Some Words about Words
I think it’s important for the congregation to hear verses thirty-two through thirty-four as part of this text. I understand that the lectionary folks tend to forgo repetition in their selections. We’ve gotten the first of Mark’s “passion predictions” from chapter 8. This third passion teaching, however, sets up such a contrast with the confrontation that follows. I don’t think it’s responsible to omit it. And it’s not like the first two passion teachings (read in worship over a month ago) are still ringing in the ears of our listeners.
So, let’s begin with Mark 10:32-34. Once again, the NRSV lets us down a bit in translation. That translation reads that they were “on the road to Jerusalem.” That’s an acceptable translation, but it once again misses the fact that in the Greek they are “on the way” to Jerusalem. The rich man may have slowed the progress for a few moments. But the journey continues. They are on the way to Jerusalem, to the cross, to discipleship.
Now let’s move to how the words sound. This third passion teaching is a completely different critter when it is compared to the first two on the basis of how it would be heard. In verses thirty-three and thirty-four, the same two sounds are repeated eight times.
Those sounds are “oo-sin.” They comprise the plural endings of the Greek nouns, “chief priests” and “scribes.” Those sounds also comprise the endings of the Greek verbs translated as “condemn,” “hand over,” “scoff,” “spit,” “beat,” and “kill.” The Markan composer creates an intimate verbal connection between the religious authorities and every step of the process of arrest, humiliation, torture, and execution.
Whitney Shiner notes that Greek orators often spoke with a lyrical, singing delivery. “First-century Greek was a tonal language,” Shiner notes. “This means that accents were not purely a matter of stress as in English, but were pronounced with a different musical tone” (page 163). David Seal writes that long vowels and diphthongs in ancient Greek are “tuneful in nature” (page 43).
If a performer of the Markan composition were really up to her or his “game,” this part of the reading might be accompanied by a steady rumble of drums to enhance the emotional tone of the text. There is music in these verses. The question is, what kind?
I can speak from experience in this regard. The stage directions for my favorite dramatic reading of the Passion account during Holy Week includes the beating of a tympani during the move from Gethsemane to the court of Pilate. The accompaniment shifts to the martial taps of a snare drum during the horrific transit to the cross. These simple additions to the spoken text are of such emotional power that I, after more than a decade of performance, wouldn’t consider doing the reading without them.
The syllables in our verses consist of a long-short pattern. Three of them are marked with a circumflex accent, which means they had, as Shiner notes, a rising and then falling pitch. I would suggest that the long-short pattern resembles the funeral dirge pattern common in the Hebrew poetry of the psalms. The spoken language of these verses conveys the drumbeat of the executioner and the lament of mourners.
If you can, read verses thirty-three and thirty-four out loud in the Greek and listen for that pattern. Then notice how that pattern is broken by the final verb in the text, “rise up.” The long-short pattern of judgment and death is interrupted by the long-short-short ending of the verb. That aural explosion is enhanced by the fact that the three final words in verse thirty-four rhyme with a long “a” sound.
The relentless funeral march of death is halted by the eruption of Life. Unfortunately, you will only notice that if you are looking for such patterns in the Greek text. Most of us won’t do that. Even more unfortunate is how difficult that would be to reproduce in an English translation, although I think it’s worth a try. Whether that would be worth the effort, since our modern English ears are not trained to pick up the meaning of the sound, is yet another question.
These verses have a number of smaller aural features that are worth noting. The verbs for “hand over” and “rise again” have the same-sounding endings. These verbs enclose the funeral song between them. There is a parallelism between who really hands over the Son of Man and who really raises him up from the dead.
Human agents are certainly at work in this process. After all, the text makes clear in verse 33 that the chief priests and the scribes will hand over the Son of Man to the Gentiles, that is, the Romans. It is equally clear that the Gentiles will be in charge of the humiliation, torture, and death. But it is the mysterious working of God for the life of the world that really stands behind these events.
The Markan composer uses alliteration to emphasize elements of the text as well (one of the many reasons why Mark is my favorite gospel). The verbs in verse thirty-two for “amazed” and “afraid” have both alliteration and rhyme – “ethambounto” and “ephobounto.” Even in the English transliteration the combination is clear. The phonetic similarity between “th” and “ph” is obvious.
Those who watch the procession through Jericho and into Jerusalem are “shocked” (“ethambounto”) at what they see. But what does that mean? I suspect it means that they are astonished to see Jesus and his colleagues heading intentionally toward confrontation, violence, and death. Those who are part of the procession are fearful (“ephobounto”) of the same confrontation, violence, and death.
The verbs portray the differences in perspectives of observers and participants. In between the two verbs is the participle for “those who followed.” The difference between incredulity and anxiety is apparently whether one is following Jesus or watching from a safe distance. And following moves a person from one group to the other.
The verses have three verbs with the “-baino” root. The group is “going up” to Jerusalem. The word is used twice in the paragraph. This going up is a necessary “happening” – the verb that connects the two instances of “going up.” And don’t miss the double entendre of “going up.” The journey is “up” to Jerusalem. But Jesus will be lifted up on the cross and raised up after three days.
There is also obvious alliteration in the description of the torture itself. The word for “scoff” (mock) is “empaixousin.” The word for “spit” is “emptusousin.” The accent is on the second syllable in each word. Say them aloud and you’ll hear the connection. You may also notice the graphic nature of the verb for “to spit.” We carry that verbal power into English in cartoon language when spitting is verbalized as “ptooey.”* In Greek, that oral/aural experience is a real word. If I say the word with vigor, it’s best if you’re not standing to close to me!
Why in the world have I spent over eleven hundred words on these details? I’ve done that because the Markan composer spent such time and effort on these few sentences. It is paragraphs such as this that make the oral/aural nature of the Markan composition so obvious. It’s not just the written text that receives such artistic care, although that is certainly the case. The very sounds of the words themselves have been crafted and sculpted into the text for maximum effect.
If these sentences are so important to the Markan composer, then they surely must not be omitted from our reading. Instead, they are essential to bridging between the aphorism in Mark 10:31 and the tragi-comedy in Mark 10:35-42.
Many who are first shall be last and last first, we read in the former verse. If you’ve been following me for the last few weeks, you might now be looking at the text to see if we next get an “and” or a “but.” Well, friends, it’s a “but.” There’s a full stop after Mark 10:31, a chance for some reflection on this Great Reversal. In a gospel that is always in a hurry, here is one of those pauses that matters greatly.
Only then do we come to the bridge between the aphorism and the dense disciples. The drum is beating, but they do not hear it. Their ears and their imaginations are filled with visions of thrones and glories, feasts of victory, and a new administration. The disciples skip over the hard stuff, stop their ears to the drums, and rush to rule.
Not so fast, buckos, the Markan composer seems to say. We’re going to take some real time for the fullest, deepest, and most artful of the three passion teachings. If you didn’t get it the first two times (and the disciples didn’t), then perhaps this aural explosion will break through the self-absorbed noise. It doesn’t do that for the disciples in the composition, but it must have done that for at least some of the first listeners to the text.
Performance critics suggest that this sort of artful presentation didn’t necessarily happen on the first go-round. It is likely that this paragraph was the result of many performances, tweaked and tuned as the listeners responded to the words. The drumbeats built up with each offering of the story, increasing in intensity until the rising rhythm was, I imagine, nearly overwhelming.
For real effect, I wonder a couple of things in the reading of the text. Perhaps it should actually begin with verse 31, so the bridge connects both ends of the “way.” And for the adventurous among us, perhaps an actual drumbeat might accompany the first paragraph. Pause after verse thirty-one and let the rhythm begin and build a bit. Then read the paragraph ponderously. Then pause, and let the drumming stop.
You might then have some music from, say, “The Three Stooges” playing under verses thirty-five to forty-two. That might be a bit over the top, but I think it would capture the mood. Then perhaps the accompaniment would cease for verses forty-three to forty-five.
A bit adventurous, I admit. But if you try something like this, let me know.
References and Resources
Seal, David (by way of Google Scholar). https://www.google.com/books/edition/Journal_of_Biblical_and_Pneumatological/wiJNAwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=new+testament+greek+long+vowel+patterns+performance&pg=PA43&printsec=frontcover.
Shiner, Whitney. Proclaiming the Gospel: First-Century Performance of Mark. Harrisburg, PA.: Trinity Press International, 2003.
*Now to geek out a bit: if you’re a Star Trek fan, you know the Klingon insult, p’tak. “Translations” vary, but it is certainly not a compliment. Even Klingon carries the verbal, aural power of spitting out an insult!