[Texts: Mark 5:21ff. (cf. Matt. 9:18ff.; Luke 8:41ff.); Mark 6:14ff. (cf. Matt. 14:1ff.; Luke 9:7-9); Mark 9:14ff. (cf. Matt. 17:14ff.; Luke 9:37ff.); Mark 10:46ff. (cf. Matt. 20:29ff.; Luke 18:35ff.); Mark 12:28ff. (cf. Matt. 22:34ff.)]
Mark seems to be the Speedy Gonzales of the Gospels, always in a rush to tell his story. Short on chapters and frequently punctuated by actions that happen “immediately” (even when, technically speaking, they probably didn’t), his narrative leaves us with the impression that this headlong history is abridged, a preface merely to the later accounts by his colleagues. But all of this slap and dash distracts from the surprising reality that, once in a while, Mark is longer.
Whenever any two (or all three) of the seeing-together Synoptics relate an event in the life of their hero Jesus, it’s rare that the retellings share the exact same phrasing. Each compiler has his unique emphases and wording, even when telling the same tale; and on occasion the later writers, Matthew and Luke, apparently just compressed a story that was original to Mark. If you know where to look, then, the shortest Gospel becomes a gold mine of details that the others left out.
Most of these details are characterized by the slow revelation of character or situation through dialogue or narrative commentary. An interesting example occurs in chapter 6, where Mark, uniquely, shares some of the back story relating to John the Baptizer’s death at the hands of Herod. This is where we learn that John had boldly confronted Herod about his immoral marriage, earning the undying resentment of his wife Herodias. Herod, on the other hand, though “greatly perplexed” by John, “heard him gladly.” The subsequent intrigues of his wife and daughter are set against this almost hopeful glimpse of the Tetrarch’s attitude.
In chapter 5, Mark combines dialogue and narrative to present a particularly intimate picture of the stories of two daughters of Israel, one who had bled for twelve years and another who at twelve years old was now dying. Jairus’ tender lament begins the scene: “My little daughter is at the point of death!” and Jesus’ homely command, preserved by Mark in the Aramaic, ends it: “Talitha cumi – little girl, get up!” In between these speech acts a woman quietly reasons, “If I touch even his garments, I will be made well.” Mark alone tells us of her suffering much “under many physicians,” and only he lets us know that when she achieved her goal “she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.”
The scene that follows the Transfiguration, as told by Mark in chapter 9, contains so many personal and conversational details that we may strongly suspect the eyewitness influence of Peter here. The boy’s falling fit and the ensuing dialogue between Jesus and the father reveal the intense suffering of both child and family, leading to the familiar and desperate prayer, “I believe – help my unbelief!” And Mark alone finishes the scene with a resurrection flourish: after the exorcism the boy seemed “like a corpse” to the onlookers, but Jesus took him by his hand and he arose!
Mark’s tolerance for the slow development of dialogue allows us to know the heart of the scribe who (as we learn from Matthew) asked a question to test Jesus’ orthodoxy (see Matt. 22 and Mark 12). Apparently this man, though associated with the disgruntled Pharisees, was open to the possibility that Jesus was the genuine article. Instead of dismissing the evidence that this controversial rabbi knew what he was talking about, he responds with the overflow of his own heart concerning the Scriptures: “You are right, Teacher. You have truly said that he is one, and there is no other besides him. And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbor as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” …It is Mark who lets us know, too, that Jesus commends this wise answer.
Finally, my favorite example of Mark’s narrative thoroughness is his account in chapter 10 of blind Bartimaeus, whom Jesus encountered outside of Jericho as he traveled southward to the final showdown in Jerusalem. We know the man’s name because of Mark, who actually gives us his father’s name, too (you’ll never guess what that is!). While Matthew and Luke only allot enough space to tell the bare bones of the story, Mark takes the time to humanize it: “Take heart!” say the messengers, “get up, he is calling you!” And with an alacrity that probably appealed to the Evangelist of Immediacy, Bartimaeus throws off his cloak, springs up, and comes to Jesus. It’s proof that even a lively, fast-paced narrative is made all the richer by slowing down for the details. ¡Ándale!