Over at the B-Greek forum a recent discussion topic piqued my interest. First, because the topic is inherently interesting to me. Second, because it is a great example of the role that our theoretical frameworks play in guiding the sorts of answers we feel are “good answers” to a particular question.

The text under discussion is Mark 2.3, which reads as follows:

καὶ ἔρχονται φέροντες πρὸς αὐτὸν παραλυτικὸν αἰρόμενον ὑπὸ τεσσάρων.

And they came bringing a paralytic to him, who was being carried by four men.

The point of interest is this: “who are they?” There is no explicit subject in the Greek text, which is matched by the generic “they” in English. If you look back through the pericope (starting back at 2.1) the only characters who are active in this account are Jesus and a crowd. It seems unlikely that the “they” is meant to refer to the crowd, as the remainder of the pericope places the four men who are carrying the paralytic as main characters. It is not grammatically necessary in Greek to explicitly state a subject, but usually characters in a story are introduced before they are referred to without explicit reference like this.

Before getting to the actual meaningful discussion, I would tend to explain this text like this. The four men came as part of the crowd which has gathered around Jesus, thus they are “on the scene” and do not need any explicit introduction, even though they could be given further introduction (and they do get some oblique introduction in the phrase, “carried by four men”). Perhaps Mark’s point in not giving them more specific introduction is to set up a contrast in the story between the crowd as a whole and the religious leaders who doubt him. The four men become symbolic of the people coming to Jesus in faith as opposed to the Scribes who are also present but are not coming in faith. This is just speculative. It would assume that the lack of explicit introduction of the four men is because the reader is meant to associate them as members of the crowd that has already been introduced.

Theoretical frameworks and “right” answers

What I want to hone in on is not the “right” answer as to why the “they” in this passage is left so unspecified, but rather the very discussion about it. If you take the time to read through the discussion thread on B-Greek you will notice that all of the explanations have to do with linguistic and/or literary concerns. This makes sense, given that B-Greek is basically a place to talk about Greek. Part of the implicit mission of the site–its guiding theoretical framework, one might say–is that we discuss the texts primarily through linguistic lenses. A good answer on the B-Greek forum is tied tightly to the language present in the text and attempts to explain why the language present says what it says.

Having made a focus of Gospels studies in my PhD coursework, it struck me not so much what answers were proposed, but rather, what answers were not entertained. A few scholarly generations ago, an attempt to explain the Greek of this passage would certainly have involved extensive discussion of sources and redactors (a fancy name for “editors” who shape the final form of a text). Let me make up such an explanation as an illustration.[1]

A source-critical/redaction-critical explanation of the text

What we see in this passage is the work of a clumsy redactor. Here is a “seam” in the Gospel of Mark where a pericope that has been passed down in a particular oral tradition is given a specific setting in a narrative “life of Jesus.” The fact that it does not fit this setting well is illustrated by “they” referring to a group of individuals who have not been introduced, and who are somewhat clumsily introduced in the phrase “by four men” later in the verse. This suggests that the original pericope is represented by something akin to Mark 2.3-12 (we would have to compare it to the parallel passages to see how much of this is original and how much is a reworking by the Marcan redactor) and the specific setting it is placed in is not original. It was one of many floating stories about Jesus passed on orally that was eventually fixed in this Gospel by giving it an artificial historical setting. These sorts of “seams” occur all over in the Gospels, so considering this example as one makes sense.

On “right” answers

Personally, I’m not big on the “source-critical” approach to the Gospels, for a variety of reasons. But my discussion here is not on its relative merits or lack there-of, nor of the merits or lack-thereof of linguistic-heavy explanations. What is striking is that the sort of answers which are entertained as “right” vary so strikingly in these two paradigms. They deal with the same data, yet provide very different explanations and the two ways of looking at the text share very little in common. Linguistic analysis, in general, assumes a coherent text and seeks to explain it. A source-critical/redaction-critical approach assumes that any possible incoherence (or even difficulty) in a text is evidence of different sources spliced together. Based on the theoretical assumptions of each approach, the sorts of “right answers” generated will differ widely.

How we get “right answers” is, of course, an important discussion. At the level of reading the text as a text, this particular instance makes very little difference, at least as I have represented it. If you take the step of arguing that virtually everything miraculous or that associates Jesus with God like this text does are secondary accretions added in by the later church–a position which many source critics took in one form or another–then the end explanation of this passage will differ quite a bit.

In a later post I will consider a pertinent issue in Gospel studies, as well as more broadly, that comes along with privileging linguistic explanations as key to interpretation: the assumptions which are made by linguistic tools are inherently reductionistic and do not fully do justice to the range of issues present in reading ancient texts. Of course, all frameworks are reductionistic. Sometimes they provide very similar “right answers”; other times, because of the prior commitments of the method, the “right answers” provided by different frameworks vary widely.


[1] Since I don’t currently have access to my school’s library (sadface) I can’t easily go perusing through any commentaries or the relevant scholarly works to see if anyone has actually proposed essentially the interpretation I make up here. I would be surprised if no one has.