A Seven-Participle Pile Up in Mark 5

January 28, 2014 | 14 comments
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Mark’s writing style is characterized by parataxis, which means that he writes really short, simple sentences and then joins them together with the word “and.” (It’s the kind of thing your elementary school teachers were always trying to get you to stop doing.)

There’s one really spectacular exception to Mark’s tendency, however.  It occurs when we are introduced to the woman who had been menstruating unceasingly for twelve years. One sentence spans Mark 5:25-27 and has seven participles (=a form of a verb used to modify a noun) before the main verb. It looks like this:

And a woman having (1st participle) a flow of blood for twelve years, suffering (2nd) many things under many doctors, spending (3rd) all that she had, not improving (4th), but getting (5th) worse, hearing (6th) stories about Jesus, and coming (7th) after him in the crowd, touched (finally: the main verb!) his clothes. (my translation; KJV here)

This description of the woman has a pronounced effect on the audience, partially because it is so unusual for Mark. It also stretches the sentence out in an almost unendurable way, mirroring the endless suffering of the woman. It builds suspense for the audience as they anticipate the main action but are denied it again and again. The woman’s touch thus becomes an enormous release of pent-up feeling, serving as the perfect metaphor for her situation as all of her trial and faith is concentrated on Jesus. It also invites Mark’s audience to adopt the perspective of the bleeding woman and to view the touch as the culmination of everything that she has endured. Finally, it is almost painful for the audience to read this long, drawn-out account when they were already on the edge of their seats waiting for Jesus to heal a little girl who was at the very brink of death before this woman ever showed up.

In recent decades, scholars have spent a lot of time thinking about Mark’s Gospel as an oral performance–that is, as a work originally designed to be performed for an audience who would hear it, not read it. It is easy for me to imagine a speaker running out of breath as he [1] wends through Mark 5:25-27, and with only a last gasp left, announces that she touched his cloak. Whew. Just in time.

 

[1] Yes, it was almost certainly a “he.” (But at least he’s telling a story that would make all of the men in the room cringe, right?  I quote Bamberger: “Ancient man reacted to the phenomena of menstruation with a horror that seems to us grotesque and hysterical.” Has anything changed? I think not.)

14 Responses to A Seven-Participle Pile Up in Mark 5

  1. Steve Martin on January 28, 2014 at 9:05 am

    I think one thing that has not changed is that when things look hopeless..after we’ve tried everything….Jesus is our last and only true hope.

    He alone heals. And He heals permanently.

  2. Dave on January 28, 2014 at 9:18 am

    I like the post and seeing a grammatically complex construction in Mark is surprising and I first read about intercalcations (a “Markan sandwich”) reading Raymond Brown and it is theologically troubling that the healing power of Jesus seemed to flow from him without him willing it and I wonder whether grace or saving power could flow from Jesus without him willing it.

  3. Julie M. Smith on January 28, 2014 at 9:48 am

    Dave, interesting question. If I think about this story through the lens of modern LDS beliefs about priesthood, I don’t find it as troubling: we (at least in our better moments) view priesthood holders as conduits, not controllers, of God’s power. This story illustrates that point with an extreme case: not only was Jesus a conduit, he could be so without even being aware of it.

  4. Mark B. on January 28, 2014 at 10:51 am

    I haven’t read the post yet but your title is the best in the Bloggernacle. Ever!

  5. Robert R on January 28, 2014 at 11:02 am

    Julie, your explication of this passage is both lovely and illuminating—thanks for sharing. The KJV version renders those verses as one sentence, but in a way that is stilted and masks, I think, the art of what Mark does.

    Dave’s (#2) polysyndetic parataxis FTW. But did you like the post “straightway”?

  6. Cynthia on January 28, 2014 at 11:34 am

    Thank you for your post and for your translation. Makes me hungry for more.

  7. Ben on January 28, 2014 at 4:49 pm

    “he writes really short, simple sentences and then joins them together with the word “and.””

    Sounds like Semitic style irrupting into his basic Greek…

  8. stephenchardy on January 28, 2014 at 5:20 pm

    Amen to wanting more. In such a short post, let’s review the things that I learned, remembered again, or didn’t know:

    1. Mark writes in short and simple sentences. (Too bad that Paul must have missed his parataxis class.)

    2. The Gospel of Mark may have been an oral tradition, and was constructed as such. I don’t know why such things don’t occur to me or aren’t obvious. I find it interesting, and it makes me want to re-experience it.

    3. The run-on sentence thus stands out in Mark’s gospel, and serves to bring the story into sharp contrast. (This may be more obvious if one reads a translation that isn’t chopped up and broken apart into little verses.)

    4. Men don’t like talking about the monthly cycle. (Women do?)

    5. A nice concise definition of “participle” with examples.

    Can’t we have more postings like this… something that makes me look at something I have read many times and helps me to step back and look at it in a new, fresh, different angle?

    Thanks very much.

  9. Julie M. Smith on January 28, 2014 at 7:07 pm

    Those of you wanting more:

    http://tinyurl.com/njn6zc7

    Although I confess that that one reads more like a legal brief than this fun little post!

  10. JMS on January 28, 2014 at 9:13 pm

    Julie,

    I saw at http://www.byunewtestamentcommentary.com that you recently became a contributor to the BYU New Testament Commentary Series. Is there anything you can tell us about your involvement with the project?

    I was also wondering if you have had a chance yet to look at the newly-released update to the New Testament Institute manual (http://www.lds.org/manual/new-testament-student-manual?lang=eng).

  11. Alison Moore Smith on January 28, 2014 at 10:13 pm

    Very interesting information, Julie.

    Honestly, your footnote brings up how I’ve always seen it (though never analyzed it like you did). I pictured my dad, ears burning red, just trying to get through the story he HAD to tell, but preferred not to.

  12. Julie M. Smith on January 28, 2014 at 10:25 pm

    JMS, you have the best initials. ;)

    I’m working on the Mark volume for the BYUNTC.

    I was not aware that the new NT manual had been released–thank you for that link. I only skimmed it for a few minutes, but it looks like whoever worked on it had a good grasp of recent scholarship and a sensitivity to the differences between the gospels, but perhaps they could have done more on the OT backgrounds and literary features of the texts, but that’s just my personal bias. The art is quite good. And I was surprised and impressed with their handling of Mark 16:9-20.

  13. Jake Cox on January 28, 2014 at 10:33 pm

    Wasn’t everything in the ancient world written to be read aloud? Or by “oral performance,” do you mean something intentionally artistic? Fascinating either way. Thanks for the insight.

  14. Julie M. Smith on January 28, 2014 at 10:47 pm

    Jake Cox, there was normally no silent reading, which I think is what you are talking about, but the idea with Mark is that it was meant to be spoken to an audience (as a performance), and not read aloud by one person to himself. Its primary existence may have been as an orally performed narrative, with the written text as sort of an afterthought/sidethought. It takes about 1.5 hours to read–the perfect length for a meeting of early saints in someone’s house church.

    I do think it is intentionally artistic, but that’s a separate issue.

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