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What is the chiastic structure in Mark's Gospel?


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Answered 2015-04-21 05:42:59

Mark's Gospel is an excellent example in the use of chiastic structures and parallel structures, demonstrating an impressive literary ability on the part of its author.

A chiastic structure is a literary sequence in which an opening set of events is contrasted with another set of events that mirrors the first, with the order reversed. A parallel structure is a literary sequence in which an opening set of events is contrasted with another set of events that parallels the first.The purpose of these structures is to link, by association, the two events of each pair in the minds of the readers, in order to create emphasis or develop a theme that would otherwise not be apparent.

This answer will deal with the following examples:

  • Framework structure
    • This is a substantially updated look at the structure of Mark's Gospel as a whole. It also shows how the author uses nested structures to emphasise events in the main structure or subtly change their meaning.
    • An alternative framework structure using a more traditional chiastic structure is also reviewed and compared to the first example.
  • Passion structure
    • Mark divides the last twenty four hours in the life of Jesus into 8 periods of just 3 hours each, bounded by an elegant chiastic structure.
  • Minor structures
    • Two well-known minor chiastic structures are critically examined.


Framework structure

By creating a structure across the entire gospel, the author of Mark's Gospel has created a parallel structure of immense scope and a complexity beyond those found in the writings of less gifted authors. As with conventional chiastic structures, Mark uses one pair of events to define the limits of the structure, but then the second set progresses in the same direction as the first one, in a parallel format. The pairs shown in the framework structure that follows are not exhaustive, but are major pairs of interest. They will be updated from time to time, and this may result in changes in sequence numbering.

Major events of the framework structure (with detailed explanations following):
A . John explains the coming of Jesus (Mark 1:1-8)

B .The baptism of Jesus (1:9)

C . The voice of God from heaven, "Thou art my beloved son" (1:11)

D . The forty days in the wilderness as an allusion to Elijah and Moses (1:13)

E . The people were astonished at what Jesus taught (1:22)

F . Jesus casts out an unclean spirit (1:23-26)

G . Pharisees took counsel with the Herodians how they might destroy Jesus (3:6)

H . Demons, whenever they see Jesus, fall down and say that he is the Son of God.

-- Jesus commands that they tell no one of this (3:11-12)

I .. Jesus calls the 12 disciples (3:13-19)

J .. Jesus rejects his own family: he has a new family, his followers (3:31-35)

K . Jesus rebukes the wind (4:36-41)

L . The demoniac, wearing no clothes (5:15), cries out that Jesus not torment him and Jesus sends out the demons (5:1-20)

M . Jesus comes into his own country (6:1)
-- Where he was brought up

N . The people misunderstand Jesus and he can do no mighty work (6:2-6)

O . Jesus sends out the disciples and curses those who will not receive them (6:7-11)
-- in sending the disciples with authority and expecting all to receive them, Jesus is asserting his own authority

P . Herod thinks that Jesus is John the Baptist risen from the dead (6:14)

Q . Herodias and her daughter conspire to kill John the Baptist (6:16-29)

R . Feeding the thousands, and related miracles and discourses (6:33-8:21)

S . Who do people say that I am (8:27)

T . Peter affirms faith in Jesus as the Christ (8:29)

U . Whosoever shall be ashamed of me: of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed (8:38)

V . The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and scribes (8:31a)

W . Be killed and after three days rise again (8:31b)

X . Prophecy of second coming (9:1)- Jesus tells the disciples that some of them would not taste death until they saw the kingdom of God coming with power.

B' .The Transfiguration of Jesus (9:2-3)

C' .The voice of God from heaven, "This is my beloved son" (9:7)

D' . Jesus talks to Elijah and Moses then to the disciples about Elijah (9:4-13)

E' .A great multitude was amazed at Jesus (9:15)

F' .Jesus cast out a dumb spirit (9:17-27)

G' .They shall kill the Son of man and he shall rise on the third day (9:31)

H' .Jesus clarifies his divine status, saying that he is not God: "Why call me good? There is none good but God" (10:18)

I' . Peter says the disciples have left all and followed Jesus (10:28)

J' . Those who have left their family for Jesus have a new family: all Jesus' followers (10:29-30)

K'. Jesus rebukes the 'sons of thunder', James and John (10:35-45 - cf 3:17)

L' .Blind Bartimaeus cries out for mercy and casts off his clothes, then Jesus heals him (10:46-52)

M' .Jesus comes into Jerusalem (11:1-10)
-- Where he will die

N' .Jesus misunderstands the fig tree that can provide no fruit (11:13-14)

O' .Jesus casts out them that sold and bought in the Temple and curses them for making the Temple a den of thieves (11:15-17)
-- Jesus is asserting his authority

P' .Jesus asks whether the baptism of John is from heaven or of men, and the priests, scribes and elders can not answer (11:30-33)

Q' .Parable of husbandmen who conspire to kill the vineyard owner's son (12:1-9)

X' .Prophecy of second coming (chapter 13)

-- on clouds of glory, within the lifetimes of some of those to whom he was speaking

R' .The Last Supper (14:17-25)

S' .Art thou the Christ, Son of God (14:61)

T' .Peter denies Jesus three times (14:66-72a)

U' .And when he thought thereon, Peter wept (14:72b)

V' .The chief priests, elders and scribes delivered Jesus to Pontius Pilate (15:1)

-- Delivering Jesus is a similar concept to rejecting him.
-- Both parts of the pair involve chief priests, elders and scribes

W' .Jesus dies and on the third day rises again (15:37, 16:6)

A' .The young man explains the departure of Jesus(16:6-8)


Pair A
Note that Mark originally ended at 16:8, with the young man telling the women that Jesus was risen and they fled, telling no one, with no resurrection appearance of Jesus. Verses 16:9-25 form what is now known as the "Long Ending" (there was also, at one stage, a "Short Ending") and were added to the Gospel at a later stage, to provide resurrection appearances and to more or less harmonise it with the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Therefore, verses 16:8-25 do not form part of the chiastic structure of Mark's Gospel, and this chiastic structure encompasses the entire gospel, as defined by pair A.

Pair D
In Mark 1:13, the story of Jesus going into the wilderness, where he was ministered by angels is an allusion to Elijah (1 Kings 19:5-7) who was ministered by an angel and in the wilderness forty days. There is no actual suggestion that Jesus fasted for this time, but those familiar with the story of Elijah are likely to have assumed he did do so, and this is made explicit in Matthew and Luke. This brings into play another allusion, to Moses when (Exodus 34:28) he fasted for 40 days while he wrote the words of the Ten Commandments on tablets. The author of Mark seems to have been adept at hidden messages, and this easily overlooked allusion neatly mirrors the Transfiguration in the second set.

Events E and F
In Mark's Gospel, some events not only form pairs across the chiasm, but also interact with each other. Mark repeatedly Sandwiches one narrative that stands on its own within another narrative that would seem entirely coherent without it, in the form A1-B-A2. This is an advanced literary technique known to scholars as Markan intercalation, or simply Markan sandwich, by which Mark could emphasise important theological themes. Here we begin with Jesus teaching in the synagogue and the people were astonished at what Jesus taught (Mark 1:21-21) - this is A1 (but also event E in the framework structure). A man with an unclean spirit was in the synagogue and Jesus drove the spirit out of him - this is event B in the intercalation (also event F in the framework structure). In verse 1:27, we return as A2 to the theme of the people amazed, with parallel usage of "teaching with authority" (KJV translates teaching as its synonym 'doctrine'). The effect of this intercalation is to greatly magnify the amazement of the people compared to verse 22 alone. Sandwiched between the two verses in which the people in the synagogue were amazed, the impact of the miracle of the exorcism is also enhanced. The reader can not fail to be aware that what Jesus taught was almost beyond human understanding.

Pair G
It is impossible for the author of Mark to have known that event G occurred, but it opens an excellent chiastic pair: Pharisees took counsel with the Herodians how they might destroy Jesus ... They shall kill the Son of man and he shall rise on the third day. They will kill Jesus but they will not destroy him.

Pair H
In Mark's Gospel, only outsiders call Jesus the Son of God*. Jesus refers to himself as the Son of Man, while Peter calls him the Christ (anointed one). In 3:11-12, the demons fall down and call Jesus the Son of God, but Jesus is quick to instruct them to tell no one, thus no more than an implied admission. The demons would know Jesus' divine status, but if this was a blasphemy then they were outsiders and brought no disrepute upon the Christian community. In the matching event of the pair (10:18), Jesus once again clarifies his status, saying that he is not God yet not denying that he is the Son of God.
*Verse 1:1 does have the author call Jesus the Son of God. This is not present in some early manuscripts and it is possible that it was not original.

Pair J
Pair J uses the example of Jesus in the first passage to comfort those Christians of the author's own time who had been rejected by their families, or who had left their families to become wandering preachers or commune members. However, in verses 3:31-35, Event J, Mark risks portraying Jesus as callous or out of his mind when he sends his brothers and his mother away, proclaiming that he has a new family. This is negated because the passage is part of a local chiastic structure in which Jesus' friends, the scribes and perhaps his family are concerned about the mental state of Jesus, but Jesus proves that he is not possessed by the devil: JaThe multitude is so thick that they could not so much as eat bread (3:20)JbJesus' friends say he is beside himself (3:21)JcScribes say Jesus is possessed and by the devil casts out devils (3:22)JdHow can Satan cast out Satan? (3:23)JeIf a kingdom be divided the kingdom can not stand (3:24)Je'If a house be divided the house can not stand (3:25)Jd'If Satan is divided he can not winJc'Because they said he has an unclean spirit (3:30)Jb'Jesus' family comes to him. Jesus says his followers are his family (3:31-35)Ja'The multitude is so thick that Jesus enters a boat (4:1)

Pair J also risks portraying Jesus as opposed to the traditional concept of family, by encouraging his followers to leave their families. Right on cue, Jesus is given several opportunities to show his commitment to family:

  • 10:2-9 Pharisees tempt Jesus to say that it is lawful for a man to put away his wife, but Jesus says let no man put them asunder.
  • 10:10-12 The disciples again ask the same thing. Jesus says that if a man puts away his wife to marry another, or if a woman puts away her husband to marry another, then he or she is guilty of adultery.
  • 10:13-16 Jesus shows his love of children. Children must not be cast aside.
  • 10:17-21 Jesus lectures the rich man on moral principles, including adultery and honouring his father and mother. However, Jesus still says that this is consistent with leaving all and following him.
  • 10:28 Peter says the disciples have left all and followed Jesus.
  • 10:29-30 Jesus says those who have left all, home and family, have a new family a hundredfold. This is, of course, event J'

When Jesus says (10:29-30) that those who have left their family for Jesus have a new family, who are all Jesus' followers, we have been fully assured that Jesus is not preaching the destruction of traditional families.

Pair K

Although events K and K' clearly form a pair, the reason for this pair is not immediately apparent. Mark uses the storm in event K to remind readers that James and John are the 'sons of thunder'. In event K', the author then associates the brothers with Castor and Polydeuces, sons of Zeus the thunderer, who were often portrayed as seated on the right hand and left hand of Zeus. By comparing the sons of thunder with the sons of Zeus Mark was, in the minds of first-century readers, comparing Jesus himself with Zeus, whom he will replace.

Pair L
The two stories in this pair share some interesting features:
  • In both cases when we expect to be told the character's name, he is left nameless.
  • The demoniac in the first story calls out to Jesus not to torment him.
    Blind Bartimaeus cries out for mercy, rather like asking not to be tormented, rather than beg to be allowed to see, as we would expect.
  • The demoniac is naked. Bartimaeus casts off his garment (although possibly retaining other clothing).
  • Both stories have close parallels in the Greek classics

In verse 5:9 Jesus asks the demoniac his name, the only occasion in the gospel where he does so, yet we are never told his name. The demons answer, saying, "My name is Legion, for we are many." Bartimaeus is not a personal name, but means 'son of Timaeus', which was repeated in Greek (translated into English).
.
Timaeus is an unlikely name for a Jew, as Timaeus must have been (hence Bartimaeus), but it is a Greek name. Plato wrote an important Dialogue called Timaeus, about nature and creation. Furthermore, Dennis R MacDonald (The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark) provides credible evidence that the story of Legion was inspired by Homer's epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. When we have two gospel stories that form a matching pair in the chiastic structure, have features in common and one appears to be based on the great Greek classics, it seems likely that the second story was also inspired by another of the great Greek classics. There is also a parallel between Bartimaeus and blind Tiresias in The Odyssey. but the main effect of this parallel is to confirm the association to the story of Legion, since both have parallels in the Odyssey.
.
Greeks learnt to read by studying the works of Homer and Plato, so when reading the story of Legion would have noticed parallels to Homer. When they then saw the story of Bartimaeus in a similar context, this would have brought to mind Plato's Timaeus. Having just read the story of James and John seeking to sit on the right hand and left hand of Jesus, as Castor and Polydeuces sat on the right hand and left hand of Zeus, they might well have wondered whether Plato was talking about Jesus.

Pair R
Mark 6:33-8:21 form an integrated set of passages with ten references or allusions to food, including a summary by Jesus of the two feasts in 8:19-21, maintaining a consistent theme of food, plus a minor theme of not understanding:
  • Jesus and the disciples had no leisure so much as to eat , so they went into a desert place
  • Feeding the 5000
  • When Jesus walked on water the disciples were amazed, for they considered not the miracle of the loaves
  • Pharisees complain about the disciples eating with unwashed hands
  • Discourse - what goes into a man goes into his belly and does not defile
  • Greek woman metaphorically begs for crumbs from the table
  • Feeding the 4000
  • Disciples are hungry and have only one loaf of bread
  • Jesus warns the disciples about the leaven of the Pharisees and they reason, "It is because we have no bread," showing they do not understand
  • Summary by Jesus of the two feasts

By verse 8:21, the reader is asking, "Why don't they understand?" Later, at the Last Supper (event L'), the reader understands, but knows that the disciples do not.

Pairs T and U
Events T and U are also part of a local chiastic structure that links verse 8:38 ("Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.") to Peter's affirmation in event T of this structure, then indirectly to events T' and U' (14:66-72a; 72b), where Peter denies Jesus 3 times; "And when he thought thereon, he wept"). This adds emphasis and meaning both to Peter's affirmation and his later denials: a.TPeter affirmsbJesus refers to his death and resurrectioncPeter rebukes Jesusc'Jesus rebukes Peterb'Jesus refers to death, the cross and life after deatha'.U"Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me ..."This is a reversal of Peter's affirmation, just as Peter's denials (T') are a reversal of his affirmation.

Pair X
Pair X (9:1 and ch 13) is of special interest because its members are not in precisely corresponding locations. Verse 9:1, at the very end of the first set is the logical position for the first member, but the corresponding, fuller account in the second set had to be spoken while Jesus was still alive. I believe that the evangelist placed this in its current position, chapter 13, for this reason.

An alternative structure

Others see the framework structure differently.
For completeness I will describe this alternative structure, which has some merit: A Beginning - John points to Jesus (1:4-8)
B Jesus' baptism - The splitting of the heavens, "You are my son," (1:9-11)
C Jesus is tested in the wilderness (1:12-13)
D The parable of the sower (4:1-9)
E Raising of the young girl (5:21-43)
F The death of John the Baptist (6:14-29)
G Stilling of the second storm - exorcism of the deep (6:45-52)
H Peter's confession (8:27-30)
I - Jesus' first passion prediction (8:31-33)
H' Transfiguration (9:2-10)
G' Exorcism of possessed boy (9:14-29)
F' Appearance of the rich (young) man (10:17-22)
E' Raising of the young man (followed Mark 10:34)
D' Parable of the vineyard (12:1-11)
C' Jesus is tested in the temple (12:13-27)
B' Jesus dies, the temple veil is split "Truly this was God's son." (15:33-39)
A' The young man points to Jesus (16:1-8)

There are some grounds for agreeing with this. Here, A and A' correspond to my corresponding passages, while the subsequent pairs follow a more traditional chiastic structure. I find the F/F' and G/G' pair rather strained, suggesting that the author never intended these to be part of his chiastic structure and that they are only so in retrospect. I also believe that B/B' form an uncomfortable pairing because they require the baptism to reflect the death of Jesus.

The strength of the structure that I first described is that the events of the first set seem to introduce the theologically more important events of the second set, thus providing a literary reason for the chiastic structure used. The strength of the second structure I have cited is that in most cases each pair involves a word that could be intended as a flag to link the corresponding halves of the pair.

We should not rule out the possibility that Mark intended both structures concurrently - in this gospel, the evangelist sometimes seems to have been intent on demonstrating his literary skills.

Passion Structure

The author of Mark's Gospel has created another structure with a complexity beyond those found in the writings of less gifted authors. In a challenging feat, Mark divides the last twenty-four hours before the death of Jesus into eight segments of three hours each, separated by events that form a chiastic structure in themselves.

In this, the opening set begins on the evening of the Last Supper and ends with the trial before the high priest and other senior priests and elders. The second set begins with the trial before Pontius Pilate and ends on the evening of the crucifixion.

A.

The celebration of the Passover Feast, which becomes the Last Supper, beginning "when it was evening" (Mark 14:17), or when the sun went down: approximately 6 pm and the beginning of the day of the Passover by Jewish reckoning. Jesus says, "This is my body," a metaphor that will be reflected in his burial.
-- Mark knew that the duration of the Passover meal was three hours and that it concluded with the singing of a hymn.
B
When was about 9 p.m. Mark then has Jesus and the disciples go to the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus went to pray. He suffered alone and in agony, asking God that, if possible, he take this cup (his destiny to be crucified) away from Jesus.
-- Meanwhile his disciples, Peter, James and John, were not able to remain awake.
-- "Could you not watch one hour?" Jesus asked. The process was repeated two more times. The disciples could not watch one, two or three hours. It was now midnight.
C
The betrayal of Jesus, the darkest deed in human history, came next, occurring at the stroke of midnight.

This will be reflected by the darkness at midday.
D
At 3:00 a.m., Jesus was led away for a trial before the high priest and other senior priests and elders.
-- We know the time of the first trial because Peter's threefold denial of Jesus followed, once each hour until the cock crowed, marking the watch between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m., known as cockcrow.

E
When it was 6 o'clock, "As soon as it was morning", Jesus was led by the chief priests, scribes and elders for trial by Pontius Pilate.

At the trial, Pontius Pilate sentences Jesus to be crucified.

D'
At 9 o'clock: "It was the third hour when they crucified him."

C'

When "the sixth hour had come" (12 noon), darkness covered the whole earth, reflecting the betrayal at 12 midnight.
B'
The three hours of darkness, until 3 p.m. mirror the agony in the Garden of Gethsemene. Jesus last words, "My God. My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" reflect the recognition that his prayer in the Garden has not been answered. At 3 o'clock Jesus cried out and gave up the ghost.
A'
Joseph of Arimathea then asked Pilate for the body of Jesus, so that he could be buried before the Sabbath began at 6 p.m., when the sun went down.

The presence of 8 time periods of three hours means that there must be an odd number of events around them. I believe that Mark intended the trial before Pontius Pilate to be a 'crossover' event (shown as Dx) that is not really in either set, both mirroring the trial before the Sanhedrin (the last event of the first set) but also, by sentencing Jesus to be crucified, mirroring Jesus being crucified (thus the first event of the second set).

Minor Structures

Several minor structures have been found in Mark's Gospel. In some cases the structures are undeniable, but in other cases the challenge is to ensure that the structure is real - did Mark intend a chiastic structure to exist or is it only evident in hindsight.

The story of the fig tree is an example of a well known chiastic structure used by Mark (11:12-21):

A Jesus takes authority over a fig tree by cursing it (11:12-14)
B Jesus takes authority over merchandisers at temple (11:15,16)
C My house will be a house of prayer for all nations (11:17a)
C' You have made my house into a den of robbers (11:17b)
B' Jewish leaders are losing their authority (11:18,19)
A' Disciples recognize Jesus' authority in the withered fig tree (11:20,21)

An example I would question is Mark 1:21-28, with its strained or over-generalised comparison of some pairs:

A. Location They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he the synagogue and taught. (1:21)

B. Teaching with Authority They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. (1:22)

C. Unclean Spirit Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit (1:23)

D. Dialog And he cried out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God." (1:24)

D'. Dialog But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!" (1:25)

C'. Unclean Spirit And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him. (1:26)

B'. Teaching with Authority They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, "What is this? A new teaching-with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him." (1:27)

A'. Location At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. (1:28)

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coronary sulcus


Why is Mark's version of the resurrection of Jesus so short?

A:Mark's Gospel originally ended at verse 16:8, so the only reference to the resurrection of Jesus was the young man telling the women that he was risen and they fled in teror, telling no one. The other evangelists were not satisfied with such a short account and each provided his own elaboration. The 'Long Ending' (verses 16:9-30) was added much later, to provide the necessary appearances of the risen Jesus and to more or less harmonise with Matthew and Luke, but this is still a relatively short account compared to the other gospels.We can not know exactly why the author of Mark's Gospel ended his account with the discovery of the empty tomb, but a possible reason is that a further narrative would not have fitted into the chiastic structure of his narrative. A chiastic structure is a circular sequence in which an opening set of events is contrasted with another set of events that mirrors the first. In Mark's Gospel:The opening set begins with John explaining the coming of Jesus, followed by the baptism and the voice of God from heaven, and ends with Jesus predicting his death.The contrasting structure begins with the Transfiguration of Jesus and the voice of God from heaven, and ends with the crucifixion, followed by the young man explaining the departure of Jesus.So, the gospel ends as it began. For Mark, a longer ending would have required additional material before the present chapter 1 and could perhaps have reduced the emotional impact of the story.


What marks the beginning of the church?

When Jesus left the world and left Peter to lead the church. It says it somewhere in a gospel but I cant remember right now.