Teaching Mark as Script -- Scene by Scene

I've been teaching Koine Greek using a compositional method, and slowly, for a while now. I keep thinking "if I just add this bit of grammar, then we can start reading things." Of course, I've also been borrowing from James Tauber and his primer approach, as well as the simplification I learned from my favorite Hebrew primer, to try and give things that can be read at-level.

But several weeks ago I realized that I am teaching Greek to someone who does oratory already. This gives me an angle! So I've been talking about the oral culture and the ways that Bible "texts" are really scripts. (Thank you, Dave Rhoads and Joanna Dewey!) At which point it became obvious to me that one way to drive interest in translating and learning more grammar was to learn it on the fly translating the simplest oral text I have: the Gospel according to Mark. But not just as a translation exercise -- that's incredibly dull.

To make it better, we're doing two things. First, there's the joy of freely making one's own good English out of good Greek. "I like the way it sounds better this way." I love hearing that! That starts a conversation! And I try to encourage this by refusing to give "normal" church-word glosses for things like hamartia, metanoia, euangelion, etc.... I want common-sense Greek to turn into common-sense English, not "Bible Greek" into "church English" -- because Bible Greek and church English are ways of not thinking about meaning! They're ways of mechanically turning this word into that word. And second, there's the added interest of learning Mark as a prose script -- uncovering the dramatic structure of what Mark is doing for his audience.

I keep thinking there's got to be a happy medium between grammar-up and text-down methods, and perhaps I'll find it by combining them. Because God knows you don't learn to speak by learning structural linguistics! And so far, it really does seem to help to teach Koine syntax and build a concept of what the language looks like in sentences and larger units. How to read a sentence the way we read sentences -- look for the subject, the objects, fix them up with their modifiers, get the verb, and understand emphasis when you see it. But deep grammar doesn't get us there. Syntax needs to be internalized, and recognizing declensions and conjugations and tenses needs to be internalized, but deep grammar can come later. So part of the happy medium is "just enough grammar, just the right way, in just the right sequence."

Now, I've learned Greek a whole bunch of ways, a whole bunch of different times, including years of self-study. And I believe strongly in natural language and composition and teaching reading and speaking together. I hated my first Greek textbook with a passion, because it was so much brute-force paradigm memorization on the Latin model. So help me, the brain can only keep so many mnemonics of the same form straight at once! But I do have to hand it to the Classics professors who taught me Attic and Classical Greek that way -- they managed to get us into the Anabasis in the first term. Cool stuff. You see, you have to have something interesting to read, something that makes your students want to explore on their own. That's the other part of the happy medium: something that gives you a reason to recognize all that structure when you see it in context. Something that pays rent on the space it takes up between your ears.

Hell, with all the language instruction I've had, I still didn't really get Koine into my soul until I used it for my MA thesis on three chapters of -- you guessed it -- Mark. I still think Mk. 11-13 has Matthew and Luke beat for telling the same story. And a major part of that is Mark's style. (ou mentoi taxei, Papias? Really?) And so I've known for a while that the oral cues in Mark, his "discourse markers," structure the text in very particular ways. But it wasn't until I tried teaching it that way from the start, piece by piece, that I understood how effectively the text of Mark is conditioned as drama. It is story, as Dave Rhoads and Don Michie demonstrated, but it is not merely story.

And so we've started learning Mark by scenes, and talking about meaning and learning context along the way. Very whole-language. Students love culture digressions because they look like a way out of slogging through language. It's a process of struggle -- distraction -- struggle -- distraction ... good for short attention spans! There's palpable relief when I sit down and spread out my hands and start telling stories. And what I'm finding, teaching Mark this way, is very interesting. All these cross-connections I'm making for my student are teaching me, too!

So: Mark opens like a chapter of a fiction novel, with an epigraph appropriate to the scene it sets out. And that epigraph comes from one of the most popular works of the time, if the materials preserved around Khirbet Qumran serve us well: the Isaiah scroll.
Ἀρχὴ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ καθὼς γέγραπται ἐν τῷ Ἠσαΐᾳ τῷ προφήτῃ· Ἰδοὺ ἀποστέλλω τὸν ἄγγελόν μου πρὸ προσώπου σου, ὃς κατασκευάσει τὴν ὁδόν σου· φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ· Ἑτοιμάσατε τὴν ὁδὸν κυρίου, εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους αὐτοῦ.

The origin of the announcement of Jesus the Messiah, just as it was written by Isaiah the prophet: "Observe: I send my messenger ahead of you, who will pave your road; the voice that shouts in the desert, 'Prepare the master's road and make direct paths for him.'"
And Mark echoes Isaiah 40:3 in the first scene -- which is why we parse the voice, rather than the road, as being in the desert. John is in the desert. John is the fulfillment of prophecy, the origin of the announcement of Jesus the Messiah. Matthew makes Jesus echo John, so that both of them announce the coming of the kingdom of the heavens -- but Mark is playing a different game. For Mark, John is the Isaianic messenger, and what he is announcing is Jesus himself. The Messiah. The revealing of the glory of the Master whom Israel serves. The one who will redeem her from the foreigners she has lately served, and restore her to the Master's service.

So: Isaiah speaks the word of God, and the word of God creates John.
ἐγένετο Ἰωάννης ὁ βαπτίζων ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ καὶ κηρύσσων βάπτισμα μετανοίας εἰς ἄφεσιν ἁμαρτιῶν. καὶ ἐξεπορεύετο πρὸς αὐτὸν πᾶσα ἡ Ἰουδαία χώρα καὶ οἱ Ἱεροσολυμῖται πάντες, καὶ ἐβαπτίζοντο ὑπʼ αὐτοῦ ἐν τῷ Ἰορδάνῃ ποταμῷ ἐξομολογούμενοι τὰς ἁμαρτίας αὐτῶν.

And there was John, who was baptizing in the desert and announcing a corrective baptism to purge guilt. And the entire Judean countryside and every resident of Jerusalem were coming out to him, and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan river, acknowledging their guilt.
This is the opening scene, as we pan in. This is the ongoing background action -- in the story, John is created as a man habitually doing this work. There are two tense structures that tell us this. The most basic is the imperfect, which refers to incomplete, continuing past action. They were coming out, and they were being baptized. The second is periphrastic. The opening verb egeneto, aorist "became," stands in as our helping verb. It combines with the present participles of baptizing and announcing to give the same sense of ongoing action. Mark sets up this self-repeating action like a left-hand chord sustained under the coming melody. And he's not done -- next we meet John himself.
καὶ ἦν ὁ Ἰωάννης ἐνδεδυμένος τρίχας καμήλου καὶ ζώνην δερματίνην περὶ τὴν ὀσφὺν αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἔσθων ἀκρίδας καὶ μέλι ἄγριον.

And John habitually wore camel-hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate grasshoppers and honey from the fields.
Now, you can either spend your time describing your character in advance, or you can let your character be enigmatic at the beginning and develop as the story goes on, but there's another, easier way to develop a character: borrow one your audience already knows! And Mark takes it. Witness 2 Kings 1:8, where the messenger of God is described to King Ahaziah of Samaria in this way:
ανηρ δασυς και ζωνην δερματινην περιεζωσμενος την οσφυν αυτου

"It's a hairy man with a leather belt girdled around his waist."
And without batting an eye, Ahaziah says, "It's Elijah the Tishbite." Now, we might guess that John isn't naturally hairy like Elijah. But he does what Jacob did to compensate: he borrows hair from an animal. And notice: the belt is exactly the same! Only the verb has changed.

So John is Isaiah's herald and messenger, preparing the way for redemption from captivity, and he is a prophet stamped in the likeness of Elijah. So he does what Isaiah announces, and we've seen that connected to the corrective baptism in the Jordan. That's the act of paving the way, the particular fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy in this time. But the Elijah part belongs to the speech he gives -- to his own act of prophecy, whose fulfillment will come almost immediately for the audience.
καὶ ἐκήρυσσεν λέγων· Ἔρχεται ὁ ἰσχυρότερός μου ὀπίσω μου, οὗ οὐκ εἰμὶ ἱκανὸς κύψας λῦσαι τὸν ἱμάντα τῶν ὑποδημάτων αὐτοῦ· ἐγὼ ἐβάπτισα ὑμᾶς ὕδατι, αὐτὸς δὲ βαπτίσει ὑμᾶς ἐν πνεύματι ἁγίῳ.

A greater man than me is coming after me, and I am not worthy to stoop and release the thong of his sandals. I baptize you in water; he will baptize you in the holy breath of God.
And this is another imperfect, another habitual action -- this is what John says as he goes about baptizing the entire land of Judea, letting it acknowledge and release its failures and making it right and ready for its true and coming Master. Imagine this as a eucharistic blessing, the words spoken in our ears as we receive the means of grace, each and every one of us. Imagine this as the words spoken to each member of the audience at their own baptisms -- something that resonates deep in the practice of the believing community.

All of this, so far, is of a piece -- a set piece. This is the stage, now fully populated except for the star of the story. This whole set lays the background against which we first see our main character, Jesus the Messiah. The audience is now ready to receive him:
καὶ ἐγένετο ἐν ἐκείναις ταῖς ἡμέραις ἦλθεν Ἰησοῦς ἀπὸ Ναζαρὲτ τῆς Γαλιλαίας καὶ ἐβαπτίσθη εἰς τὸν Ἰορδάνην ὑπὸ Ἰωάννου καὶ εὐθὺς ἀναβαίνων ἐκ τοῦ ὕδατος εἶδεν σχιζομένους τοὺς οὐρανοὺς καὶ τὸ πνεῦμα ὡς περιστερὰν καταβαῖνον εἰς αὐτόν καὶ φωνὴ ἐκ τῶν οὐρανῶν· σὺ εἶ ὁ υἱός μου ὁ ἀγαπητός, ἐν σοὶ εὐδόκησα.

καὶ εὐθὺς τὸ πνεῦμα αὐτὸν ἐκβάλλει εἰς τὴν ἔρημον καὶ ἦν ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ τεσσεράκοντα ἡμέρας πειραζόμενος ὑπὸ τοῦ σατανᾶ, καὶ ἦν μετὰ τῶν θηρίων, καὶ οἱ ἄγγελοι διηκόνουν αὐτῷ.

And it happened, on one of those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. And right as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the sky being split, and the breath of God coming down to him like a pigeon, and a voice from the sky: "You are my beloved son, and I found you acceptable."

And immediately the breath of God cast him out into the desert, and he was in the desert forty days being tested by the Adversary, and he was with the wild animals, and the angels tended to his needs.
It reminds me a bit of the opening of Lawrence of Arabia -- we meet the man in motion, the man already headed hell-bent-for-leather on his way. Of course, Lawrence dies in a horrible accident at the end of the story when we first meet him -- Jesus is headed for a horrible accident, too, but not on a motorcycle, and it isn't shown to us at the start of the story. We still know how it ends going in, though. And this scene certainly needs its own in-depth analysis, but I think we've touched on enough cool stuff for one lesson.