Vernon K. Robbins

Sociorhetorical Interpretation

Emory Studies in Early Christianity

Rhetoric of Religious Antiquity

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Cultural intertexture in Mark 4

Socio-Rhetorical Examples

Definition of cultural intertexture.

Burton Mack's analysis of the Gospel of Mark, which appeared at the end of the 1980s, carried analysis of echo in cultural intertexture beyond Pauline discourse into the Gospels. His analysis of Mark 4 is an exemplary exhibition of his approach. Mark 4 contains images of `the field, sowing, seeds, miscarriage, and harvest' that are characteristic of `Jewish apocalyptic, wisdom, and prophetic literatures'. These images, however, occur in a literary context that uses a Greco-Roman mode of rhetorical elaboration to unfold the mysterious nature of the kingdom of God in Jesus' activity. As the discourse displays the meanings and meaning effects of the kingdom, it echoes topics that are commonplace in Greco-Roman discussions concerning paideia--instruction or education. Mack presents comparative texts that exhibit the presence of reference and echo to paideia in Greco-Roman discourse (Mack 1988: 155-60; Mack and Robbins 1989: 145-60):

The views of our teachers are as it were the seeds. Learning from childhood is analogous to the seeds falling betimes upon the prepared ground. (Hippocrates, Law III)

As is the seed that is ploughed into the gound, so must one expect the harvest to be, and similarly when good education is ploughed into your persons, its effect lives and burgeons throughout their lives, and neither rain nor drought can destroy it. (Antiphon, fr. 60 in Diels, Vorsokratiker)

Words should be scattered like seed; no matter how small the seed may be, if it once has found favorable ground, it unfolds its strength and from an insignificant thing spreads to its greatest growth. (Seneca, Epistles 38.2)

If you wish to argue that the mind requires cultivation, you would use a comparison drawn from the soil, which if neglected produced thorns and thickets, but if cultivated will bear fruit. (Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria 5.11.24)

The initial quotation from Hippocrates concerns cultural echo in Mark 4.1-9, 13-20. The first verse states that Jesus `began to teach' the people, and the second verse says that `he taught them many things' and that he said specific things `in his teaching'. Thus, Mark 4 introduces Jesus as a teacher, which is the topic of the quotation from Hippocrates. The next assertion of the quotation is that the `views of our teachers' are `the seeds'. This is precisely the assertion in Mark 4.14: `The sower sows the word'. Then throughout Mark 4.15-20, Jesus' interpretation of the parable of the sower explains `the analogy' between `the seeds falling betimes on the prepared ground', to use the language of the Hippocrates quotation, and the learning of people about the kingdom of God.

The quotation from Antiphon, which is second above, discusses `the harvest', which is the topic of Mark 4.8, 20. The yield, Antiphon says, relates directly to the ploughing of the seed into the ground. In other words, if the seed is not successfully ploughed into the soil, because it `falls along the path' or `falls on rocky ground' where the plough will not turn the soil over, this seed will not be productive (cf. Mark 4.4-6, 14-17). If it is successfully ploughed into the soil, however, it is like good education that causes lives to be fruitful, because neither rain nor drought can destroy it (cf. Mark 4.6, 8, 20).

The quotation from Seneca asserts that words should be scattered like seed (Mark 4.14) and discusses the smallness of the seed. No matter how small the seed may be, if it finds favorable soil, it will find strength and grow to its greatest growth. This is the topic of the parable of the mustard seed in Mark 4.30-32.

The quotation from Quintilian refers to `cultivation of the mind', `thorns and thickets' and `bearing fruit'. The mind is a special matter of concern in Mark 4.18-20, where a problem is that cares of the world, delight in riches and desire for other things enter in and choke what has been heard so that a person is unfruitful. The problem, in Markan terms, is whether a person is able to `hear the word and accept it' (4.20). It is a problem, then, of the cultivation of the mind. If the mind is not cultivated properly, thickets and thorns overtake it, precisely the topic of Mark 4.7, 18-19.

Reference and echo to topics in Greco-Roman discourse about teaching, learning and its effects, then, are deeply embedded in Markan discourse about Jesus' teaching of the kingdom of God in parables (analogies). The great strength of Mack's analysis is the analysis of the integration of both Jewish and Greco-Roman cultural discourse in Markan discourse in the chapter. Thus, in contrast to previous interpreters, he does not claim that the discourse is `strictly Jewish' or `strictly Greco-Roman'. Even in analysis of the letters of Paul, it has been most common for interpreters to analyze either Jewish cultural intertexture or Greco-Roman cultural intertexture, rather than merging the two in the same analysis. My analysis of the Gospel of Mark in 1984 activated a similar kind of `bi-cultural' analysis and interpretation (Robbins 1992a), and one of the major goals of socio-rhetorical criticism is to move interpretation beyond an activity on one side or the other of a boundary between Jewish culture and Greco-Roman culture.


From: Vernon K. Robbins (1996) The Tapestry of Early Christian Discourse: Rhetoric, Society and Ideology, London: Routledge: 113-115.

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