2010-07-05

Those Odd Endings of Mark’s Gospel and Herodotus’ Histories

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by Neil Godfrey

Bust of Herodotus. 2nd century AD. Roman copy ...
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Compare the seemingly inconclusive ending of Mark 16:8 with the following discussion by Sara Mandell and David Freedman on the Histories by Herodotus:

Neither Herodotus nor his implied narrator has to depict the catastrophe, only the exemplar that demands it. (The Relationship Between Herodotus’ History and Primary History, 1993, p.55)

Mandell and Freedman are here observing that Herodotus leaves the catastrophic ending that his plot demands up to the reader’s imagination. What Herodotus has done is depict many examples of cities and persons rising, falling victim to hubris (proudly thinking too highly or exclusively of oneself) and being brought low by the gods or fate as a consequence. These are enough to inform the reader that when the book concludes at the point of Greece’s exalted victory over Persia, the reader knows what is to follow.

The message to readers is to humble themselves to avoid that inevitable fate.  

Herodotus thus leaves his Histories hanging at the end. Nothing dramatic or rounded seems to happen at the end. The Persians go home and there is a seemingly irrelevant comment on how they once loved the simple life and were advised by Cyrus not to seek a life of ease.

In the final chapters leading towards this ending that seems to flat to modern readers, Herodotus changed his style to present the illusion that he was dispassionately narrating a strictly historical-factual account of the war between Greece and Persia. But in fact, the tale of Greece’s victories in the way, especially at the Battle of Marathon, are not intended as genuine history by modern standards. The events are a religious paradigm. They are constructed to teach a religious moral. What these final chapters depict in graphic detail, in anecdote after anecdote, is Greece going the way of the nations before her. The Greeks, too, are on the cusp of falling into their own destruction.

Herodotus probably considered the initial rounds of the Peloponnesian Wars as the imploding calamity of the Greeks. He finished off his Histories with Greece at its height as it expelled the Persians. And height means hubris. The gods must cut them back down to size.

The Relevance of Herodotus’ Histories to Biblical Literature

Herodotus’ Histories has been compared by a number of scholars with the Old Testament’s Primary History of Israel (Genesis to 2 Kings). Both are theological narratives depicting the relationship between God and mortals; both begin with a grand scope of mythical tales of origins and then narrow down to the history of one nation; redactors found both divisible in 9 books. I have outlined some of these comparisons at Herodotus and Israel’s History.

I often think the Gospel of Mark is building on the template of the Primary History. The disciples begin famously, as did ancient Israel, only to end in defeat and shame. Israel’s history began after the dispersal from Babylon in Genesis 11, and ends with their return there as captives. There is a glimmer of hope, however, when king Jeconiah is released from prison to sit at the king’s table. Likewise there is an indicator that there is yet hope when a young man relays a message meant for Peter and the disciples that Jesus is to be found again in Galilee.

Mark’s gospel is riddled with ambiguities and mysteries. Its original ending at 16:8 is one of these. If the famous Greek historian ended his work with an ambiguity, meant to leave readers pondering the narrative as a parable or a warning to them to not commit hubris against the gods, then maybe we have an added reason for thinking a Greek educated evangelist did the same. He need not have attempted to closely imitate Histories of course. But this renowned work does show us something of the literary thinking and culture with which we may expect a Greek literate to be familiar.

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Neil Godfrey

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