Mark Essay 1a : What light does Form Criticism throw on the composition of Mark? To what extent can we reconstitute his sources?

New Jerome Biblical Commentary, p. 1137ff. for an introduction to form criticismi

G Stanton, Jesus and the Gospels, an introduction to many techniques, worth buying

Sanders & Davies, Studying the Synoptic Gospels, part three - a thorough introduction, clear and logical - also worth buying for continuous study

HW, Jesus and the Oral Gospel Tradition - essays by Riesner, Aune, Gerhardsson, Ellis, Soards show the methods in operation

R. Bultmann, History of the Synoptic Tradition - fundamental work, familiarise yourself with its method and purposes.

A first step is to describe briefly what is meant by Form Criticism, a second to investigate what the results of the theory can show us about the composition of Mark, and a third and both broader and more difficult question to see what else may be known about Mk's sources.

Form Criticism burst upon the scene of NT scholarship with three books published almost simultaneously after the First World War. The first was that of Karl Ludwig Schmidt, investigating Die Rahmen der Geschichte Jesu (1919) and establishing that the individual pericopes are 'like pearls on a string', originally independent and floating, artifically cobbled together. The importance of this is that the framework itself is not historical, and may not be used as a basis, say, for an investigation into the psychological development of Jesus. This datum has been generally accepted without question; the evangelists themselves shift pericopes around by criteria quite other than chronological sequence: Matthew gathers ten miracles together, several of them from different places in Mark. Mark himself puts together several parables, presumably originally narrated at different times. Perhaps the most striking example is that of the Cleansing of the Temple, in Jn at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, in the Synoptics at the start of his final week. In Mark himself it is comparatively easy to distinguish between the firm, detailed stroies of concrete incidents and generalising summaries such as The Sick at Evening (1.32-34). One of Mark's favourite and most obvious linking phrases is kai euthus, which occurs nine times in Mk 1.

Materially the basic work of the other two leaders of the Form Critical school was to analyse the different forms of story and saying which occur in the gospels. For instance the episodes, stories of events, are analysed into Streitgesprache or Schulgesprache, providing a setting for different kinds of pithy sayings about controversy or instruction respectively, Myths (the baptism or transfiguration) where most of the sense of the story is provided by the allusions to the OT, to the extent that without these there is virtually no story left. The sayings are categorised into Wisdom-sayings, eschatological, disciplinary and personal sayings (Ich-Worte) and parables. Since Bultmann, some refinements have taken place, and incidents culminating in a pithy saying are now usually referred to as chreiai. The sayings are categorised into aphorisms (Aune lists 44 of these for Mark, pp. 242-247, and 167 for the whole of the Jesus-tradition, including the Gospel of Thomas), or aphoristic or narrative meshalim (Gerhardsson, p. 267, lists 55 of these, of which only 5 are in Mark). Similarly Ellis now categorises episodes into concise and circumstantial (p. 313).

Dibelius concentrates more on the persons who, in his view, would have been responsible for handing on these segments of tradition; this element in the theory has not stood the test of scholarship, for there seems to be no sufficient basis to claim that each type of segment was passed on by a different official. Bultmann, as the title of his book implies, Die Geschichte der synoptischen Tradition, concentrated on the way such segments would have developed.

This is, however, only the basic preliminary. The interest of the theory is to discern the history of each pericope, the needs to which it answers, the circumstances in which the story would have been passed on, or the saying produced as evidence. One very interesting history is provided by Joachim Jeremias in his treatment of the parable of the Sower: most recently it was proscribed in the readings of the First Sunday of Lent, presumably as a warning not to be distracted from the asceticism of Lent by the cares of this world; as we have it in the gospels it shows traces of missionary terminology which show that it was applied by the early Church to sowing the seed of the gospel in different soils; possibly originally in Jesus' mouth it was a reflection on the overwhelming failure of his preaching to the crowds, redeemed by the rewarding response of a very few. Other obvious situations are stories providing answers whether followers of Jesus should fast or pay the Temple Tax (which could have been told in response to disputes either within the community or outside it).

An important element in the theory which must be mentioned, though not discussed because it is irrelevant to the other questions of this essay, is the attitude displayed by the early practitioners of Form Criticism to historicity. Because of his theological stress on the importance of faith as a leap in the dark, Bultmann almost preferred to find that stories had no historical basis in the life of Jesus. He was more interested in the Sitz im Leben Ecclesiae than in their Sitz im Leben Jesu, and was always willing to assume that stories were invented to answer queries or disputes, rather than existing stories and answers which genuinely stemmed from Jesus merely being told and re-told.

Two opposing attitudes here are equally difficult to sustain. The Bultmannian school maintained that the early Christians made no distinction between a word of the Lord spoken historically by Jesus and a word of the Lord spoken through a Christian prophet. The Scandinavian school, on the other hand, of whom the chief representative is now Birger Gerhardsson, holds that the disciples were careful memorisers, just as were the rabbis and their pupils in the second century.

The Bultmannians point to instances in the Acts, where Peter reports a word of the Lord heard in a vision, 'What God has made clean, you have no right to call profane' (Ac 10.15). But it is remarkable that this saying precisely is not quoted in the controversies of Mk 7 or as reported in Galatians at Antioch, in both of which cases it would have constituted a knock-out punch.

The Scandinavian school point to the technical terminology of receiving and handing on tradition used by Paul in 1 Cor 11 and 15 (and to the un-pauline vocabulary of the snippets there quoted). But the striking fact is that Paul makes staggeringly little use of information about Jesus if there was a large body of such information stored and accessible in memories. Why does he not quote Mk 7 in the dispute at Antioch if this was common procedure to quote words of the Lord to solve disputes? It is also notable that there are different forms of the same sayings about suffering and persecution and service in the synoptics and in Jn, which does not suggest that these were slavishly learn by heart.

More important for the question of the contribution of Form Criticism to emplaining the composition of Mark is the dispute whether pure forms are the originals from which mixed forms snowballed, or whether forms originally mixed were polished 'like pebbles on a seashore' into pure forms. The issue of principle is difficult to decide; perhaps it is best merely to note the dispute and see how far it is solved in the course of further discussion. The issue is related to that of the priority of Mark or Matthew, for in many cases Mark's miracle-stories are more chatty and full of picturesque details. In these cases it seems more probable that at least in certain cases Matthew's stories are posterior and that Matthew has filed down the version which he received. For example in the story of the Martyrdom of the Baptist Matthew's version must be posterior, for some details barely make sense: the first mention of Herod's unwillingness to break his oath before his guests is the first we hear of any guests to witness the oath.

Personally I am inclined to believe that Mark was responsible himself for a great deal of the formation of the actual story-telling, for three reasons:

1. Sandwich-technique (see below)

2. Picturesque details, fastening on a specific visible object, a sort of stage-prop: Jesus asleep with his head on a cushion, Jesus embracing a child, the woman touching his garment, the crowds sitting on the green grass.

3. Markan duality

adverbs with supplement: tote en ekeine te emera

synonyms: chreian eschen kai epeinasen

tautological repetition: 2.15 polloi...polloi

tautological contrast: ou dunatai stenai all telos echei (ou...alla 34t)

temporal expressions further defined

descriptions further refined: pasa e Ioudaia chora k. oi Ierosomitai

double questions and double commands

antithetic parallelism in sayings (see F. Neirynck, Duality in Mark)

The other synoptic writers are often impatient with this.

4. Composition-techniques:

a. Markan addition-structure:

4.1-9 + 10ff (v. 10 surely Markan [duality of oi peri auton sun toij 12; whole of 10-12 Markan, clashing with preceding and following material]

7.14-15 + 17-23 (the house again, Markan criticism of disciples, duality in v. 18, same technique of ote egeneto...)

9.14-27 + 28-29 (the house, eperotwn oi maqhtai, kat idian, unconnectedness of saying)

10.1-9 + 10-12 (the house [there is no house around; they are on a journey], eperotwn oi maqhtai, change of divorce-word from cwrizw to apoluw).

b. Markan controversy-structure:

question counter-q unsatisf.ans wham!

3.2-5 Withered Hand 2 4 4c 5

[7.24-30 Syro-Phoen 26 27 28 29]

10.2-6 Divorce 2 3 4 5

10.17-21 Rich Man 17 18 20 21

10.35-39 Sons of Z (37) 38 39a 39b

11.28-33 Authority 28 29 33a 33b

12.13-17 Tribute 14 15 (16) 17


Perhaps the most basic insight provided by the Form Critical approach is that the synoptic gospels are, among contemporary literature, more like Plutarch's Lives than the cheap airport-bookstall-type novels such as Chariton's Chaereas and Callirhoe (100 BC-50 AD) or Xenophon's Habrocomes and Antheas (50-260 AD). The tradition has clearly gone through an oral stage, not so long as popular folk-literature, but still considerable, in which it was polished and somewhat stylised. It is often held that at a pre-synoptic stage pericopes were already gathered into partial collections (the Day at Capernaum, the Parable Chapter, especially the Passion Narrative), in the same way as Matthew gathered together the Sermon on the Mount. Whether such collections did pre-exist Mark remains a fascinating question, and certainly may not be assumed; the issue, of course, is whether the collections themselves are marked by Markan features. Kelber has certainly made a convincing case that even the Passion Narrative was shaped by Mark himself.

One of the outstanding features which may confidently be attributed to Mark himself is the sandwich technique: he inserts a story between two halves of another story or incident, or brackets a series of stories by means of two similar stories at beginning and end. Thus:

*amazement at Jesus' teaching sandwiches an exorcism (1.23-26)

*the healing of the paralytic sandwiches Jesus' authority to forgive sins, to stress his authority.

*the opposition of Jesus' family sandwiches the accusation of being in league with Beelzebul, to stress the widespread opposition to Jesus

*the healing of a man with a withered hand sandwiches a controversy over sabbath (3.4-5b)

*the raising of Jairus' daughter sandwiches the sure of the woman with a haemorrhage (perhaps simply to heighten the dramatic tension)

*the death of the Baptist is sandwiched between the mission and the return of the disciples, in order again to provide a dramatic time-gap for their mission

*the cursing and withering of the fig-tree sandwiches the purging of the Temple in order to point the lesson of the barrenness of Israel

*Peter's denial sandwiches Jesus' stand before the high priest, in order to highlight the contrast between Peter's failure and Jesus' fidelity.

At least some of these sandwiches must be specifically attributed to Mark, since they highlight his special themes, such as the failure of the disciples.

A more complicated technique on the same lines is provided by the chiasmic arrangement of incidents:

Chiasmus: 1.1-3 a. aggeloj voice wilderness

4-8 b. John baptising place

9-10 b'. place baptised John

11-13 a'. voice wilderness aggeloi

a. healing of paralytic (2.1-12) kai eiselqwn palin eij - controversy within miracle-story

b. food controversy, ends w proverb & Jesus' authority(2.13-7)

c. new wineskins, comment on their attitude (2.18-22)

a.fasting contrasts with food double saying

b. allusion to resurrectn at centre

a'. double saying (21-22)

b'.food controversy, ends w proverb & Jesus' authority(2.23-8)

a'. healing of man's withered hand (3.1-6) kai eiselqwn palin eij - controv within miracle-story (cf. Joanna Dewey in Telford)

a. wicked tenants - judgement on authorities(12.1-9)

b. psalm-quote on cornerstone (12.10-12)

c. tribute-coin: love of God and neighbour (12.13-17)

d. failure to understand resurrection (12.18-27)

c'. great commandment: love of God and neighbour (12.28-34)

b'.psalm-quote on David's son (12.35-37a)

a'. warning against scribes (12.37b-40)

*The first group of incidents which shows the growing opposition to Jesus (and already concluding with presage of its eventual outcome) is arranged in a detailed chiasmus:

*The incidents of the final opposition to Jesus, leading up to the Passion, can also be seen as a chiasmus:

12.1-9 Judgement on the authorities (the parable of the wicked tenants)

12.10-12 Quotation of psalm (cornerstone) to give biblical authority

12.13-17 Hierarchy of duties (to God & Caesar)

12.18-27 Failure to understand the resurrection

12.28-34 Hierarchy of duties (love of God & neighbour)

12.35-37a Quotation of psalm (son of David) to give Jesus' biblical authority

12.37b-40 Warning against the scribes.

It must, however, be admitted that other groupings have been proposed as an explanation of this group of incidents:

11.27-33 Challenge to Jesus' authority and bankruptcy of Jewish leaders

12.1-12 Bankruptcy of Jewish leaders confirmed by parable

12.13-17 Controversy with Pharisees and Herodians

12.18-27 Controversy with Sadducees

12.28-34 Controversy with lawyer

12.35-37a Jesus' own challenge.

Duncan Derrett also points out that the subject-matters of the last four controversies is also an arrangement which occurs in other gatherings of Jewish literature: a Wisdom discussion, a teaser, principles of living, scriptural discussion. Neither of these would be so specifically Markan, and could well be pre-Markan.

Other patterns of incidents have been postulated. Long ago L. Cerfaux isolated the 'Section des Pains' (6.35-8.21), in which virtually every incident has to do with food, mostly bread. It begins with the Feeding of the 5,000 and the Crossing of the Lake, and ends with the incident of the One Loaf, again on the lake, a good inclusio. W. Harrington (Mark, p. 80) discerns parallels (6.35-8.26):

Feeding of the 5,000 Feeding of the 4,000

Crossing of the Lake Crossing of the Lake

Controversy with Pharisees Controversy with Phars

The Children's Bread The One Loaf

Healing of a Deaf Mute Healing of a Blind Man.

Markan Vocabulary and Style

repetition of substantive instead of pronoun 1.34 Simwnoj not autou

adverbs with supplement 2.20 tote en ekeinh th hmera

synonyms creian escen kai epeinasen

tautological repetition 2.15 polloi...polloi

tautological contrast ou dunatai sthnai alla teloj ecei (Ou ..alla 34t)

compound verb with preposition paragwn para

adverb with pleonastic preposition apo makroqen

verb with verbal substantive fwnhsan fonh megalh

temporal expressions further defined

description further refined pasa h Ioudaia cwra kai. oi Ierosolumitai

double group of persons oi peri auton sun toij XII

command + fulfilment, request + realisation, double questions or commands

antithetic parallelism [is this characteristic of the sayings of Jesus, as Burney and Jeremias thought, or is it a Markan feature? Neirynck goes so far as to say that Mk 'reinforced the antithetic character of the sayings of Jesus' (p. 63)]

Mark's style is itself clearly marked and uniform throughout the gospel (N. Turner puts it well: 'Although there may have been literary sources to begin with, a final redactor has so obliterated all traces of them that Mark is in the main a literary unity from the beginning to 16.8', in JK Elliott, The Language and Style of the Gospel of Mark, Brill 1993, p. 215). It is a peasant style, the sort of kitchen Greek spoken round the mediterranean in slave circles, using constantly

the historic present,

parataxis rather than syntaxis

the connecting kai or kai euquj (29 times, especially in chap 1)

the repeated gar (often with explanations which are an afterthought [1.16; 16.8])

parentheses, often clumsy (1.2; 2.10-11, 15-16, 22)

pleonastic participle (usually aorist) to introduce pericope: coming, leaving, rising, answering, saying)

compound verb followed by pleonastic preposition (eishlqen eij)

periphrastic imperfect (hn + participle)

arcomai as imperfect (10-26-18)

dunamai as auxiliary (27-33-26)

palin (16-27-3).

diminutives: qugatrion icqudion korasion kunarion sandalion yucion wtarion

( Note Vocabulary differences in the 'Longer Ending' of Mk which add evidence that it is not Markan: ekeinoj as pronoun, shmeia (both Johannine)

qeaomai (Mk uses blepein)

apaj (Mk uses paj, apaj is Lukan)

poreuomai (Mk uses ercomai)

usteron (Mk uses escaton)

eteroj (Mk uses alloj)


The question of Mark's moulding of his sources is more difficult to resolve than is the question - answered on the basis of a synoptic theory which accepts the priority of Mark - about the ways in which Matthew and Luke edited Mark. We have no Markan Vorlage with which to compare him. Mark's own tendences must be isolated by means of what appear to be coherent interests and styles which run throughout the gospel. It appears, nevertheless, that Mark had at least some part in assembling the pericopes of his gospel; in at least some cases the patterning can be associated with consistent ways of behaving. Other tendencies will be associated with theological interests of Mark, such as the unresponsiveness of the disciples. Further traces of Markan editing may be discerned through specifically Markan linguistic style, evidenced by such features as duality or Mark's favourite words. It is only through the interweaving of all these features that Mark's use of his sources may be effectively judged.