The preaching Gospel: Mark’s off-the-cuff style

James Tissot’s “The Widow’s Mite” from the Brooklyn Museum depicts Jesus, left, commenting on the widow’s offering to his disciples. Mark’s Gospel makes sure to clarify the Roman coins the widow contributed, which he initially described as simply “tiny.”

James Tissot’s “The Widow’s Mite” from the Brooklyn Museum depicts Jesus, left, commenting on the widow’s offering to his disciples. Mark’s Gospel makes sure to clarify the Roman coins the widow contributed, which he initially described as simply “tiny.”

Remember the old, “It is live, or is it Memorex” commercials? The idea was that this audio tape was so good that it sounded like a live performance. Every time I read Mark, I can’t help but think of that commercial. Why? Mark doesn’t read like a document that someone sat down to compose at a desk, but it reads more like a written record of a live speech. Consider this:

Very few people today handwrite letters or documents. Most of us compose our documents by typing them out on a word processor or some other device. The reason is simple: Handwriting takes a lot of time and can be hard work, especially if we have to write more than a few paragraphs. For that reason, authors (ancient and modern) when compositing handwritten documents always try to stick to the essentials. Adding extra side-comments, digressions and repetitions means more time and more work. Moreover, it doesn’t necessarily help the reader understand the material.

Live speech, on the other hand, is a completely different animal. A public speaker has the advantage of instant feedback from his audience. It the audience seems puzzled by a point, the speaker can add a few side comments, make a digression, or repeat whatever is needed to hit the point home. Unlike a composition at a desk, additional material is essential to live speaking, and this is exactly what we find in the Gospel of Mark.

Let’s highlight a few of these features. In Mark 7, the Gospel recounts the Pharisees objecting to Christ’s disciples eating without ritually washing their hands. Perhaps sensing that his audience was baffled by this objection, the text digresses and explains a little more about ritual cleanness, “(For the Pharisees and, in fact, all Jews, do not eat without carefully washing their hands, keeping the tradition of the elders. And on coming from the marketplace they do not eat without purifying themselves. And there are many other things that they have traditionally observed, the purification of cups and jugs and kettles (and beds))” (Mark 7:3-4). A good editor would never let this leave his desk. He would have re-written the passage incorporating these comments so that it read seamlessly. But just like one who was delivering this message to a live audience, Mark adds it as an additional comment to clarify things. Again, a speaker would do this, not an author.

There is a similar example with the widow donating two small coins to the temple (Mark 12:41). The text says she gave two “lepta,” which is a Palestinian nickname for the coins, meaning literally, “tiny.” When recounting this incident, Mark says she gave two “tiny” to the temple. After stating this, he quickly adds that they are two quadrans (i.e., the smallest denomination of Roman coinage). Again, an editor would replace “lepta” with “quadrans,” but the clarification is tacked on to the end, like one would do in a live speech.

Those who have read Mark would immediately recognize this last example: His use of the word “immediately.” In its 16 short chapters, Mark uses the word “immediately” 41 times! In grade school, when the teacher made us write out a word 40 times, it would be looked upon as a punishment. Likewise, if you were to handwrite a lengthy book, such repetition would be something to avoid. However, a speaker would naturally use such devices to try to inject some excitement into his discourse.

There are many other telltale signs of a live discourse in Mark, so the next time you read this Gospel, keep this background in mind. You might be surprised what else you’ll find.


Gary Michuta is an author, speaker and apologist and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.