Text Study for Mark 10:46-52 (Pt. 5); October 24, 2021

Performing Bartimaeus

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).

Photo by Monica Silvestre on Pexels.com

Perspective

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.

Setting

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.

Character

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.

Conflict

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.

Application

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.

Hinlicky Wilson, Sarah. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-mark-1046-52-4.

Jacobson, Karl. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-mark-1046-52.

Menendez-Antuna, Luis. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-mark-1046-52-5.

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.

Skinner, Matt. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-30-2/commentary-on-mark-1046-52-2.

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.

Text Study for Mark 10:32-45 (Pt. 1); October 17, 2021

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.

Photo by Dani Hart on Pexels.com

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!