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Mark - for the Disinterested Classroom
Section A

Michelle Nailon

Getting Started

Introduction: -

The dominant method of gospel interpretation amongst scholars is a method called Historical Critical Exegesis.

This is endorsed as being "the indispensable method for the scientific study of the meaning of ancient texts." by the Catholic Pontifical Biblical Commission in its 1993 document "The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church." 1 The historical critical method considers small sections of a text at a time and it makes an in-depth study of its history and language.

However the Commission also admits that historical criticism is "diachronic", meaning it "cuts" up the text. It therefore needs to be complemented by "synchronic" approaches to interpretation such as "narrative criticism" and "rhetorical analysis." These look at much larger sections of the text and in the context of the whole, as produced by the final editor (or writer).

Another "synchronic" method endorsed by the Commission has been structural analysis, or, as the Commission calls it, "semiotic analysis." 2

Semiotic analysis is recognised as being able to:

give Christians a taste for studying the biblical text and discovering certain of its dimensions, without their first having to acquire a great deal of instruction in historical matters relating to the production of the text and its sociocultural world. 3

At the same time the Commission warns that if this method is used,

it needs to be open to the history: first of all to the history of those who play a part in the text then to that of the authors and readers. 4

In some ways Semiotic analysis is like a "polar opposite" of the Historical Critical Exegesis method. Whereas historical criticism considers the background and language of small sections of text, semiotic analysis looks at the entire text but only the text. 5 It considers how a text uses "elements of meaning, (actors, times, places etc.)" to structure itself. 6 The approach considers meaning given through relationship and in particular the relationship of "difference". It assumes each text follows a "grammar" that is, "a certain number of rules or structures, in the collection of sentences." "The analsis consists in identifying the logic which governs the basic articulations of the narrative and figurative flow of a text." 7

Given the differences in approach it is little wonder an Historical Critical Scholar such as Joseph Fitzmyer, an editor of the Jerome Biblical Commentary, has implied, in his commentary on the statement of the Commission, that some people who use the method see it "like a rabbit that a magician pulls out of a hat." 8 This sort of critique of the method leaves it with credibility problems!

Even so, as the Commission notes, the extablished method of historical criticism has tended to remove the study and appreciation of gospel texts away from the lay reader and into the realm of scholars. 9

The semiotic analysis approach used by the "Reality Search" method of interpretation attempts to make the gospels more reader friendy. The analysis is set in the context of first century CE history. It also throws up a lot of 'interesting' questions about the intentions of the writers who were dealing with a key social issue of trying to combine the benefits of Judaism and the benefits of Greek philosophy into the one "hybrid" society.
Reality Search (semiotic) analysis of the gospel of Mark.