Referring back to an old (1925) and neglected article by Cuthbert Taylor, Richard Bauckham (Jesus and the Eyewitnesses) notes that there are twenty-one instances of a narrative device in Mark’s Gospel that invite attention. This is a device in which switches, slightly awkwardly, from third-person plural to third-person singular. Here are some examples:-
Mk 5:1f – ‘They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes. And when he had stepped out of the boat . . .’
Mk 8:22 – ‘They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to him . . .’
Mk 11:12 – ‘On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry.’
Mk 14:32 – ‘They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples . . .’
Here is the full list of instances: Mk 1:21, 29-30; 5:1-2, 38; 6:53-54; 8:22; 9:9, 14-15, 30, 33; 10:32, 46; 11:1, 12, 15, 19-21, 27; 14:18, 22, 26-27, 32.
Where there are parallels in Matthew and Luke, they usually have the singular throughout.
The great majority of these expressions are used to describe the movement of Jesus and his disciples from one place to another.
Bauckham (following Taylor) suggests that in these instances Mark is recording the words of an eyewitness who originally used the first person plural followed by the third person singular. These would originally have been more natural expressions, ‘since a distinction between first and third-person is then added to the difference between plural and singular’.
Of particular interest is Mk 1:29-31, where we read,
‘As soon as they left the synagogue, they went with James and John to the home of Simon and Andrew. Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told Jesus about her. So he went to her, took her hand and helped her up. The fever left her and she began to wait on them.’
This passage, rather awkward in Greek, might originally have been the smoother and easier,
‘We left the synagogue and came into our house with our fellow-disciples James and John. My mother-in-law was in bed with fever, and he is told about her. . . .’
In this example, it is notable that ‘they’ consists of Jesus along with Simon, Andrew, James, and John, since at this time these four were the only disciples (Mk 1:21). Where the disciples making up the ‘they’ are named, Peter is always included (Mk 1:21,29; 5:38; 9:9,14f). We find that Peter is named more frequently in those parts of the Gospel where the singular-to-plural device is found (e.g. chapters 1, 8 and 14).
It is reasonable to conclude that Mark’s frequent use of the ‘singular-to-plural’ narrative device provides evidence that his account is, at least in part, based on the eyewitness testimony of Peter. However, the use of this device is not merely a ‘relic’ of what Peter had actually said, but also an indication that he is providing a perspective from within the group of Twelve disciples (or even from within the ‘inner group’ of disciples).