Mark 2:1-12 as a “Marcan Triptych”
What I am calling a “Marcan Triptych” may perhaps best be understood if the text of 2:1-12 is laid out as below. If one reads verses 1-5a (“And when he came … he said to the paralytic,”) and then reads verses 11-12 (“I’m telling you … anything like this.”) in sequence, it is clearly a complete account of the healing of a paralytic by Jesus. There is no hiatus whatsoever; the words of Jesus, “Get up, pick up your cot …” follow logically upon the narrative introduction of verse 5a, “he said to the paralytic, …”
On the other hand, the central block could never have stood in its present form as an original story, although we can readily enough discern its major elements; its center of gravity lies in the Jesus saying imbedded in verse 10, “The Son of Man is authorized to forgive sins on earth.” In the story this is the response to any kind of question put to Jesus regarding the authority which he assumes (compare the question put to him in chapter 11:28 by high priests, scribes, and elders, (i.e. members of the Sanhedrin): “And they said to him, “By what authority are you doing this? Who gave you the authority to do this?” In the present instance the question concerns the authority to forgive sins: Jesus must surely be usurping that authority which belongs to God alone, and so, it is thought, if he tells someone that his sins are being forgiven, he is speaking for God illegitimately, and so blaspheming. But Jesus responds that he acts as God’s appointed eschatological agent, the Son of Man, and that he is exercising that authority even now, before the end-time has quite arrived, on earth. The story told in verses 5b-10 is therefore sufficiently complete, but it has been shaped into a unit that will fit between the halves of the miracle story and permit the two stories, that of Jesus’ healing of the paralytic and that of Jesus’ vindication of his legitimate right as Son of Man to forgive sins on earth, to illuminate each other. What is accomplished? (a) a linkage is suggested between physical health or wholeness (one dimension of σωτηρία and atonement or forgiveness of sins (another dimension of σωτηρία–of course, it is true that the noun σωτηρία does not appear anywhere the text of Mark’s gospel, although the verb σῴζειν does); and (b) what is otherwise a “simple” miracle of healing performed by Jesus becomes a challenge to the self-proclaimed authoritative interpreters of Jewish Law.
And when he came back to Capernaum a few days later, the news spread that he was at home , 2 and so many people gathered there that there was no vacant space, not even near the doorway as Jesus was proclaiming his message. 3 So when people arrived bringing a paralytic carried on a cot by four men, they couldn’t get him to Jesus because of the crowd, and so they took the thatched roof off of the chamber where Jesus was and lowered through the opening the cot on which the paralytic lay. 5 And when Jesus saw the extent of their faith, he said to the paralytic, … “My son, you are being forgiven your sins.” 6 Some of the scribes seated there observingwere wondering 7 why Jesus would talk like that, blaspheming, since surely only God can forgive sins. 8 And right away when Jesus realized that this was what they were thinking, he said to them, “Why are you concerned about what I am saying and doing? Tell me whether it is easier to tell the paralytic, ‘You are being forgiven your sins’ or to tell him, ‘Get up, pick up your cot and start walking’? 10 “But just to let you realize that the Son of Man is authorized to forgive sins on earth …,” he said to the paralytic, … 11 I’m telling you now: Get up, pick up your cot, and go on home.” 12 And the paralytic got up and right away, picked up his cot and went out in front of everybody, whereupon they were astounded and began to praise God, and say, “We’ve never seen anything like this.”<
There are several other Marcan Triptychs constructed in the same manner with framing narratives that enclose a central narrative panel relating a different story that is somehow illuminated by the framing narrative. One fine example is the story in Mark 3:20-35: in verses 20-21 the family of Jesus come to Capernaum to fetch him home, for they have heard of his activity and fear that he has gone mad; we hear of them again in verses 31-35, where Jesus, told that his mother and brothers are looking for him, in effect repudiates them and says that his real mother and brothers are those about him, those who are doing the will of God. The central panel, verses 22-30, concern the arrival of scribes from Jerusalem who are claiming that Jesus is exorcising demons through Satan’s power; Jesus responds with the sayings and interpretive comments about a divided household and a divided kingdom as well as about a strong man whom interlopers hope to bind so that they can enter his house and plunder it. The sequence points to several dimensions of legitimate and illegitimate authority, biological kinship and kinship of God’s true children, and more.
Yet another of the Marcan Triptychs may be found at the beginning of chapter 14, verses 1-11. Here verses 1-2 and 10-11 clearly frame the story of the anointing of Jesus by the unknown woman in the house of Simon the Leper in Bethany; there is even a verbal link: chief priests and scribes in verse 2 “were looking” (ἐζήτουν) to seize and excute Jesus in verse 1, while in verse 11 Judas, after advising the chief priests that he would betray Jesus, “was looking” (ἐζήτει) for an opportunity to do just that (It is perhaps worth noting that Luke’s account recombines these two snippets of narrative into one Lk 22:1-4–or if Mark redacted Luke’s account, it is all the more evident that Mark split the narrative into two snippets. In the centerpiece of the triptych is the story of the unnamed woman who has simultaneously anointed Jesus as king/Messiah and “prepared his body in advance for burial.” This framed portrait of Jesus’ anointing, this triptych, might well be titled, to borrow the title from Mary Renault’s re-telling of the Theseus story, “The King Must Die.”
One might be tempted to ask, with respect to this narrative technique employed by Mark: does this mean that these stories, inasmuch as they are manipulated for literary purposes, do not reflect the actual historical sequence of events? To such a question I would offer two responses: (1) the “gospel” of Mark is a “sermon” that he is preaching by story-telling; there is no indication that he intended to write either history or biography, whereas it is certain that he intended to expound the “truth” about the identity and mission of Jesus and what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus; and (2) in my estimation, it matters less whether Jesus confronted the scribes with his rightful authority to forgive sins on the occasion of his healing of a paralytic in Capernaum than it does that Jesus really did make human beings, paralytics and others, whole again, and that Jesus really did claim the legitimate authority to forgive sins as God’s chosen agent. Thus the content of the stories is true even if the stories are not to be understood as historical records of what happened at a specific time and place.