Given the popularity of Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, Elaine Pagels’ Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, and Michael Baigent’s Holy Blood, Holy Grail, I half-expected John Dart’s Decoding Mark to be one more in the parade of sensational works that devalue the canonical gospels and suggest some sort of conspiratorial intent in their editing. In this respect, I was pleasantly surprised.
Dart, the news editor of The Christian Century and former religion editor for The Los Angeles Times, argues that Mark made extensive use of chiasms—puzzle-like word patterns that were used in literature from biblical times to aid in memorization–in the writing of the Gospel that bears his name.
While scholars have long acknowledged the presence of chiasms—thoughts echoed in mirror-like forms of a-b-c-b-a and so on–in much of New Testament literature, Dart is perhaps the first to suggest that chiasmus is the key to Mark’s literary structure and composition. Dart presents extensive and detailed analysis of the text to substantiate his claim.
The “up” side of Dart’s analysis is that his research enhances the literary quality of Mark. Over the last 20 years, Mark’s stock has risen as scholars have approached the text from a literary perspective and demonstrated that it is neither the “artless” composition many previously thought nor a simple source that later writers could expand. Appreciation for Mark’s style and compositional technique has increased abundantly in that time. Dart’s close and thorough reading of the text supports the conclusion that Mark was no “hack” writer badly in need of later editing.
The latter half of Dart’s thesis in Decoding Mark, however, is unconvincing. That is, Mark’s extensive use of chiasmus supports that a portion of the “Secret Gospel of Mark” was originally a part of the Gospel and edited out at a later date. Although the verbal connections between “secret Mark” and “original Mark” are interesting, this portion of his argument would have been bolstered by a survey of manuscript evidence and some reflection on the impact of its inclusion on Markan theology. Dart acknowledges that scholars are quick to pounce on “circular reasoning.” Still, his argument leaves open the question of whether this particular compositional technique justifies the inclusion of a portion of the secret Gospel. On that score, Dart tries to pick up too many threads to make his case.
On the whole, the book is well-researched and Dart’s appreciation for biblical scholarship is evident everywhere. He approaches his work with an obvious respect for the text and abiding curiosity. While Dart’s autobiographical sections provide some context, they distract from his argument.
This work will appeal to academics and pastors who have an interest in Markan research. Without a doubt, Dart’s work adds to our understanding of Mark. His greatest contribution, however, may be in asking some new questions and raising some new possibilities.
Bill Ireland is pastor of Ardmore Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Order Decoding Mark now from Amazon.com.