Is Mark 16:8 an Apologetic Challenge? A Reply to SkepticismFirst

Fellow blogger/tweeter SkepticismFirst has written a short draft of an argument concerning Mark 16:8, which he invites us to poke holes in. The full text can be read here:

Mark 16:8 says: “And they [the women who visited Jesus tomb only to find it empty and receive instructions from a young man in a white robe to go and tell Jesus’ disciples about it] went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

Now, SkepticismFirst (SF) sees a problem here and argues:

Either –

(1) Mark is mistaken about whether the women said anything.


(2) v1-8 are not recording an event that actually happened.

This strikes me as being a false dilemma, since (1) and (2) are not exhaustive of the possibilities. But before I consider alternatives it’s worth noting that even if it is the case that Mark made a mistake here little would follow from that fact, and yet SF seems to suggest that the entire story must then be rejected as unhistorical. But why? Ancient historians routinely have to deal with sources of mixed quality and varying reliability when they attempt to reconstruct past events, but they don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater by rejecting an entire account because there’s a possible minor discrepancy. Moreover this is a principle that we find all the time in the legal world: testimony does not need to be infallible before it can be accepted as reliable.

In any event, what SF presents us with here is a false dichotomy. Now, perhaps Joe Christian might claim that the events being narrated were revealed to Mark by God. That would certainly give us a third possibility, but I don’t think we need to call on divine help to solve this puzzle!

The phrase in Mark 16:8 seems to me to be most plausibly a figure of speech or a Markan literary device (Mark consistently uses the themes of fear and silence throughout his gospel to make theological points). Language is, after all, full of figures of speech, hyperbole, under-statement, irony, sarcasm, and all manner of other non-literal locutions. Take the following modern day example of a reporter in Belfast reporting on the ending of a court case in which a man was acquitted:

It took the jury just under an hour to acquit Brown who left the court room to cheers from his supporters. We tried to speak to Brown as he left the court complex, but he got into a passing car and refused to speak to anyone.” Now, are we to suppose Brown decided to remain mute for the rest of his natural life? Or that after his acquittal he really spoke to absolute no-one? Hardly! The report concerns events at a given time and in a particular context, using a certain form of words to make a point or paint a picture.

Or, last night my wife asked me: “did you phone your mum earlier?” “Yes” “What did she say?” “Oh, nothing really.” Is my wife to suppose that I phoned my mum, who picked up the receiver only to remain silent before setting it down a short time later?

To think so is to ignore the context and adopt a mono-dimensional approach to language.

SF asks: “if the women did talk about what happened, then why did [Mark] say they didn’t? This seems especially odd considering that he’s relating the very story he claims was never mentioned to anyone.” [emphasis mine].

Notice that this last comment is in fact not what Mark says! Mark never claims that the women never mentioned it to anyone. Do the following two statements contain identical propositions?

(1) They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
(2) They never mentioned this to anyone, for they were afraid.

Clearly not. One is absolute (SFs reading) and the other is not (what Mark actually said).

This brings me to one of the classical questions concerning Mark’s gospel, one which SF himself alludes to at the beginning of his article: Does Mark end at 16:8 or was there more? SF quite rightly points out that v9-20 almost certainly were not part of Mark’s original gospel but were added some time later. Scholars are divided on the question. Some claim that Mark simply ended his account with v8. Others claim that the ending was lost, probably very early on.

This isn’t a dispute I can go into here, but I’ll consider the “what ifs” of each. It seems to me, for a whole host of reasons, that the most plausible theory is that Mark’s original ending has been lost. Now if so this is highly significant because it means that part of the context of v8 is missing. And it seems to me not remotely implausible to suggest that the silence of the women was indeed only temporary (just as Brown’s silence was temporary after his acquittal), and of course there are other sources which agree with this. After all, it would be folly to suggest that these women simply remained mute for the rest of their natural lives, and I hardly think that Mark intended to have us believe that. It is quite consistent with 16:8 to posit subsequent verses where the women – perhaps after their initial fear has subsided – go on to do as they were instructed and tell his disciples. After all, part of the context of their silence is their fear, which could very easily have subsided some time later. Alternatively, it’s plausible that Mark was saying that the women told no-one else until they got to the disciples. In fact he uses a similar phrase in chapter 1 when he gives the account of the leper who was not to speak to anyone else except the priest. In any event if – as I think likely – there was more after v8, it is fairly easy to think of contexts for these words which allow for the later testimony of the women to the disciples without any inconsistency.

But what if Mark did indeed end at v8? I don’t see how this is anymore of a problem, except if we approach the text in an unduly wooden way. I’ve already alluded to the possibility of figure of speech, but that isn’t the only possible explanation. Remember that ancient writers wrote differently from modern historians. Not only do ancient writers wish to convey history, they also have a point to make while they do it. Mark – writing for a certain audience who, remember, already believed in the resurrection – may have had a didactic purpose for ending his gospel in this way. For instance, some theologians think his point was to challenge his readers about spreading the good news of Christ’s resurrection: “will you stay silent or will you speak out?” Others allude to the Markan literary devices of fear and silence to explain his ending on this note.

In any event whatever the merits of these or other theories about the ending of Mark, I don’t think we need to know exactly why Mark ended his gospel this way (if he did, of course) in order to see that an argument of the sort made by SF is unconvincing. There are, of course, troubling passages and verses amongst the resurrection narratives; this verse, however, simply isn’t one of them.

Stephen J. Graham


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