Mark’s penchant for ironic reversals is well-known. We run into difficulties, however, when we stop short and fail to see irony in his account of Peter, the twelve, and even the nature of the work itself as a “gospel”. Mark loves paradoxes: the cross is both a shame and a glory; life is only found through death; honour through dishonour; Peter’s confession is both the high point and low of his career; and on an on — enough to fill an entire book like Jerry Camery-Hoggatt’s Irony in Mark’s Gospel. So it need not be surprising that his gospel would, ironically, embody a tragedy.
The good news (gospel) of Jesus Christ is also the tragedy of his disciples. Jesus is “good news” for the gospeller’s audience, but the narrative is also a tragic warning to that same audience. The disciples in Mark serve the same function as the Israel (the many Israel’s really, generation after generation) in the Jewish scriptures. They are a warning and spiritual lesson to whatever the audience of the day who were to see themselves as the “new Israel”. (I have shown in an earlier post that the evidence for the historicity of the Twelve — especially as argued by John P. Meier — is so thin as to be virtually nonexistent.)
Tragedies, whether Latin, Greek, Jewish or Mesopotamian, very often had a conclusion that indicated a final horrific reversal of themes and images found in their beginnings. These conclusions could also be abrupt. Too abrupt for modern tastes.
I touched on these points in one of the first posts I ever composed for this blog — Those Strange NT Endings (Mark, John, Acts).
I was recently reminded of the thematic and literary correpondences between the Histories of the Greek historian, Herodotus, and Israel’s Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings) and once again I could not help comparing the Gospel of Mark. It’s original ending — at 16:8 — is a perfectly coherent one when the tragic side of the gospel is recognized. (Mark 16:9-20 is not found in the earliest manuscripts or evidence for this gospel, and can be shown to be a later addition by a scribe conflating elements of the endings of Matthew and Luke.)
Note the allusions to the beginnings, and their tragic reversals . . . .
- The reference to Peter at the end (16:7) is a classic reminder of the failure of a lead character, certainly the leading disciple, in whom so much hope had once resided.
- Just as the would be victors (spiritually) had come out from Jerusalem into the wilderness to seek salvation (from a messenger of Jesus), . . .
- and just as others initially followed Jesus himself, leaving all of their old world, family and home, behind, . . .
- so at the end they come seeking near Jerusalem, now become the spiritual wilderness, in the place of tombs, Jesus. . . .
- They see, however, a messenger of Jesus — as at the beginning.
- Instead of following where Jesus is going on ahead, they instead flee in fear, thus losing their (eternal) lives.
This is exactly how we could expect the “gospel” of Mark to conclude if it is understood as a tragedy of the “old Israel”, the “old wineskins“, for the spiritual profit of the “new” people of God, Mark’s original audiences.
The Histories of Herodotus is likewise an historical tragedy. Modern studies of Herodotus have opened up the view of his Histories as a theological narrative, with its regular references to Greek relations with Apollo and the theme of hubris against a deity. The Persians are the obvious primary victim of this hubris, but more significantly, their consequent tragic sufferings and final fall is written as a philosophical or even theological lesson for the Greek audience of Herodotus. He is warning his own race against hubris, and even narrates beginning signs of this among the Athenians as they begin to emerge triumphant over the Persians.
There is probably little need to explain the Primary History as a similar tragedy.
So it is, I think, an interesting exercise to compare their endings with each other, and both with that of the Gospel of Mark. Of course these are not the only tragedies. I could also bring in some Greek plays that were well known throughout the Hellenistic and early Roman eras. But I think in this literary context, it can be less problematic to accept 16:8 as the original ending of this gospel, er, tragedy.
The Ending of Herodotus’s Histories: (Online text begins here)
- It ends abruptly. No epilogue or similar concluding summary or comment.
- Reference is made to the key figure at the beginning of the book, King Cyrus. The original hope of Cyrus at the beginning is brought to remembrance at the time of the tragic failure, through hubris, of the Persians.
- As foretold by the narrator in book 7, the Persian governor of the last Persian city in Greece was crucified. This was at the exact same spot where the awe-inspiring bridge between the continents of Asia and Europe had been earlier built.
- The Persians are forced to retreat back to Asia where they had advanced from in ignominious defeat.
Also noteworthy by way of conclusion:
- The last city of the Persians in Europe was long besieged, suffered extreme hardships, was deserted by its governor . . .
- Its governor, Artayctes, fled, was captured, returned in chains, crucified, and forced to witness the butchering of his son.
The conclusion of the Jewish Primary History: (Genesis to 2 Kings)
- It ends abruptly. In failure.
- Allusion is made to Joseph, a patriarchal founder of Israel, by the imprisoning of Jaehoichin, and lifting him out of prison to sit with the king.
- The last of the Israelites return ignominiously to where they had originated — Egypt and Babylonia.
- The city of the hope of David was long besieged, sufferend extreme hardships, and was deserted by its king . . .
- Its king, Zedekiah, fled, was captured, returned in chains and was forced to witness the butchering of his sons before being blinded.
And to recap . . . .
The end of the Gospel of Mark: (16:1-8)
- It ends abruptly. In failure.
- Reference is made to the key figure at the beginning of the book, Peter, the one in whom rested the most hope, but who had proved himself to be ashamed of Jesus before men.
- Just as people had come from Jerusalem to the wilderness to hear the messenger clothed in wild garments proclaim Jesus, so at the end the people in Jerusalem (the spiritual wilderness), the city of the hope of David, come to the tombs to seek Jesus, but see instead a messenger in fine garments proclaim Jesus. As the people had come out from Jerusalem to follow, and as the disciples had followed, they now flee in fear. Jesus goes on ahead, but they no longer follow as before.
And of course
- The disciples (both men and women), on facing persecution, fled from Jesus . . .
- Jesus was crucified, an event which is at least twice, maybe thrice, linked to the final destruction of Jerusalem (11:15; 13:2; 15:38)