Chiasm in the Gospel of Mark  

Baruch Hashem Adonai בושאהמשהוהי

Chiasm in the Gospel of Mark

Scholars have described the Gospel of Mark as simple or naive. After all, its vocabulary and sentences are simple. It is possible, however, that beneath the apparent simplicity lies a deeper meaning. For example, accounts of fasting, the story of harvesting grain on the Sabbath, and healing the man with the withered hand appear to have no connection. Mark does, in fact relate them by using the literary device of chiasm.

In the story setting, the device of chiasm creates parallel events in a reflection about the central point consisting of an idea common to both. Consider the stories of the healing of the paralytic and the healing of the man with the withered hand in Mark 2, 3. At first they seem unrelated. The first thing the reader notices, when comparing these stories, is that in the KJV, both begin with "And again he entered " phrases, hinting at a connection. In the first story, Jesus came to Capernaum and was preaching in a house. Four men brought a paralytic, but they couldn't get through to Jesus because of the crowd, so they let him down from the roof. When Jesus saw the faith of the men who brought him, he forgave the man's sins and healed him: "'I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home.' And he rose, and immediately took up the pallet and went out before them all; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, 'We never saw anything like this!' " (2:11,12).

In this instance Jesus did two main things to annoy the religious leaders: (1) He forgave the man's sins, and (2) He accused them of not believing the truth. To the leaders, claiming to forgive sins was a flagrant violation of tradition and equated claiming to be God, for "Who can forgive sins but God alone?"(2:7). However, Jesus perceived that they were thinking these things and rebutted "Why do you question thus in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Rise, take up your pallet and walk'?"(2:8,9). In this way He implied that they did not believe the truth, but were rejecting the obvious. The healing of the man with the withered hand involved the same annoyances to the leaders. On the Sabbath, Jesus went to the synagogue, and a man with a withered hand was also present. "And they [the leaders] watched him, to see whether he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him." (3:2). Like the previous story, Jesus annoyed the leaders in two main ways: (1) he healed on the Sabbath, and (2) he accused them of incorrect beliefs. "And he said to them, 'Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?' but they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart, and said to the man, 'Stretch out your hand.' He stretched it out and his hand was restored."(3:4,5). These stories seem unrelated, but also contain some similar themes, leading us to think the contrary. As we will see, a chiastic structure links them.

Now let us consider another pair of events also seemingly unrelated: eating with sinners and harvesting grain on the Sabbath. Like the previous two stories, these both begin with the same phrase (in KJV): "And it came to pass," hinting at a similar connection. In the first, Jesus was eating at the house of Levi, one of his recently called disciples, and "many tax collectors and sinners were sitting with Jesus."(2:15). Without fail, "the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, 'Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?' And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, 'Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.' " (2:16,17). Again we see Jesus annoying the Pharisees by doing something they don't accept or believe in, and pointing out their fallacies and unbelief. The other story is also brief. Jesus and his disciples were walking through some grainfields when his disciples decided they wanted a snack, and began to pluck the heads of grain. And who should show up but:


. . . the Pharisees said to him, "Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?" And he said unto them, "Have you never read what David did, when he was in need and was hungry, he and those who were with him: how he entered the house of God when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priest to eat, and also gave it to those who were with him? (2:24-26)

Again we see Jesus and his disciples do something which the leaders do not approve of, and Jesus pointing out the error in their thinking. With all these evidences of chiastic structure, it would seem well that we go hunting for the unifying idea for these stories.

The reflective point in chiastic structure has several properties which will make our search easier: (1) it is not usually one of the stories, (2) it generally occurs close to the midpoint between events, and (3) it verbalizes the concepts implied by the stories. To begin our search, we will look at the passages that meet criteria (1). The available passages are: 2:13-14, 2:18-22, and 2:27-28. According to criteria (2), the reflection point bisects related stories, so it is interesting to note that all three bisect two stories. The passage of primary interest is 2:18-22 because it appears to meet all criteria for being the reflection point for the four stories above:


Now John's disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, "Why do John's disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?" And Jesus said to them, "Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; if he does, the patch tears away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; if he does, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but new wine is for fresh skins."

This is an account of the significance of fasting, but the most important part is the unifying concept expressed. The concept verbalized is a parable of new going into old. The old garment and old wineskins represent the tradition encrusted leaders who will not accept the new patch and new wine of Jesus' teachings. When we see this meaning, we immediately identify it as closely related to the themes that we have seen in all of the stories: (1) Jesus and/or disciples do something that the law-laden scribes and Pharisees don't agree with and (2) Jesus rebuts their accusations and shows the fallacy of their thinking.

This is not the end of the chiastic structure in Mark. More chiastic structure awaits us on both higher and lower levels. Currently we have a structure like this: A B (Central theme) B' A'. But if we look between A and B, and B' and A' we can find a chiastic structure. We readily remember that there were three possible passages for the central theme of the four stories and we picked only one. The other two represent centers for smaller chiastic structures, even the story of the paralytic and harvesting grain have chiastic elements. Now we have a structure like this:

A(a(1 ct 1')) (central theme) B(a') (CENTRAL THEME) B'(a) (central theme) A' (a' (1 ct 1')).

The first two stories chronologically (paralytic and eating with sinners) both deal with Jesus' relation to people. Look between them for the central theme/reflective point and we find: And as he passed on, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax office, and he said to him, "Follow me."And he rose and followed him (2:14). This verse tells us not only what Jesus' call to everyone is, but how we should respond. Similarly, the second two stories chronologically (plucking grain and the man with the withered hand) occur on Sabbath and involve questions about the meaning of the law and the Sabbath. Again a central theme and reflective point appear between the stories: And he said to them, "The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath; so the Son of man is lord even of the sabbath." (2:27,28).

These are but a small portion of the whole of chiastic structure of Mark. The whole book hinges around Mark 8:27-30:

And Jesus went on with his disciples, to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, "Who do men say that I am?" And they told him, "John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others one of the prophets." And he asked them, "But who do you say that I am?" Peter answered him, "You are the Christ." And he charged them to tell no one about him.

Now we see that although Mark's vocabulary and grammar are simple, this simplicity hides a concealed meaning. This meaning is uncovered when we understand the complex chiastic structure of Mark and look at the reflective point of the book: Jesus is the Christ, what are you going to do about it?

Numbers in parentheses refer to Mark chapter : verse

By R. Robertson