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Were the women (e.g. Mary Magdalene) name-cited as the witness sources in Mark 15’s Easter account?
Clarifying the question
In the Gospel of Mark, women were arguably placed front and center as key witnesses to evidence for Jesus's resurrection. Is it accurate to say that Mk portrays these named women as historical eyewitnesses of Jesus’ empty tomb? In fact, is their role and function as eyewitnesses emphasized in the account? This is often phrased as, “did the women function as witnesses?” More precisely still, did the author of Mk name the women so-as to designate them as authentic witness source(s) who he consulted or depended on directly or nearly directly (e.g. through relatives/disciples/friends)?
- Birger Gerhardsson: “Obviously they [Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James/Joses, and Salome] were mentioned originally as witnesses to whom the curious listener might turn and interrogate.” [“Mark and the Female Witnesses”, Studies in Honor of Sjoberg (Pennsylvania, 1989), 217.]
- Christopher Bryan: “We scarcely know who these women were [aside from Mary], but it is evident from the manner in which Mark refers to them that he believes his audience does know, just as they clearly know who Alexander and Rufus are (15:21). …In contrast to Alexander and Rufus, however, who play no part in the narrative other than being related to one of its participants, Mark identifies the women as eyewitnesses…” [The Resurrection of the Messiah (Oxford, 2011), 73.]
- Susan E. Miller: “Mark associates women... the role of witnesses (15:40-41; 16:1-8). ...the only witnesses to his death, burial and resurrection.” [Woman in Mark’s Gospel (Glasgow, 2002), ii.]
Mk 15 (buried) & 16:1 (emptied) re-list similar participants
In listing—by name—witnesses to Jesus’s death, then to his burial, and finally those present empty tomb on Sunday morning, the author of Mark gives strikingly similar lists within just a few verses of each other.
- Mk 15:40 — Now there were also some women watching [Jesus’s death on the cross] from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the Less and Joses, and Salome
- Mk 15: 47 — Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses were watching to see where He was laid.
- Mk 16:1 — Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome.
These extremely similar lists of participant-names in such proximity to each other is most easily explained on the hypothesis that Mark is trying to be precise about which witnesses were involved in which event,1 and that the list of recognizable witnesses to Jesus’s death and burial simple was—as a matter of historical fact—slightly different than the women who witnessed the empty tomb. This hypothesis is bolstered by the fact that, truly, the Gospels do imply witnesses via forced named inclusion in the narrative—as Greco-Roman biographies often do. If Mark was not trying to carefully cite his eyewitness sources to these events, the gratuitously complex re-listing of names becomes inexplicably redundant and awkwardly inept for the author.
Against the relevance of that first claim, plausibly …
- It is just an accident of fiction.2
- It is just two different traditions he inherited with slightly different lists, knit together.3
- A number of scholars have acknowledged this:
• Robert Gundry: “But it [the burial] ended with mention of only the two Marys. Just as the failure of Salome and many other women to observe the burial (contrast 15:40-41) necessitated a second mention of the two Marys, who did observe it, so a failure of the many other women but not of the two Marys and Salome to observe the empty tomb requires a third mention of the two Mary’s and a second mention of Salome.” [Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross (Eerdmans, 2000), 996.]
• Richard Bauckham: “What is of considerable interest in the divergences among the lists is the scrupulous care they display in the naming of the women as witnesses. Mark names three women at the cross and the same three women as those who go to the tomb, but only two of the three are said to observe the burial of Jesus. The explanation must be that in the known testimony of these three women, the two Marys were known to be witnesses of the burial but Salome was not.” [Gospel Women (Eerdmans, 2002), 300.]
• William Lane Craig: “if the pericope does belong to the passion story, can we be so certain that the list is a needless repetition? The fact that Salome’s name is re-introduced suggests that whereas only two women saw the burial, three women of the original larger group at the cross rose early to go to the tomb. As Pesch explains, the different roles played by individuals known in the Urgemeinde are being here recalled.(Pesch, Markusevangelium, 2: 508.) This may be no useless duplication at all—rather the mention of the different witnesses to the crucifixion, burial, and empty tomb begins the pattern of I Cor. 15: Christ died—was buried—rose … . Just as the formula emphasizes the witnesses to the appearances of Jesus, so the pre-Markan passion story carefully lists the women witnesses, who were not apparently adduced in the evangelistic preaching but were nevertheless remembered in the life of the church, to each of the events preceding the appearances.(Taylor, Mark, p. 651; Lane, Mark, p. 577; cf. Gnilka, Markus, 2: 339.) [Assessing the New Testament Evidence for the Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus (Edwin Mellen, 1989), 193-194.]
• H. H. Drake Williams: “It is evident that care was given to the way that each of the gospel writers list the witnesses at each event. Salome is not listed as present at Jesus’ burial in Mark, but she is at the cross and the empty tomb. In Matthew, the mother of the sons of Zebedee is not added to those who were present for Jesus’s burial. Luke also does not copy the list of women mentioned previously in Luke 8:2-3 (Mary Madgalene, Joanna, and Susanna) directly into the passion events. The authors could have simply repeated the list for those present at the burial and the empty tomb, but they chose not to do so, likely because they were paying attention to who was actually present at each event, critical in the origin of the Christian movement. It was likely that these women were accessible, and the gospel writers needed to be careful to represent accurately who was present at these critical events.” [Jesus Tried and True (Wipf and Stock, 2013), 45.]
- In response to the idea that this phenomena is just an accident of fiction, there are several problems. To focus in on one problem, consider that such a repetition is literarily clumsy and tedious, both to the reader and the writer (even a somewhat repetitive one like the author of Mark).
If one is inclined to reject the explanation in the main claim (that it's an indicator of eyewitness sources), then a far better explanation is that Mark was relaying two independent traditions he faithfully received and transmitted (see footnote 3):
• Morna Hooker: “Even stranger, the names do not tally exactly… though Mark's purposes seems to be to establish this small group of women as witnesses of Jesus' death, to establish this small group of women as witnesses of Jesus' death, mentioned in 15.40, reappears. …the three different descriptions of this Mary cause problems …. The discrepancies suggest that Mark has taken over different traditions and reproduced them faithfully, at least in these details; they also warn us against assuming that there must be theological significance in the minor details of Mark's narrative!” [The Gospel According to St. Mark, in Black’s New Testament Commentary (Hendrickson, 2009), 383.]
- It is plausible that Mark knit together two different lists, but this is not in competition with the proposed explanation above. It still suggests that Mary and these named women functioned as witnesses. They would have most naturally functioned as witnesses in the reports Mark was relaying, and as a redactor if he were not considering them as witnesses we would expect him to simply merge the lists into one. This is a quite basic expectation, absent an authentic Markan concern for accuracy.
[Mk 16:1 and Lk 24:10 emphasize (by naming) different members]
In the empty tomb accounts, Mark specfically includes the witness names most known by his audience. [Details forthcoming]1
- As a quick sketch, Mk 16:1 and Lk 24:10 seem emphasize (by naming) different members. Only Luke mentions Salome, for example. This is relevant because the naming of alternative witnesses in a larger group reflects different community interests (i.e. witnesses they know) or different witness sources. Reports are inclined to emphasize witnesses recognized by their local audiences. So, if Mark used the women as witnesses, then we can say the following: If Mt (using Mk) and Lk (using Mk) knew Mark was listing witnesses, but Mt and Lk had witnesses more appropriate to emphasize for their community, then it is virtually predictable that Mk, Mt, and Lk would vary slightly in which witnesses would be explicitly named.)
Mk 16:1 names them without introduction
In Mk, the women are named as if the audience is supposed to know them. This is relevant because it is the same sort of way Mark’s tradition names Rufus and Alexander, whose only significance is that they are known to the audience. [Details forthcoming]
• Christopher Bryan: “We scarcely know who these women were [aside from Mary], but it is evident from the manner in which Mark refers to them that he believes his audience does know, just as they clearly know who Alexander and Rufus are (15:21). These are real people who exist outside of his text in the world of his hearers.(Hooker, Mark, 379; Witherington, Mark, 401.) In contrast to Alexander and Rufus, however, who play no part in the narrative other than being related to one of its participants, Mark identifies the women as eyewitnesses…” [The Resurrection of the Messiah (Oxford, 2011), 73.]
• Samuel Byrskog: “Their function as eyewitnesses is further accentuated as three or four of them are singled out by name.” [Story as History: History as Story: The Gospel Tradition in the Context of Ancient Oral History (Brill, 2002), 76-77.]
Mk 15-16 is loaded with witness-engendering language