Kurt Queller uses narrative criticism to analyze Mark 3:1-6, the healing miracle story in the gospel of Mark. Queller’s narrative criticism includes “echoes of the Exodus liberation narrative” , echoes of Deuteronomy’s covenant language and Sabbatical provisions , intratextual echoes in Mark , and independent echoes in the other synoptic gospels. Queller uses these echoes to fill in the gaps he finds in the story of Jesus healing the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath.
In the beginning of his criticism, Queller lists the gaps in Mark 3:1-6’s narrative that he seeks to fill: the meaning of the withered hand, Jesus’ reason for healing on the Sabbath, His reason for considering the withered hand life-threatening, why it is a choice between good and evil, et cetera. He begins filling these gaps by referencing intertextual echoes of Mark 3:1-6 in Exodus. Jesus’ command to the man with the withered hand in Mark 3:5, “Stretch out your hand,” is echoed in Exodus 14:16 where God commands Moses, “stretch out your hand.” When the man with the withered hand stretches out his hand, his hand is restored. Likewise, when Moses stretches out his hand, the Reed Sea parts, resulting in the restoration of the Israelites’ freedom.
Queller’s reference to this echo in Exodus, paired with other echoes he mentions in Deuteronomy, helped me begin to understand Jesus’ insistence on healing the withered hand. Queller was able to use the echoes to fill in the gaps I previously could not fill. In Deuteronomy 15, God’s covenant requires liberal lending and debt forgiveness to the poor on the Sabbath year. God reminds the Israelites that He delivered them from Egypt in verse 15, and He claims that this is the reason for His liberal Sabbatical law. Thus, this Deuteronomic prescription for Sabbath observance is a continuation of the Exodus liberation narrative. Queller mentions these echoes in Exodus and Deuteronomy to draw a larger narrative framework for understanding Mark’s controversial healing story.
In my initial reading, I recognized that a withered hand is not necessarily a matter of life and death. Like Queller, this was a gap that I initially set out to fill. However, I was unable to fill this gap in a way that completely satisfied my confusion on the matter. Queller’s larger narrative framework for this passage led me to a better understanding of why Jesus considered the withered hand worthy to heal on the Sabbath.
According to Queller’s filling of the gaps, the withered hand is an affliction that can be compared to the Israelites’ enslavement in Egypt. The withered hand also embodies the economic predicament of the poor, who remain enslaved to their debt to the rich. Such enslavement could be a death sentence, which is why the Sabbath requires the liberation of slaves and debt forgiveness of the poor. It seems plausible to me that a withered hand could cause a man to be enslaved and/or perpetually poor. This line of reasoning, provided by Queller’s larger narrative framework, allowed me to truly see how the Sabbath could require Jesus’ healing of the withered hand.
Another gap Queller and I similarly set out to fill is the question of what constitutes as doing good and what constitutes as doing evil on the Sabbath. This gap also arises from Mark 3:4, in which Jesus asks, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to ****?” (Mark 3:4 NIV). In his analysis of this particular part of this particular verse, Queller points out a small important detail that I originally missed. Mark 3:4 does not set the frame for a passive, inner choice between good and evil. The literal wording says, “to do good or to do evil.” The choice between good and evil on the Sabbath thereby requires action.
While recognizing that required action is problematic for the restful nature of the Sabbath, Queller supports his assertion by referencing Deuteronomy 30. Deuteronomy 30’s prescription for obedience of the Sabbath repeats the active command, “do it.” Queller illustrates the parallelism between Mark and Deuteronomy by placing Deuteronomy 30:14 and Mark 3:4-5 in a figure side-by-side. Deuteronomy 30:14 says, “The word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, and in your hands, to do it.” With this commandment as the framework, Mark 3:4-5 spells out the Pharisees’ failure to do good; It says, “But they were silent . . . grieved at their hardness of heart, he said to the man: ‘Stretch out your hand.’ And he stretched it out.”
From this, Queller concludes, “The ‘word’ to be done is already ‘in [their] mouth’ – but they refuse to say anything in response; it is ‘in [their] heart’ – but their heart is hardened against it. It is ‘in [their] hands, to do it’ – but as Jesus turns again to address the man, our attention is directed back to an inert hand, that, in its current withered state, seems unlikely to do anything.” From this I am now able to conclude that which constitutes as doing “good” on the Sabbath is acting on the word. The word is completely accessible to us, and we must use our mouths, hearts, and hands to act upon it.
This gap of good and evil action that Queller helps fill also provides further evidence for the necessity of Jesus’ healing of the withered hand. Since the hands are required to carry out good action in obedience of the covenant, the withered hand is an affliction that can breach said covenant. Queller asserts that the withered hand symbolizes “the tangible embodiment of [the Pharisees] unwillingness, despite the ‘nearness’ of the word, to do it.” Jesus, by necessity, must heal this affliction to show the Pharisees how to act according to the law of the Sabbath; “The stretching out of the hand then becomes a ‘witness against’ those who have chosen to forgo or even prohibit action because of exclusively sacral concerns.” Without the preceding narrative frame of Deuteronomy, such significance of the withered hand for the Sabbath covenant was impossible for me to comprehend.
Though Queller is certainly helpful in providing evidence that enables understanding of the withered hand’s significance, there are parts of his criticism that I find contradictory and unhelpful. This occurs when he references echoes in Exodus and Deuteronomy to provide a framework for understanding the Pharisees’ silence in Mark 3:4 and hardness of hearts in Mark 3:5. He first relates the Pharisees’ hardened heart in response to Jesus’ plea in Mark to the Pharaoh’s hardened heart in response to Moses’ numerous pleas in Exodus. In my concordance work, I also made this connection. However, Queller and I differ in the conclusions we draw from this observation.
Queller draws from Deuteronomy to provide framework in conjunction with Exodus for understanding Mark’s interpretation of the Sabbatical law. He references Deuteronomy 29:19, which warns against thinking one can receive the blessings of the covenant while breaching it in the inner wanderings of the heart. This passive infidelity of the covenant brings God’s curse to the innocent as well as the guilty. Queller uses this context to explain why his literal translation says Jesus “co-aggrieved” with the Pharisees because of their silence and hard hearts. The Pharisees’ passive, inner breach of the covenant invoked God’s curse on them, as well as the innocent Jesus, according to Queller.
When I analyzed Jesus’ reaction to the hard hearts of the Pharisees in comparison to God’s reaction to that of the Pharaoh, I realized that the same Greek word was used to describe Jesus’ anger and God’s wrath. However, the consequences of Jesus’ anger and God’s wrath do not relate as clearly as Queller would lead one to believe. As a result of the Pharaoh’s hard heart, God’s wrath leads to the Pharaoh’s ultimate demise. Jesus’ resulting anger from the Pharisees’ hard hearts, on the other hand, catalyzes his decision to heal the withered hand. This action ultimately leads to Jesus’ destruction alone. Jesus, the innocent character, does not fall to the mutual destruction of the Pharisees, per Queller’s argument. I see no destruction of the Pharisees at all. Instead, Jesus restores God’s blessing of the guilty by becoming the recipient of God’s wrath in their place.
This conclusion, though differing from Queller, is consistent with his interpretation of the withered hand. Queller writes, “The withered hand embodies covenant curses invoked against those refusing to ‘open [their] hands’ in liberal lending, instead killing the poor by freezing credit in view of an impending sabbatical debt amnesty” . If the withered hand embodies God’s curse against the Pharisees, then Jesus revokes this curse when he cures the withered hand. Furthermore, the larger narrative framework of Mark’s gospel echoes this conclusion. Jesus’ crucifixion ultimately pays the debt of sinners and liberates them from God’s wrath.
Kurt Queller’s narrative criticism uses intertextuality, a narrative tool that “evokes resonances of the earlier text beyond those explicitly cited” and “requires the reader to recover unstated or suppressed correspondences between the two texts.” Such intertextual echoes he references from Deuteronomy and Exodus provide a larger background for interpreting Mark’s healing controversy. This granted me the ability to fill many gaps in the narrative that I was unable to fill prior to reading Queller’s criticism. In a footnote, he explains that his “metalepsis” uses such intertextual echoes for analysis, and, “In narrative, the resultant new figuration operates at what Robert M. Fowler calls the ‘discourse level.’ Metaleptic signification is thus transacted between an implied narrator and an implied audience – as it were, behind the backs of the narrative’s ‘story-level’ participants.”
The intertextual and metaleptic tools that Queller uses for his narrative criticism have proven to be very insightful and helpful for my understanding Mark 3:1-6 in an entirely new way. Even as I disagree with Queller on certain parts of his argument, these points of disagreement pushed me to deepen my own individual reading of the text. In comparing my argument to Queller’s, I realized just how far my initial interpretation was able to go. This narrative criticism answered a lot of my questions and filled many gaps. However, most of my conclusions about the implications and ultimate consequences of the text remain unshaken.
Queller, Kurt. “Stretch Out Your Hand!” Echo and Metalepsis in Mark’s Sabbath Healing Controversy. Journal of Biblical Literature 129, no. 4 (2010): 737-58.
This is a narrative criticism in conversation with Kurt Queller's criticism. The in-text footnotes didn't transfer to this website but all quotes are referencing his work, which is cited at the end.