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Jesus, the Cross, the Women, and Discipleship in the Gospel of Mark

December 20, 2016

I’ve just read an interesting essay by Jeffrey W. Aernie, “Cruciform Discipleship: The Narrative Function of the Women in Mark 15–16,” Journal of Biblical Literature 135.4 (2016):  779-97.

It’s doubly interesting to me, for he draws appreciatively on an essay of mine published several years ago in which I argued that the women mentioned (three times) in Mark 15–16 function positively as witnesses to Jesus death, burial and bodily resurrection:  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 of that essay is available among the essays listed under the “Selected Published Essays” tab on this blog-site.)

Part of my argument was that Mark 16:8 does not depict the women as disobeying and failing to do what they were told to do–to go to Peter and the Twelve with news of Jesus’ resurrection.  Instead, “they said nothing to anyone” should be read as meaning that they said nothing to anyone else.  This is a view of 16:8 that has gained endorsement over recent years, but it may still be a minority opinion.  So, it’s encouraging to have Aernie’s endorsement in his newly published article.

Aernie’s focus, however, is on a conspicuous similarity between Mark and Paul in emphasizing that the life of believers is to be shaped by Jesus’ crucifixion.  That is, in Paul believers are “crucified with Christ,” living out a death-to-sin, and empowered anew to live unto God.  In Mark, Jesus is the true model for his followers, the Twelve deployed in contrast as fallible followers.

My only quibble is over his reference to my “sidelining” of the women.  I don’t “sideline” them, but contend that they surface suddenly as important characters in 15:40-41, appearing again at crucial points in 15:47 and 16:1-8.  Indeed, I propose that 16:1-8 is the climactic scene in Mark, where Jesus’ resurrection is announced, and the women are on site and able to verify an empty tomb, which means a bodily resurrection.

I suppose, however, that Aernie means that I don’t feature the women as exemplars of discipleship.  True.  Because I read Mark as presenting Jesus as the only full and valid model of discipleship.  As I read the references to the women, they are crucial witnesses to the bodily nature of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection.  But I don’t quite see that they function as models of discipleship for readers.  But others will have to judge for themselves, taking account now of Aernie’s clear and well-researched article.

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  1. Hello Dr. Hurtado. This blog reminded me of the long ending of Mark, 16:9-20. I’m wondering if you’ve read Bruce Terry’s paper on this — if so, I’d like to hear your thoughts on it. Here’s the paper:

    One more thing, if you could. I’ve heard from some Scholars like Ehrman that Mary Magdalene is an “invented” figure, a literary construction in the Resurrection narrative of the Gospels that never existed. Is this theory credible? I’d like to hear your thoughts on this too.

    • Terry mounts the sort of defence that others have offered previously, although he does it with more statistical data. I find his easy dismissal of manuscript evidence simplistic however. He also slides too easily over the disjointed nature of the material in 16:9-20 compared with 16:1-8, and the rest of Mark. I remain of the opinion that 16:9-20 is secondary material, likely added to give Mark an ending that compared better with the other Gospels.
      I see no good reason to take Mary Magdalene as a fictional character, although what was done with this character in subsequent Christian tradition is a lot of fiction. The resurrection-appearance narratives show signs of being edited/adapted in the process of transmission. But I think Mary herself is likely a genuine historical figure.

  2. Alan Paul permalink

    Dr Hurtado, thank you for your straight bat answer to my slightly curved ball question! I agree that one should try not to “fall into speculation” (this sounds a bit like sin, not sure if this was deliberate or not! ) but I also feel that one man’s speculation is another’s hypothesis, and the dividing line between the two is sometimes quite narrow.

    Anyway, on a more serious note, would you not agree that there is a significant difference between:

    (1) the promise in Mark 14:28 that the resurrected Jesus would go before the disciples into Galilee and in 16:7 that they would “see” him there; and

    (2) the accounts in the other Gospels which describe several specific and decidedly physical encounters in various places with the risen Jesus?

    In your 2009 essay (p28 bottom), you characterize 16:7 as the promise of “living fellowship”, but I do not see how one can construe this concept from the Greek ἐκεῖ αὐτὸν ὄψεσθε, since the verb ὁράω clearly has the meaning of seeing, or beholding, sometimes in purely mental or spiritual sense.

    If 1 Cor 15: 3-8 (written in AD 50) is an authentic early Christian credo, dating from (say) the 30s, then the mystery deepens. For the credo quoted by Paul gives detailed and systematic information about the appearances, including an appearance to the 500, which is not even mentioned in the gospels. It seems clear that if this credo dates from the 30s, then the appearances were an important and integral part of the earliest gospel tradition (note that Paul makes a point of stressing that most of the 500 who witnessed the appearance are still alive, with the implication that they are living proof of the truth of the resurrection).

    Given that Mark is (to quote from your 2009 essay) the “pioneering” gospel (and I would think that his intention was indeed to write not only the first, but also the definitive one), it remains puzzling, to me at least, that he should have alluded to this (according to Paul) core element of the early Christian tradition in such a subtle and understated way. Whilst for Paul, for the early tradition he cites, and for the other evangelists, the appearances are central to the story of the resurrection, for Mark they appear to be of secondary importance.

    I have read and re-read your 2009 paper in an effort to understand your explanation of why Mark should conclude his narrative in the way he did. I feel that your paper is a valiant and well-grounded attempt to make sense of this conundrum. But I would still take the view, based on what he wrote and didn’t write, that Mark’s idea of how Jesus is manifested to the disciples after his resurrection is fundamentally different from that of the other gospels; that he did not believe, and preferred not to promulgate, the accounts set out by subsequent evangelists; or that these accounts belong to a different or later tradition from the one Mark used.

    • Alan: A hypothesis can be tested and assessed, e.g., Does it cohere with known data better than alternatives? Does it account for something that otherwise is anomalous? Speculation is simply posing something that needs testing. It’s not simply a matter of choice. Critical testing is crucial.
      As to the rest of your lengthy comment, resurrection appearances seem to have served primarily to authenticate the recipients, as reflected in 1 Cor 9:1; and in 1 C@or 15:1-11, which winds up with Paul asserting the authenticity of his own apostleship). As I argued in my essay, GMark makes Jesus the role model for disciples, and so resurrection-appearances are promised but not recited, for that would have distracted from the final effect, which is to leave us with the resurrection of Jesus as the promise held out also to intended readers.
      Mark 9:2-8 is widely thought to be shaped very much as a (pre)resurrection appearance. I see no reason to speculate that the author held views “fundamentally different” from the other Evangelists about Jesus’ resurrection.
      The appearance narratives in GJohn an GLuke especially seem intended to emphasize a bodily resurrection, perhaps against “pagan” sourced discomfort with the idea. But it’s clear that the resurrected body that they depict wasn’t simply a mortal one, but of a different character. But neither Paul nor the Evangelists were interested in speculation about the physics involved.

      • Alan Paul permalink

        Thank you, Dr Hurtado, for this clear and cogent explanation of where you stand on these matters.

  3. Jason permalink

    Dr. Hurtado,

    You asked: what’s the point of asserting that Jesus was “buried” in 1 Cor 15?

    Many think the reason for “buried” in 1 Cor 15 is “to certify that Jesus was really and truly dead” (e.g. N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, pg. 321). Are you suggesting that the word “buried” also means that Jesus’ followers knew WHERE Jesus was buried? If so, how do you reach that conclusion?

    As for the ending to Mark, I would rather not let this comment thread end. In your paper you have tried to build a cumulative case for a certain explanation for the strange ending to Mark. Along the way you have too casually in my opinion dismissed another explanation. You said that IF Mark 16:1-8 is a late legend, it is “odd” to have women find the tomb empty. But you seem unaware of, or not willing to acknowledge, the fact that the use of women in a late legend makes perfect sense as a way to explain why the discovered empty tomb remained unknown for so long (per Goulder). Is it possible that you have too casually dismissed this other explanation in your paper, or perhaps were just not completely familiar it?

    • I proposed, Jason, that 1 Cor 15:1-7 indicates that Jesus’ bodily burial was a key feature of early proclamation, and that there would be little point in mentioning Jesus’ burial so prominently for the purpose of encouraging people to visit the grave and view the body. From NT texts such as Paul, it’s clear that the form of resurrection belief affirmed was one that involved a transformation of the mortal body into an eschatological body empowered by divine Spirit. Such a transformation was typically believed to involve the resulting absence of the mortal body.
      The empty tomb doesn’t serve to affirm Jesus’ resurrection, but to help define the nature of that resurrection. The women in Mark serve to vouch for Jesus’ genuine death, the place of his burial, and the resulting ability to indicate that the tomb was empty. I find it implausible that an understanding of Jesus’ resurrection as bodily developed only late in the first century and that Mark is the originating basis. That’s a bit too romantic a notion, given all the other furious pace of developments going on from the earliest days. But if I can’t persuade you, at least you know why I hold the view I assert. Now, I think we’re done.

  4. Jason permalink

    FWIW, I too see some serious interpretive squinting here.

    To focus on just one point from your article Dr. Hurtado, you say, “…had Mark’s aim in 16:1-8 been simply an apologetic assertion of Jesus’ resurrection against unbelieving critics of the claim [and to bolster the confidence of believers!], it is odd to have featured only women as witnesses, given ancient stereotypes of women as more given to hysterical and foolish notions.”

    It seems to me that the use of women in a legend which is trying to explain why the discovered empty tomb remained unknown for so long makes perfect sense. If you have men, you have more people asking why the heck haven’t we heard about this before?! As Michael Goulder says, “You know what women are like. They were so scared that they never passed the message on” (JSHJ, Vol 3.2, pg. 192).

    So can you please explain why is it “odd” to have women find the tomb empty if Mark 16:1-8 is simply a late legend?

    • Jason: You’ve missed a key emphasis of my article, which is that Mark introduces the named women witnesses in the passion-resurrection narrative to give them a key role of witnesses to Jesus’ genuine death, the place of his burial, and the empty tomb. They have no public role, however (as reflected, e.g., in Paul’s account of resurrection appearances in 1 Cor 15:1-7). But the women witnesses are ridiculed by Celsus, the pagan critic of Christianity, which is what I meant by saying it would have been odd for Mark to have them as apologetic defence of Jesus’ resurrection.
      You presume that the empty tomb was unknown for a long time. But there is no reason for this assumption. Indeed, Paul refers to Jesus’ burial in 1 Cor 15:1-7 as a key component of the kerygma. Any such reference must allude also to the tomb being empty. And that’s something that Paul claims goes back to the earliest statements of the gospel message.

      • Jason permalink

        Dr. Hurtado,

        I thought I was presuming ALONG WITH YOU that the discovered empty tomb tradition was unknown for a long time. You wrote, “…HAD Mark’s aim in 16:1-8 been simply an apologetic…it is odd to have featured only women”. Aren’t you arguing here that IF 16:1-8 is a late legend (that had never been heard of before), it is odd to have featured only women?

        If so, your point about the unreliability of women witnesses (confirmed by Celsus and Josephus) seems moot if the emerging legend ALSO needed to explain why the discovered empty tomb remained unknown for so long. In this case, the use of women makes perfect sense — the women were so scared that they never passed the message on (per Goulder, JSHJ, Vol 3.2, pg. 192). Using men in this case does not work near as well, if at all!

        So, can you please explain with more clarity why it is “odd” to have women find the tomb empty IF (repeat IF) Mark 16:1-8 is simply a late legend?

        As an aside, I agree that 1 Cor 15:3-7 presumes an empty burial location, but it says nothing about that burial location being DISCOVERED empty. So 1 Cor 15:3-7 is of no help here on whether or not Mark 16:1-8 is a late legend. Everything in 1 Cor 15:3-7 is consistent with a ground burial, like proposed by Ehrman (after being left on the cross for some time) or Jodi Magness (if the Joseph of Arimathea intervention is a legend).

      • Jason: Sorry for any confusion caused by me. But my point in the essay was that it is unlikely that the author introduced the women to attest the resurrection. So you appear to have misconstrued my point. My point is that that the women were known in early Christian tradition as witnesses to the empty tomb, but were not part of the “public” apologetic tradition about Jesus’ resurrection.
        As to 1 Cor 15:1-7, to mention Jesus’ burial as a part of the gospel tradition is to indicate that he was buried. And that suggests a tradition of where he was buried. Otherwise, what’s the point of asserting it?
        Anyhow, this is getting us waaaay beyond the point of my essay. So, I think we need to end this particular comment thread.

  5. Alan Paul permalink

    Dear Professor Hurtado

    I read with interest your posting about the correct interpretation of Mark 16:8. This drew me to your 2009 essay about the women in Mark 15-16, which I read with even greater interest.

    On the first point, I agree that that the author does not mean that the women fail to notify the disciples of what they have witnessed: the more credible and logical explanation (by far) is that they keep this to themselves, for fear that the news would fall into the wrong hands, until they find the disciples. This would be consistent with the theme of secrecy and concealment from those outside the circle of trust, which runs through the gospel.

    Regarding the role of the women in the ending of Mark’s gospel, your essay contains many valuable insights. I agree that the featuring of women at this point may have served Mark’s literary purpose, and that this aspect merits the detailed analysis that you have provided. But one should perhaps not discount the other, more straightforward and obvious explanation – that the prominence of women here simply reflects some historical reality which Mark is reproducing or reworking in his narrative.

    Your 2009 essay also lends significant support to the view that Mark really did intend his gospel to end at 16:8. The concluding paragraphs of your paper suggest that the omission of an appearance narrative is because Mark did not consider this necessary for his evangelical or theological objectives. This is convincing, but leaves open the question of whether Mark – or the tradition he represents – actually believed that the appearances of Jesus took place outside Galilee in the manner and with the physicality described in other gospels. My view would be that if he didn’t write it, this was probably because he didn’t believe it. Mark 14:28 implies only that his disciples will “see” him in Galilee, and it’s not difficult to grasp why it was later felt necessary to “harmonise” Mark with the other gospels, through the addition of the spurious verses.

    The ending of Mark’s gospel also vexes the modern reader because it is abrupt and offends our conventional sense of what constitutes good literary style. But, as I think you would agree, this is not a good reason to doubt the authenticity of the ending, since the whole gospel is written in this sparse manner. I see the book as a series of tableaux, quite cinematic in nature, in which Mark allows the events and characters in each scene to speak for themselves, without the need for any additional narrative shape, structure or elaboration.

    Best Regards
    Alan Paul

    • Alan: Your speculation about Mark rejecting appearance narratives outside of Galilee is only that . . . speculation. I see nothing to corroborate it.

      • Alan Paul permalink

        If, unlike the other three, Mark’s gospel ends at 16:8 without any mention of Jesus’s appearances to his disciples, the absence of evidence of these appearances in Mark could be explained in any of the following ways:

        (1) Mark was unaware of the appearances;

        (2) Mark was aware of the appearances, and believed them to be true, but died or was incapacitated before he was able to complete his gospel;

        (3) Mark was aware of the appearances, and believed them to be true, but chose to omit them from his gospel because he considered that they were not significant or important enough to mention;

        (4) Mark was aware of the appearances, and believed them to be true, but chose to omit them from his gospel because they detracted from his literary purpose, namely the assertion of genuine death, the place of his burial, and the empty tomb, as witnessed by the women;

        (5) Mark was aware of the appearances, but did not believe that they actually happened, or doubted their veracity to the extent that he chose to omit them from his narrative.

        Which of these five is not speculative in nature?

        Best Regards
        Alan Paul

      • Pure speculation = an idea for which there is no corroborative or supportive basis. So, given that resurrection appearances were a part of early Christian tradition from the 30s onward (as reflected, e.g., in 1 Cor 15:1-07), it is unlikely that the author of GMark would have been unaware of the tradition (out with #1), and given that there is nothing in GMark that suggests some refutation of widespread beliefs in early Christianity, out with # 5. Likewise, #2 is inherently speculative, for we have no reason to think that the author died amid his writing.
        #3 is dubious, because resurrection appearances were apparently a key feature of early Christian tradition.
        That leaves #4 as the most likely and cogent/plausible. Making such judgements is the historical task. Otherwise, you fall into speculation.

  6. Dr. H.,
    Thanks for the heads up on this article. I, for one, have understood the text in Mark 16:1-8 to mean exactly what you propose. If we take into account that these women, as your article points out, were there when Jesus was crucified, buried and now went to the gravesite where an angel tells them good news and to go report this to Peter et al, have been depicted as faithful, why would we read their response to this event to imply otherwise? Fear, bewilderment and trembling in the presence of an empty tomb and appearance of an angel doesn’t seem to indicate a change in faithfulness any more than “not saying anything to anyone” means they now were so afraid as to be disobedient in conveying what the angel had said.

    Merry Christmas!


  7. It’s really hard to take this sort of interpretive squinting seriously. When the angel tells the women to go and tell Peter and the other disciples that Jesus is going before them to Galilee, and then the woman leave in a state of fear and trembling — like the woman in 5:33 — and say nothing to anyone, that is *not* how to convey that the women went and did exactly as they were instructed.

    As it stands, Mark 16:8 does not explicitly say that the women disobeyed ever after, but it does not say that they obeyed, either — at least, I doubt very much that the typical reader in the first century would read Mark 16:8 and say, “Oh, yes; the author is saying that the women went and told the disciples that Jesus was going before them into Galilee.”

    — “As I read the references to the women, they are crucial witnesses to the bodily nature of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection.” —

    Just how do they fulfill that role, having never seen Jesus’ body after His resurrection, in the truncated form of Mark that you imagine to be original?

    • James: Read my essay before you start raising questions about the validity of its argument.

  8. Alex Dalton permalink

    Thank you for drawing attention to this article. I look forward to reading it. Your article on the women as witness in Mark is incredibly thorough and one of the best treatments of the subject that I have come across.

  9. Donald Jacobs permalink

    “Instead, “they said nothing to anyone” should be read as meaning that they said nothing to anyone else.”

    “Should be read as meaning” in what sense? That was what the authors intended to,convey? Or that was how early Christians understood the phrase? Or this is how we should understand the phrase today?

    • Donald, I meant that the authorial intended sense of the Greek was “said nothing to anyone (else)”.

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        I was just wondering because, it’s certainly possible for an author to mean one thing, and yet for an audience to generally draw a different conclusion, even the intended contemporary audience. In such a situation it is not altogether clear how a text “should” be read; whether the author’s intention, or an audience’s reception, should be given priority, or indeed whether a text can or should be reduced to a single meaning.

        Another thing is that over the decades and centuries discussions of women in the resurrection narrative tell us a lot about the changing social and theological contexts in which those discussions have been situated. Whether they tell us a great deal, or anything, about authorial intention is, I would suggest, not so clear.

      • Well, Donald, how about your read my essay and check up the Greek and then get back to me? I don’t think “arm-chair” observations about texts are very helpful.

  10. Jeffrey Aernie permalink

    Professor Hurtado:

    Thank you for your initial engagement with my article. It is certainly dependent on your research. I am grateful for the impetus to read Mark more intently.

    I take your point that my use of the term “sidelining” has unhelpful negative connotations. Its genesis was from your use of the word “sidelines.” My hope is to try to show that they are still on the narrative field.

    Apart from that quibble, I do hope that at least one outcome of the article is that more people will be pushed toward your very constructive work on the topic.

    Kind Regards,
    Jeffrey Aernie

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