Lion Let Loose: The Structure and Meaning of St Mark’s Gospel

Written by John Sergeant Reviewed By Rikk Watts

Sergeant’s spritely written and slim volume joins the recent spate of books on the literary structure of Mark. The title derives from the author’s contention that since the time of Augustine Mark has been ‘caged by the critics’, and expresses his intention to rectify the situation.

Informative opening chapters on literary technique examine Mark’s use of ‘dovetails’ (i.e. Markan sandwich), symbols, irony and titles. The one on irony is the best: e.g. Sergeant points out the bitter irony of those who criticize Jesus for healing on the Sabbath and yet, on the very same day, plot his murder (3:6). Some discernment is required in the chapter on titles. Although it has become common to view ‘my beloved son’ (1:11; 9:7; 12:6) as deriving from Genesis 22, the matter is still far from certain (cf. Chilton and Davies, ‘The Aqedah’, CBQ 40). While Sergeant recognizes the importance of the OT for Jesus’ titles, it is disappointing that little is offered elsewhere on Mark’s use of the OT (there is a brief hint on p. 79), especially as others have observed its considerable importance (cf. Piper, ‘Unchanging Promises …’, Interp 11; Kee, ‘The Function of Scriptural Quotations …’ in Jesus und Paulus, ed. Ellis (1975); Swartley, ‘The Structural Function of … “Way” (Hodos) …’ in The New Way of Jesus, ed. Klassen (1980)).

Turning to the structure, Sergeant argues that Mark’s concern is to help Christians deal with the Neronic persecutions: the misunderstanding and violence which greets their proclamation of the good news is no different from the experience of Jesus. The tragic tone of the gospel points to the horrors they face (p. 30) and the irony of the crowd’s acceptance then betrayal of Jesus parallels the believers’ experience (p. 31).

Sergeant largely follows the almost-standard conventional literary model (on other approaches, see Hurtado, Themelios 14.2, pp. 47ff.): Galilee, 1:1–8:30; the journey, 8:31–10:45; Passion, 10:46–16:8; but with several innovations. He rightly integrates chapters 2 and 3, with 3:20–35 as the climax of the confrontations, but fails to establish a convincing link with the parable chapter. I am not persuaded that the double disobedience of the leper (1:40ff.) introduces both the hostility of the religious leaders (presumably because the man did not go to the priest) and the stifling crowds as the two millstones who together grind Jesus’ Galilean ministry to a halt (p. 45). The suggestion that the verb θλίβωσιν (3:9) is a veiled reference to the negative role of the crowds who ‘persecute’ Jesus’ work (thus warning against having too many people turn up to a meeting for fear of attracting the attention of the Roman authorities) almost invites a rejoinder from James Barr.

There is merit in the idea that chapters 6–8 present Jesus as having abandoned Galilee after his rejection at Nazareth and Herod’s execution of John, but that chapters 7–8 are also a last desperate attempt to overcome the disciples’ obduracy, in which miracles are more laborious (7:33, touch and spittle are required instead of a mere word) and secretive (7:35ff., but cf. 1:44), is less obvious. I did like Sergeant’s observation concerning the trials. Here Roman justice and Jewish religion, both considered to be the best in the world, are seen to fail abysmally when judged by their response to Christ. The final chapter, ‘Symbol and History’, rightly asserts that ‘to argue that because a story means a lot it probably didn’t happen’ is a gross non sequitur (p. 81). But Sergeant appears to equivocate when he then suggests that Mark would regard a question on the historicity of the rent veil as ‘hardly relevant’ to his purpose.

Lion Let Loose is a mixed bag. It does not require a hefty scholarly background and thus serves well in introducing most of the standard (and some not-so-standard) motifs and literary connections. However there are occasional methodological flaws (as per θλίβωσιυ, and appeals to the other gospels to explain Mark are sometimes forced (is Jn. 12:24 really the interpretative key to Mk. 4, p. 49?). It is also a pity that no guidance is offered to those (e.g. Themelios readers) who may wish to pursue things further; the citing of key representatives of various positions with some follow-up bibliography would have been helpful.

Has Sergeant succeeded, where so many others have failed, in finding the key to the Markan structure? This reviewer remains unconvinced. Although I agree that Mark has the church’s suffering in mind, Sergeant has really only shown the influence of this concern on individual elements. What he has not provided is an over-arching rationale behind Mark’s ordering of these elements. Nevertheless, these caveats aside, there are many useful and stimulating insights, and the book generally models the sort of thinking that will handsomely repay students of literary structure.

Rikk Watts

Regent College, Vancouver