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More on Mark 16:8

August 1, 2010

One of the more encouraging events of the past week was an email from David Catchpole that he found persuasive and enjoyable my essay on Mark (“The Women, the Tomb, and the Climax of Mark”, posted in manuscript form on the “Essays, etc.” page of this site). He is now retired from his professorial post in the University of Exeter, but still active in scholarly pursuits.

It was one of his essays that first alerted me to the more positive reading of Mark 16:8, an essay insufficiently noted in my view: David R. Catchpole, “The Fearful Silence of the Women At the Tomb: A Study in Markan
Theology,” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 18 (1977): 3-10.

He observed that the Greek phrase more typically taken as ascribing a disobedient silence to the women in 16:8 actually could (and should) be taken to mean that the women did not speak to others en route to conveying the message that they had been given. Effectively, “they said nothing to anyone (else).” David drew attention to Mark 1:44 where a very similar phrase is used in a sentence that obviously is to involve the leper communicating his miraculous healing to the temple priest, but not speaking to others.

I’m not the only one to have found David’s proposal persuasive.  But it’s disappointing how many scholars seem never to have considered any alternative to reading Mark 16:8 as indicating total silence/disobedience.

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  1. Thanks for providing your essay and the article to consider a plausible positive reading of 16:7-8 to the one usually presented. It seens so important how one interprets the ending of Mark as it affects how we read Mark’s whole presentation of Peter and the Twelve – for instance I am thinking about Richard Horsley’s take on the ending in “Hearing the Whole Story: The Politics of Plot in Mark’s Gospel” where the Twelve set up a hierarchical leadership base in Jerusalem and miss out on the call to continue the egalitarian village-based Jesus movement in Galilee. Also, I was wonderng what you thought about the recent attempt by N. Clayton Croy, The Mutation of Mark’s Gospel to reassert the view of a missing ending (and beginning) to Mark’s Gospel?

    • Yes, serious readers of narrative works should/must work back and forth between particulars and the larger framework of the narrative in judging the author’s meaning and intentions. (And, yes, in biblical studies, as in most fields outside of some literature depts, we still think of authors and their intentions!)

      Horsley adds, however, another dimension: his soft Marxian framework, in which the text is read always with reference to economic class and politics. This approach can bring some food for thought, but the danger is another kind of reductionism in which everything is subsumed under this one focus. I don’t see Mark as involved in any power-struggle between leaders and power-centres, and I’m by no means alone in that judgement.

      As for Croy’s thesis, it would carry more weight if he had demonstrated specifics, including particularly knowledge of the physical nature of ancient manuscripts and the sort of damages that each kind can incur. E.g., it is most likely that Mark was composed and circulated initially as a roll. On a roll the ending of a work is in the most protected position, the inside of the roll, and so least likely to suffer damage. A codex can be constructed in different ways, and each way will allow a different kind of damage. Whoever proposes damage-theories needs first to acquaint themselves with manuscripts! (See my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts for specifics.)

      Also, there is Occam’s razor: Why invoke additional events etc., unless the data require it? If, as I and other argue, Mark’s beginning and ending (at 16:8) make sense, and indeed have a particularly strong pastoral purpose, then there is no need to invoke the sort of speculation that Croy offers.

  2. Thanks to you and David Catchpole for the alternate reading of Mark 16:8, viz., ” . . . anyone (else).” This last cryptic sentence of the Gospel has been puzzling, because we know the women spoke to someone, otherwise we wouldn’t have their story. Of course, Mark may have originally had more info after vs. 8, but somehow this was lost. An empty tomb and the message that the crucified Jesus is alive; news indeed!

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