How to Smell a Sandwich

January 13, 2022

Smell can be a powerful sense. The right smell can bring back old memories, you haven't thought about for decades. In the same way having a good literary sense about a text can unfold truths hidden in plain sight. It all begins by knowing a little something about an author's style of writing. Mark is about as stylish as Elton John and twice as obvious. In other words, when you know what Mark is doing, you can't help but see it.

One of the earliest references in the Church Father's to Mark's gospel claimed it was based on the preaching and testimony of Peter making note to add that Mark did not structure the work in a strict historical chronology. Some stories were organized for thematic purposes. A comparison of Mark with the other Gospels reveal that he employs the sandwich technique in a unique and pronounced manner. This technique was used to underscore the major themes of the Gospel.

What is the Sandwich Technique?
The Sandwich Technique is a way of ordering stories, it this way the author helps interrupt a story by inserting a second, seemingly unrelated, story into it. In Mark the sandwich technique occur around nine times ( 3:20–35; 4:1–20; 5:21–43; 6:7–30; 11:12–21; 14:1–11; 14:17–31; 14:53–72; 15:40– 16:8.) The Technique highlights themes like discipleship, bearing witness, or the dangers of apostasy.

Sandwiches are thus literary conventions with theological purposes. These “sandwiches” serve theological purposes by inviting readers to reflect on the similarity between the pairs of stories. Each sandwich unit consists of an A1-B-A2 sequence, with the B-component functioning as the theological key to the story it is between.

Like in Mark 11:12-21, The fig tree that withers in keeping with Jesus’ curse symbolizes Israel and the corrupt worship being offered in its temple, which demanded purging by the Messiah who is jealous for God’s glory among the nations. The sin of the Temple brings a cures.

A Few Examples:

  • Jesus’ movement to the home of Jairus and his gravely ill daughter by the healing of a woman who has suffered long from a defiling flow of blood (5:21–43). This particular sandwich is about faith
  • Jesus’ cleansing of the temple between His cursing of the fig tree and His disciples’ discovery that it has withered (11:12–21),
  • The anointing of Jesus by a woman surrounded by accounts of the developing conspiracy to destroy Him (14:1–11).
  • Between the sending out of the Twelve to preach and their return, Mark inserts the account of Herod’s execution of John the Baptist, which occurred at an earlier point in the narrative (6:7–30).

A Few more Examples:

  • Mark 3:20–35 (Jesus’ family’s misunderstanding, surrounding the scribes’ accusations)
  • Mark 4:1–20 (the parable of the Sower, surrounding the purpose of parables)
  • Mark 14:17–31 (Jesus’ announcement of His disciples’ betrayal and denial, surrounding His institution of the Lord’s Supper)
  • Mark 14:53–72 (Peter in the high priest’s courtyard, surrounding Jesus’ trial inside)
  • Mark 15:40–16:8 (women at the cross and the empty tomb, surrounding Jesus’ death on the cross).

In most of these sections, the movement from the “frame story” to the inserted narrative naturally reflects the flow of historical events (this is not true of Mark 6:7–30). Mark was not concerned with historical chronological order as much as making theological connections between real historical events.



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