The power of words in Mark: their potential and their limits.

Author:Maxey, James

Introduction (1)

A predominantly oral society such as first-century Palestine perceives words as events; words have power to do things. Mark's Gospel demonstrates the power of words. Through the methods of performance criticism and speech-act theory, I look systematically at the narrative world of Mark and its use of words and how the story assumes and demonstrates a context in which words have power. I begin by discussing briefly the particularities of oral societies. A limited presentation of speech-act theory follows and is applied to Mark's use of words. The insights gained from these two areas of study--performance criticism and speech-act theory--are then applied to specific passages of Mark's Gospel.

In Mark's Gospel, words have the capacity to create reality. The power of words is demonstrated as Jesus is named and identified, by Jesus' inauguration of God's rule, in Jesus' encounters with spirits, storms, illness, blessings, curses, and oracles. Nevertheless, there is a limit to power through words. There is a connection in Mark between the effectiveness of words and faith. Such limitations provide an opportunity to understand that the rule of God that Jesus establishes in power has the foremost value of service to others. This service is a consequence of being dependent upon God's rule, which is portrayed in Mark through prayer. Jesus generates God's rule by word and action; both are events. My focus is on words as events, and their power, impact, and limitations in Mark.

Communication and Mark's Gospel

There are two communication settings in Mark's Gospel. The first is the historical first-century world of the audiences that first heard Mark's story. A great deal of research has been done on this communication setting. (2) However, I focus on a second setting that reflects the historical one: Mark's narrative world. Scholars have argued convincingly that the historical world of Mark's time was predominantly oral, or scribal. (3) My proposal is that Mark's narrative world presupposes this predominantly oral communication setting. Generally speaking, oral societies appreciate the ability of the spoken word to do things. Richard Horsley's chapter on "Mark as Oral" describes the first-century world of Mark's original audiences. "Outside of a few aristocrats and scribes in ancient Greece, Rome, and Israel, however, virtually no one could read and write. ... The vast majority of people, the Galilean, Judean, and other villagers, were largely illiterate. One recent study places the literacy rate in Roman Palestine as low as 3 percent." (4)

For the twenty-first century person from a literate-print society, a paradigmatic shift is required to imagine how orality issues permeate Mark's Gospel. The New Testament writings as well as other ancient literature were performed. As David Rhoads states, "The collection of Second Testament writings we now have are records of what early Christians experienced in speech by performers in the community. They were either written 'transcriptions' of oral narratives that had been composed in performance or they were composed orally by dictation and written for use in oral performance. These compositions were oral presentations." (5) Mark's Gospel follows many of the characteristics mentioned in Walter Ong's description of orality: additive constructions, mnemonic patterns, and repetition of ideas/words/sounds. (6) I understand that these oral characteristics are linked to a perception of the power of the words. "Sometimes the repetition of (sequences of) words and sounds not only aids the communication between performer and audience, but also emphasizes the power of Jesus' speech and confirms the trust that petitioners have in his power." (7)

Speech-act theory

Speech-act theory began with John Austin's lectures at Harvard in 1955, later published as How to Do Things with Words. (8) This notion that words do not just describe things but also actually do things is central to what I am proposing in this paper. Employing speech-act theory, biblical scholar Anthony Thiselton makes some important observations that follow the earlier work of Austin:

There must exist an accepted conventional procedure having a certain conventional effect [on] that procedure to include the uttering of certain words by certain persons in certain circumstances, and ... the particular persons and circumstances in a given case must be appropriate for the invocation of the particular procedure invoked. (9) This notion in combination with the understanding that Mark is located in a predominantly oral society clarifies the events of Mark's Gospel as we try to understand the "conventions" of Mark's story world and his audience. Linked to this idea of convention is authority. As stated above, in order for words to be able to do things, there has to be an accepted convention involving "certain persons." The people who do things with words are recognized by society as being given the authority to do these things. This authority is derived from Jesus' identity in Mark's Gospel. This identity is developed by showing that people identified Jesus as an honorable person with authority.

Jesus' authority in relation to God's rule

Jesus' power is exhibited in a fusion of action and word. Critical to a person's ability to use words in a powerful way is the identity of that person. This identity relates to Jesus' honor status. Jesus acquires honor through a series of challenges and...

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