mark 4:3-9; Luke 8:5-8) on pages 90-97. Instead of providing a verse-by-verse commentary, Wright walks through a narrative analysis of the parable. The benefits to such analysis lies in the clarity that it brings to the elements of the story Jesus told. Thus, understanding the setting of the original telling as recorded in the Gospels and of the story itself aids us in understanding the meaning of the story. Thus, Wright considers the importance of the land in Israel’s history and the symbolic power of seed imagery and harvest, all within the context of first century Jewish peasant society. Similar analysis of the characters, point of view, and plot are offered. All of this leads the reader to hear the power of the story: “it invites thought and encourages hope” (97).

One might quibble with some of Wright’s interpretations of individual parables. Indeed, I’m not fully convinced of a few his conclusions. Moreover, there are times in which I felt the historical analysis pushed a little too hard on the parable to the detriment of hearing the additional allegorical meanings. However, these minor points do not detract from the usefulness of this volume. Wright aids us in properly hearing the Master Storyteller.

Don’t Plant Marcionite Churches

New_Exodus_lowfIn his article “Can the Gospels Teach Us How to Read the Old Testament?”, Richard Hays charges that “many ‘main­stream’ Protestant churches are in fact naively Marcionite in their theology and practice: in their worship services they have no OT reading, or if the OT is read, it is rarely preached upon.” Of course, Hays is talking about churches in the West, especially in America. However, there is a related danger for missionaries: unwittingly planting Marcionite churches.

What does “Marcionite” mean?

Marcion was a second-century bishop who sought to erase all Jewishness from Christianity. Believing that God of the OT was a false God with no relation to Jesus, he rejected the entire OT and edited the New Testament writings to exclude those parts he deemed too Jewish. For example, he rejected the canonicity of Matthew and heavily edited Luke. For Marcion, the Apostles had misunderstood Jesus as the Jewish Messiah and this misunderstanding needed to be corrected.

The Church Fathers excommunicated Marcion and rejected his teachings as heresy. However, his influence was never totally eradicated, even to the present day.

How Do Missionaries Plant Marcionite Churches?

While no one plans to plant a church modeled after the teachings of a second-century heretic, it unfortunately still happens. I have observed some of these tendencies among my own students: there is a general lack of understanding of the OT and a conscious avoidance of preaching from it. Though churches believe the OT to be God’s inspired Word, it plays virtually no role in the life of the average church.

This happens for at least three reasons:

1. The biblical grand narrative is neglected.

The grand narrative of the Bible should play an important role in all stages of ministry, including evangelism, discipleship, and leadership training. Unfortunately, some gospel presentations move directly from Adam’s sin to the cross, skipping the vast majority of the biblical story (Israel’s story). When this happens, new believers can be conditioned from the beginning to think the OT is of little value.

2. Church planters and new believers lack training in biblical interpretation.

I am convinced that the most important skill to be taught to both a church planter and a new believer is biblical interpretation. Believers need to be able to read and interpret the Bible for themselves within their new community of faith. Unfortunately, training in interpretation is often missing from discipleship programs. I have seen many curricula that emphasize teaching new believers to share the gospel and rapidly plant new churches. Others teach the basics of “how to be a Christian” — how to pray, how to have a quiet time, etc. These are all good skills to have, but if biblical interpretation is missing, we stunt growth in new believers and churches. This often leads to focusing on one’s favorite passage to the neglect of others. And, the neglected parts are usually the OT.

3. New believers are not trained in biblical theology.

Related to the above point, discipleship programs and curricula often lack basic training in biblical theology. Instead, they include isolated lessons on individual topics. While these lessons may include solid biblical teaching, they lack the necessary biblical-theological foundation that leads to worldview transformation. New believers need a new worldview, a new narrative within which to live. When this happens, the OT is inevitably neglected in favor of discipleship lessons from the NT.

How Can We Avoid This?

As a New Testament scholar, I find this disturbing. Much of my work has focused on the use of the OT in the New and I try to bring this to the classroom. One of my primary goals is to help students understand the relationship between the Testaments, especially the way in which the NT must be understood in light of the Old. I find that many students ignore OT quotations and fail to recognize OT allusions in the NT. This is largely due to their lack of knowledge of the OT. The result: a functionally Marcionite church (and a very shallow understanding of the NT).

How do we avoid starting a MPM (Marcionite Planting Movement)?

1. Make biblical theology the foundation and heart of mission strategy.

The biblical story should drive all ministry, beginning with evangelism. The goal is not simply to “get people saved,” but to make disciples of King Jesus. Making disciples means helping people lay aside the false narratives that have shaped their lives for the one true narrative of the world. And, a significant part of this narrative is the OT story. The grand narrative needs a more prominent place in missions.

2. Teach biblical interpretation.

Christians need to be able to read and understand the Bible. We need to teach and model biblical interpretation as we disciple others. This means teaching them interpretation skills and then putting them into practice as we continue mentoring. Thus, instead of telling someone what they should believe, we walk with them through Scripture, allowing them to see the process and come to biblical conclusions. This process is undoubtedly more time-consuming, but it leads to long-lasting fruit.

Related to this, there is a need in theological education to emphasize the teaching of the biblical languages. Learning Hebrew and Greek leads to greater depth in exegetical study of the Scriptures, which should lead to growth among leaders and their churches.

3. Teach the Old Testament as Christian Scripture

Finally, the OT is Christian Scripture and must be taught as such. It is not merely the background for the NT. Nor is it primarily as collection of moral teachings. Rather, it is the story of God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises. This story provides a biblical worldview for those who follow Jesus as King. It must be learned, taught, obeyed, and indwelled in community.

Original Languages and Mission

mark manuscriptIn their new Intermediate Greek Grammar, David Mathewson and Elodie Ballantine Emig provide a lengthy quote from Martin Luther on the importance of the biblical languages:

 

For the devil smelled a rat, and perceived that if the languages were revived a hole would be knocked in his kingdom which he could not easily stop up again. Since he found he could not prevent their revival, he now aims to keep them on such slender rations that they will of themselves decline and pass away. . . Although the gospel came and still comes to us through the Holy Spirit alone, we cannot deny that it came through the medium of languages, was spread abroad by that means, and must be preserved by the same means. . . In proportion then as we value the gospel, let us zealously hold to the languages. . . And let us be sure of this: we will not long preserve the gospel without the languages . . . The Holy Spirit is no fool. He does not busy himself with inconsequential or useless matters. He regarded the languages as so useful and necessary to Christianity that he ofttimes brought them down with him from heaven. This alone should be a sufficient motive for us to pursue them with diligence and reverence and not to despise them . . . When our faith is . . . held up to ridicule, where does the fault lie? It lies in our ignorance of the languages; and there is no other way out than to learn the languages . . . Since it becomes Christians then to make good use of the Holy Scriptures as their one and only book and it is a sin and a shame not to know our own book or to understand the speech and words of our God, it is a still greater sin and loss that we do not study the languages, especially in these days when God is giving us men and books and every facility and inducement to this study, and desires his Bible to be an open book . . . The preacher or teacher can expound the Bible from beginning to end as he pleases, accurately or inaccurately, if there is no one there to judge whether he is doing it right or wrong. But in order to judge, one must have a knowledge of the languages; it cannot be done any other way.

In mission context, we severely stunt the growth of the church when we do not teach the languages. The goal of mission cannot be simply evangelism or even church planting. We must train church leaders and leaders of leaders to rightly handle the Word of truth. And, an important part of that training is the biblical languages.

Difficult Texts: Romans 6.14

I’m happy to see my short article published in the latest issue tjxa_120_3.coverof Theology. The article is a short exegetical reflection on Romans 6.14 in the journal’s “Difficult Texts” series. Here’s the abstract:

The final phrase of Romans 6.14 can at first appear confusing. Paul grounds his appeal for righteous living on the status of believers as ‘under grace’ rather than ‘under law.’ One may have expected Paul to say that believers are not ‘under sin.’ Careful attention to the Old Testament narrative running through Romans provides clarity to this verse.

Read the whole thing here.

The Value of the Old Testament

Richard Hays opens his new Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels with the following quote from Martin Luther’s introduction to his translation of the Pentateuch:

There are some who have little regard for the Old Testament. They think of it as a book that was given to the Jewish people only and is now out of date, containing only stories of past times…But Christ says in John 5, “Search the Scriptures, for it is they that bear witness to me”…[T]he Scriptures of the Old Testament are not to be despised but diligently read…Therefore dismiss your own opinions and feelings and think of the Scriptures as the loftiest and noblest of holy things, as the richest of mines which can never be sufficiently explored, in order that you may find that divine wisdom which God here lays before you in such simple guise as to quench all pride. Here you will find the swaddling cloths and the manger in which Christ lies…Simple and lowly are these swaddling cloths, but dear is the treasure, Christ, who lies in them.

Text and Context

‘By a strange paradox, Paul may be most significant today when he is most carefully re-situated in his own original context.’

-John M.G. Barclay, Paul and the Gift, p. 7

I have received my copy of John Barclay’s new book, Paul and the Gift and it looks to be a game-changer for Pauline studies. I’ll have more to say about this important book in the future, but for today, the last sentence (quoted above) of the prologue got me thinking about exegesis, biblical theology, and communicating biblical truth across cultures.

Barclay’s primary subject is Paul’s theology of grace, understood in terms of gift. His strategy is careful exegesis of the biblical text, understood within its first century context, particularly Paul’s Jewish heritage. Here, Barclay argues that while the biblical text is primary, proper exegesis must take background study into account. Doing so clarifies the meaning the text and, consequently, illuminates it’s significance for the contemporary church.

I want to add one thought to this: responsible exegesis set within the textual and historical context of the biblical text also aids in communicating biblical truth across cultures. 

context-matters

There are at least two reasons this is so:

1. First, biblical truth was revealed in particular cultures.

To appropriate the words of John Donne, ‘No text is an island.’  The Scriptures did not fall from the sky as a set of propositions, but were revealed over time and in particular cultural contexts. Thus, the words of Scripture are best understood within their cultural contexts. Of course, I am not saying that texts and historical contexts carry equal value. Indeed, the biblical text is sufficient in and of itself. And, primary interpretive weight is given to the biblical context.

Nevertheless, historical contexts are important for rightly understanding the meanings of particular words and phrases. Thus, background study helps us rightly understanding authorial intent and meaning.

This point is significant in teaching cross-culturally because no one reads the biblical text as a blank slate – i.e. without their own cultural lenses. Historical context helps guard us from importing foreign meanings into the biblical text.

2. Second, placing texts in context helps illuminate the concreteness of truth.

Removing texts from historical context often results in the abstracting of the message of the text, which inherently makes it more difficult to understand. While some theological truth is abstract in nature, most biblical theology is communicated in concrete stories. In choosing this manner of self-revelation, God contextualized truth so that humans could understand and apply.

It is helpful for us as readers of texts to see the way in which God has acted in history, the way in which these great historical acts were understood by believers, and the way in which believers’ lives were changed as they applied the gospel to real life situations. Concreteness communicates cross-culturally.

Reading biblical texts in historical context helps us to see the concrete reality of biblical theology. This is the point at which truth is truly life-changing and worldview building.