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Not a “Film Noir”: The Gospel of Mark

December 5, 2014

In her contribution to the essay collection recently presented to me by former students and some colleagues, Holly Carey (former PhD student) presents a cogent case that the Gospel of Mark is much more “upbeat” than some scholars assume.  I share her view, and I commend her essay:  “‘Is it as Bad as All That?’  The Misconception of Mark as a Film Noir,” in Mark, Manuscripts, and Monotheism, eds. Chris Keith & Dieter T. Roth (London:  Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014), 3-21.

She effectively points out the selective reading of Mark that leads some scholars to portray the text as a dark, mysterious, brooding narrative, focusing on Jesus’ abject death, and leaving readers puzzled and unsure of what to make of it all, what Holly (and I) refer to as the “film noir” view of Mark.  As she notes, from the outset, however (1:1), “Mark” announces that this narrative is “evangelion“, “gospel”, “good news”.  Moreover, the Jesus of Mark seems to be the vehicle of remarkable divine power, as exercised in healings, exorcisms, “nature” miracles (e.g., storm-stilling), etc.  But Carey’s still more effective point is the Markan emphasis on Jesus’ resurrection, showing how scholars have often overlooked this, with a monocular focus on references to his crucifixion.

For example, scholars typically refer to the three “passion predictions” in Mark (8:31; 9:31; 10:32-34), when, in fact, all of these texts should more correctly be described as “passion-resurrection predictions,” for along with predicting his sufferings Jesus also predicts as the outcome his resurrection.  In further support of the importance of Jesus’ resurrection in Mark, note how it features so prominently in the transfiguration account (9:2-13; which all scholars formally recognize as something crucial in Mark).  After the heavenly voice declares the resplendent Jesus to be “my Son, the Beloved” (v. 7), Jesus orders his disciples to say nothing of this “until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead” (v. 9).  Now, obviously, this alludes to Jesus’ death; but the focus seems to lie on his resurrection as the event that triggers a new proclamation time.  Moreover, again in 14:27-28, Jesus predicts that his disciples will desert him but that when he has been “raised up” (from death) he will rejoin them in Galilee.  And, finally, it is pretty significant that the narrative proceeds then on through Jesus’ crucifixion and burial (15:33-47) to a climactic scene of an empty tomb and the bold announcement “He has been raised; he is not here” (16:6).  (Whatever you make of the women’s response, this confident note should be clear.  For my own “take” on the question of the women in Mark’s passion-resurrection narrative:  Larry W. Hurtado, “The Women, the Tomb, and the Climax of Mark,” in A Wandering Galilean: Essays in Honour of Seàn Freyne, edited by Zuleika Rodgers, Margaret Daly-Denton and Anne Fitzpatrick McKinley [Leiden:  Brill, 2009], 427-50, the pre-publication version available under the “selected published essays” tab on this blog site.)

As Carey judges, “Mark has no interest in leaving his audience wallowing in the depths of despair,” and, instead, “repetitively highlights the importance of Jesus’ resurrection alongside his suffering and death” (p. 20), Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection presented as “mutually interpretive and inherently linked” (p. 21).  “For Mark, the gospel story is primarily about life, even if it comes by way of suffering and death,” and, contra some fashionable opinions, “It really is not ‘as bad as all that'” (21).

Readers interested in this issue will also find her published PhD thesis valuable: Holly Carey, Jesus’ Cry From the Cross: Towards a First-Century Understanding of the Intertextual Relationship Between Psalm 22 and the Narrative of Mark’s Gospel. LNTS, no. 398 (London: T&T Clark, 2009).

(In coming weeks, I plan to blog on the other contributions in the Mark, Manuscripts, and Monotheism volume.)

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  1. In “The Women, the Tomb, and the Climax of Mark,” you support the position that “the Markan story of Jesus was probably shaped to present Jesus as the model and ‘blueprint’ for the intended readers” I was wondering if you think the “arche” of Mark’s original title (1:1) supports that thesis. In light of Jesus’ repeated commands to follow, should it be read as something more than just priority in time?

    • Dear Matthew,
      Yes, I think that the “arche” of Mark 1:1 is the author’s term for this story of Jesus. Jesus, his ministry, death & resurrection for this author is the “arche” (= “beginning,” “foundation”) of the “gospel” (which for him = both the message and the activity involved in proclaiming & living it).

      • Could it mean “rule” as in the “rule of the Gospel of Jesus Christ…”? That to me suggests pattern or model, not to mention the authority Jesus’ possess as the true King.

      • No, I don’t see anything that corroborates that in Mark. Instead, as many recognize, Mark presents Jesus as the true model and ideal example for disciples. That fits the notion of “arche” as foundation/beginning quite well.

      • I’m out of my depth when it comes to Greek. May I ask, if your conclusion depends more on the Greek or the narrative? I don’t want to twist what the Gospel is saying but it seems to me that Jesus does establish a “rule” in Mark. I’m referring to the paradoxical teachings which are consistently linked to Jesus’ passion/resurrection predictions in the central journey. The last, in Mark 10:42-45, drives home the point. “And Jesus called them to him and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers (archo) of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” That command, of course, finds narrative expression in the ironic coronation of Jesus upon the cross, the climax of Mark’s gospel. Jesus is crowned king in becoming the least of men. That’s why I’m wondering if “arche” of Mark 1:1 might be translated as both priority in time and priority in authority/design. Something of that dual meaning seems to be expressed in the “arche” of Mark 10:6. It’s not just what happened in the beginning but its the pattern and plan that continues to govern our lives. I guess “foundation” captures some of that idea but it also appears to miss something too. Both “Foundation” and “beginning” seem to suggest something we can build upon and or move away from. But “rule” suggests something that can never be surpassed.

      • Sorry, Matthew, I think you’re over-driving the textual evidence.

  2. Kunigunde permalink

    Thank you Professor Hurtado. I would first like to say that I think it’s good that former students dedicate to you texts that reflect and deepen your exegetical opinion. That’s the way it should be. It seems to me that Holly Carey’s arguments are also accurate. Besides that, I am a little surprised. I did not know that you have a more optimistic view of the gospel of Mark and I have therefore read your article “The Women, the Tomb, and the Climax of Mark”.

    I hope it’s not presumptuous if I do not share your view. I think it is not only a question of the correct scholarly understanding, but also of the emotional impression. On this level every reader may have his own view. To me the Gospel of Mark is not only a tough challenge and confrontation of the reader, but near the end a heartbreaking text. On a simple level of understanding there’s no shame for tears at the mockery, if one gets involved in the story. The most optimistic and decisive detail of the end of Mark is in my view that “the stone is rolled back”. Therefore I often have the feeling that also the reader must take up his cross to learn not to set “his mind on the things of man”.

    But I do not mean this in a negative sense. I think that the gospel of Mark is one of the most powerful texts of the Bible, that can venture a comparison with the great greek tragedies and is able to keep up with their aesthetic value. To me Mark has a power of mind changing for engaged readers more than any other Gospel.

    What are your reasons to promote a more optimistic understanding of the Gospel of Mark? Is it “only” a conflict of opinion among scholars or a very personal perspective?

    Sorry for my poor English. Kind regards, Kunigunde

    • I’ve given some reasons for a more “upbeat” reading of Mark in my essay, “The Women, the Tomb, and the Climax of Mark.” The reasons I take the view are . . . they’re just what I see in the text. Finally, to recognize that Mark isn’t “film noir” by no means requires minimizing the stark and demanding nature of the text, or the emphasis placed on Jesus’ sufferings. Without downplaying the latter at all, my complaint is that this suffering motif is too often read with blinkers on to the corresponding emphasis on divine vindication. That’s likely an important feature of the author’s purpose: To tell believers that (1) they must be prepared to take up their cross and follow Jesus to/through suffering, and (2) that they can do so confident of the same divine vindication given to Jesus (resurrection).

      • Kunigunde permalink

        Thanks for the explanation. I agree very much.

      • Hugh Scott permalink

        I do not think that in the present blog you have yet directly considered the view, which I have seen much stressed elsewhere, that Mark tells us that the women were disorientated and afraid because he was reflecting NOT ONLY the position of those women then, BUT ALSO the position in which his actual Christian community found itself when he wrote his gospel for them: perhaps being then subject to opposition and persecution from without, and.perhaps even to doubts from within:

        Nevertheless, if that is the case, surely Mark should have put the doubts of 16.8 first, and then followed it with the hopeful, reassuring, triumphant news of 16.6: which they were to look forward to after the present distress: He is not here: He is risen.



      • Hugh: Can I ask that you read my essay, “The Women, the Tomb and the Climax of Mark?” Blog postings aren’t intended to address all relevant matters.

      • Hugh Scott permalink


        Thank you for insisting that I read your article The Women, the Tomb and the Climax of Mark. I have raised it and skimmed through it and read some parts of it carefully, and all with great profit.Some comments.

        1. Since your article so continuously and so tightly looks at Mark 16.6-8, I think that you owed it to your readers to supply them with some sort of summary of your article, to provide a context in which they can interpret your fresh observations. I intend to read and re-read your article,

        2. One difficulty with your general view which comes over to me very strongly, and in spite of your compellingly reasonable widening of Mark’s composition to the whole wider Greco-Roman literate world and not merely the narrow Jewish-only world of his time, is that if I were one of Mark’s readers or hearers (more likely the latter?) I would come away from chapter 16 1-8 (and the whole epistle) with real puzzlement.and some apprehension. To phrase my problem differently. Mark’s ending can satisfy Mark himself that he has written a rounded gospel of Jesus: but he has not written the ending which I,as a struggling 70-AD Christian needed l need to be left with the Resurrection in the very last words, not with some (however justified) obscurity. Mark fulfilled his own authorial aim, but did he equally satisfy his readers/hearers’ needs?

        All of this must be read in the light of my conviction of the divine inspiration of Mark.

      • Hugh, “Divine inspiration” doesn’t enter into exegesis. For the latter, we’re left to our best devices. I’ve tried to make clear that/how Mark’s ending (16:8) is meaningful, so all I can ask is that you read what I’ve written in the essay. As I contend there (with some other scholars), the final words simply account for how the women don’t feature in public proclamation/witness but do/did play a key role for the Markan readers as witnesses of the resurrected Jesus.
        In any case, the basic message seems to me entirely appropriate for ancient oppressed readers: Jesus boldly witnessed to the Kingdom of God, was tried and executed, but God vindicated him. If you follow Jesus you can trust in the same vindication. How is that not meaningful? The final episode (16:1-8), the climax (in my view) of Mark affirms that Jesus was raised, which is then left as the hope of readers.

  3. Hugh Scott permalink

    Thank you, Larry, for your emphasis on the Resurrection emphasis in Mark.

    Some comments.
    1. Your stress is indeed needed, that all of Mark’s passion predictions are passion/resurrection predictions.

    2. It is worth stressing, as you do, that Mark’s undoubtedly unexpected ending in 16.8 is preceded two verses earlier by the angelic message: “Do not be alarmed; You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, here is he place they laid him” (NRSV).

    3. The overwhelmingly positive testimony of the book of Revelation must always be adduced (it seems to be commonly ignored) in connection with the primitive 4-gospel Christian witness to the Resurrection. I am away from home and my main sources at the moment, but please see the book ‘How to read the Apocalypse’ by the French-Canadian. Father Prevost, who points out this continuous theme of the Lamb’s death/resurrection/triumph/equality with God in the 1st-century book of Revelation,

    4. Again, I lack my source, but I read decades ago that there is some Old Testament book which ends with something like Mark’s totally puzzled believers. Any help?

    • I’m not sure what you’re referring to in #4. Three are studies showing ancient Greek works that end with “gar”: e.g., Pieter van der Horst, “Can a Book End with GAR? A Note on Mk. 16.8.” Journal of Theological Studies 23 (1972): 121-24.

      • Hugh Scott permalink

        Thanks for your last reply to my #4 above. You’ve made my day. I’m almost certain that my vague memory of many years ago is in fact to the discussion which you mention, viz. van der Horst’s 1972 JTS article ‘Can a book end with ‘gar’? – as Mark’s 16.8 does. Unfortunately, I remember nothing at all about the case put forward by that author!

        BTW, you can throw New Testament Greek at me. It was my very great good fortune to be educated in a secondary school run and largely staffed by Irish missionary priests, who introduced the top stream of new entrants to Latin, (classical) Greek and French at age 11, which I continued to study (along with the full syllabus of religion, English, Spanish-too, maths, geography and history) till i gained my Higher School Certificate in 1944 (sic).

        I can still conjugate ‘luo’ in all its moods and tenses, though I now find the ‘-mi’ verbs to be a bit of a puzzle. I read through [present tense] the entire New Testament in Greek twice a year (with commentaries, thesaurus, etc,). Apart from the practically total loss of the optative in NT Greek (a dozen times still in Luke, and Paul’s frequent ”me [may] genoito’, and some uncertainty about the endings of plural adjectives with neuter and feminine forms referring to human beings, the classical foundation still holds good. [I love the phronimai parthenoi in Matthew’s wise and foolish virgins.]

  4. Thank you so much for your answer!
    I noticed that some parts of my previous post didn’t show up due to bad characters I used for quotes. For completeness, here below a quick comparison between synoptic Gospels’ endings..

    Matthew: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
    Luke: “Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy”
    Mark: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid”

    I think that Mark’s dark vocabulary is clear, compared to Luke’s “great joy” and the consolation of Matthew’s wonderful ending.

    However, I do agree with you. My perception is that the full message that Mark’s author conveys is hope, redemption, and divine vindication.

    • It’s perhaps a bit unfair to judge Mark in light of the subsequent Gospels. Were Matthew and Luke “correcting” Mark, or were they building on, and making explicit, what they took Mark to be saying? We often assume the former, and that may be correct, but only in so far as we can give a reason for thinking so on a case-by-case basis.

  5. I agree, in my opinion Mark has a powerful christology (I had the privilege to read your commentary, btw!) and the resurrection is clearly predicted and then fulfilled. However, I still believe that the overall narrative is a bit dark. What could anyone think about a similar book ending: <>. End. Compared to Matthew (” “) the difference is striking, in fact someone apparently felt the urge of adding a longer end, less disturbing.. Also, in Mark Jesus shows authentic human emotions (pity , anger, sympathy , surprise , indignation, sadness, etc.), so the reader tend to sympathize and therefore feel more disturbed by the dramatic events of Jesus’ life and his loneliness in the darkest hour. In conclusion, my impression is that Mark’s focus is on the “good news” but his hectic narrative has somewhat dark tones..

    • The ending of Mark (at 16:8) is the subject of many, many scholarly efforts. Clearly, “Matthew” and “Luke” preferred to include resurrection-appearance narratives. But the assurance of Jesus’ resurrection is clearly given in Mark. Resurrection-appearance narratives mainly functioned to authenticate those to whom Jesus is said to have appeared (as shown, e.g., by J. E. Alsup, The Post-Resurrection Appearance Stories of the Gospel Tradition (Stuttgart/London: Calwer Verlag/SPCK, 1975). “Mark” had no interest in focusing on that, but that should not be taken as indicating any downplaying of the resurrection itself.
      To be sure, “Mark” has its “dark tones.” But the full message to original readers seems to me to be: Hang in there, for through suffering with Jesus you will come to the divine vindication that he received too.

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