Text Study for John 20:19-31 (Part Four)

How will you “play” this text as you read it in worship? Will you read and speak with a smile as Jesus appears and says, “Peace be with you”? I think that’s a fairly straightforward choice. This is one of those texts that will really benefit, I believe, from putting the book down on a reading desk and doing some “hand-acting” to illustrate the movement underneath the words.

I have often used the same posture and action in reading the text that I would use in sharing the Peace of the Lord with the congregation prior to the liturgy of Holy Communion. This is an opportunity for worshippers to connect that liturgical action to this moment in the Johannine account. In order for people to make that connection, the preacher may need to highlight it in the message and repeat the action at that point. Once the connection has been made in the minds of worshippers, however, in my experience it sticks with them (at least until you remind them of it again next year).

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In extending the blessing of peace to the disciples, I imagine that Jesus extended his hands to them. Thus, showing them his hands would have been a natural extension of the gesture. The Greek text doesn’t have a word for “after” in this phrase. It is a translation choice, since the grammar is a participle that encourages such explication. It is just as likely that the participle is contemporaneous rather than past. “Saying this, he showed the hands and side to them” (John 20:20a, my translation).

When they looked at his hands and side, then they saw the Lord. It is the wounds that help them identify him. That will be important as we think about the interaction with Thomas in just a few verses. Now, how will you play the second “Peace be with you”? If the first one was spoken to allay their fears, it seems that the second one is spoken to quiet them down a bit. I wonder if Jesus used the phrase the way our bishops sometimes say, “The Lord be with you,” in order to quiet down a loud and boisterous group of clergy at a meeting.

Would you consider enacting the Breath of Life that Jesus shares with the disciples in verse twenty-two? I could imagine ending verse twenty-two with a deep intake of breath and a long, slow exhalation before beginning verse twenty-three. I am trying to capture how a Johannine storyteller might deliver this part of the text.

The Greek verb for “breathed” has the clear sense of “into” rather than “on.” This is the breathing I might use in mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, not the blowing I might use to scatter dandelion seed. This is the breath that gives life to inanimate clay. Perhaps that can give us a clue as to how we might play the words of commission that make up verse 23. These words breathe the Divine life into us when we are dead in sin.

And these words continue to blow through us until we awake to new life. So, I imagine that Jesus shares them with an encouraging smile and a positive nod of the head. That’s quite different from the threatening and foreboding tones with which I have often read this text in the past. I think verse twenty-three reads much better as a promise than as a threat.

Now we come to Jesus and Thomas. I have often read these verses with tones of anger and frustration. I haven’t done that intentionally, but I think that’s the default setting, at least for me, when I read a great many lectionary selections. Is Thomas arrogant and demanding, haughty and dismissive? That’s the reading we get when we name this text the story of “Doubting Thomas.” “You gullible fools!” Thomas seems to say. “I’m not going to settle for your words. I want real proof!” Suddenly, Thomas has become a post-Enlightenment skeptic, operating with a finely-honed hermeneutic of suspicion.

Yet, what if Thomas surprised and confused? Perhaps we could play Thomas as stunned rather than stern. Perhaps we could read him as reeling in confusion rather than regal in doubt. Could it be that Thomas is pleading rather than demanding? “I have no idea what’s going on here,” he is perhaps saying. “Could someone please help me to understand? I heard what you experienced, friends. Have I missed out on that opportunity?”

Confusion, surprise, disappointment – all of these experiences can certainly come out as anger and frustration. It is perhaps a subtle task to play Thomas with accuracy and empathy in this scene. The preacher may need to help listeners explore the possible options for such a presentation.

As I write this reflection, I begin to wonder if the reading of the text should happen in the middle of or even after the message. That might be an appropriate strategy if the goal is to help listeners experience the story as something other than the same, ho-hum, doubt is bad – faith is good, just-so story we get every year. Could the preacher take some time to prime the listeners to hear the story in a different way? I think that’s worth considering.

The next scene is a week later, probably in the evening. Thomas has had seven days of being on the outside looking in, seven days of waiting for his own encounter with the Risen Lord, seven days of hearing the joyful trust of the other ten. Was he a party-pooper who rained on their post-Easter parade? I suspect not. But the pain of being left out would have been palpable. Perhaps it would be worth wondering in a sermon what those seven days were like.

Now here we are. Thomas is present this time. Jesus comes and offers the gift of his peace. With his hands already extended in that blessing, he invites Thomas to touch him. What is Jesus’ tone in this conversation? How will you play it this time? Too many times I have played Jesus as the scolding schoolmaster ready to rap poor Tom’s knuckles with a ruler for getting his lesson wrong. That seems to be a jarring follow-up to “Peace be with you.”

What if, instead, Jesus is the empathetic encourager? Perhaps we could play Jesus at this point with a warm and inviting smile on his face. “Go ahead, Thomas. It’s ok. You can touch me. I want you to reach out and put your finger here and examine my hands. It’s all right. I won’t smack you in the process. Come close and put your hand in my side. Really, I want you to do it. I want you to have what you need, what I gave to the others a week ago.”

Perhaps we ought to play Jesus as inviting Thomas to touch him, wooing him with his wounded hands and side. “Thomas, I long for you to come out of that fearful box of mistrust. I want you to know the joy of trusting in the life I offer you. This is the moment, Thomas, when you can become the child of God you were created to be. Come on, Tom, it’s all right!”

And how shall we play Thomas’ response? Perhaps we can do the shocked and somewhat chagrined recognition that I have so often put into the text as I read it. That makes perfect sense. But there are no exclamation points in the Greek text. Translators and editors insert such punctuation to assist with our reading. But punctuation is translation. And translation is interpretation. We may use the exclamation point or not, depending on how we read the story.

What if Thomas whispers his response in quiet conviction rather than shouts it in shocked amazement? What if Thomas relaxes into a gentle trust rather than rages into a militant conviction? “Ah, Lord, there you are. I see you now.” Perhaps Thomas is more satisfied than surprised, with less violence and more peace. What if we were to title this story “Growing Thomas” rather than “Doubting Thomas”? How might that impact the faith lives of the listeners?

Then there is Jesus’ follow up to Thomas’ witness. It’s so easy to read verse twenty-nine as critical of Thomas’ demand for visible proof. Of course, many translators do not render Jesus’ response as a question (including Martin Luther, for example), but rather as a statement: “You have come to believe because you have seen me.” Yes, Thomas, you are one of the fortunate witnesses who have seen and can testify. Those who come to believe because of that testimony will be blessed as well.

After all, that is the reason the Johannine author composed this account – so that we, who have not seen, may come to and continue to believe that the Messiah, the Son of God, is Jesus. In that trust, we can continue to have abundant life in his name.

It is a challenge to read this text aloud in such a way as to woo listeners into that ongoing life. I think we are so primed to hear the text as filled with conflict and judgment that we may be able to hear little else. If we play the text in that way, however (as I so often have), then our presentation will work at cross-purposes to the text, no matter what we might say in the message itself.

Sometimes how we play the text is not terribly crucial to how it is heard. But in the Johannine gospel generally, and in this text in particular, how we play it matters a great deal to our proclamation.

References and Resources

Koester, Craig. “Hearing, seeing, and believing in the Gospel of John. https://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1021&context=faculty_articles.

Lewis, Alan E. Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday.

Schneiders, Sandra Marie “The Lamb of God and the Forgiveness of Sin(s) in the Fourth Gospel.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 73/1 (January 2011): 1-29.

Schneiders, Sandra M. “Touching the Risen Jesus: Mary Magdalene and Thomas the Twin in John 20.” CTSA Proceedings 60 (2005), 13-25.

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics.

Wright, N. T. Resurrection of the Son of God.

Wright, N. T. Surprised by Hope. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.


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Text Study for Mark 15:1-39 (Pt. 5); November 21, 2021

Turn On the Applause Sign

How should one perform the mockery of a mockery? Let’s look at that performance critical question through the lens of Mark 15:39, the words of the centurion. I would commend the article by Kelly R. Iverson and note that the word “confession” is not taken at face value. After all, the question is precisely this. What is the nature of the centurion’s statement – dismissive snort, cynical rejection, confused wondering, faithful confession, or something else?

“While various grammatical and historical issues weigh on the interpretation of this statement,” Iverson writes, “the verse hinges on elements that are not readily obvious in the textual remains of Mark’s story” (page 329). He leads us to wonder about the “paralinguistic” and “extralinguistic” features of the performance – “the intonation of the storyteller’s voice, gestures, facial expression, and so on…” (page 330). These nonverbal features are not available to us in the written Markan composition.

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Iverson reminds us of an important distinction at this point. I am not asking about what the centurion actually said and how he actually said it. That information is beyond our reach and may or may not have impacted how the Markan composer told the story. Instead, the intent is “to understand the force of the centurion’s statement as reflected in the Markan passion narrative” (page 330). We can take a real stab at that understanding, and Iverson’s article moves that conversation forward in helpful ways.

For years, I have leaned in the direction of hearing the centurion’s words as either a confused question or a cynical rejection. I have been in good company in that regard. Iverson, however, offers solid reasons based on the tools of performance criticism to hear and play the words of the centurion as a sincere confession of faith. But, as he notes, it could also appear to be such a sincere confession while actually being a confession of disbelief and mockery (page 332).

Iverson moves deeper into the analysis by examining the “metalinguistic commentary” in the Markan composition. Look at the Gospel of Mark and see how many times, when a character (especially Jesus, but not exclusively) speaks, there is a description of what the character says. Iverson points to Mark 1:25, where we hear that Jesus rebuked the demon and then told the demon to come out of the man. The description “he rebuked him” is the metalinguistic commentary that precedes the “and.”

The composer uses this commentary to make sure the listeners understand how the characters intend their words. “Thus, while the Gospel has been shaped by an oral culture and one might expect an absence of metalinguistic language,” Iverson writes, “just the opposite appears to be the case: Mark frequently includes the verbal forms that specify the manner and/or meaning of reported speech, even when such ‘editing in’ is largely unnecessary.” Thus, metalinguistic commentary is a feature of the Markan composition to keep in mind as we interpret the text.

Iverson observes that the Markan passion account contains numerous metalinguistic commentaries. In the passion account, these commentaries are attached without exception to those who mock, accuse, torture, and execute Jesus. As we observed in the previous post, the Markan script mocks the mockers through the use of thick and artful irony. “In Mark’s passion, the pervasive use of metalinguistic indicators seems to be a deliberate strategy to demarcate certain kinds of characters,” Iverson writes. “The absence of such language surrounding the Roman centurion is conspicuous and suggests a more favorable portrayal” (page 335).

In addition, the word translated as “truly” generally “functions in concert with assertions that are genuine and real” (page 330). In light of the general patterns in the Markan composition, Iverson argues that it is unlikely that the centurion’s confession is part of the mocking of Jesus. This is not a conclusive argument, but I find it persuasive enough to lead me further into the conversation.

Scholars have struggled, Iverson notes, to reconcile the centurion’s “confession” with the political and social position of a typical Roman centurion. But, Iverson argues, that is a conversation about what we might surmise the centurion actually said. That’s an historical rather than a literary or performance-critical question. But if we remember that the Markan composition was performed as an oral/aural event, we must bring a different set of interpretive lenses than those offered by historical investigation.

“The question thus becomes how the Markan story shapes the audience’s perception,” Iverson proposes, “and whether the evangelist attempts to subvert stereotypical assumptions about the Roman centurion” (page 339). I would suggest that this strategy is consistent with the Markan effort to make a mockery of mockery.

“One of the interesting features of Mark’s Gospel,” Iverson continues, “is that individuals who are otherwise associated with a particular character or group are occasionally depicted in a manner that defies audience expectations” (page 339). If we think for a bit, the examples multiply. Iverson points to the “good scribe” in Mark 12 and Joseph of Arimathea in Mark 15 as examples. The Syro-Phoenician woman, Jairus, and Bartimaeus also certainly fit this characterization.

“Mark’s selection of characters at this juncture appears to be a calculated attempt to subvert audience expectations,” Iverson argues. He proposes that the Markan composer treats the centurion in a similar fashion. I would point out that the centurion is another one of the “minor characters” who express trust in Jesus when the major characters fall short in that regard. Both of these factors argue in favor of the centurion’s authentic confession of faith.

The third section of Iverson’s article is entitled “Confession as an Audience Applause Line.” I have discussed “applause lines” in the Markan composition in some previous posts, but this takes the conversation a bit further. Iverson refers to Whitney Shiner’s 2003 book, Proclaiming the Gospel, in this regard, a work that I have referenced in some previous posts.

According to Shiner, a confession is a place in the composition where applause was expected from the first audiences. Such applause expresses appreciation, builds and strengthens community identity, and marks a division in the outline of the text. That third point means that Mark 15:40-41 really belongs with the next section of the narrative, the burial of Jesus.

Shiner points to three elements in applause lines in the Markan composition. Often these lines are associated with Jesus triumphing over opponents in some way. The ways in which the words are formed and phrases constructed often indicates a climax to be met with applause. And the applause is invited at natural breaks in the script. Mark 15:39 fits with each of these three criteria, according to Iverson, although Shiner himself doesn’t make that connection in the book.

The centurion’s confession “represents the Christological high point of Mark’s Gospel and echoes the repeated declaration that Jesus is God’s son,” Iverson notes. The confession contradicts Jesus’ opponents and is made just when their victory seems assured. And the statement itself has a phonetic and a rhythmic pattern that makes it both memorable and impactful. It comes at the end of a long, tense, and potentially disastrous narrative and creates the opportunity for the good news to break through that tension.

“In sum,” Iverson writes, “it seems that the participatory indicators that Shiner identifies are all evident in the centurion’s pronouncement, suggesting that the account has been deliberately structured to allow for the interjection of applause in response to the announcement of Jesus’ true identity” (page 344).

It may seem odd that the crucifixion narrative would conclude with an outburst of applause, and this is why, according to Shiner, he does not include it as an example of such a line. But Iverson has inspected some similar martyrological texts and notes that the suffering of martyrs often concludes with expressions of joy and hope in the face of apparent disaster and defeat. The same is true of the lament psalms in the Hebrew scriptures, which always end on a note of hope (including Psalm 22, put to work in the Markan composition in this chapter).

Iverson also takes us to the connection between crucifixion and exaltation examined in detail by Joel Marcus and notes that the subtext is not all gloom and doom. While the room would have been somber during the telling of the crucifixion narrative, the mockery of the mockers, culminating in the enthronement of Christ as King, would be reason for applause at the end of that part of the story.

Iverson notes that the Markan composer is quite intentional in how the composer builds audience identification. It could have been through graphic descriptions of Jesus’ physical suffering. That would develop a kind of horrified sympathy (a la The Passion of the Christ). But that sympathy maintains distance rather than creates identification. The storyteller involves the audience in the emotional suffering of Jesus – something we can all identify with, and which reduces the distance between us and Jesus.

“In Marks story,” Iverson writes, “it is the contrast between the repeated mockery of Jesus and the centurion’s confession that prompts audience applause. The audience’s anger, generated by the cascade of mockery,” he concludes, “is redirected at the moment of confession into an eruption of applause and exultation” (page 349). The centurion’s confession becomes the audience’s confession.

Thus, we come as listeners to a full-circle connection in the Markan composition. It is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. At the foot of the cross, the centurion is drawn to affirm that good news. Now the scene is set in Mark for the unfolding of the rest of the story.

References and Resources

Alexamenos graffito: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexamenos_graffito.

Burton, Oliver Vernon, and Defner, Armand. Justice Deferred: Race and the Supreme Court. Cambridge, MA.: The Belknap Press, 2021.

Chan, Michael J. https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/not-without-gods-power.

Diggers, Ira Brent. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/sunday-of-the-passion-palm-sunday-2/commentary-on-mark-151-47.

Equal Justice Initiative. Lynching in America (Third Edition). https://lynchinginamerica.eji.org/report/.

IVERSON, KELLY R. “A Centurion’s ‘Confession’: A Performance-Critical Analysis of Mark 15:39.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 130, no. 2, The Society of Biblical Literature, 2011, pp. 329–50, https://doi.org/10.2307/41304204.

Marcus, Joel. “Crucifixion as Parodic Exaltation.” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 125, no. 1, Society of Biblical Literature, 2006, pp. 73–87, https://doi.org/10.2307/27638347.

Menéndez-Antuña, Luis. (2021). The Book of Torture. The Gospel of Mark, Crucifixion, and Trauma (forthcoming in Journal of the American Academy of Religion). Journal of the American Academy of Religion. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/353804044_The_Book_of_Torture_The_Gospel_of_Mark_Crucifixion_and_Trauma_forthcoming_in_Journal_of_the_American_Academy_of_Religion.

Popovic, Srdja, and Joksic, Mladen. “Why Dictators Don’t Like Jokes.” https://foreignpolicy.com/2013/04/05/why-dictators-dont-like-jokes/.

Serwer, Adam. “The Cruelty is the Point.” https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/10/the-cruelty-is-the-point/572104/.


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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).

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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.

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!