The structure behind the archetype of Mark's gospel


E. Trocmé had surveyed proposals for the structure of Mark's gospel and concluded that several scholars are in basic agreement that Mark can be divided into six large sections of approximately equal length [1] However given a most likely start for the second section at 3:7 (his other option was 3:20), the first section was somewhat shorter than the others. Now A. Q. Morton had suggested that Mark had been written on a codex of 40 sheets. [2] It was easy to work out that a division of 40 sheets into a first section of 5 sheets followed by 5 sections of 7 sheets each (5 + 35 = 40) would fit the above observations. But 40 sheets seemed excessive for a document of only medium size, so I settled on a model of 40 pages made out of 10 sheets. Over a period of several years this was confirmed, and developed into the model proposed here.

Interpolations in the text of Mark


Removal of this lengthy passage is necessary if the full structure is to pass my page hypothesis validity tests.

The passage: "παλιν ο αρχιερευς επηρωτα αυτον ..... οι δε παντες κατεκριναν αυτον ενοχον ειναι θανατου" ("Again the high priest asked him ..... And they all condemned him as deserving death.") contains a public self-revelation which runs counter to the fundamental plan of the gospel, in which Jesus' messiahship is not made generally known until after the crucifixion. [3] Lightfoot invoked interpolation to explain the anomaly. [4] The contrast between Peter's perception of Jesus as the Messiah and the centurion's perception of him as the Son of God is more pointed in the absence of 14:61b-64. In the more immediate context the contemptuous "Prophesy!" (14:65) clearly alludes to the accusation of false prophecy in 14:58. The whole therefore makes better sense without the intervening accusation of blasphemy in 14:64. Furthermore the text reads quite smoothly when the passage is omitted: "και ουκ απεκρινατο ουδεν. Kαι ηρξαντο τινες εμπτευειν αυτω ....." ("But he was silent and made no answer. And some began to spit on him .....").

The interpolation exalts Jesus, and reinforces Mark's criticisms of Jews by presenting the Sanhedrin condemning Jesus as deserving death. There are several indications that the writer had only a superficial knowledge of Judaism, e.g. "Son of the Blessed" is not a Hebrew expression, and the statement attributed to Jesus would probably not have been regarded as blasphemy. So it appears that an over-zealous Christian interpolator was trying to magnify the status which Jesus had during his lifetime, at the expense of the reputation of the Jewish authorities.


Nineham suggested that the question about Elijah "και πως γεγραπται ..... εξουδενηθη;" ("and how is it written of the Son of man, that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt?") is a scribal gloss. [5] This will be graphically confirmed when we examine the complete three-level structure of the gospel.

14:28 & 16:7

Both 14:28 and 16:7 were probably interpolated into the gospel of Mark. [6] 14:28 is omitted by the 3rd. century Fayyum fragment. If the promise ("... I will go before you to Galilee") had been in the original text, Mark would surely have presented the risen Jesus as enacting its fulfilment. The verse interrupts the clear connection between vv. 27 & 29. 14:28 has an obvious link with 16:7. But 16:7 is also suspect because in the following verse, which was the last in the book, [7] the women disobey the instruction of Jesus to "go, tell.....". Mark would hardly have ended his gospel with a demonstration of their disobedience. Rather, the portrayal of the women as not saying anything to anyone was introduced by Mark in an attempt to explain why the story of the empty tomb had not come to light in the 40 years or so between the events portrayed in the empty tomb story and the publication of his gospel.

Thus the narrative of the original text was highly critical of Peter, who is last seen in 14:72 when the cock crowed, reminding him of his denial of Jesus. Consequently 14:28 and 16:7 are best understood as interpolations aimed (very successfully as it turns out) at transforming the image of Peter. Thus the loyal Jew of history, who had been reprimanded for his loyalty by Paul (Gal 2:11-12), and had more recently been maligned for that same loyalty by his negative portrayal in the original gospel of Mark, now through these interpolations had undergone the first stage of a transformation into the hero of Christian tradition (Mt 16:17-19; Jn 21:15-19).

12:10-11 & 14:51-52

These two texts fit awkwardly in their respective contexts, and both look like attempts to demonstrate the fulfilment of prophecy.

Mk 12:10-11 "... seems out of place in its present context ..." (Hooker) [8]
These two verses appear to be aimed at demonstrating the fulfilment of Ps. 118:22-23.

Mk 14:51-52 "These puzzling verses fit very awkwardly on to v.50 ..." (Nineham) [9]
These two verses appear to be aimed at demonstrating the fulfilment of Amos 2:16.

Consequently both texts are here taken to have been interpolated by a later scribe.

The first two levels of the structure of Mark

Details of the structure

chapter:verse Greek pages suggested
range letters   section title
1:1-15 1236 1 Introduction to the "gospel"
  The Galilean ministry
1:16 - 3:6 5561 4    The call to break with old ways
3:7 - 6:6a 9578 7    The crowds HEAR about Jesus
6:6b - 8:26 9517 7    The mission to feed the crowds
  The way of the CROSS
8:27 - 10:52  [...] 9694 7    On the way
11:1 - 13:37  [...] 9465 7    The coming of the Lord
14:1 - 15:39  [...] 8193 6    CHIEF PRIESTS cause the death of Jesus
15:40 - 16:8  [...] 1334 1 Conclusion: the experience of the women

Concerning the two-level structure

  1. The numbers of letters refer to the NA27 Greek text, reduced slightly in sections marked [...] to allow for the above-mentioned interpolations.
  2. Indentation of a title indicates a second-level section.
  3. A word in capitals indicates that the equivalent Greek stem was picked out by my stem analysis program as the most characteristic stem in the corresponding section.
  4. As can be seen from the above table, the basic structure is symmetrical in sections (1; 3; 3; 1). It is even partly symmetrical in pages, with the first and last sections occupying one page each, and the four central second-level sections occupying seven pages each.
  5. According to the model proposed here, the 54560 letters occupied 40 pages with a mean of 1364.0 letters per page.

The archetype of Mark was probably a codex

The number of pages, i.e. 40, is divisible by 4, which suggests that the archetype was a codex made from 10 sheets. This would mean that Mark pioneered the Christian use of the codex, for his was the first of the gospels. Can we reasonably credit him with this? The answer hinges on two key issues.

Firstly, where did he get the idea from? It is known that the parchment codex originated in Rome. [10] But Brandon's excellent description of the Sitz im Leben of Mark's gospel shows that this also originated in Rome. [11] Also this ties up nicely with the idea that the Mark mentioned in Phm 24 was the author of what we know as the gospel of Mark, for Paul probably wrote his letter to Philemon from Rome. So we can reasonably suppose that Mark would already have been familiar with codices when he started to plan his gospel.

Secondly, why would he have abandoned the centuries-old Jewish tradition of writing important documents on scrolls? It's true that the codex form is more economical because, unlike the scroll, the codex was written on both sides. It was thus less bulky than a scroll for a given amount of text. It was also easier to refer to assorted passages. But these advantages by themselves cannot explain why Christians adopted the codex long before non-Christians, as Gamble noted. [12] Fortunately Mark himself provided the clue: "new wine is for fresh skins" (Mk 2:22). In other words he decided that the new wine of Christianity deserved a new type of document to distinguish it from the old wine of Judaism.

Frames in the two-level structure of Mark

section frame
Introduction to the gospel 1:1-15 1:1; 1:15 "gospel"
The Galilean ministry 1:16 - 8:26 1:19; 8:14 boats
   The call to break with old ways 1:16 - 3:6 1:23f.; 3:1f. sabbath synagogue healings
   The crowds hear about Jesus 3:7 - 6:6a 3:31f.; 6:3 the family of Jesus
   The mission to feed the crowds 6:6b - 8:26 6:30-44; 8:1-10 feedings
The way of the cross 8:27 - 15:39 8:29; 15:39 Who is Jesus? - Messiah or Son of God?
   On the way 8:27 - 10:52 8:31; 10:45 The role of the Son of Man
   The coming of the Lord 11:1 - 13:37 11:12-14; 13:28 fig tree
   Chief priests cause the death of Jesus 14:1 - 15:39 14:3; 15:21 "Simon"
Conclusion: the experience of the women 15:40 - 16:8 15:40; 16:8 the three women

The discovery of a frame (sometimes known as a bracket or inclusio) in each of the ten sections in the two-level structure of Mark, provides striking additional evidence confirming that the posited structure was in Mark's mind when he planned the gospel.

The complete three-level structure of Mark

Details of the structure

chapter:verse Greek pages suggested
range letters   section title
1:1-15 1236 1 Introduction to the "gospel"
  The Galilean ministry
1:16 - 3:6 5561 4    The call to break with old ways
     The crowds HEAR about Jesus
3:7 - 4:41 5527 4       In the vicinity of the 'Sea of Galilee'
5:1 - 6:6a 4051 3       The healing power of Jesus
6:6b - 8:26 9517 7    The mission to feed the crowds
  The way of the cross
     On the way
8:27 - 9:1 1349 1       Caesarea Philippi: 1st. prediction
9:2 - 10:1a  [...] 4034 3       In Galilee: 2nd. prediction
10:1b-34 2832 2       Beyond the Jordan: 3rd. prediction
10:35-52 1479 1       What SHALL I DO for you?
     The coming of the Lord
11:1 - 13:2  [...] 6745 5       Jesus comes to Jerusalem
13:3 - 37 2720 2       The signs of the end
     CHIEF PRIESTS cause the death of Jesus
14:1 - 16 1443 1       Preparations for the PASSOVER
14:17-50  [...] 2591 2       BETRAYAL
14:53-72  [...] 1423 1       Denial
15:1-20a 1382 1       The king of the Jews
15:20b-39 1354 1       The CRUCIFIXION
15:40 - 16:8  [...] 1334 1 Conclusion: the experience of the women

Comments on the full structure of Mark

Among the publications mentioning individual sections are those of Sankey on 1:1-15 [13] and Collins on 13:3-37. [14] Also c.f. Bailey on the stanzas in 15:20-39. [15] The juxtaposition of two stories in 10:35-52 is quite deliberate. The question "What do you want me to do for you?", identical in the two stories, highlights the difference between the selfishness of James and John, and the innocent plea of the blind man.

The model of a 40-page codex provides a stunning explanation of the meaning of 9:12b ("and how is it written of the Son of man, that he should suffer and be treated with contempt?") and how it came to be interpolated. As can be seen from the above full arrangement, the plan was that the centre of the codex (between pages 20 and 21) would occur at the break between 9:1 and 9:2. Page 20 would contain the section labelled above as "Caesarea Philippi: 1st. prediction" (8:27-9:1), and page 21 would contain the first of the three pages of "In Galilee: 2nd. prediction", and this first page would start at 9:2 and end roughly at 9:18. Therefore (and this is true as long as the page boundary as penned was within a few lines of the start of 9:2) when the codex was open at its middle, what is now known as 9:12a would have been on the right hand page, and Mark's first passion prediction (8:31) would have been on the left hand page. We thus have a simple explanation of a long-standing puzzle: to what ancient scripture did 9:12b refer? It didn't refer to an ancient scripture at all, but to 8:31 on the facing page! As suggested above it was a scribal gloss written in the margin of an early copy of Mark by a puzzled scribe, and was later incorporated into the text by a copyist who thought it must have belonged there.

The mean deviation of the sixteen base section boundaries from the three-level 40-page model is about 50 letters, or less than 0.04 of a page. The structure is more detailed towards the end of the gospel. Although seeming odd at first sight, this appears to reflect a carefully thought-out plan intended to ensure that the crucial material in the latter part of the gospel fitted neatly into its pioneering codex.
The fact that the well-supported two-level structure can be expanded consistently into three levels including twelve smaller subsections, and that there is a good explanation for the asymmetry of the extra detail as indicated in the previous paragraph, provides the final conclusive evidence for the validity of the model.


1. E.Trocmé, "The Formation of the Gospel according to Mark" (ET: London, 1975, p.80)
2. A.Q.Morton, "The Structure of the New Testament", in Science News 43 for Feb 1957, p.28
3. D.E.Nineham, "Saint Mark" (Harmondsworth, 1963, p.405)
4. R.H.Lightfoot, "History and Interpretation in the Gospels" (London, 1935, p.151, n.1)
5. D.E.Nineham, "Saint Mark" (Harmondsworth, 1963, p.240)
6. G.A.Buttrick (Ed.), "The Interpreter's Bible", Vol.7 (Nashville, 1951, p.879)
7. W.G.Kümmel, "Introduction to the New Testament" (ET: London, 1975, pp.100-101)
8. M.D.Hooker, "The Gospel according to St Mark" (A&C Black, 1991, p.352)
9. D.E.Nineham, "Saint Mark" (Harmondsworth, 1963, p.396)
10. H.Y.Gamble, "Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts" (Connecticut, 1995, pp.50-53)
11. S.G.F.Brandon, "Jesus and the Zealots" (Manchester, 1967, pp.221-82)
12. H.Y.Gamble, "Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts" (Connecticut, 1995, p.56)
13. P.J.Sankey, "Promise and Fulfilment: Reader Response to Mark 1.1-15", in JSNT 58 (1995).
14. A.Y.Collins, "The Beginning of the Gospel" (Philadelphia, 1992, p.76)
15. K.E.Bailey, "The Rhetorical Structure of Mark 15:20-39", in ExpT, Vol. 102 (Jan 1991).