A survey of the modern commentaries reveals that most expositors see a major shift of thought somewhere near the end of chapter eight.1 This consensus, though by no means final in authority, is an indication that one of the more plain divisions of the literary design in Mark's effort is to be found there.
Perhaps the most effective way to establish the perimeters of the major sections of Mark is to establish the boundaries of the sub-sections within them and show their relationships to their respective major sections. This, though much more difficult, is far better than imposing a chronological or geographical mode of division at the outset.
There is abundant textual evidence that the author intended that his message in the first major movement of his thought take three steps. These three steps are given in 1:21-3:35 (where the focus is upon the evidence of Jesus' identity and the decisions that were made regarding Him), 4:1-6:6 (where the focus is upon the disciple's training regarding the mystery of the Kingdom of God), and 6:7-8:26 (where the focus is upon the dangers of leaven that confront disciples). It will be our purpose in this section to draw out those textual indicators and use them to establish the boundaries of 1:21-8:26 as a major unit in Mark's message.
There are several indications that Mark intended his readers to view the record of 1:21-3:35 as an integrated unity. First, in 1:21-34 he establishes his thesis for 1:21-8:26 by setting forth his evidence in the form of two accounts of Jesus' power and a summary account in which he simply restates the point of the first two stories.
Since Mark's message presents Jesus according to John's thesis of power ("there comes One after me ... mightier than I"), we would expect that he would develop some form of argument regarding the power of Jesus. As we read his work we see that Mark felt that his readers could identify Jesus with power if he addressed that issue in two realms: spiritual and physical. Thus, the first recorded action of Jesus beyond the prologue is the teaching in the synagogue at which time Jesus amazes the people by casting a demon out of one in the audience. This establishes, at least tentatively, that Jesus has power in the realm of spiritual things (both for doctrine and authority over spiritual opponents). Then, he immediately records that Jesus, by merely taking her hand, instantly and conclusively heals Peter's mother-in-law of a serious fever. This, at least tentatively, establishes His power in the physical realm.
This done, Mark immediately summarizes the twin arguments for power with a record of Jesus' healing of many who were ill and His casting out of many demons. This is an inverted gloss without particulars. It is inverted because it reverses the order of his argument. He originally began with his spiritual-power thesis and followed with his physical-power thesis. In this gloss he records an example of His physical power first (healing the ill) and follows with an example of His spiritual power (casting out demons). It is a gloss in that no names or details are given. It is simply Mark pulling both lines of proof together. Jesus is powerful.
It is at this point that we are introduced to a major indicator that 1:21-3:35 is an integral unit. Mark's next story is focused upon the response of the people ("everyone is looking for you"). This stands out because it is a deliberate focus upon the theme of response, and it anticipates two larger elements of this sub-section that deal with that issue.
Next we have another gloss on Jesus' power over demons followed by a detailed account of the healing of a leper. These two records accomplish three things: first, they set the stage for the first major response unit in this sub-section; second, they again bring the twin theses of power back to mind; and, third, they emphasize the nature of the response which ought to occur.
Mark 2:1-3:6 follows. It stands out as a literary unit as Dewey points out:
"It has long been agreed that the five controversy stories of Mark 2:1-3:6 ... constitute a collection of conflict stories compiled either by Mark or some earlier collector. These five stories have not merely been collected in one place because of similarities in form and content but have been constructed in such a way as to form a single literary unit with a tight and well-worked out ... structure ...."2
The overwhelming focus of this unit is upon the response of the religious establishment to Jesus and His power. This is seen in that the first response by them is the question: "Who can3...?" This question zeroes in on the more critical issue of Jesus' spiritual power and clearly indicates that they are responding to that issue. And, the last response by them in this unit is the determination to kill Him (3:6).
Then, we are immediately reminded of the issues by another gloss in which healings and exorcisms by Jesus are the point: 3:7-12. This is deliberate, for Mark now intends to nail down the response issue in three ways: first, he records the only legitimate response in his record of the call of the Twelve so that they might be with Jesus and be sent out by Him to preach with authority (3:14-15); second, he records two illegitimate responses in a section in which one response is introduced, interrupted by the record of the other, and then stated. These responses are: that of the family, who do not like the implications of the positive response (He is God so we should follow and obey Him), nor the implications of the negative (He is of Satan so we should kill Him), so they decide He is out of His mind; and, the final decision of the religious establishment which has already been pointedly developed.
In summary we have the following structure:
|1:21-28||---||the first argument for Him as Powerful|
|1:29-31||---||the second argument for Him as Powerful|
|1:32-34||---||the inverted summary gloss|
|1:35-38||---||the issue of response raised|
|1:39-45||---||the arguments reiterated with response theme|
|2:1-3:6||---||the first response section|
|3:7-12||---||arguments reiterated as prelude to final responses|
|3:13-19||---||the positive response|
|3:20-35||---||the negative responses|
This brings us to 4:1 and following. At this point there is a deliberate shift that is established by the record of five parables whose meaning is deliberately kept from the masses and explained to the Twelve. Because of this abrupt focus upon the disciples and their growth in understanding (4:13), the words of 3:14 take on the form of a pre-indicator of the following structure. In that verse the Twelve are summoned for two purposes: first, to be with Jesus (apparently to be discipled by means of parables and personal experiences [4:1-6:6] ); and, second, to be sent out by Jesus (an event which takes place in 6:7 and following). Thus we have a textual indicator that ties the response section of 1:21-3:35 to the "to be with Him" section of 4:1-6:6 as well as the "sent to preach" section of 6:7 and following.
With 3:14 as an indicator, it is fairly simple to see the structure of 4:1-6:6. In this unit we have the disciples being instructed as to the "mystery of the Kingdom of God: (4:11) so that they might be sent forth to preach properly (4:1-34). However, there is a key ingredient beyond the mystery of the Kingdom of God that the disciples must grasp. It is the principle of faith in the power of Jesus. This is developed in five stories in 4:35-6:6. First, there is the familiar argument for power by means of an exercise of authority over the physical realm in 4:35-41. Here the issue is "How is it that ye have no faith?" (4:40). Second, there is the twin argument for power in the record of the exercise of authority over very powerful spiritual forces (5:1-20). Here there is no comment on the impact upon the disciples. Instead, we are immediately introduced to a very difficult physical realm problem (Jairus' daughter is about to die) in 5:21-24. But, this record is interrupted by another difficult physical realm problem (the woman with a 12-year hemorrhage) in 5:25-34. But, the point is made: "your faith has made you well" (5:34). Then, the problem of Jairus is resumed with an intensification ("your daughter has died") and a demand for faith ("stop being afraid, keep believing"). Third, there is a record of Jesus' inability because of unbelief (6:1-6).
In the section 4:1-6:6, then, we have the disciples being "with" Jesus so that they can be schooled for a preaching tour. They must learn the content of the preaching (the mystery of the Kingdom) as well as the proper attitude for Jesus' power to be available to them (faith). Thus, we have this structure:
|4:1-34||---||the mystery made known to the Twelve|
|4:35-41||---||the second4 argument for power coupled with "faith"|
|5:1-20||---||the first argument for power reiterated with the intensification of dealing with a legion of demons|
|5:21-43||---||the second argument intensified by death coupled with "faith"|
|6:1-6||---||the problem of the absence of faith|
Since Mark 3:14 established a period when the disciples would be "with" Jesus as well as a time when they would be "sent forth", it is notable that the Twelve were "with" Him in 4:1-6:6. But beginning with 6:7 they are "sent forth". Thus we have a structural marker for the beginning of this sub-section.
However we also have a clear indicator of the perimeters of this sub-section in 8:14-21. There the material of this sub-section is delineated. First, Jesus warns them of the "leaven of the Pharisees" and of the "leaven of Herod". Neither of these phrases can be interpreted apart from the Herod material of 6:14-29 (which is introduced by the impact of the disciples' preaching, having been "sent forth") and the Pharisee material of 7:1-23. Second, Jesus Himself appeals to the Feeding of the Five Thousand material in 8:19 and the Feeding of the Four Thousand material in 8:20. Again, neither of these references can be understood apart from the corresponding records of those events in 6:30-44 and 8:1-9. Thus, in the words of Jesus we have mention of entities and events which demand the material from 6:7-8:9 for understanding.
Then, also, there is the deliberate structure of the material itself. First comes the sending forth, which leads to the Herod material. Then there is the record of the Feeding of the Five Thousand, followed by more "power" stories. The first is a power account which focuses upon the physical realm (6:45-52), which leaves the Twelve "greatly astonished" (6:51), and which is directly tied to the Feeding of the Five Thousand (6:52). The second is a power gloss which focuses on the physical realm of healings (6:53-56).
This is followed by the Pharisee material (7:1-23), which in turn is followed by a reversed order of the above; a spiritual-realm power story followed by a physical-realm power story that leaves the observers "utterly astonished" (7:37). Then comes the Feeding of the Four Thousand. Now, to see the structure we must understand something about Mark's use of power stories. He uses them somewhat interchangeably. Both serve as lines of proof for the thesis that Jesus is the Mighty One. For this cause sometimes Mark chose to use one rather than the other, but in each case they add up to an argument for power. We will see this again in a later chapter and will set forth a more detailed argument there. Thus, if it can be granted that Mark uses his power stories interchangeably to some extent, the following is the structure:
|6:14-29||---||Leaven of Herod||---------||7:1-23||---||leaven of Pharisees|
|6:30-44||---||Feeding of 5,000||---------||7:24-30||---||power story|
|6:53-56||---||power story||---------||8:1-9||---||Feeding of 4,000|
The theses of the material in 6:30-56 are repeated in another inversion in 7:24-8:9.
Finally, after this rather significant structure, we have the conclusion of the "sent forth" section which records the dangers the disciples will face (leavens), the two-fold presentation of the special truths regarding those dangers, and the healing of a blind man in two stages who represents disciples who needed the previously given, two-fold presentation in order to grasp the truth (8:14-26).
We have argued that 1:21-8:26 is the first major section of Mark's Gospel. The prologue sets our expectation: he will present Jesus as the Mighty One. Then there are three sub-sections: 1:21-3:35, which argues for His power and the need for a legitimate response to Him; 4:1-6:6, which presents the disciples "with Him", learning of the mystery of the Kingdom and the necessity of faith; and 6:7-8:26, which presents the disciples actively engaged ("sent out"), but in some danger of leaven and in need of learning to see the lessons of the loaves and of their other experiences. The boundaries have been set by specific textual indicators (3:14 and 8:15-21) as well as specific structural techniques.
The details of the larger context of Mark's thought have produced the consensus mentioned in the opening paragraph of this chapter. When we couple this consensus to the fact that the power stories are abundant and repetitive until we get to 8:27, when they come to an almost complete halt, we have good reason to see 1:21-8:26 as a major section in which Mark presents Jesus as the One of Power.
In addition to those arguments I would like to add two more. First, if, as I will argue in the next chapter, 8:27-38 is a pivot which summarizes the meaning of 1:21-8:26 ("Thou are the Christ") and which introduces the next major section (the Son must die and His disciples must not accept Satan's ethics in regard to this), the presence of a pivot at this point argues for a new major section as well as the conclusion of a previous one.
Second, just as the call for disciples in 1:16-20 was a prologue to the first major section, 8:34-38 is a call for disciples that prologues the second major section. There are many parallels in these two paragraphs that call for the beginning of a new section. Among them are: first, they both constitute calls for "following" Jesus (1:17 c/w 8:34); second, they both fit their sections specifically (1:16-20 calls for fishing for men who will respond to the Mighty One and become His disciples who will learn from Him and speak for Him, whereas 8:34-38 calls for following to death so as to inherit glory -- a major thesis in the next section); and, they both call for the leaving of the present lifestyle in order to follow.
Thus, we can see that the demands of the larger context are for the beginning of a new section and, thus, the end of the previous one.
Since we will have a concluding chapter on the Picture of Jesus that arises out of the structure of Mark, suffice it to say at this point that Peter understood that the meaning of the power stories of the first major section was: "Thou art the Christ". This is what Peter is recorded by Mark as concluding from the information in this first section.
It might be helpful, however, to point out that the structure of this first section presents a triple emphasis. First, in 1:21-3:35, it is Mark's intent to show that the rejection by the religious leadership, and of the earthly family of Jesus, is based upon fantastic claims which are reinforced by His ability to exercise power. The religious leaders object to His claim to be able to forgive sins (2:7) because this is a prerogative of deity only, and to His claim to be Lord of the Sabbath (2:28) because this also smacks of a claim beyond mere human claims. The family objects because they think He has lost His senses (3:21), but this does not account for His abilities (since when does being crazy make one powerful?). In this Mark is revealing that the decisions that the disciples come to have to take the suggestions of deity into account. When he records that Peter knows that Jesus is the Christ, he is recording that being the Christ has inherent deity implications -- and well it might since the Christ is the King of the Kingdom of God, and one might expect that it would be God Who is the King of His own Kingdom.
Secondly, the segment of this section from 4:1-6:6 is given over to the emphasis upon the necessity for faith in the Person of Jesus as the Source of the message concerning the Kingdom and of the power the disciples will exercise when they preach that message. Here is Mark's demand that faith be in the Person. But the Person is the Revealer of the true nature of the Kingdom, and the Power of that Kingdom as well. Thus Mark again compels those who would believe to consider that Jesus' being the Christ means more than simply being a human king after the type of David.
Finally, in the segment of 6:7-8:26, Mark presents One Who is able to remove the blindness of men. Jesus goes through two complete cycles of revelatory activities and climaxes them with the two-stage healing of a physically blind man. Thus, when Peter's blindness is lifted, he sees Jesus as the Christ. But, is He only a man? Or does His power to provide bread and do miraculous works in both the spiritual and physical realms mean He is more than another anointed king of God's Kingdom?
It is the duty of the last chapter to answer these issues fully, but it is the contribution of this major section to set the stage for that understanding.
1 Of Moule, Hengel, Best, Cole, Kingsbury, Lane, Plummer, Gould, Hendriksen, and Lange, only those who have published ten or more years previously (before the surge of interest in Mark as a literary book) did not recognize 8:26 as the cut-off of a major segment of thought.
2 Joanna Dewey et. al., The Interpretation of Mark, ed., William Telford, Issues in Religion and Theology Series, no. 7, p. 106.
3 The term is specified by Liddell & Scott as a premier word for power. This enhances Mark's "power" thesis.
4 The terms "first" and "second" are used to refer to the original order of Mark's presentation. His "first" argument is that Jesus had authority over demons. His "second" argument is that Jesus had power over the physical realm.