Histories and Stories

Owen here…

You may not know this, but your bible has a footnote at Mark 16 saying that the oldest and best manuscripts we have stop at verse 8. If you don’t believe me, go check for yourself. I’ll wait. 😉

For everyone’s reference, this is the original version of Mark 16 (NRSV translation):

“When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

I have a few observations that I’d like for you to think about: 1) Whoever the original author was, this was how he left it. That author didn’t see fit to tell us about any resurrection appearance, he left his readers with scared women and an empty tomb. Nothing more. 2) Several different scribes decided this ending was insufficient and added to it (this is not the point of today’s blog post, but it’s perfectly obvious why any later scribe would want to throw in some more miracle in order to make Jesus’s divinity perfectly clear). 3) If the author is telling us the truth, that the women told no one, then Mark would have no way of knowing what happened. What we see here is a literary device known as an “omniscient narrator”.

The first two observations are problematic for anybody who argues in favor of traditional authorship. All I ask is that you admit that honestly.

But I want to drill in a bit on the third observation. What we see here is a story, not a history. History books don’t record the experiences of people who never told anybody about those experiences. Historians can only know and have access to records that somebody created or shared. But the author tells us point blank that the women never told anybody. Unless he was lying to us, then he would have no way of knowing what these women experienced at the tomb. This conclusion is inescapable. Moreover, it’s another obvious reason why later redactors (the unknown scribes who composed other endings for Mark) and authors (Matthew, Luke, and John) would have to fix the problem.

This strikes a death blow to any argument in favor of traditional authorship: i.e. that Mark was Peter’s secretary and that Mark recorded Peter’s account of the resurrection. So when we ask honest questions and force ourselves to give honest answers about this particular gospel narrative, we have to admit that when we read it we see literary devices rather than a historical method being applied. The conclusion is that this cannot have been based on an eyewitness account, because Peter wasn’t there at the tomb and the text says so. The text also tells us the women never told this story, making it impossible for Peter to have learned of it, making it impossible for the author to have been told this by Peter.

If you’re an apologist and you want to argue that Mark is based on eyewitness testimony you have to rely on ad-hoc rationalizations of what the text says. When you do that you’re adding to the Bible…and the Bible tells you not to do that. Is that enough to make you stop and think?

2 thoughts on “Histories and Stories

  1. rejnrejn

    Owen, first, there are so many thousands upon thousands of New Testament documents, compared to so few for other ancient documents, that scholars know what the original said. That’s how they know the original ending of Mark. Second, your supposed interpretation is extremely stiff and unrealistic. If I did this with a modern day (hypothetical) conversation between you and me, it might go like this. Me to Owen, I hear you’re on a long layover. Did you land at DFW in Dallas? Owen to me, No I didn’t. I’m in Maryland. My conclusion, using your logic – If Owen is telling the truth, he has never landed at DFW in Dallas. No, the women BRIEFLY didn’t tell anyone because they were afraid. Of course they told someone soon after when they got over their fear. Have you never met any women? They talk. In the hypothetical story, you weren’t lying when you said you didn’t land at DFW and in Mark he wasn’t lying when he said they told no one.

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    1. owenyounger Post author

      Thanks for your reply. 🙂

      Unfortunately it seems like you may be unfamiliar with the textual tradition here. The number of texts in this case is not the reason why we know what the original ending of Mark was; in fact, the number of copies is actually part of the problem. We know what the original version says because the oldest and best extent manuscripts do not contain the material that your bible shows beginning with Mark 16:9, and also because we have surviving works written by early church fathers who are referring ot or quoting the narrative we now call Mark who do not refer to either of the later endings. I didn’t cover this in the blog post today but there are two. Scholars refer to them cleverly as the Short Ending and the Long Ending (the latter being the one that is in your bible). And my interpretation is neither stiff nor unrealistic, particularly when we see both Matthew and Luke deliberately changing the narrative in clear ways for theological reasons. If Mark said the women told no one, then they told no one. For you to say that Mark left something out is equivalent to you saying Mark got that part wrong, which is sort of an odd position to take if you’re trying to defend the veracity of the gospel accounts as divinely inspired. Thanks for your feedback, all the best to you.

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