Trinity Press International (October 1, 2003), 213 pages
Decoding Mark is a fascinating book in many ways, full of speculation on the meaning and literary structure of the Gospel of Mark, two topics near and dear to my own heart. This is a useful book, rich with suggestions, ideas, insights, and marred only by Dart's acceptance of the forged gospel fragment of Secret Mark as authentic text from an early redactor, and reverence for its probable forger, Morton Smith. Despite the importance of this fraud in the construction of his book, his commitment to it is less damaging than one might think at first glance, as we will soon see.
Exegetes who have written on Mark basically fall into two groups: those who see the writer of Mark as a dullard with poor Greek, and those who, Crossan's words, find it difficult to overestimate the brilliance and creativity of its author. Dart, the news editor of the Christian Century magazine, is among the latter, and hence, in my view, one of those who truly understand the Gospel of Mark.
Decoding Mark is aimed at the educated lay reader and thus Dart begins the work by inviting the reader to take a look at Secret Mark in the first two chapters. Secret Mark is an additional passage of the Gospel of Mark discovered by the scholar Morton Smith in an Israeli monastery in the 1950s. The manuscript has never been found, and many scholars doubt its authenticity. After this titillating glance into the nuts and bolts of academic conference making, arguments over the authenticity of Secret Mark, Dart then begins to attack the problem of what Original Mark might have looked like. In this he follows the trail blazed by Helmut Koester and others, attempting to discern what the Gospel of Mark must have looked like prior to getting worked over by later redactors.
Dart follows in the tracks of many other scholars in seeing Mark as a carefully arranged set of chiastic structures. While many exegetes, including this writer, see chiasms in Mark, none of us agree on their exact construction. For example, Dart writes:
"Mark uses no double or matching midpoints. That is, you'll find, not ABCC'B'A' but ABCB'A'. Chiasms in some other ancient texts may have twin centers, but not in Original Mark."
whereas I see Mark's complex centers as the real clue to his genius, and believe he does use twinned centers. Nevertheless, on most things his approach is excellent, focusing on building chiasms out of keywords and linked motifs and ideas. For example, his chiasm in Mark 6:1-6 (p70) runs:
A 1: He went away from there and came to his own country; and his disciples followed him. 2: And on the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue; and many who heard him were astonished, saying, "Where did this man get all this? What is the wisdom given to him?
.....B What mighty works are wrought by his hands!
.........C 3: Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?"
.............D And they took offense at him.
.........C' 4: And Jesus said to them, "A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house."
.....B 5: And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them.
A 6: And he marveled because of their unbelief. And he went about among the villages teaching.
This lays out Dart's system, based on keyword structures. It is very convincing and in the main correct, except that he has the center wrong, because of his misunderstanding how the centers of Markan chiasms work. In Mark the chiasms are actually triumphs of complexity. This chiasm actually looks like this, in my view:
A He went away from there and came to his own country; and his disciples followed him.
.....B And on the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue; and many who heard him were astonished, saying, "
.........C Where did this man get all this? What is the wisdom given to him? What mighty works are wrought by his hands!
..............D......A Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?"
.......................B And they took offense at him.
.............D'......B' And Jesus said to them, "A prophet is not without honor,
......................A' except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house."
.........C' And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them.
.....B' And he marveled because of their unbelief.
A' And he went about among the villages teaching.
A and A', as typical in Mark, involve geographic movements. In B and B', the crowd marvels at Jesus, probably ironically, while he marvels back at them. In C and C' the theme of mighty works appears. The D and D' structure have at the core the common ABB'A' structure so characteristic of Markan interiors, with element pairs of family and kin opposed to each other in A and A', while B and B' give us offense as opposed to honor. Note that the center structure inherently opposes Jesus to the crowd: they take offense at him, so he says to them, another chiastic pattern. What Dart has missed is that the writer of Mark often integrates chreia, witty sayings common among philosophical schools in antiquity, into the centers or ends of his chiasms. Mark 6:4 is one such saying, which the writer fashions into a chiasm, a very common approach.
Nevertheless -- despite this one failing -- Dart strikes more deeply and more correctly than anyone I have read on the topic of chiasms to date (haven't seen Breck yet). Unlike many who do this, Dart has a systematic approach that enables him to locate and demonstrate, with probably as great an objectivity as can be obtained on this subject, the structures that underlie this complex piece of literature, one of the most important in human history.
After demonstrating his methodology, Dart then goes on to address many of the mysteries of Mark. He attempts to reconstruct what the author saw as its original structure, finding a five-act framework in which each act is preceded by a messenger sequence. Five acts was the usual format for the Attic play, and Dart is not alone in finding a five act structure in Mark. He also addresses the question of whether the famous Bethsaida Section is an interpolation, answering in the affirmative (a conclusion I had also tentatively come to), but beginning it slightly later than most critics. One of the most effective ways Dart supports his chiasms is by showing how they confirm certain critical guesses about the structure of Mark, as well its relationship to the other Gospels. Dart also attempts to solve the perennial problem of the Naked Man in Mark 14:51-2 -- what exegete can resist that? -- but since his solution relies on Secret Mark, it must be discounted.
One of Dart's most important contributions is showing how the disparate parts of the Gospel actually relate to one another, and elucidating the larger structure of the Gospel. For example, he links the disciple call in Mark 1:16-20 to Simon of Cyrene and the Crucifixion (15:21-31) by use of catchwords. Note how in each passage the words echo each other passing along/passerby, Simon/Simon, father (in boat)/father (of brothers), casting (nets)/casting (lots). In Dart's view the beginning and echo each other. I was pleased to see that Dart believes that the Gospel pivots in Mark 10, where I had also located it, not Mark 8, where most critics put it.
Moving on to the controversy over Secret Mark and Original Mark, I'd like to explain, why, in my view, Dart went wrong. Note first that Secret Mark is a pastiche built out of pieces of the Gospel of Mark.
The reason that Dart was able to integrate Secret Mark so effectively into his chiasms is not because his methodology is flawed but because Secret Mark is constructed out of the Gospel of Mark, naturally echoing its themes and keywords. Because Dart relies on motifs and keywords in building his chiasms, Secret Mark did not present any difficulties to his methodology. Dart's confusion is a tribute to the skills of the forger.
Light in tone and very accessible, Decoding Mark is an enjoyable book, and even better, a very useful book. Dart has gone farther into the structure of Mark than anyone else, and even where the reader fails to give assent, he cannot fail to be stimulated.