Developing a Taste for Dramatic Flair:
Understanding Dramatic Elements in the Gospel of Mark
By JT Martin
Mark’s Gospel is one of the most memorable New Testament books, this is likely due to the author’s skill with storytelling1. Unlike its contemporaries Matthew and Luke, the Gospel of Mark is unique in that it employs powerful dramatic elements which retain a strong remnant of the oral tradition in which it was first relayed and from which it was first written. These dramatic elements have been noticed by at least Mary Ann Tolbert, Richard Horsley, and even earlier by Gilbert Bilezikian. While the above mentioned scholars noticed and addressed the existence of dramatic flair, with the exception of Bilezikian, this flair has been underrated and poorly represented in the scholastic literature thus far and in some cases, such as Horsley, has been chalked up to the remnants of an Oral/Aural mechanism which is no longer being acted upon in the modern private reader and text relationship. It is, therefore, possible that the understanding of important scenes within the text have been misunderstood within the context of the Markan Plot. For this reason, it is worth re-examining the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin in the pericope of Mark 14:53-65. Wherein there is debate about two substantial elements, the meaning of Ἐγώ εἰμι as either an affirmation or reference to the divine I AM, alongside the meaning of the charge of blasphemy. If as Bilezikian suggests the Gospel of Mark is infact a Tragedy rather than a Bios or a Novel, then it is profitable for scholarship, independent study, and the exhortation of the Christian community, for this pericope to be examined as though it is written within a Tragedy.
Translation: Mark 14:53-65
53 And they escorted Jesus to the high priest, and all the chief priests, and the elders, and the scribes convened. 54 And Peter followed Him from afar, until [he was] within the court of the high priest. And he was sitting with the officers (of the sanhedrin) and warming himself at the fire. 55 And the chief priests and all the Sanhedrin were seeking testimony against Jesus to put him to death, but they were not finding any. 56 For many were bearing false testimonies against him, but their testimonies were not alike. 57 And some having risen up, were testifying falsely against him, saying, 58 “We heard him saying I will tear down this temple, the [one] made with hands, and in three days I will build another not made with hands.” 59 And in this manner neither was their testimony alike 60 And having risen in the midst, the high priest questioned Jesus saying ” you respond with nothing, what is it these people testify against you ” 61 And he did not answer [to the point of saying nothing]. Again the high priest was questioning him and says to him “are you the Christ, the son of the one worthy of praise?” 62 And Jesus said “I am. And you will see the Son of Man, sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” 63 And the high priest, having torn his garments, said “What need have we of witnesses anymore? 64 you heard the Blasphemy. What does it appear to you?” And all condemned him to be deserving of death. 65 And some began to spit upon him, to cover up his face, and to strike him, and to command him saying prophecy! And the officers received him with the palms.
In any work attempting to build clarification or argue for a particular understanding of pericopes in a biblical text it is important to thoroughly discuss the biases of the method and perspective being used to interpret and consider the passage(s) under review. For the following reasons Narrative Criticism is best suited for a renewed examination of 14:53-65 within the Markan Plot:
The Narrative Critical Method (NCM) as David Rhoads remarks, “seeks meaning in the dynamic interplay between a specific passage and the larger literary unit as a whole and focuses on the holistic, temporal experience of the audience”
If as Bilezikian suggests, Mark is a Tragedy, then it follows that the Narrative Critical method would enable a discussion revolving around the pericopes role in the greater context of the Gospel.
The NCM would also enable an examination of how the audience would have potentially understood the pericope at hand, both within the context of the Gospel and how they would have understood the two debates present.
The NCM offers the best chance of highlighting how Jesus’ interactions with the Sanhedrin is understood by the audience, which offers interpretive significance of the highest order to the holistic understanding of the pericope at hand, the Gospel of Mark, and by proxy sections of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, this would ripple into how the pericope is taught, preached upon, and interacted with in the religious life of all those who are blessed by the Gospel of Mark.
Any thorough review of the work done on interpreting and developing a holistic understanding of the pericope at hand should start with the patristic fathers. While the ancient voices do not offer direct insight into the genre of the text, they do provide a foundation for understanding specific components of the interaction between Jesus and the Sanhedrin. Hillary of Poiters made note of an incredibly profound aspect of interaction between the Sanhedrin and Jesus: that the Sanhedrin did not doubt the necessity of the messiah being the Son of God rather they doubted Jesus’ claim to be such. Other notable comments exemplify the antiquitous perception of the audience, specifically regarding Jesus’ submission in verse 65 and his eventual torture which falls outside the primary boundaries of the pericope. The Ancient authors supply an understanding Mark 14:53-65 which on first glance does not emphasize any narrative elements, however upon closer examination, it becomes apparent that the most important role of the trial in the narrative is that of an ironic tragedy where the audience already views Jesus as being a risen messiah who is the Son of God, and is still condemned to death.
With the foundation of the fathers of the faith in place, modern scholarship provides a limited scaffolding which, if handled properly, paves the way for an articulation of the role of the Ἐγώ εἰμι and the meaning of the charge of Blasphemy, alongside an establishment of how the Gospel can be viewed as a Tragedy rather than a Bios or a Novel. Looking first to the genre of Mark, Mary Ann Tolbert introduces a metaphor for the markan plot, connecting it to the idea of a tapestry in her publication Sowing the Gospel. This metaphor was drawn from a use of the NCM which seeks to interpret and examine the Gospel as primarily a narrative most similar to an ancient biography with elements borrowed from ancient Novels and Tragedies, and while this is the majority view there was a time shortly after the publication of Gilbert Bilezikians “The Liberated Gospel” a growing trajectory towards a transition from viewing Mark\’s Gospel as a biographical narrative to that of a Tragedy which made use of Biographical information and Novel plot schemes. When viewing the Gospel from a biographical narrative perspective it is easy to categorize the dramatic influences as merely remnants of an oral/aural mechanism in an oral tradition. The problem with this perspective of the Gospel is that it does not mesh cleanly the Antiquitous handling of the Gospel, in fact when one examines the words of Prudentius and other ancient authors it becomes apparent that they commented on Mark with allegory and they pointed out biographical information within the text.
Scholastic methodology is currently weakened by a perspective of the Gospel which clouds the context of the Ἐγώ εἰμι and the meaning of the charge of Blasphemy. The clouds are at least partially dispersed by transitioning to the perspective offered by Bilezikian, alongside leaning on the early Christian voices as a framework for interpreting pericopes in their context and within the greater story. For this reason, Mary Ann Tolbert\’s tapestry metaphor is incomplete because while it accurately describes the complexity of the plot of the Markan narrative it does accurately incorporate the tragic undertones which bind the Gospel together. I would argue that the only way to see the complete narrative structure as a cohesive unit is through examining Mark as a tragedy. Understanding that it was first an oral tradition meant to encourage early christians who were in the midst of being rejected by their Jewish neighbors and families alongside pressure from the Romans regarding their refusal to participate in the imperial cult, a tradition which was eventually put into writing.
The Trial as Ironic Tragedy
With the question of Genre reviewed it is time to move forward into an examination of the pericope in question. By examining Mark as primarily a tragedy the following avenues of thought are opened up for investigation: why was the trial recorded the way it was, what elements of the oral tradition survive, and what function does the trial provide both in the narrative but also for the audience who was meant to hear it. To begin addressing the first avenue of investigation one should consider whether the author was recording a narrative or tragic scene primarily; Yarbro Collins’ examination of the charge of blasphemy within the trial provides sufficient evidence for the idea that the author was recording a narrative scene meant to fuel an understanding of ironic tragedy within the audience, in simpler terms the scene of the trial was written in such a way that it provides narrative movement alongside tragic irony for an audience which already believes the basic christian claims. An investigation of possible remnant oral/aural mechanisms reveals the following textual remnants: Mark’s usage of the dramatic present tense, also called the historical present, in verse 61. While remnants are not scattered throughout the scene the existence of even one shifts the scene into a more tragic style, because it operates as a transition from the narrative function to the tragic function, following verse 61 the entire scene operates as a tragic irony.
What makes verses 61 through 65 so remarkably different in function from the preceding verses, 53-60, is the condemnation resulting from a charge of blasphemy which pulls on a recurring theme from earlier components of the Gospel, specifically a tension between Jesus as a local leader against the official leaders of the faith. This tension evolves through the recurring interactions where Jesus is questioned, and berated, and slandered in front of crowds and the individuals whom he is teaching. So now not only is Jesus being questioned once more but the official leaders are made to appear as unjust and scheming persecutors who are seeking to condemn a local revival leader for committing blasphemy.
Delving into the exact meaning of the charge of blasphemy, and how it influences the understanding of the trial requires examining the work of Darrell Bock, and leaning on recent scholarship revolving around Jesus\’ response to the question levied in verse 61. The initial component of Jesus\’ response is “I am”, and Darrell Bock argues from the position that the Ἐγώ εἰμι in 62 is in reference to the divine I AM. Collins argues against Bock’s basic premise regarding the Ἐγώ εἰμι and provides evidence for the notion that there is no definitive reason for the Ἐγώ εἰμι to be understood as a reference to the divine I AM in the specific context of 53-65, and while his argument has merit there are two aspects which are problematic.
He does not lean on socio-cultural studies or research, in the article, but merely draws his own conclusions from the academic sources which survive from the time period and while this is fine for general work, the handling of something as influential as the meaning of Blasphemy in 14: 64, should utilize an interdisciplinary approach.
Shannon Stubbs points out that Collin’s conclusions do not fit the reaction her response received. Stubbs’ point is correct, although it misrepresents Collins’ analysis of the text. Collins argues that the response of “blasphemy” has to do with Jesus’ usage of allusion to messianic prophecies. Collin’s conclusions make sense to a certain degree, but if, as I have already suggested, Bilezikian is correct in classifying the Gospel as a Tragedy rather than a Bios or a Novel then it would follow that a talented story crafter would make use of referring to the divine name to highlight the atrocity that is being committed, to heighten the impact of the dramatic irony.
Even if Collins’ argument is granted as being correct with regard to the Ἐγώ εἰμι it does not follow that the charge of blasphemy is as ambiguous as he voices. While a great deal of Scholarship has been done on examining and interpreting the allusion to Daniel 7:13 evident in Jesus’ response in Mark 14:62, Kelli O’Brien does an excellent job weeding through the various positions and arguing for the following points which will be adopted as evidence against Collin\’s claim that the charge of blasphemy is vague
That Scholars were correct to dismiss the notion of a universal interpretation of Daniel 7:13 as being about the messiah.
That there are enough similarities present in contemporary writings to suggest that at minimum the markan author pulled from a tradition that understood Daniel 7:13 as foreshadowing the Son of Man as an exalted figure, not just a phrase referring to a nature as human.
That J.J. Collins’ interpretation of the allusions in Mark 14:62 is most accurate as depicting Jesus referring to himself as an exalted Son of Man who would return as one who would judge all, rewarding the righteous, and punishing the wicked.
The first point as evidence is neutral as it is merely an accepted fact, amongst modern scholars, about the time period and religious circles the Gospel of Mark is addressing and utilizing in its plot. Points 2 and 3 are were O’Brien provides a solid base for polemic against Yarbro Collins’ position, in that if, as O’Brien suggests, that the author pulled from a tradition that understood Daniel 7:13 as being a reference to an exalted figure called the Son of Man then at minimum the charge of Blasphemy can be cornered as a response to the claim of being exalted or at least that is how it would have appeared to the Markan audience. The third point further establishes the Son of Man title as being equivalent to a messianic figure in keeping with the religious tradition which encompassed later rabbinic literature, 4 Esdras, and the Similitudes. As a result, it makes little sense to read the High Priest’s charge as anything other than a direct response to the claims articulated by Jesus, and that Blasphemy in the context of Mark 14:53-65 is best understood as charge against Jesus claiming to be an exalted agent of God who would return to cast judgement on God’s people and the rest of the world. This claim to be the messiah is blasphemous in and of itself, but given the audience the Markan tragedy is written for it seems plausible that another element to the blasphemy is pulled from the tradition: that Jesus is not only claiming to be the messiah, the exalted Son of Man and the Son of God, but that he was also claiming to pre-exist as the messiah in some form which could have been meant to be understood as being in existence prior to the creation of the world.
The second allusion present within the tragic scene, 14:61-65, is to Psalm 110:1 which as O’Brien explains, could be borrowed from a tradition which views Melchizedek as a heavenly being who sits at the right hand of God, only the Markan author breaks away from the tradition by either alluding to Jesus’ true identity as being Melchizedek or by replacing Melchizedek with Jesus and keeping the rest of the tradition the same. Within the context there is little to no evidence in support of the first option and it seems more likely than not that the Markan author merely replaced Jesus as the central figure of beliefs typically regarding Melchizedek. To the audience of Mark\’s Gospel, it would then seem as though the Sanhedrin had not only condemned the messiah, but also a heavenly being, on a false charge of blasphemy, according to the intended audience.
Mark’s Gospel isn’t really a Novel, nor is it fully a Bios, rather it is best understood as a Tragedy which utilizes elements of both Novels and Bioses to encourage and reinforce the beliefs of a fledgling Christian community. This view is very much in the minority and, as was mentioned earlier on, Gilbert Bilzekian is one of the only Scholars if not the only Scholar to systematically articulate the foundational position held in this essay. Due to the majority view of Mark as either a narrative or a biography debates lasting decades regarding the meaning of Ἐγώ εἰμι in Mark 14:62, and the exact meaning behind the charge of Blasphemy in 14:64 have been rehashed in each generation. The Narrative Critical Method was utilized to re-examine the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin under new perspective regarding the Gospel as a whole, such that the understanding of the debates surrounding verse 62 and 65 have been articulated as being claims of identity as messiah, the divine I AM, and an exalted judge. The allusions to Daniel 7:13 and Psalm 110:1 were reviewed with a heavy emphasis on the scholastic work compiled by Kelli O’Brian in her dissertation for Notre Dame. In Sum: Mark\’s Gospel is a tragedy, the Ἐγώ εἰμι is an intention reference to the divine I AM on the part of the author, and the allusions to Daniel 7:13 and psalm 110:1 are best understood as a claim to be the heavenly messiah who will return to cast judgement, forcing a conclusion that the charge of blasphemy can best be understood as resulting from the tension between the Sanhedrin and Jesus, which has been building throughout the Gospel, boiling over when he claims to be not only the messiah but also a heavenly being.
Bock, Darrell. 2000. Blasphemy And Exaltation In Judaism, The Charge Against Jesus In Mk. 14:53-65. Michigan: Baker Books.
Bilezikian, Gilbert. 2010. The Liberated Gospel. Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers.
Collins, Adela Yarbro. 2004. \”The Charge Of Blasphemy In Mark 14.64\”. Journal For The Study Of The New Testament 26 (4): 379-401. doi:10.1177/0142064×0402600401.
Mary A. Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel, First. Mary A. Tolbert, (Fortress Press, 07-08-2005).
Merriam-Webster\’s Collegiate Dictionary. 1993. Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster.
O\’Brien, Kelli S. The use of Scripture in the Markan Passion Narrative, University of Notre Dame, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2001.
Perschbacher, Wesley. 1990. The New Analytical Greek Lexicon. 7th ed. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers Inc.
Richard A. Horsely, Hearing The Whole Story: The Politics Of Plot In Mark\’s Gospel, First. Richard A. Horsely(Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001).
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. 2010. The New Interpreter\’s Dictionary Of The Bible. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon.
Smith, Stephen. 1995. \”A Divine Tragedy: Some Observations On The Dramatic Structure Of Mark\’s Gospel\”. Novum Testamentum 37 (3): 209-231. doi:10.1163/1568536952662709.
Stubbs, Shannon. 2011. Jesus\’ Claim To Singularity With Yahweh: An Exegetical Study Of “I Am” Sayings In The Synoptic Gospels. Ann Arbor.
Thomas C. Oden, \”Jesus Before The Sanhedrin\”, in Ancient Christian Commentary On Scripture: Mark, Second. Thomas C. Oden, (Intervarsity Press, 07-08-2005).