Intercalations in the synoptic tradition.

A synoptic literary device, also known as a sandwich.


An intercalation is a literary device whereby two pericopes, or narrative units, are combined by splitting one apart and inserting the other between the parts. Quite a few intercalations may be found in our canonical gospels, especially in the synoptic three.

But pericope manipulation is only half the picture. There is nearly always a broader point at stake, something fundamental to the purposes for writing the gospel in the first place. Usually this point is fairly obvious, perhaps not on a first reading, but upon a second or a third. I have found that the main point of the intercalation generally revolves around an interplay of past and future; one kind of thing is ending while another is just beginning.

The external pericope of any intercalation (the pericope that has been split apart) I label A1 for part 1 and A2 for part 2. The internal pericope or pericopes (that or those held between the two parts of the other) I label B. This distinctive structure has led many critics to call the intercalation a sandwich.

I list only what I regard as the most secure instances of intercalation. They happen to match the instances that John Dominic Crossan lists on page 106 of The Birth of Christianity. I have looked into other potential examples of the phenomenon and agree with Crossan that they are not as secure.

The family of Jesus and the controversy over Beezebul.

  Matthew. Mark. Luke. Events.
A1. - 3.20-21. - The kinsmen of Jesus think that he is out of his mind and set out to take custody of him.
B. 12.22-30;
31-32.
3.22-27;
28-30.
11.14-23;
{12.10}.
Scribes from Jerusalem accuse him of casting out demons by Beezebul.
A2. {12.46-50}. 3.31-35. {8.19-21}. The family of Jesus arrives, but Jesus identifies his true family as those who do the will of God.

The juxtaposition of these pericopes thrusts the family of Jesus into the role of his opponents. Just as the scribes accuse him of conspiring with demons, his family accuses him of being out of his mind. Both of these groups are then set in opposition to the surrogate yet true family of Jesus, his disciples, those who do the will of God.

The past in this intercalation is the traditional family. The future is the surrogate family preached by Jesus, later known as the church.

This intercalation is present only in Mark, since both Matthew and Luke have eliminated A1.

The daughter of Jairus and the hemorrhaging woman.

  Matthew. Mark. Luke. Events.
A1. 9.18-19. 5.21-24. 8.40-42. Jesus is called upon to heal the daughter of Jairus, a leader in the synagogue.
B. 9.20-22. 5.25-34. 8.43-48. A woman with a twelve-year flow of blood touches the clothing of Jesus and is healed.
A2. 9.23-26. 5.35-43. 8.49-56. Jesus raises the twelve-year-old daughter of Jairus, since she has already died.

Jesus effects two healings in these pericopes. He heals both an old woman toward the end of her womanhood (the flow of blood is probably menstrual) and a young girl at the very beginning of hers. It cannot be coincidental that the girl is twelve years old while the woman has suffered from a flow of blood for twelve years.

The past in this intercalation is the womanhood of the old woman. The future is the womanhood of the young girl. (I suspect that these figures together are meant to represent both the demise of the old covenant and its renewal with Jesus, but this speculation of mine is not necessary to the intercalation.)

This intercalation is present in all three gospels.

The mission of the twelve and the imprisonment and death of John the baptist.

  Matthew. Mark. Luke. Events.
A1. {10.5-16}. 6.7-13. 9.1-6. Jesus sends the twelve on a mission to Israel, preaching and healing.
B. 14.1-2,
3-5,
6-12.
6.14-16,
17-20,
21-29.
9.7-9;
{3.19-20}.
The death of John the baptist is narrated as a nonchronological flashback.
A2. 14.13-14. 6.30-34. 9.10-11. The twelve return and report to Jesus, who calls them aside to rest awhile.

The interrelationship of these pericopes is not quite so obvious as the others; some scholars seem to deny that this is an example of intercalation at all. However, I regard the sending of the twelve as the beginning of Christian missions and the death of John the baptist as the end of the baptist mission. The mentor is dead; now it is up to his prize pupil to usher in the kingdom.

The past in this intercalation is the ministry of John. The future is the ministry of Jesus and his apostles.

This intercalation is present only in Mark and Luke, since Matthew separately locates A1.

The cursing of the fig tree and the temple incident.

  Matthew. Mark. Luke. Events.
A1. - 11.12-14. - Between Bethany and Jerusalem Jesus finds a fig tree with no figs and curses it.
B. 21.12-17. 11.15-18. 19.45-48. Jesus enters the temple in Jerusalem and wreaks havoc with the buyers and sellers.
A2. 21.18-22. 11.19-24. - Jesus and his disciples pass by the fig tree again and notice that it has withered up.

These pericopes combine powerfully to render the temple complex in Jerusalem obsolete. What we often call the cleansing of the temple is probably more of a symbolic destruction of the temple. Jesus is not purifying the temple of superfluous traders; he is temporarily halting basic temple procedures. Just as the fig tree is no longer useful, so too the temple has finally outlived its usefulness.

The past in this intercalation is the temple and associated rites and rituals. The future is the community of faith which with a word can cast a mountain (the temple mount?) into the sea.

This intercalation is present only in Mark, since Matthew combines A1 with A2 after B and Luke eliminates A altogether (though in 13.6-9 he has a parable about a fruitless fig tree that Matthew and Mark lack).

The plot to kill and the anointing of Jesus.

  Matthew. Mark. Luke. Events.
A1. 26.1-5. 14.1-2. 22.1-2. The high priests and scribes plot to seize and kill Jesus before the feast.
B. 26.6-13. 14.3-9. {7.36-50}. A woman anoints Jesus with nard, and Jesus praises her for remembering his burial rites.
A2. 26.14-16. 14.10-11. 22.3-6. Judas meets with the high priests and agrees to betray Jesus to them.

The pericopes of the plot to betray and kill Jesus frame the pericope memorializing the loving act of an unnamed woman. Jesus explicitly links her anointing of him with the result of that plot, his own burial. While the authorities are plotting privately to take Jesus by stealth, Jesus is promising eternally public fame to the woman who anoints him.

The past in this intercalation is Judas Iscariot and the authorities of Judaism (though one can also see the earthly ministry of Jesus as part of the past here). The future is the preaching of the gospel, not forgetting the memory of the anointing woman.

This intercalation is present only in Matthew and Mark, since Luke separately locates B.

Peter at the fire and Jesus before the high priest.

  Matthew. Mark. Luke. Events.
A1. 26.58. 14.54. - Peter, following Jesus at a distance after his arrest, warms himself by the fire.
B. 26.59-66,
67-68.
14.55-64,
65.
22.63-65,
66-71.
Jesus testifies before the high priest that he will be vindicated as the messiah.
A2. 26.69-75. 14.66-72. [22.54b-62]. Peter, still warming himself, thrice denies even knowing Jesus.

In the external pair of pericopes Peter is warming himself comfortably at a fire, while in the internal pericope Jesus is being interrogated and beaten. While Jesus is confessing openly to being the messiah and prophesying his coming on the clouds, and while the priestly attendants are mockingly commanding him to prophesy more, his previous prophecy that Peter would thrice deny him is coming true.

The past in this intercalation is the now fulfilled prediction that Peter would betray Jesus. The future is the recap before the high priest of the Olivet predictions, whose fulfillment the Petrine denials make sure.

This intercalation is present only in Matthew and Mark, since Luke combines A1 with A2 before B. However, the gospel of John also appears to share this sandwich, with 18.15-18 as A1, 18.19-24 as B, and 18.25-27 as A1. The structure varies slightly from that of Matthew and Mark in that the Johannine version places one of the denials in A1 instead of waiting to place all three in A2.