The Literary Artistry of Mark the Evangelist

It first appears that Mark didn’t care much about the literary structure of his gospel; he just dumped his material on his audience with little concern for the connections in the narrative. This is an inaccurate conclusion. Mark uses lexical and thematic parallels to create literary structure in his work and give clues to his meaning. The lexical and thematic parallels in baptism and crucifixion narratives are a perfect example of this.

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The second gospel is composed of plain, short, sparse episodes that abut each other like a parade of bumper to bumper Smart Cars. Mark’s favorite transition is “and immediately.” His gospel appears to lack narrative detail when compared to those of Matthew and Luke. It almost seems as if he composed his gospel by cutting an pasting snippets from index cards – but of course Mark didn’t have index cards, or scissors. All of this has led some to conclude that Mark didn’t care much about the literary structure of his gospel; he just dumped his material on his audience with little concern for the connections in the narrative. This is an inaccurate conclusion.

Mark’s literary art only becomes evident as one takes a closer look at the text. Mark’s account of “The Baptism of Jesus” gives a perfect example of just how carefully Mark has crafted his story.

Consider these two episodes from the beginning and end of Mark’s gospel. The first episode marks Jesus’ first appearance on the scene. It takes place at his baptism.

As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:10-11 NIV)

The second episode marks the very last moments of Jesus’ life in this age. He has been crucified, and in this passage, he dies.

With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:37-39 NIV)

These two episodes are bookends to Jesus’ earthly career in Mark’s gospel, and Mark has crafted the narrative so that they closely parallel each other. How? What do they have in common? Let’s take a closer look.

There are four elements that repeated in both passages.

Element Mark 1:10-11 Mark 15:37-39
Tearing he saw the heaven being torn (schizō) open The curtain of the temple was torn (schizō) in two
Voice And a voice (phonē) came from heaven With a loud cry (phonē)
Spirit (or breath – same word in Greek) the Spirit (pneuma) descending on him like a dove Jesus breathed (ekpneō) his last (literally “out spirited”)
Announcement that Jesus is God’s Son You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased. Surely this man was the Son of God!

The parallels are not so obvious in English, but they are in Greek. The parallels help the hearer recognize the structure of the narrative. They mark mark the beginning and the end of sections of thought. This use of lexical and thematic parallels to create literary structure is technically known as an inclusio.

Not only that, the parallels themselves complement each other in a marvelously rich way, giving the hearer clues about the meaning of Mark’s writing.

Element Mark 1:10-11 Mark 15:37-39
What was torn open, 

and how?

the heavens
(one abode of God)
present participle =
ongoing action
the curtain of the temple
(another abode of God)
aorist indicative =
completed action
Whose voice? God Jesus
What is the Spirit (breath) doing? Descending on Jesus Leaving Jesus’ corpse
Who announces that Jesus is God’s Son? God
in heaven
A man (a Gentile enemy?)
at the cross

Mark’s use of the literary structure of the inclusio can hardly be an accident. Mark is not nearly as clumsy an author as he first appears.

I love this stuff.