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Reading the Gospels for all they’re worth

By Joseph Lear

Most English Bibles divide narratives into what biblical scholars call “pericopae” (singular: “pericope”): bite-sized portions of a larger story. These pericopae are generally useful. They make finding stories easier, they often correlate with lectionary readings, and they divide the narrative into accessible portions. But are pericopae divisions always consistent with the literary structures of Scriptural narratives? Not necessarily.

I am not suggesting that prevailing divisions have it all wrong, but simply that we should not rely solely on them, if we want to read Scripture for all it’s worth (whether devotionally or in preparation for preaching). Let me offer two examples of Gospel narratives that challenge prevailing pericopae divisions, as well as demonstrate some ways to identify literary structures immanent to the narratives themselves.

New Testament narratives often signal their literary structure by reusing tropes, themes, and keywords from one scene (or set of scenes) in another adjacent scene (or set of scenes). This reuse not only sheds light on what portions of the narrative can be classed as individual pericopae, but also on the unity of the larger literary sequences in which the pericopae fall. One word of caution, however: no structural analysis should be totalizing. Narratives as a genre resist tidy analysis, and authors often place portions of their narratives within multiple structural configurations. We can thus never stop reading. Reading and rereading might result not only in our perception of multiple configurations of the narrative, but also in multiple spiritual rewards.

Mark’s Gospel begins (as all the Gospels do) by introducing Jesus in the context of John the Baptist’s ministry. The NRSV divides Mark 1:1-20 into five pericopae. But these verses might equally be seen as a single section of narrative.

Mark begins by informing the reader that the prophet Isaiah spoke of a voice “in the wilderness” (1:3). The reader immediately associates the voice with John the Baptist, since Mark says he is “in the wilderness” and is “preaching” a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (1:4). John informs his hearers that there is one who “comes after” him (1:7), but, again, the voice in the wilderness seems clearly to be his.

But it might not be entirely correct to identify the voice with John alone. The moment after Jesus is baptized, he is driven away from civilization and is, Mark says, “in the wilderness” (1:13). The phrase is identical in the Isaiah quotation and in reference to John and Jesus. Jesus, therefore, like John, appears to be the voice to which Isaiah refers. Mark takes the comparison further when Jesus comes from the desert “preaching,” just as John the Baptist did (1:14). Like John, he also commands the people to “repent” (1:15). And, in the next scene, Mark again uses language that recalls John the Baptist’s words. John the Baptist said there would be one who would come “after” him (1:7). Jesus commands Peter and Andrew to come “after” him (1:17). Also, John the Baptist spoke of the “forgiveness” of sins (1:4); Peter and Andrew “forsake” their nets to follow Jesus (1:18; cf. v. 19). The root for “forgiveness” and “forsake” is the same in the Greek. In these final two correlations, Mark toys with his previous uses of keywords, not necessarily to say that “To have one’s sins forgiven is the same as leaving one’s fishing nets,” but to say that these two things are not without connection.

The five pericopae into which the NRSV divides these scenes do not necessarily make these rhetorical connections impossible to see, but they do make them more difficult to identify. We have to pay attention.

A second example comes from Luke 17:20ff, which illustrates the way one New Testament author relates Jesus’ parables to his sayings. Some Pharisees ask Jesus when the kingdom of God will come (17:20). What is in view is the day of judgment: Jesus references Noah’s flood and the destruction of Sodom (17:26-30).

In view of these biblical examples, Jesus advises his hearers, “Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will save it” (17:33). He then describes two instances in which two people are together, and, at the moment of judgment, one is swept away while the other is preserved. Two will be in bed; one will be taken. Two will be grinding; one will be taken (17:34-35).

Two stories then follow Jesus’ sayings: one about a persistent widow before a judge (18:1-8), and one about a tax collector’s and a Pharisee’s prayers (18:9-14). These two stories at first glance may look completely unrelated to Jesus’ sayings about the coming of the Son of Man in the preceding verses. The NRSV thus divides Jesus’ sayings and the two stories into three pericopae.

But if we ignore these divisions we find some connections. It is the number two that relates these stories to Jesus’ sayings about the coming of the Son of Man. As I already pointed out, Jesus concludes his sayings about the day of judgment by referencing two groups of two people: there will be two in bed, and there will be two grinding together (17:34-35). The stories that immediately follow are likewise about two people: The story of the persistent widow concerns her and her adversary (18:3). Likewise, the Pharisee and the tax collector are two. And both stories are about judgment, just like Jesus’ sayings about the coming of the Son of Man. The judge grants justice to the widow; the tax collector goes home justified, while the Pharisee does not.

The conclusions of both stories also connect with Jesus’ sayings about the day of judgment. The story of the widow concludes with Jesus asking if the Son of Man will find faith on earth when he comes (18:8). The conclusion is somewhat abrupt and its connection to the widow’s actions require some thought, but it clearly connects the story to Jesus’ preceding sayings (see e.g. 17:22). Similarly, Jesus concludes the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector by saying that whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted (18:14). This is not just a general principle, but an eschatological reality. The saying’s form plays off Jesus’ earlier warning about the end: whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will save it (17:33). Both sayings follow the formula: “Whoever does X will Y, but whoever does Y will X.”

My point in these examples is not that pericopae divisions in current English translations of biblical narratives are necessarily wrong or unhelpful. Rather, my hope is that these examples point to the importance of reading and rereading biblical narrative, beyond such divisions, searching for Scripture’s internal unity. When this posture is prayerfully taken, spiritual benefits in personal study and in preaching await.

The Rev. Joseph Lear Jr. is a minister in the Assemblies of God and a PhD candidate at the University of Aberdeen. He recently submitted his dissertation on eschatology and ethics in Luke-Acts.  

The featured image is “Thy Word is Truth” (2011) by Charles Clegg. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 


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