Helen Bond explores the educational level of the Gospel writer
If you’ll permit a stereotype, I’ve often called Mark, the Gospel writer, a “Hoosier” in style, Matthew more an “Illinoisan,” and Luke an “Ivy League” guy. Mark’s use of parataxis (and… and… and… and you get a flavor of this in DB Hart’s translation) and the (so-called) historical present indicate for many that Mark’s educational level was not high.
Helen Bond examines education in the Greco-Roman world in three tiers. (It is noticeable that she does not consider Mark’s “education” as Jewish, and I wonder what would happen if we mixed his education a bit.) Nonetheless, this section of her chapter made for an adventurous reading because her study is so nuanced and informed. Her study is called The First Biography of Jesus.
I like to put it this way: he or she who writes the story controls the glory. Bond puts it this way:
The biographer occupies a powerful position. He or she decides not only who should have a biography but also how that story should be told; where the account should begin, and where it ought to end; what should be included, even stressed, and what should be quietly dropped; how the material should be structured, and what tone the narrative should take.
Mark’s Gospel was meant to be read aloud, even performed, but it can be assumed reasonably that the early Christians were forming into a reading (aloud) and listening (with participation) culture. Her study was done before being able to work with Michael O. Wise’s new study or Brian J. Wright’s. [add]
But was his level of education? Three tiers:
[Tier 1:] The first stage included learning the alphabet, writing one’s own name, and building up syllables and words until whole sentences could be copied out. Students learned to write out short texts containing nuggets of Greco-Roman wisdom, largely in the form of chreia (or anecdotes) and gnomai (proverbial sayings). Homer was especially popular (particularly the Iliad), but Euripides and the maxims of Isocrates are attested at this level too. The memorization of these short texts not only enhanced the pupils emerging literacy but also instilled Greco-Roman virtues and values into the child from a young age.
[Tier 2:] By the end of this level [Tier 1], a student would be capable of reading a straightforward text and copying it out, but would not have attained any great skills in composition. Those aspiring to greater levels of attainment would go on to study with a grammarian (or grarnmaticus), where great stress was now placed on the mastery of language through declensions, attention to morphologicalta-bles, and the ability to recognize and to use “good” Greek.” The reading of short poetic texts continued to be fundamental, now with the addition of mythoi (fables) and diegemata (short narratives). Homer was still paramount, though a wider collection of largely poetic texts drawn from the “greats” of the Greek tradition might be gradually introduced. Teachers would prepare explanations and glossaries to assist pupils as they learned to tackle ever more complex material. Upon completion of this stage, a student would be able to draft short texts, paraphrases, summonses, and letters – more than enough to meet the requirements of most administrative posts.
[Tier 3:] The culmination of the education system was the third phase, in which a stu-dent passed into the tutelage of a rhetor in preparation for a glamorous career as lawyer or politician. Often this involved moving to a city, and a great deal more expense. Pupils passed through a number of preliminary exercises, known as progymnasmata, arranged in ascending order of difficulty. … progymnasmata taught the aspiring orator a fluency in expression and the ability to follow standard rhetorical arguments, while continual reading (now of prose genres too, including historical texts) not only ensured a complete saturation in Greek culture but also provided modeJs of good writing for students to imitate in their own work.
Image: Cover Photo
Her argument then is this: though the tradition is that Mark is low level in education, recent studies of other literature suggests we should both be more cautious about downgrading Mark and more confident in upgrading. She looks especially at the rhetoric on display in Mark. Here she both affirms recent stronger evaluations of Mark while nuancing the results. He uses synkrisis/comparison a rather unique way and the appeal by some to an oral culture is not altogether clear. She ends up in an affirmation of Mark’s proficient skill as an author.
The use of various forms of rhetoric – chreia, gnomai, mythoi, disegemata – are both indicators of education and also capable of being picked up by listening to speakers in the public square. She seems to land Mark in Tier 2.
Her own words: “he was clearly a competent and reasonably skilled writer who was perfectly able to convey his ideas inm the literary form of a bios.” I’m sure this could be said without “clearly” and “perfectly.”
In my own reading of Greek Mark’s style is below, but not much below, Matthew’s and not close to Luke’s, nor at the level of 1 Peter or Hebrews or the Pastorals. Perhaps the level of Paul, though narrative comparison long, long letters makes comparison more difficult. I’d say below Paul.
Mark’s education then, in my view, is at least Tier 1 with lots of Septuagint, which means Jewish exposure in the form of education then available, along with what can be absorbed by listening to rhetors and traveling speakers, with plenty of synagogue hermeneutics, and lots of time (probably) with Paul in an expanding homiletical and reading Christian culture.