Let’s do some performance criticism and analysis with this text. I’ve just read Bringing the Word to Life: Engaging the New Testament through Performing It, by Richard Ward and David Trobisch (Eerdmans, 2012). This is a brief, concise, inexpensive, and informative introduction to performance criticism and performing of Biblical texts for audiences. I would recommend it to anyone who seeks another perspective on interpreting and presenting Biblical texts.
Ward and Trobisch recommend memorizing a text before presenting it. That may be more than you or I want to tackle most of the time, but the story of Blind Bartimaeus is relatively brief, memorable, and significant. I’m going to try to memorize the text this week as part of our work together. Perhaps you will do the same.
After internalizing the text, the authors then offer the four components of a story and encourage us to analyze a text employing these four components. They are perspective, setting, characters, and conflict (page 76).
Perspective is not about what or who we look at. It’s about the place where we look from (I know my junior high English instructors were horrified by those two sentences, but it’s my blog).
The story of Blind Bartimaeus comes at us from several perspectives in quick succession. The narrative comes first from the perspective of the crowd that accompanies Jesus into, through, and out of Jericho. In a quick-cut worthy of twenty-first century cinema, the perspective switches from the crowd to Bartimaeus.
For a moment, the narrator puts us into the place of Jesus in the story. Then back to the crowd, and immediately back to the perspective of Bartimaeus. Even though we hear Jesus’ words to Bartimaeus, those words come to us from Bartimaeus’ point of view. And that’s where both this little story and this section of the Markan account land.
Next, we look at the settings in our text. “Break the passage down in settings, noting when place and time change,” Ward and Trobisch teach us. “If you filmed the story, how often would you have to set up the camera in different places, at different times?” (page 77).
We might think that there is only one setting for this story – the Jerusalem-side outskirts of Jericho. But I think we have at least three settings in this story. First, we are alongside the way with Bartimaeus. Then we are standing still and listening to a voice crying out. Bartimaeus runs from the side to the center. Third, we are on the way to Jerusalem with Jesus and Bartimaeus, headed toward the cross.
Now we can look at the characters in the story. How many characters are there? How and how often do the characters interact? Is the narrator a character? As I think about these questions, I am reminded of the previous context. The Twelve are characters in the Bartimaeus story, even though they don’t speak. They have been instructed about discipleship in the previous scenes. Now they watch silently as that instruction is enacted before them.
It’s worth wondering in a section of text like this, who is “playing the lead”? In the story of Blind Bartimaeus the lead actor is, not surprisingly, Bartimaeus! It’s not Jesus. Is this a way to illustrate what Jesus said a few verses before about the last being first and the Son of Man coming to serve rather than being served? I don’t know, but character analysis raises this question for me. What does it mean for our proclamation to notice that in this little story, Jesus would be listed under the “with” category of characters rather than the “starring” category of characters.
The crowd is a character in the story. In fact, it seems as if they function as a sort of chorus, backing up the dialogue between Jesus and Bartimaeus. Then again, it’s a “crowd.” The crowd in the Markan composition often has multiple and conflicting opinions about things. Some interpreters wonder how the crowd can change its “mind” so quickly about Bartimaeus. But that assumes a uniformity of thought and perspective that members of crowds rarely possess.
Is the narrator a character in this story? Not in any specific or concrete sense. This is a third-person, relatively omniscient account by the Markan composer. The composer has access to some of the emotions and motives of the characters. Many in the crowd, for example, are “stern.” The narrator switches perspectives easily and without comment. So, this story, unlike many in the Markan composition, the narrator is not a character.
An important element of character in a story, not discussed by Ward and Trobisch at this moment, is identification. The changing perspectives, settings, and characters encourage listeners to identify with various characters in the story. I think, as I have learned from various performance critics, that we should attend especially to the final character in a story. That is the character we identity with (quite literally) in the end.
The remaining element of the story is “conflict.” This doesn’t necessarily mean a disagreement or a fight, although those actions often accompany a narrative conflict. A conflict is a difference of internal perspective among the characters about who is “right” about what is happening in the story. So, what is the conflict (or are the conflicts) in the story of Blind Bartimaeus?
There is the tension produced by a blind man clamoring for Jesus to see him and have mercy on him. There is the conflict between the crowd that wants Bartimaeus to shut up, and Bartimaeus who shouts all the louder as a result. There is the conflict that seems to be internal to Jesus. He has to stop and consider for a moment before telling the crowd to call Bartimaeus forward.
There is the conflict that arises as we wonder if Jesus will heal Bartimaeus and how. And there is the conflict between Jesus and Bartimaeus about the formerly blind man goes next. We know that, despite Jesus’ words to the contrary, Bartimaeus follows him on the Way.
What good does such an analysis do for us as preachers, performers, and presenters of the text? As I walked through this little exercise, I noticed a few things that hadn’t been obvious before. This little story has a lot of moving parts in just a few words. Simply from the position of a reader, it might be useful to note the rapid changes in perspective and scene. These might be useful places to pause so that our listeners do not become quickly lost.
This analysis has helped me to see once again that the Markan composer uses method to illustrate content. The way the story of Bartimaeus is told illustrates the demands of discipleship outlined in the previous section. If Jesus is willing to be a supporting actor in an existential drama, then perhaps we should consider our own such roles as followers on the Way. Where am I facilitating the journey of another potential Jesus follower and how? Or, where am I inhibiting the journey of another potential Jesus follower (like the crowd, at first) and how?
The number of conflicts in these few verses is surprising when we take the time to notice them. This story has all sorts of stuff going on – in the foreground, the background, and the center of the frame. Any of these conflicts could be a useful way into the story for a preacher.
I’m most taken at the moment by thinking about the rapidly shifting conflicts and resolutions with the crowd. They tell him first to shut up and leave Jesus alone. Then they tell him to take heart and get up. Finally, they welcome him into the crowd as they all go toward Jerusalem. What a confused and confusing bunch of folks! They sound a lot like some congregations I’ve served and observed over the years. It’s only when Jesus is at the center that we can get our act together as a crowd that becomes a community.
At the very least, this brief analysis can serve as a way to “crack open” a text that might be giving the preacher a bit of hermeneutical heartburn.
“In the performance of the text, the word becomes flesh,” Ward and Trobisch write. “Interpreters explore possible authorial intentions, the basic structure of the argument, reactions from the audience, and subtexts of underlying humor and irony, some or all of which might have escaped their attention had they only studied the text sitting at a desk and read it quietly to themselves” (page 58).
It is important to keep in mind, of course, that our system of pericope reading does inherent violence to the text as a whole. “Thus the story of Bartimaeus serves as the end or frame for the way material,” Joanna Dewey writes, “as the introduction to the Jerusalem events, and as a midway stopover on the road to Jerusalem. The hearer,” she argues, “would not perceive a break in the narrative” (page 74).
That is, the first audiences for the Markan composition wouldn’t really experience the Bartimaeus story as a conclusion but rather as a transition. The fact that the “Triumphal Entry” account begins with “and” (kai) supports this understanding.
If we take the words above about identifying with characters in combination with Dewey’s reminder, then as listeners we travel with Bartimaeus from Jericho to Jerusalem. What if we maintain that perspective and identification as we read the Triumphal Entry passage? It had not occurred to me before this analysis that such a reading might be either possible or preferred. But what if we walk with Bartimaeus through the gates of the Holy City as part of the Palm Sunday parade?
Parenthetically, I think that the “Son of David” title on Barty’s lips encourages us to do just that! In the next post, let’s think a bit about that title and what it says for our hearing of the Markan composition.
References and Resources
Beavis, Mary Ann. “From the Margin to the Way: A Feminist Reading of the Story of Bartimaeus.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, vol. 14, no. 1, [Indiana University Press, FSR, Inc], 1998, pp. 19–39, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25002323.
Culpepper, R. Alan. “Mark 10:50: Why Mention the Garment?” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 101, no. 1, Society of Biblical Literature, 1982, pp. 131–32, https://doi.org/10.2307/3260446.
Dewey, Joanna. The Oral Ethos of the Early Church: Speaking, Writing, and the Gospel of Mark. Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Hurtado, Larry. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.
Foerster, TDNT VII:989-992.
Menken, Maarten JJ. “The call of blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10: 46-52).” HTS: Theological Studies 61.1_2 (2005): 273-290.
Robbins, Vernon K. “The Healing of Blind Bartimaeus (10:46-52) in the Marcan Theology.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 92, no. 2, Society of Biblical Literature, 1973, pp. 224–43, https://doi.org/10.2307/3262955.
Ward, Richard; Trobisch, David. Bringing the Word to Life: Engaging the New Testament through Performing It. Eerdmans. Kindle Edition.
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.