7. The Petrine Perspective in the Gospel of Mark
In this chapter Bauckham intends to argue solely from the internal evidence of Mark’s Gospel that Peter had a special connection with this Gospel.
The Plural-to-Singular Narrative Device
There are twenty-one passages in Mark “in which a plural verb (or more than one plural verb), without an explicit subject, is used to describe the movements of Jesus and his disciples, followed immediately by a singular verb or pronoun referring to Jesus alone” (p. 156). Bauckham calls this narrative pattern “the plural-to-singular narrative device.” Here are the passages (YLT with some variant readings used by YLT corrected):
- 1.21: And they go on to Capernaum, and immediately, on the sabbaths, having gone into the synagogue, he was teaching,
- 1.29-30: And immediately, having come forth out of the synagogue, they went to the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John, and the mother-in-law of Simon was lying fevered, and immediately they tell him about her,
- 5.1-2: And they came to the other side of the sea, to the region of the Gadarenes, and he having come forth out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit,
- 5.38: and they cometh to the house of the chief of the synagogue, and he seeth a tumult, much weeping and wailing;
- 6.53-54: And having passed over, they came upon the land of Gennesaret, and drew to the shore, and they having come forth out of the boat, immediately having recognised him,
- 8.22: And they cometh to Bethsaida, and they bring to him one blind, and call upon him that he may touch him,
- 9.9: And as they are coming down from the mount, he charged them that they may declare to no one the things that they saw, except when the Son of Man may rise out of the dead;
- 9.14-15: And having come unto the disciples, they saw a great multitude about them, and scribes questioning with them, and immediately, all the multitude having seen him, were amazed, and running near, were saluting him.
- 9.30: And having gone forth thence, they were passing through Galilee, and he did not wish that any may know,
- 9.33: And they came to Capernaum, and being in the house, he was questioning them, ‘What were ye reasoning in the way among yourselves?’
- 10.32: And they were in the way going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was going before them, and they were amazed, and following they were afraid. And having again taken the twelve, he began to tell them the things about to happen to him,
- 10.46: And they come to Jericho, and as he is going forth from Jericho, with his disciples and a great multitude, a son of Timaeus — Bartimaeus the blind — was sitting beside the way begging,
- 11.1: And when they come nigh to Jerusalem, to Bethphage, and Bethany, unto the mount of the Olives, he sendeth forth two of his disciples,
- 11.12: And on the morrow, they having come forth from Bethany, he hungered,
- 11.15: And they come to Jerusalem, and Jesus having gone into the temple, began to cast forth those selling and buying in the temple, and the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those selling the doves, he overthrew,
- 11.19-21: and when evening came, they were going forth without the city. And in the morning, passing by, they saw the fig-tree having been dried up from the roots, and Peter having remembered saith to him, ‘Rabbi, lo, the fig-tree that thou didst curse is dried up.’
- 11.27: And they come again to Jerusalem, and in the temple, as he is walking, there come unto him the chief priests, and the scribes, and the elders,
- 14.18: and as they are reclining, and eating, Jesus said, ‘Verily I say to you — one of you, who is eating with me — shall deliver me up.’
- 14.22: And as they are eating, Jesus having taken bread, having blessed, brake, and gave to them, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is my body.’
- 14.26-27: And having sung an hymn, they went forth to the mount of the Olives, and Jesus saith to them — ‘All ye shall be stumbled at me this night, because it hath been written, I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered abroad,
- 14.32: And they come to a spot, the name of which [is] Gethsemane, and he saith to his disciples, ‘Sit ye here till I may pray;’
All but three of the plural verbs are verbs of movement (the exceptions being 14:18, 22, 26a), indicating that this narrative device is overwhelmingly used to refer to the movements of Jesus and the disciples. Matthew lacks a parallel passage in six of these cases (1:21; 8:22; 9:33; 11:15, 19-21, 27), changes the plural to a singular in six cases (1:29-30; 5:1-2, 38; 10:32; 11:12; 14:32), and keeps the plural in nine cases (6:53-54; 9:9, 14-15, 30; 10:46; 11:1; 14:18, 22, 26-27). Luke lacks a parallel passage in thirteen cases (6:53-54; 8:22; 9:9, 30, 33; 10:32; 11:12, 15, 19-21, 27; 14:18, 22, 26-27), changes the plural to a singular in six cases (1:21, 29-30; 5:38; 10:46; 11:1; 14:32), and keeps the plural in two cases (5:1-2; 9:14-15). Luke contains the plural-to-singular narrative device in two passages that lack a Markan parallel (9:56-57; 10:38). In 1925 Cuthbert Turner argued that this literary device is best explained if these passages are from a disciple who told the story from his own perspective. He noted that the substitution of “we” for “they” in these passages make them read more naturally.
“If we are to construe this point of view consistently through all these passages, then it should be that of one of the inner group of disciples — Peter, James, and John — since in some cases it is only they and Jesus who are the understood subject of the plural verb [5:38; 9:9, 14-15]” (p. 161). Bauckham notes that the plural-to-singular narrative device is used on the first and last occasions Jesus goes anywhere with the disciples (1:21; 14:32). Furthermore, Peter is mentioned prominently around these two uses of the literary device (1:16 [twice], 29-30 [twice], 36; 14:29, 33, 37 [twice], 54, 66, 67, 70, 72).
[The plural-to-singular narrative device] is a form of internal focalization, which, as we have argued, enables the reader to view the incident that follows from the perspective of the disciples who have arrived on the scene with Jesus. In a few cases, this perspective soon shifts to another (e.g. 11:15-18), but for the most part it is maintained at least through the pericope that the plural-to-singular narrative device introduces, whereas in many other cases, where this device is not used, the internal focalization shifts once or even a number of times within a singular narrative (e.g. 2:2-12; 3:1-6, 20-34; 5:21-43; 6:1-6a, 47-52; 9:14-29). Such shifts of focalization are common in many types of narrative, have their own effectiveness and are not a sign of poor narrative construction. But the fact that Mark does not usually shift the internal focalization in passages introduced by the plural-to-singular narrative device is further proof that he uses this characteristic narrative feature deliberately and with a view to its function for internal focalization. (pp. 163-164)
It seems that Mark deployed this literary device in a calculated way and so, against Turner, it is not a mere relic of the way Peter told the story. This raises the question of whether one needs to appeal to an oral background at all to explain its use. Bauckham thinks it does for two reasons. First, the device is used only twice outside of Mark and Matthew, Luke, and later scribes (who replaced the plural with a singular) found it inappropriate. Second, it so closely parallels the inclusio of eyewitness testimony mentioned in chapter 6.
The Role of Peter in Mark
The plural-to-singular narrative device occurs in four passages where Peter is a character (1:29-31; 11:19-25; 14:26-31, 32-42) and does not appear in eight passages where Peter is a character (1:16-20, 35-39; 5:35-37; 8:27-30, 31-33; 9:2-8; 10:23-31; 14:, 66-72). Throughout Mark, Peter is “always aligned with the other disciples, whether as typical or as giving a lead” (p. 168). Though Peter shows more individuality than the other disciples, his individuality emerges from the context of the group.
This is a significant conclusion because it coheres closely with what we discovered was the function of the plural-to-singular narrative device in Mark. That device functions to give the readers a perspective on events from within the circle of the disciples, sometimes more precisely from within the inner circle of Peter, James, and John. If we understand this perspective as Peter’s, we could call it Peter’s “we” perspective (as distinguished from his “I” perspective), stressing that it is Peter’s perspective as a member of the discipleship group. This is coherent with the fact that, when Peter is named, he is always aligned with the others to a significant extent, and his individuality, when it emerges, does so in the context of that group membership. He is distinguished from the other disciples only at the same time as he is identified with them. He initiates, he leads, he speaks out when others do not, he even professes greater loyalty to Jesus than they have, but he never relates to Jesus as an individual unrelated to the group.
In this way Peter as an individual acts, narratologically, as a further means of focalization for the reader or hearer, continuous with the effect of the plural-to-singular narrative device but more specified. The plural-to-singular narrative device gives readers or hearers a perspective on events from within the group of disciples, larger or smaller. Readers or hearers seem to be traveling with the group of Jesus and his disciples and arriving with them at a scene where they then observe Jesus from the perspective of the disciples. When Peter takes a role as a named individual in a scene, readers or hearers are given more specifically Peter’s perspective on events. Now they view not merely from within the group of disciples, but with one disciple who for the time being is distinguished from the others. They see not only Jesus but also the other disciples from Peter’s point of view. This happens most effectively in 8:27-33 and 14:27-31 (the two instances in the Gospel where Jesus addresses Peter individually), in 9:5-6 (where Peter’s inner motivation is explicitly disclosed), and also, of course, in the story of Peter’s denials, the only passage in which readers or hearers go with Peter into a situation physically removed from the other disciples (14:54, 66-72). (p. 168)
The portrayal of the male disciples in Mark revolves around two themes: (1) understanding-non-understanding-misunderstanding and (2) loyalty-apostasy. The negative side in each case predominates which results in the disciples being portrayed as fallible and failing. In these respects, Peter is typical of the disciples in general but also goes beyond them for better and worse (e.g., 8:27-9:13; 14:29, 31, 37-38, 50, 54, 66-72). Mark 16:7 points to the disciples recognizing Jesus’ true identity and their being forgiven. Peter is named in particular (“his disciples and Peter”) since he failed the most.
Matthew (16:13-19), Luke (22:31-32), and John (21:4-19) all note Peter’s preeminent role in early Christianity while Mark does not. Buackham believes this is because Mark’s short, focused Gospel is meant “to demonstrate Jesus’ true messianic identity and the kind of discipleship that it entails” (p. 171). He also notes that this means the reason for Peter’s prominence in Mark is not connected to his role in early Christianity.
What then accounts for Peter’s prominence in Mark? We need to account for the large extent to which the point of view that the narrative gives its readers or hearers is either Peter’s “we” perspective (the plural-to-singular narrative device) or Peter’s “I” perspective (when Peter acts as an individual in the story). Taken together, these features make Mark a Gospel that presents, to a far larger degree than the others, a Petrine perspective on the story of Jesus. The explanation must have two aspects: relating to the source of Mark’s traditions and to the way in which Mark has shaped these traditions in the service of his main concerns in his overall composition of the Gospel. (p. 171)
Bauckham’s explanation is that Mark’s main source was the traditions from the Twelve, particularly in the form that Peter related them. One may object that we should find more personal reminiscences of Peter in the Gospel if this were the case. However, says Bauckham, Mark was selective in choosing what stories to place in his Gospel and chose stories that preached the Gospel and taught believers.
The Characterization of Peter in Mark
Mark’s distinctive characterization of Peter . . . does not employ direct character description, but constructs Peter’s character by means of his acts and words. Peter is a man of initiative (1:36?) and self-confidence, the one who speaks out when other do not (8:29, 32; 10:28), sometimes with insight (8:29), sometimes altogether too impulsively (8:32; 9:5-6). Even in these latter cases, Peter means well and shows his concern for Jesus even as he misunderstands him. In his enthusiastic and self-confident loyalty to Jesus he thinks himself second to none (14:29-31). He does display more courage in his loyalty to Jesus than the others do (14:50, 54), but loyalty and fear are at odds in his motivation. In his fearful, self-interested denial of Jesus he slips from a relatively mild dissociation from Jesus to the most extreme repudiation (14:68-71). But his loyalty and love for Jesus regain their primacy and express themselves in emotional remorse (14:72). The implication here of a moment of self-recognition, as his illusory self-confidence is destroyed, is also important in showing that Peter is not a static character, but one who acquires fresh self-awareness in a life-changing experience. (p. 175)
Some scholars view Mark’s depiction of Peter as a polemic against Peter. This view is mistaken for it ignores Mark’s attempts to maintain his readers’ sympathy with Peter. Though Peter’s misunderstanding of Jesus’ messiahship draws a strong rebuke from Jesus (8:32-33), it follows Peter’s realization that Jesus is the Messiah (8:29). During the transfiguration, Peter’s suggestion of building booths is explained as resulting from Peter being terrified and not knowing what to say (9:6). When Peter and the others fall asleep in Gethsemane, Jesus says “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (14:38) which implies they meant well. Mark goes on to say that their eyes were heavy and they did not know what to say (14:40). After Peter denies Jesus he expresses remorse (14:72).
It is also interesting that the other Gospels characterize Peter in the same way, even when there is no parallel story in Mark’s Gospel (e.g., Matthew 14:28-33; Luke 5:8; 22:33; John 6:68-69; 13:6-10; 20:2-10; 21:7, 15-19).
Is this to be explained by the impact of the historical Peter preserved in various traditions independently? Or by the influence of Mark’s portrayal of Peter on the other Gospel writers? Or by some kind of character stereotype of Peter in the early Christian movement that influenced all the traditions? New Testament scholars do not seem to have addressed this issue, which deserves attention that cannot be given here. (p. 177)
Could Mark’s predominately negative portrayal of Peter have come from Peter’s own self-depiction? One could argue that due to Peter’s revered status in early Christianity no one else would have highlighted his weakness and failure. Joel Marcus says that Peter was involved in some bitter controversies and could not have afforded to weaken his position with such stories. Bauckham responds by saying Galatians 2:11-14 depicts one incident in which Paul thought Peter acted in the wrong way. Second, if the story of Peter’s denials is historical then it must have originated from Peter himself. Third, the story of Peter’s denials is present in all Four Gospels which suggests it was not generally understood to merely denigrate or discredit Peter. It can be understood as a transformative event whereby Peter’s false self-confidence was purged away, making way for a more adequate faith. This is comparable to Paul, who mentioned his persecution of the church and subsequent conversion as testimony to the grace of God (1 Corinthians 15:9-10).