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Sep 2 / Steve Runge

Historical present: Mark 1:12-13, Matt 4:1-2, Luke 4:1-2

Here is the analysis for this passage. I am primarily looking at the historical presents (HP) in Mark to determine how the same material was handled in the synoptic parallel. Since I am following Mark, I have included only the parallel text. I will save Mt 4:3-11 for another post.

mk 1 12 Mt 4 Lk 4


New pericopes begin in a context of natural discontinuity, at a transition from one event, scene, or argument to the next. This natural discontinuity is accentuated through the use of various segmentation devices to ensure that the reader properly processes the transition.

Mark’s version signals the beginning of the new pericope using his preferred attention-getter, a topical frame of reference for a more prominent change of subject from John the Baptist’s ministry to the Spirit. Finally, there is an historical present. Note that the conjunction is the simple paratactic καί which does not signal a new development. The use of a development marker like δέ in Mark’s gospel is far more rare than in Luke or Matthew. Note also that what follows are imperfective clauses introducing states of affairs for the main line that follows.

Matthew begins with narrative τότε along with a topical frame of reference to add prominence to the introduction of the Spirit, switching from the Father’s speech at Jesus’ baptism. Whereas Mark reports the entire temptation sequence as an offline event, both Matthew and Luke recount it as mainline. In preparation for this, Matthew establishes the states of affair using circumstantial participles, effectively backgrounding these actions with respect to the main verb ἐπείνασεν. Had finite indicative verbs been used, all of the backgrounded actions would have appeared equally prominent. The adverb ὕστερον serves a culminating function, referring back to the fasting for forty days, setting the stage for the resultant action: being hungry.

Luke’s version begins with a topical frame of reference coupled with the development marker δέ. The transition here is from the genealogy of Jesus to the temptation. Luke is typically understated in his pericope transitions in comparison to mark, relying much more upon the traditional formal discontinuity markers such as conjunctions. Following the intial event clause about being lead by the Spirit, Luke establishes the needed context through the use of imperfective aspect, marking the clauses as offline. Note the capitalization at v. 2b at the transition from offline to mainline events, supplied by the editors. They reflected the natural discontinuity at this transition with a marker to aid the processing: capitalization.

In contrasting Mark’s version with the other two, he is the only one that places the Spirit in a prominent role as the topicalized subject of an active verb. The Spirit plays an indirect role in the other gospels thanks to the use of a passive verb in Matthew and and essentially a stative verbless clause in Luke.

Interestingly there are a number of historical presents in the balance of Matthew’s account (vv. 5, 6, 8 (2x), 10, 11), yet they do not coincide with the one in Mark. This is leading me to think that there are stylistic factors driving the usage, and that each writer has their preferred technique.

One Comment

  1. John Hobbins / Oct 1 2009

    I missed this earlier, Steve.

    Another aspect of this is the synoptic problem. When is Mark, Matthew, or Luke following a source? When are they revising a source? This complicates the question.

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