The Jesus Ultimatum: Action and suspense in Mark’s gospel

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'The Jesus Ultimatum: Action and suspense in Mark’s gospel,' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified February 11, 2023,

I joked to my students the other day that, of the portraits of Jesus in the gospels (on which also see my earlier post on “Who is this guy?”: The Gospel of Mark on the identity of Jesus), Mark’s would be the closest to a Bourne flick in terms of action and suspense.

True, the action in Mark may not be as intense as a car-chase through the streets of Moscow, but there is certainly some speed in the narrative. Jesus does just about everything “immediately” and the reader is brought from one episode to the next at almost lightning speed. In chapter one alone, Jesus appears, is baptized, goes out to the wilderness where he is tempted by Satan, collects together some students, teaches in the synagogue, has run-ins with authorities, casts out a couple of very vocal unclean spirits, heals both a woman and a leper as well has “many who were sick with various diseases” or possessed by demons. Hearing this gospel, you sit on the edge of your seat wondering what Jesus is going to do next.

Beyond the action, suspense is also built into Mark’s story of Jesus. Sometimes the author slows things down quite deliberately in order to build suspense of another kind, as in the section that deals with Jesus’ authority as healer. So, for example, Mark’s story-telling abilities come to the fore when he gets us quite worried about a poor girl on the verge of death: “Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw [Jesus], fell at his feet and begged him repeatedly, ‘My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.'” (Mark 5:22-23 [NRSV]).

With Mark’s record for having Jesus do just about everything in a flash, this time things go very slow despite the fact that a little girl is about to die. The narrator or story-teller is quite deliberately building suspense here, as many scholars note. Instead of flashing ahead to Jesus healing the girl in the nick of time, Mark goes on to relate Jesus’ healing of another woman with internal bleeding, and the author of Mark doesn’t do this quickly. The hearer of this story is left wondering: “What happened to the poor little girl! She’s going to die! Hurry up!!”

Then, after this story of the healing of the older woman, the hearer’s worries are confirmed. The little girl is indeed dead. Jesus is too late: “While [Jesus] was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, ‘Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?'” (v. 35). This is when the panic of the hearer is alleviated as the story of Jesus going to the girl and raising her from the dead is narrated: “He took her by the hand and said to her, ‘Talitha cum,’ which means, ‘Little girl, get up!’ And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement” (vv. 41-42) — as are the hearers of this story. At last, things are happening “immediately” again.

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