Is Mk 16:8 “[The women] said nothing to anyone” an excuse to explain why readers only now are hearing of the empty tomb discovery?
Clarifying the question
We read at the end of Mark’s gospel…
Mark 16:5-8 — Entering the [empty] tomb [of Jesus], [the women] saw a young man sitting at the right, wearing a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, “Do not be amazed; you are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who has been crucified. He has risen; He is not here; behold, here is the place where they laid Him. But go, tell His disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He told you.’” They went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
And while Bibles have additional text after v.8 in brackets, those brackets indicate the fact that the following text is widely regarded to be a late inauthentic addition. That is to say, the Gospel of Mark ends with quoted material above.
So here is our question:
Did Mark dishonestly intimate to his readers in c. AD 70 that the reason they were only now learning of the women’s empty tomb discovery is because, after their having found Jesus’ empty tomb, the women simply fled the scene and perpetually “said nothing to anyone”. Alternatively, did Mk’s audience already encounter the report, but because of its dubious and awkward recency they were suspicious of it and this report that they “said nothing to anyone” is Mk’s attempt to invent details that would set their mind at ease, to help them accept it?
Historians / Specialists
There seems to be dispute on the popularity of this explanation. At roughly the same time both of the following estimates about scholarly consensus were published:
- Peter Carnley: “This view is very widely held ….” [The Structure of Resurrection Belief (Oxford, 1987), 51.]
- William Lane Craig: “[It] is now widely rejected as implausible” [“The Historicity of the Empty Tomb of Jesus.” New Testament Studies 31 (1985): 39-67.]
Certainly there has been no shortage of advocates in the 50s to 70s:
- Rudolf Bultmann: “v7 ‘they said nothing to anyone’] can originally have referred only to the discovery of the empty tomb and can ‘give an answer to the question of why the women’s story of the empty tomb remained unknown for so long’”. [History of the Synoptic Tradition trans. by Marsh (Harper, 1963), 285.]
- G. W. H. Lampe: “The fact that the women do not pass the message on may suggest that the evangelist, or his source, knew that the story of the tomb and the angel was not part of the original Easter proclamation and had only developed at a relatively late stage in the tradition.” [The Resurrection: A Dialogue (Westminster , 1966), 48.]
- Wilhelm Bousset: “It is supposed to give an answer to the question why the story of the women at the empty tomb remained unknown for so long.” [Kyrios Christos trans. by Steely (Abingdon, 1970), 106.] Nevertheless, my impression is that it’s only popular among a minority of scholars who are especially minimalistic with respect to the historical reliability of the gospels. Most take for granted that Mk meant the women “said nothing to anyone [on the way]”.
:Mk meant “said nothing to anyone [on the way]”
Mark simply meant the women—per the angel’s command—feared gossiping first with family, female friends, or the many other bystanders along the way about what incredible thing they saw (something their society accused women of often doing). Instead, their fearful respect of God’s angel and the situation compelled them to say nothing to anyone while running straight towards the disciples to fulfill their assigned mission of telling them.1
- That’s what the phrase elsewhere means in Mk2
- That’s how Mt and Lk understood Mk3
- This renders the author an inept communicator.4
• Larry Hurtado: “It is a far more reasonable reading of 16:8 to see it as indicating that the women said nothing to anyone other than the ones to whom they were sent, thereby explaining why news of Jesus' resurrection did not become public unto it was proclaimed through the witness of the Twelve and of others who were chosen by the risen Jesus for this task.” [“Following Jesus in the Gospel of Mark—and Beyond” in Patterns of Discipleship, ed. Longnecker (Eerdmans, 1996), 24.]
• Michael Licona: “Given these common uses of the terms elsewhere, it is by no means a stretch to understand Mark as saying the following: And the women left fleeing from the tomb. For as a result of seeing the angel and hearing the news of the risen Lord, the motivation to be on their best behavior and amazement had gripped them, and they said nothing to anyone on their way to tell the disciples the news. For they had a reverential fear as a result of the revelation that kept them laser focused on their assigned task.” [The Resurrection of Jesus (IVP Academic, 2010), 347.]
Parallel studies of the phrase “said nothing to anyone” suggests Mk simply means “anyone else” (i.e. anyone other than who they were told to go to). Notice how Mk 16:8 “said nothing to anyone” matches Mk 1:44 “say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself [to the priest]… and offer… a testimony to them”; the latter is not a contradiction, and so neither is the former. So:
• Christopher Bryan: “In other words, [regarding the healed disobedient leper in Mk] the true opposite of the silence that Jesus has enjoined is not talking to the priests, as he was bidden, but general public announcement, such as he actually made. There is no reason to understand Mark’s similar expressions at 16:8 in a different way, and every reason, in view of his implicit presentation of the women as witnesses, to understand them in the same way. The women did not rush out and immediately start chattering to everyone, thereby disobeying the angel’s command that they go to the disciples with their news: rather, they fled the angel’s presence in silence, greeting no one by the way, for they were filled with awe by both message and messenger.” [The Resurrection of the Messiah (Oxford, 2011), 79.]
• E. S. Malbion: “…the closest Markan comparison with ούδενί ούδέν εΐπαν at 16:8 is μηδενί μαδέν έίης at 1:44, and the earlier passage may help clarify the later one. At 1:44 Jesus charges the healed leper to ‘say nothing to any one (μηδενί μαδέν έίης); but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, for a proof to the people’ (RSV). Surely in showing himself to the priest the former leper would say something to the priest; the priest, however, would not be just any one, but the very one the leper was instructed to inform. At the close of Mark, the disciples and Peter are not just ‘any one,’ but the very ones the women are instructed to tell. Thus ούδενί ούδέν εΐπαν, likeμηδενί μαδέν έίης, may mean ‘said nothing to any one else’ or ‘to any one in general.’” [“Fallible Followers: Women and Men in the Gospel of Mark” Semeia 28 (1983), 45.]
Matthew understood Mark to mean that the women went straight to the disciples. Luke did also.
• Matthew 28:8 — And they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and ran to report it to His disciples.
• Luke 24:9 — and returned from the tomb and reported all these things to the eleven and to all the rest This is relevant because they were in a far better position to interpret Mark than modern critics.
- The idea here is that, for any competent author, it would be far too easy and obviously better to have instead said, “they said nothing to anyone else along the way” or some-such. in response, the reader here will need to judge for herself how strong this counter-argument is, and whether it’s stronger than the considerations below. It’s worth noting that Mark’s Gospel is very context heavy—having been performed orally several times in the relevant community. Audiences could discern implicit information—like the suggested meaning of the author here—in ways that would be contextually clear to its contemporary audience, even while seeming inept to disconnected modern readers.
In Mk, the women function as eyewitnesses
In the Gospel of Mark, the named women (Mary Magdalene etc.) are placed front and center as witnesses to Christianity’s key evidences, with their role as eyewitnesses being overtly emphasized.
See this page to analyze six arguments:
- Mark 15 (buried) & 16:1 (emptied) re-list similar participants
- Mark 16:1 and Lk 24:10 emphasize (by naming) different members
- Mark 16:1 names them without introduction
- Mark 15-16 is loaded with witness-engendering terams
- Mark 15-16 portrays the women as being uniquely qualified as the witnesses
- Mark claimed to relay witness testimony (in general)
This is relevant because these emphases are used in Greco-Roman biography as a technique for deliberately identifying one’s eyewitness source for the relevantly reported information, a technique readers were aware of and looked for. [Forthcoming] So Mk 16:1-8 is saying the women as witnesses did ultimately or directly source this report, which contradictions the idea that he aimed to say they shared the report with no one.1
- This Mk 16:1-8 content ostensibly traces back to the Jerusalem church (a full page on this will be at /Mk/16/1-8-originated-in-jerusale) in c. AD 30 [a full page on this will be at /Mk/16/1-8-dates-to-ad-30], when the apostles would have heard the news. So the emphasis on the women as eyewitnesses arguably have originated with the first re-telling of the report, within hours or days of the women sharing their experience with the apostles.
The report is early (c. AD 30)
This telling (or version) of the empty tomb discovery by these women as narrated in Mk 16:1-8 dates back to c. AD 30-40.
A full page on this will analyzes these arguments:
- Specifically, these parts are early:…
- …“first day of the week” (AD 30-35)
- …“Women” and “Mary Magdalene” saw it (first)
- …“the crucified” “Nazarene”
- It is part of the Pre-Markan passion
- It lacks theological decoration
This is relevant because if it were long in existence, then there is no reason for why Mark or anyone would feel the need to provide an excuse for why readers have not heard the story.
But no, the AD 30 church wans't saying Mary saw Jesus' tomb empty. [Forthcoming]
- Specifically, these parts are early:…
Such a lie would be too overtly transparent
As an attempted excuse why no one has heard of this report, such a lie would be very obviously a lie.
- It’s too overtly irrational to expect the author to think the women chose to stay silent.1
- It’s too overtly self-contradictory.2
This is relevant because the self-contradictory nature of the report would be too overtly obvious to any would-be liar originating the report.
- Mark (or Mark’s source) would think it absurdly implausible that even one of the women, let alone all of them, would remain silent for a day let alone years. After all, it’s overtly obvious that…
- The readers would know the women had no reason to be silent.
- The readers would know it was not the kind of thing anyone could plausibly keep silent on.
- The readers would know the women were devout Jews, and were commanded by an angel of God! (Note: all readers knew the ‘young man’ was an angel.)
- The readers would know the women would’ve believed Jesus rose and appeared several times. So their report would not have even seemed strange.
• E.L. Bode: “Could the women have been expected in reality, or have been said with verisimilitude, to have told nothing to anyone for ever? Such an unlikely impression is perhaps a clue that Mark has in mind another meaning he wishes to express…” [The First Easter Morning (Bible Institute, 1970), 43.]
• John Crossan: “[The report is] self-contradictory. If they told nobody, how did Mark, unless ‘he’ was one of them, know about it?” [The Birth of Christianity (HarperCollins, 1998), 557]
Mk assumes the men heard: “see Jesus in Galilee”
The reader is expected to believe that the apostles did receive the angel’s message to go to see Jesus in Galilee.
- Mk puts this prophecy on Jesus’s lips 14:28 (and his prophecies never fail.
- In the passage in question, the angel says Jesus was going ahead to Galilee, where the disciples would see him “just as he had said”
This is relevant because…
- Dale Allison: “Near to hand, then, is the inference that the angel must after all have gotten his message through to the disciples via the women.” [Resurrecting Jesus (Continuum, 2005), 303-304.]