The Women, the Tomb, and the Climax of Mark

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The Women, the Tomb, and the Climax of Mark1

L. W. Hurtado, University of Edinburgh

The “ending” of Mark is one of the most widely-known problems in New Testament studies, involving both text-critical and exegetical issues. It is almost unanimously agreed that none of the variant material after 16:8 forms an original part of Mark, and, although one still encounters the view that an original ending beyond 16:8 was lost, the more widely shared view today is that the author in fact chose to end his story of Jesus at this point.2 But, if on text-critical grounds 16:8 is widely accepted as the most likely original ending, this only highlights the difficult exegetical issue: How are we to understand the way the author of the Gospel of Mark chose to conclude this influential account?

In this paper, I hope to deploy good reasons for holding that 16:1-8 was intended as an entirely meaningful, encouraging, and positive climax to this influential story of Jesesus, and not the somewhat anti-climactic and ambiguous scene so often posited in scholarship today.3 This contention goes against what are now some widely-held views. To make my case, therefore, will require some sustained attention to a selection of important matters.

One of the most crucial of these is how to understand the characterization and narrative function of the women disciples in the scene. Women are the sole human figures in Mark 16:1-8, and, as increasingly recognized today, they are also important in two key earlier scenes in the passion narrative (15:40-41, 47). But the question of what to make of these women awaits a widely-persuasive answer.4 So, en route to an adequate analysis of Mark 16:1-8, we shall first consider Mark’s deployment of women followers of Jesus in the final two chapters of his pioneering book about Jesus.

There is now a considerable and still-growing body of scholarship on Mark’s treatment of women, especially women followers of Jesus.5 The women in Mark 16:1-8 have received by far the greatest attention, and this scene will also be crucial in my analysis as well. Although Dibelius referred to the women as “superfluous” in 16:1-8, in more recent study we have come to see that they are important in the author’s literary strategy.6 This particular group of identified women followers of Jesus appears in three crucial Markan scenes, and only these three times in Mark, in the passion and resurrection narratives (15:40, 47; 16:1). All three references to the women are significant for appreciating their prominence in the final scene.

In the first of these references, 15:40-41, the author suddenly throws the spotlight on three particular women, and also tells us that a larger number of women had in fact been followers of Jesus in Galilee all along.7 Thereby, in these two short verses the author introduces an unnumbered body of women followers of Jesus, and in effect, retroactively inserts them into the whole preceding account of Jesus’ activities.8 Contra some interpreters, I contend that the previous absence of women followers in the narrative is not a case of simple disregard for, or lack of interest in, them.9 For in 15:40-41 the author emphasizes that these three women had been “there” in the story all along and that there were many women who had accompanied Jesus to Jerusalem. The invisibility of women followers in the preceding narrative in Mark seems to have been deliberate, but not out of simple negativity toward them. Instead, the previous narrative silence about women disciples was probably intended to make their sudden appearance here all the more noticeable to readers.10 In short, the identification of the women at this point is to be seen as a significant development in the Markan story, and they must be intended as important for the narrative scenes in which they are featured.11


In addition to their sudden appearance here, there is a second striking feature about Mark’s treatment of these women. In the context of the preceding Markan narrative of Jesus’ ministry, the naming of women followers in 15:40-41 strongly further indicates their emergence at this point as characters with special significance.12 Although several women characters appear in earlier chapters of Mark, the only women named previously to 15:40-41 are Jesus' mother, Mary (6:3), and the infamous Herodias (6:17-29).13

Moreover, the naming of the women disciples in 15:40-41 and in the other two crucial scenes in the Markan passion-resurrection narratives is especially interesting if we note how elsewhere the author leaves nameless even some female characters who are in other ways given memorable visibility: e.g., Peter’s mother-in-law (1:30-31), the haemorrhaging women (5:25-34), Jairus’ daughter (5:21-24, 35-43), Jesus’ sisters (6:3; cf. his named brothers here), the bold Syrophoenician woman and her daughter (7:24-30), and most remarkably the woman of 14:3-9, whose act of devotion to Jesus is portrayed as destined to bring her world-wide remembrance!14

Once again, however, we should hesitate to judge this Markan pattern of female anonymity as simple misogyny. In the Roman-era setting of the first readers, there was a widespread view that the more respectful way to refer to women was to do so without mentioning their names, particularly in the public sphere. Instead, typically, one identified a woman respectfully by reference to her father, husband, or brother(s).15 So, the Markan general pattern of unnamed women characters would not have seemed strange or particularly misogynist to readers familiar with the dominant cultural mores of the time. But this also means that the unprecedented appearance of three named women in 15:40 would readily have caught the attention of ancient readers, and would have suggested to them that these women were being brought into view for some special role.16

In short, we should take the naming of women disciples, beginning at 15:40, as another key literary device of the author, further signalling the sudden elevation of these figures to particular prominence at this point.17 Also, the repeated naming of the women in three consecutive Markan scenes in 15:40–16:8 likely functions to link more emphatically these particular scenes.18 This means that we should take account of all three scenes in seeking to understand any of them.19 As Catchpole vividly expressed it, the women function as “the human thread binding the ‘crucified . . . buried . . . raised’ sequence into a three-in-one unity,” and he rightly noted “a special intensity of concentration” on the final scene at the empty tomb.20

Although my concern at this point is how to understand the women’s narrative function in these scenes, I do wish to note in passing that Mark’s named characters usually seem to be figures whom the intended readers are expected to recognize, either by direct acquaintance or (more often likely) from some previous report(s) about them in Christian traditions.21 So, it is fully plausible that the intended readers were also expected to recognize these women named in 15:40 and thereafter, and possibly (I would say probably) may even have known of their association with the events narrated in these Markan scenes.22 Indeed, several scholars have proposed liturgical/cultic usage and purposes as the originating “pre-Markan” situations in which these events were rehearsed in Christian circles, but this is not an issue requiring discussion here.23


The third notable feature in Mark’s treatment of these women is his consistent portrayal of them as observers of the key events in these three scenes. In 15:40-41, three women observe Jesus’ crucifixion through the moment of his death.24 In 15:47 two of the same women observe where Jesus’s corpse was entombed.25 In 16:4-6 they note that the great stone has been removed from the tomb-opening.26 Then, upon entering the tomb they see the “young man” seated there, and they are invited to observe for themselves that Jesus is “not here” and to take note that “the place where they laid him” is now vacant.

Mark’s consistency in repeatedly referring to the observations by these women surely indicates further his own strong emphasis on their role in these scenes, and we can confirm this by comparison with the other Synoptic accounts. Matthew mentions the women as observing Jesus’ death (Matt 27:55), but in the burial scene he merely indicates that they were seated near the tomb (27:61). In his account of the first Easter morning, however, Matthew tells us that the women had come to view the tomb (28:1), and he retains the angelic invitation to the women to behold the vacant place where Jesus’ body had lain (28:6). Luke places “all his acquaintances [pa,vntej oi` gnwstoi. autw|/], including some women” (23:48-49) at the crucifixion-scene, which has the effect of lessening the particular role of the women as observers here (and also lessens the distinction between the women and the other disciples). On the other hand, in his scene of Jesus’ burial, Luke specifies that the women saw the tomb and “how [Jesus’] body was laid” in it (23:55). Then, he relates that when the women returned to the tomb on the Sunday morning they discovered the stone rolled away, but could not find Jesus’ body (23:1-3).

To reiterate the point for emphasis, in the Markan scenes the consistently specified role of the named women is as identified observers of three specific matters: Jesus’ death, the place of his burial, and the subsequently vacant tomb. Mark attributes no other action to them.27 It is clear that the author wished nothing to detract from this focus. Put simply, their sole task and literary function in these scenes is to witness what happens.28

Indeed, their silence (except for their discussion among themselves about how they will gain access to the tomb in 16:3), actually contributes to Mark’s emphasis on their observational role. It is worth noting that in the ancient cultural setting generally, silence was a much-advocated virtue for women, especially silence in the public sphere.29 So, the depiction of women as silent observers would not have struck ancient readers as particular noteworthy. Indeed, the author would likely have been taken as depicting the women in a respectable way, and affirming their positive role and status in the narratives.30

To summarize this matter here, the women in Mark 15-16 are introduced in a positive way, and the naming of them also indicates that they have some particular significance and function. The Markan emphasis on them as observers in all three scenes suggests that their significance and function probably has to do with being able to vouch for the things that they have observed.

The author’s more specific purpose in deploying he women in 15:40 and thereafter, and in particular the point of emphasizing their observational role, will become fully clear in the final scene where they are featured, in 16:1-8. Most obviously, at that point they are able to go directly to Jesus’ tomb because they previously had observed where he was buried, having followed what happened to him from his death to his entombment. Later in this essay, we shall focus on this final scene and explore further how it caps the three appearances of the named women. But, as we shall now note, this emphasis that named women were observers of Jesus’ death and burial also fits with another, more neglected feature of the Markan passion narrative.


We now consider something that is often mentioned only in passing in studies of the women and the Markan ending: the curious and uniquely-expressed Markan emphasis that Jesus really died. I wish to show, however, that this distinctive feature of the Markan scene of Jesus’ burial should be given more attention.

All four canonical Gospels have Joseph of Arimathea approach Pilate for permission to bury Jesus’ body, so it is all the more noteworthy that there are no equivalents to certain interesting details in Mark 15:44-45 in any of the other three accounts. When he is approached by Joseph, Pilate is surprised to hear that Jesus is already dead, and he summons the centurion who presided at the crucifixion (and whose ironic statement in 15:39 has received so much scholarly attention in modern scholarship),31 demanding confirmation. In fact, Pilate requires assurance that Jesus had been dead for some time (ei) pa/lai a)pe/qanen, 15:44). Only then, after satisfying himself by official confirmation from his own officer, does Pilate hand over Jesus’ remains (v. 45) for burial.

It should be obvious that the author’s concern here is to underscore the reality of Jesus’ death. The women have seen Jesus expire on the cross, and now Pilate (a hostile witness!) satisfies himself, and thereby the readers, that by the time of the handing over of Jesus’ body he has been dead for an extended time. The intended effect of all these details was surely to emphasise a real (and, so far as the characters in the narrative can judge, a permanent) death. The full significance of this will, of course, become apparent in 16:1-8.

This emphasis on the reality of Jesus’ death is reflected in another unique feature of this Markan scene. Mark alone says that Pilate gave Jesus’ “corpse” (to_ ptw~ma, v. 45b) over for burial, all the other Evangelists preferring the word for “body” (to_ sw~ma), probably because they saw it as less stark and harsh in connotation.32 I propose that the use of “corpse” here further indicates a Markan concern to stress the forensic (even brutal) reality of Jesus’ death. Moreover, the author used the same term in his reference to the burial of John the Baptist by John’s disciples after his execution by Antipas (6:29). So, the use of the word in 15:45 may also be intended to make direct comparison (and, of course, forthcoming contrast!) with the entombment of John.33 Jesus’ “corpse” was entombed just as truly as was John’s, which will make the events of 16:1-8 all the more striking.

The concern to underscore that Jesus was really dead, and had been dead for some time before burial, and this unique reference to his “corpse” surely combine to represent a notable interest of the author. It also seems reasonable to regard this emphasis as consonant with the previously-noted spotlighting of identified women followers of Jesus, who were likely known figures in the circle(s) for whom the author wrote, as having witnessed Jesus’ death and his burial. Indeed, I contend that the reiterated role of the women as observers and the emphasis on the reality of Jesus’ death are directly linked and important indications of the author’s aims, and should not be ignored in seeking to understand the movement of the Markan narrative toward its intended climax.

It is an interesting question whether the emphasis on the reality of Jesus’ death was intended to counter or correct some other idea. Was he, for instance, seeking to oppose or head off some early “swoon” theory from opponents of the Christian message, that Jesus had only seemed to die and had revived later in the tomb sufficiently to able to make himself scarce? Or was Mark opposing some early “docetic” idea within Christian circles, that Jesus (as a divine/heavenly being) only seemed to have died? We do not have sufficient corroboration of such ideas as early as the likely date of the composition of Mark to be sure of either possibility.

From Matthew, of course, we hear of Jewish allegations that Jesus’ body was removed from the tomb secretly by his disciples (Matt 28:11-15), so there may well have been other such counter-claims circulating. Also, although this is somewhat more debatable, it seems to me plausible that in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul is countering an interpretation of Jesus’ resurrection (and that of believers as well) as a purely “spiritual” event, “resurrection” taken by some in Corinth as merely metaphorical of an inner transformation and not something to do with one’s body.34 So, if conflicting views of Jesus’ resurrection were circulating in Christian circles as early as 1 Corinthians, it is entirely possible that the author of Mark may have sought to underscore the reality of Jesus’ death here in order to prepare for, and help define, the declaration of Jesus’ resurrection that comes in the final scene.

Later in this essay, however, I offer another view of why Mark placed this emphasis on the reality of Jesus’ death. For now, it is sufficient to note that Mark’s account of Jesus’ death and burial underscores the women as observers of a real death.

To be sure, in appreciating the ending of any coherent story, the entire preceding narrative is in some way relevant.35 But we have seen that the threefold references to the named women followers of Jesus in Mark 15:40–16:8, plus the fact that all three settings where the women are mentioned deal with Jesus’ death and entombment, combine to unify this larger body of material and to give it special relevance for understanding the conclusion to Mark.36

We are now ready to consider the final scene where the named women appear, in 16:1-8.37 To state the obvious, there are two main questions to address. How are we to understand the particulars of the passage? And how specifically might the author have intended this scene to function as the suitable conclusion or climax to his story of Jesus?


First, let us note again that the author draws attention here to the vacant tomb. As they approach the tomb, the named women notice that the stone had been removed (16:4), after which they are invited to verify for themselves that Jesus’ body is no longer in the place where it had been laid (16:6). But, by itself, the empty tomb can only elicit bewilderment. The mysterious “youth” (commonly understood as angelic) whom the women encounter in the tomb declares, however, that the reason for the absence of Jesus’ body is that he has been resurrected (16:6).38 Lindemann is correct to note that the Markan word-order in this mysterious figure’s statement places emphasis on Jesus’ resurrection, with the reference to the empty tomb subordinated to it: “He is risen; he is not here. Behold the place where they put him.”39

The statement of the youth at the tomb in 16:6-7 is certainly the apex of this scene, and is the key theological assertion here. Indeed, it may well be the climactic declaration of the entire Gospel of Mark.40 In any case, this declaration that Jesus has been raised by the power of God (the “divine passive,” h)ge/rqh) is intended to account for and interpret the empty tomb. The empty tomb is not the basis for the kerygmatic claim that Jesus has been raised. Instead, the resurrection claim is announced authoritatively by the “youth,” and it is to be confirmed subsequently in the encounters of Jesus’ disciples with him in Galilee (16:7), Jesus leading them there (proa/gei), just as he promised (14:28).41 Bultmann cannot be followed in his assertions that in Mark 16:1-8 “the empty tomb proves the Resurrection,” that the messenger-figure has comparatively little significance, and that the whole story is “an apologetic legend” developed (probably at some secondary stage of first-century Christianity) to combat sceptical responses to the kerygma.42

On the other hand, it should also be clear that the empty tomb, along with the preceding emphases on the reality of Jesus’ death and the named women having observed his death and the burial of his “corpse”, does function crucially in Mark to help interpret the resurrection claim.43 In the context of Mark 15:40–16:8, the explicit reference to the vacant tomb vividly underscores the point that this Jesus who is now resurrected had suffered a genuine death and was duly entombed as a “corpse”. This is reflected in the order of the phrasing in the Markan form of the young man’s declaration: “You seek Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has been raised (from death); he is not here. Behold the place where they laid him.”44 In this light, the particular contribution of the empty tomb is to signal a genuine and bodily continuity of the risen and the crucified/buried person. The empty tomb vividly signifies real, bodily resurrection.45

We have already noted, however, that this does not necessarily mean that the author of Mark was primarily concerned here to engage in a disputation about the nature of the resurrection body of Jesus (and, thus, of the elect).46 There is nothing in 15:40–16:8 to suggest any such dispute, or that the author is directly opposing some other view of how to imagine Jesus’ resurrection body. Were this the author’s aim here, we should expect him to have made it more obvious, as he shows himself fully ready to do elsewhere, particularly in the straightforward warnings about deceptive teachings, and false messiahs and prophets in Mark 13.47 Moreover, beyond emphasizing that the same Jesus who was put to death was also raised bodily, the author offers no more precise analysis of Jesus’ resurrected state.48 I repeat that Mark 16:1-8 is not obviously directed to some supposed intra-Christian disputation about the nature of the resurrection body. Instead, as we shall see, it represents more profound and more positive christological and ethical concerns. Toward clarifying further these concerns, let us now take account of another important matter.


We have seen that named women followers of Jesus are the Markan literary link and “signpost” that the material in 15:40–16:8, comprising the three scenes in which these women appear, is to be read as a cohesive narrative-complex. This comprises a set of scenes in which the body of Jesus is at the centre of attention: the crucified body, the entombed “corpse,” and the risen body that has vacated the place where it had been buried.

To reiterate another point, however, the purpose does not seem to be a simple apologetic directed to outsiders and sceptics who resist the claim that Jesus is risen. As Matthew’s report of a Jewish allegation that Jesus’ disciples secretly removed his body from the grave shows, an empty tomb is rather easily susceptible to more than one interpretation! Moreover, as Adela Collins rightly observed, had Mark’s aim in 16:1-8 been simply an apologetic assertion of Jesus’ resurrection against unbelieving critics of the claim, it is odd to have featured only women as witnesses, given ancient stereotypes of women as more given to hysterical and foolish notions.49

So, why would Mark have made so much of these scenes which feature these women and focus on what happened to Jesus’ body? What intended audience could be expected to grant respect to these named women, and also find meaningful the Markan emphasis on the bodily reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection?

It is, of course, rather widely held that, as the case for the other canonical Gospels, Mark was composed for intra-Christian edification, instruction, and inspiration.50 Also, it is also not terribly controversial to posit that particular religious concerns of each of the authors contributed heavily to the contents, shape, and emphases of these writings. The more precise questions, therefore, are what specific religious/theological concern(s) and what intended readers might be reflected in the Markan author’s decision to refer approvingly to post-resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples, but to conclude his story without narrating any such incident.

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