[GMark] John Dart's _Decoding Mark"
Carl W. Conrad
cwconrad at artsci.wustl.edu
Sun Jan 4 09:51:56 EST 2004
Has anyone on the list read or seen any reviews of John Dart's _Decoding Mark_?
I'm reading it right now and it seems to me to say much that is dead right
but quite a bit that is dead wrong. I can't find anything in the GMark
archives on it and not much on the web generally beyond publication data.
It evidently was published sometime during the second half of this last
John Dart, _Decoding Mark_ (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press Intl.) 2003.
It's about canonical Mark + Secret Mark + a few verses from Luke as
of what is claimed to be an original Marcan text that's shot through with
chiastic structures. He postulates an "Original Mark" that includes
canonical Mark 1;1-6:46 (EXCLUDES canonical Mark 6:47-8:26), 8:27-9:50,
canonical Luke 9:51-56, (EXCLUDES canonical Mark 10:1), canonical Mark
10:2-34, Secret Mark 1, canonical Mark 10:46-15:32a, canonical Luke
23:40-44, canonical Mark 14:33-16:8 followed probably by canonical Mark
1:1-3 ("da capo").
The central focus of Dart's work is chiasms in Mark's gospel; many of the
smaller chiasms he postulates are quite credible, but he seeks to combine
these into larger structures including a "macrocode" encompassing the
entirety of what he calls "Original Mark." Such a "macrocode" for Mark's
gospel as a whole, even for this particular scissored-and-pasted whole of
Mark's gospel, seems to me highly dubious. As I see it, chiasm is a device
assisting oral recitation, a device referred to in Homeric criticism as
"ring composition" wherein elements of a narrative are spun out and then
brought back to an original starting point. Dart, while recognizing that
his "macrocode" depends upon the assumption that "Original Mark" was
intended for perspicacious readers of a written text, doesn't seem to me to
appreciate the questionable nature of such a hypothesis for the gospels.
Even more disturbing to me is that the larger chiasms that Dart describes
appear to have less to do with logical structures of the text material than
with aesthetic gratification in the knitwork patterns created by words (or
ideas--Dart makes use of synonymous words and also of Greek words used in
quite different senses to discern the patterns). I would think his thesis
much more plausible if the macro-structure he describes could be said to
articulate Mark's message more clearly, but it seems to me to involve
starting new patterns that violate the organic narrative boundaries. For
instance, it seems evident to me that Mark 14:1-11 constitutes a unit with
the story of the anointing of Jesus by the nameless woman at Bethany framed
by brief note that (a--14;1-2) leaders of the Sanhedrin were seeking
(EZHTOUN) to arrest and execute Jesus and a second brief note (b--14:10-11)
that Judas went to those leaders of the Sanhedrin and offered to assist
them in their purpose, then began seeking (EZHTEI) an opportunity to do so.
Now Dart's structure makes Mark 14:1-9 part of his "Act 4" which extends
from Mk 11:1 through 14:9, while he puts Mark 14:10-11 with what follows as
"Act 5" extending from Mark 14:10-15:33. I would have to be pretty
skeptical too of a "macrocode" for such a patchwork quite "gospel of Mark"
that involves omission of a sizable chunk of canonical Mark (6:47-8:26) and
that must fill in supposed gaps with snippets from Luke's gospel (arguing
that Luke used these verses from "original Mark" but that the Redactor of
canonical Mark chose to cut them).
And yet, I found this book to be a fascinating, even provocative read. Dart
is a journalist rather than an academic Biblical scholar (and he writes
better than quite a few academic Biblical scholars whom I've read),
although he has followed NT studies closely, I gather, throughout his
career; he seems to know the bibliography on Mark pretty well, and I found
myself able to suspend disbelief regarding his key arguments much longer
than when reading through the MacDonald work on supposed Homeric narrative
themes in Mark. I think it was Raymond Brown who said (preface to
_Community of the Beloved Disciple_?) that he'd be greatly pleased if 60%
of his speculative reconstruction of the history of the Johannine Community
turned out to be valid. I don't know whether I'd grant as much as 60%
validity to Dart's propositions or not, but I have to say that I think he's
got quite a few things that are important about Mark's themes exactly
right: intentional ending at 16:8, denigration of disciples, of Jesus'
family, even of the women at the empty tomb.
An essential element in Dart's reconstruction is that the text of Secret
Mark as indicated and located in the Clementine letter to Theodorus was
part of the original composition of Mark's gospel and that it was
eliminated by a (second-century?) redactor. I remain skeptical. Clement's
letter itself seems to be saying that Mark composed his gospel in Rome and
prepared an expanded new edition later in Alexandria, and he implies that
the text we call "Secret Mark" was NOT part of the original gospel of Mark
but a later addition. My own guess is that "Secret Mark" was composed by
someone writing (in the second century) attempting to imitate Mark's style
in much the same way that the deutero-Pauline writer(s) attempted to
imitate Paul's style. But that's speculation, and I suspect that regarding
"Secret Mark" the old saw is true: QUOT HOMINES TOT SENTENTIAE.
Dart admits that one crux of his argument is the proper understanding of
the sequence in Mark 4:10-13. Jesus has just narrated the Parable of the
Sower to an audience of what I think we should assume to be "outsiders." In
4:10 "those around him with the Twelve" put to him the question of parables
(ERWTWN AUTON ... TAS PARABOLAS), meaning presumably that (a) they didn't
understand his parable, and (b) they wondered why he used riddling
discourse in his public teaching. Jesus' reply in verses 11-13 is
remarkable in that (a) he perceives that they haven't absorbed the sense of
the Parable of the Sower at all (although it is worded in such a way as to
describe, at least in part, their own behavior) and they are likely to have
difficulties hereafter in understanding the inner meaning of his teaching
in "riddling language." But in verse 10 Jesus says hUMIN TO MUSTHRION
DEDOTAI THS BASILEIAS TOU QEOU; EKEINOIS DE TOIS EXW EN PARABOLAIS TA PANTA
GINETAI, hINA ... I understand this something like, "the secret of God's
reign is a gift for you, but for those who are outsiders it all turns into
riddling language, with the consequence that ..."
I think (as does Dart) that one of the ironies of this saying is the
suggestion that the disciples who put the question to Jesus are really
"outsiders" to whom Jesus' parables turn into riddling language. Surely it
is inconceivable that Jesus actually taught in parables in order NOT to be
understood by the public audiences he addressed. I rather doubt that Jesus
ever voiced the proposition set forth in 4:10-12, and I am rather inclined
to think that the notion of an esoteric lore to which only an inner circle
of Jesus' disciples was privy comes closer to the view held by those whom
Paul argued against in his letters to the Corinthian church. Of course
there was instruction (DIDACH) given new converts who responded to the
proclamation (KHRUGMA) in the early church, but esoteric lore meant for
only the inner circle? I think that the author of GMark intended to hold up
that notion to ridicule rather than to promote it. And that's the reason
why I find it hard to believe that the account of night-long private
instruction of a young man raised by Jesus in "Secret Mark" could have been
part of an original composition by the author of GMark. The notion of an
esoteric lore in which candidates for baptism were privately instructed may
very well have developed and gained ground in Alexandria, and this
would/could be akin to the proto-Gnosticism of the Corinthian congregation.
But it seems to me alien to the gospel espoused and proclaimed by the
author of GMark.
I certainly didn't intend a wholescale reviewe or critique of John Dart's
book; but I thought I would report it and note my fascination with it as
well as my reservations. At any rate, it's relatively "hot off the press,"
and I am curious as to what other students of Mark's gospels might have
though or might think of it.
Carl W. Conrad
Department of Classics, Washington University (Emeritus)
1989 Grindstaff Road/Burnsville, NC 28714/(828) 675-4243
cwconrad at artsci.wustl.edu
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