Academic journal article Essays in Literature

Reading at Cockcrow: Oral Reception and Ritual Experience in Mark's Passion Narrative

Academic journal article Essays in Literature

Reading at Cockcrow: Oral Reception and Ritual Experience in Mark's Passion Narrative

Article excerpt

Someone speaks, someone speaks to me in the text, someone addresses himself or herself to me, a voice, which is of course an instance of the text, but which tells me, like the voice to which Augustine attributes the origin of his conversion, tolle! lege!, take and read.

Mark's Gospel, after nineteen hundred years, has come of age. Once scorned as clumsy, artless, and shallow, this earliest gospel narrative is now esteemed for its sophistication, complexity, "consummate narrative art," and "amazing originality."(2) Yet at the very time when this Gospel is extolled as a masterpiece of narrative art, it has also become the most enigmatic and opaque of texts, "a book of secrets epiphanies."(3) To Frank Kermode in The Genesis of Secrecy, Mark's masterpiece is virtually Kafkaesque, unfollowable, a door shut in the reader's face (27-28; 143-45). In his recent reader-response approach Let the Reader Understand, Robert M. Fowler pronouces the narrative "maddeningly obscure ... frequently ambiguous and even opaque" (261). To Stephen D. Moore, Mark's text is a deconstructionist void, a hole in the pocket through which every possible meaning falls: "Through Mark's eyelets ... disciples and readers are threaded relentlessly: outside, then inside, then outside again; left, then right, then left (clueless) again" (Mark and Luke 22). "Mark's Gospel," writes David Tracy in Plurality and Ambiguity: Hermeneutics, Religion, and Hope, "once so clear, stable, and slightly boring has become in the last few years a strangely modernist document with interruptions, reversals, and uncanny nonendings."(4) Paradoxically, as this Gospel's capital rises in the late twentieth century, its accessibility plummets.

On the one hand we cannot dismiss the extraordinary labors of recent biblical interpreters like Kermode, Fowler, and Moore. Techniques from reader-response, structuralism, post-structuralism, narative theory, and rhetorical theory have yielded persuasive insights into the workings of the Markan text. On the other hand we have to consider what may be missing from these endlessly ingenious readings, namely, a sense of how these texts would have been received as oral productions within the Primitive Church. While recent interpreters often call attention to the rhetorical, oral, and social setting for ancient texts, they often forget this important fact when rendering their exceedingly complex interpretations. In other words, while initially acknowledging the text's orality, they go on to read very much as university scholars typically read modern printed texts.

I suggest that we keep in mind the Gospel's oral, didactic, and ritual reception within a living community. We will discover that the Gospel reads differently when we remember that the composer of Mark was not a scholar writing for other scholars or a modern, sophisticated audience, but a disciple composing a manual for other disciples or catechumens, would-be disciples. In such a context we will see that Mark's story is closer to a play script or a manual of instruction than it is to a modern novel. Mark's Gospel must have addressed with uncanny and dramatic force the personal situations of his audience--the newly converted and the catechumens of the ancient Greco-Roman world, marginal citizens facing persecution and even death. But how, exactly? This essay offers a preliminary response. I wish to suggest some of the ways in which an awareness of reader/listener reception within a ritual setting might condition one's understanding of this ancient biblical narrative. With chapter 14 as our focus, specifically the narrative of Peter's failure and denial (14:26-42, 53-72), we will consider the possible impact of this episode of struggle and defeat, the most poignant and wrenching scene in Mark's story, except for, of course, the abandonment and crucifixion of Christ.

My purpose is not to refute any particular deconstructionist or reader-response analysis. …

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