I've been reading parts of Mark Twain's autobiography. As I read it I think about the tunnel vision of conventional Gospel criticism. Gospel critics treat the NT as literature. In a sense that's right. The final form is a text. But we should take into account the process by which it came to be.
Twain made several abortive attempts to pen his autobiography. Then he finally hit on a strategy: Instead of writing his autobiography, he'd dictate his memoirs to a stenographer. That gave him the spontaneity he needed. For instance:
You will never know how much enjoyment you have lost until you get to dictating your autobiography…how like talk it is, & how real it sounds, & how well & compactly & sequentially it construct itself, & what a dewy & breezy & woodsy freshness it has…There are little slips here & there, little inexactnesses, & many desertions of a thought before the end of it has been reached, but these are not blemishes, they are merits, their removal would take away the naturalness of the flow & banish the very thing–the nameless something–which differentiates real narrative from artificial narrate.
..the plan that starts you at the cradle and drives you straight for the grave, with no side-excursions permitted on the way. Whereas the side-excursions are the life of our life-voyage, and should be, also, of its history.
Finally, in Florence in 1904, I hit upon the right way to do an autobiography: start it at no particular time of your life; wander at your free will all over your life; talk only about the thing which interest you for the moment; drop it the moment its interest threatens to pale, and turn your talk upon the new and more interesting thing that has intruded itself in your mind meantime.
…the events of life are mainly small events–they only seem large when we are close to them. By and by they settle down and we see that one doesn't show above another. They are all about one general low altitude, and inconsequential…this is what life consists of–little incidents and big incidents, and they are all of these same size if we let them alone. An autobiography that leaves out the little things and enumerates only the big ones is no proper picture of the man's life at all.
I don't believe I ever really had any doubts whatever concerning the salient points of the dream, for those points are of such nature that they are pictures, and pictures can be remembered, when they are vivd, much better than one can remember remarks and unconcreted facts. Although it has been so many years since I have told that dream, I can see those pictures now just as clearly defined as if they were before me in this room.
…the language we naturally use when we are talking about something that has just happened…[whereas if] the historian had dug it up and was putting it in his language, and furnishing you a long-distance view of it…it would not be news to him, it would be history, merely history…When an eyewitness sets down in narrative form some extraordinary occurrence which he has witnessed, that is news…time can have no deteriorating effect upon that episode. The Autobiography of Mark Twain, vol. 1, H. Smith ed. (U. of California Press, 2010), 20-21,203, 220, 256,258-59, 277, 281.
Let's compare this to some scholarly observations about the Gospels:
The first half of Mark frequently groups a series of stories of like form (healings, controversies, parables, &c.)…
[Matthew] chapters 8-9 go on to group together ten miracles stories (mostly healings)…
[In Acts] the gospel progresses from Jerusalem ever outward, through Judea and Samaria eventually reaching "the ends of the earth."…This exact geographical sequence can be discerned in Luke's Gospel as well, only in reverse order. C. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels (B&H 2009), 129, 144, 160-61.
Luke uses geography to structure his story…In the Gospel, the narrative moves toward Jerusalem. L. T. Johnson, Luke (Michael Glazier 1991), 14.
Bauckham’s title for this lecture is: “Mark’s Topography: The Cognitive Map of a Capernaum Fisherman.”
The geographical information in Mark’s Gospel, especially about Galilee, has often been thought to be confused and certainly presents some problems. The lecture uses the idea of a ‘mental map.’ The way we construct our spatial environment in our minds is very different from the maps we see on paper or on screen. A close look at Mark’s geography shows that it makes very good sense if it reflects the mental map of a Galilean fisherman based in Capernaum.
John 1:38 and 41 are examples of asides in John, instances where the evangelist seeks to clarify a given issue or undertakes to provide additional information to make an aspect of his narrative intelligible to his readers…Note that this literary device enables John to distinguish between his narrative proper and his own clarifying comments while still helping his readers along as he sees fit. Andreas Köstenberger, Encountering John: The Gospel in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective (Baker, 2003), 250.
The features which makes Mark's book so easy to read are to a large extent those which are characteristic of "oral literature."
The enjoyability of Mark's storytelling is enhanced by the more extensive use of descriptive detail than in other gospels. Typically, the Marcan version of a miracle story may be twice as long as the equivalent pericope in Matthew, simply because Mark is more vividly descriptive… R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark (Eerdmans 2002), 16, 17.
My own approach to the structure of Matthew derives from noting how closely Matthew has adhered in broad terms to the overall narrative pattern of Mark, which, after a brief prologue set in the wilderness (1:1-13), presents Jesus' public ministry in three phases set successively in Galilee, on the journey from Galilee to Judea, and in Jerusalem. In my commentary on Mark I have argued that this represents a conscious structuring of the story within a geographical framework which owns more to Mark's systematization than to the actual movements of Jesus throughout the period after his baptism…This simplified structure of a single progress from north to south is thus best understood as one devised by Mark for its dramatic effect R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans 2007), 3-4.
i) These observations share certain things in common. They note how geography is a structuring principle in the Gospels. Likewise, topical grouping.
ii) This is viewed in literary terms. Narrative strategy. However, these features may have a different common denominator: rather than literary structuring principles, they may just as well, or better be, mnemonic structuring principles. For instance, geography is a way of remembering events. We remember events in association with where they occurred. We remember where we were at the time we heard it or saw it. We remember what happened because we remember where it happened. That's a cue. A reminder.
iii) Likewise, clustering is a mnemonic device. Our mind groups related facts. That's a way of retrieving as well as storing memories.
So it's quite possible, if not probable, that Gospel writers organize the information they way the do in large part because that's how they–or their informants–naturally remember it. That's how they see it in their mind's eye as they recall the incident.
By "mnemonic device" I don't mean a conscious technique. I mean that's how we subconsciously store information. A subliminal process. Association is a mnemonic device. Topical and geographical associations are the glue of many memories.
iv) Köstenberger classifies the Johannine asides as a literary device. Although that's possible, anyone who's spent much time listening to an elderly relative talk about their past will recognize the frequent use of parenthetical comments. Indeed, it can be maddening to the impatient listener. You wish the relative would stay on point and get to the point. Instead, we're treated to a string of digressions. But, of course, for the relative, getting to the point was never the point. They enjoy reminiscing about their long-lost youth. They linger. They savor the moment. For them the side-trips are more interesting than the destination.
In addition, as they talk about the past, one recollection triggers another recollection. If they took time to complete their thought, they'd forget what just popped into their consciousness. They want to mention that before it slips their mind. They lose their train of thought and forget what they were talking about when they began the vignette, but that's because talking about the past has stirred up so many memories that elbow each other for a chance to be heard. It's a crowded field, vying for attention.
v) Critics of inerrancy complain that the Gospels lack a linear chronology. Yet that's a mark of historicity; a particular kind of historicity: oral history. The Fourth Gospel contains so many editorial asides. If, however, John was dictating his recollections to a scribe, we'd expect him to break off and interject these explanatory notes. That's how people, especially older folks, talk when they tell you about their life. It's a different process than sitting down and writing it out. Much less a rough drafting process to get everything just so.
Likewise, there's the question of whether Jn 21 was part of the first edition, or added somewhat later. However, when talking about the past, when dictating your memoirs, it's not unusual have afterthoughts. You can't say everything at once. But because it's on your mind, people will often revisit the conversation and add things they didn't think to say at the first time around. The process stirred up old memories. Some rise to the surface faster than others.
vi) The Gospel of Mark is probably a combination of firsthand and secondhand information. Based on Acts 12:12, he had access to both. Since Jerusalem was his hometown, he had occasion to witness the public ministry of Christ when Jesus blew into town. And since his mother's home was a founding house-church, he had access to Christ's traveling companions and confidants.
He could sit them down and take dictation. Or he could dictate incidents to a scribe from his own recollections. Is it just coincidental that Mark and John are written in such vivid, pictorial terms–like Mark Twain's personal anecdotes? Matthew edits Mark down to make room for so much additional material–so he's less graphic and prolix.
Likewise, when Luke records his three lost-and-found parables (Lk 15), that could be literary–or it could be because it's easier to remember things that are related to each other. That's how his informant remembered them.
Maybe the ending of Mark is so brief because his informant got tired. My grandmother used to tell me stories about her life. But there was a point at which she was talked out. Needed to take a nap.
vii) There's the question of how much the beloved disciple was present for. Is he the tacit witness in Jn 4? Although it says Jesus sent "the disciples" into town, "the beloved disciple" is set apart from the other disciples. That's the point of the title. To some extent he stands apart from the group. He's with Jesus at times when the others are not–seeing what Jesus sees, hearing what Jesus says.