[This post continues my review of “Mark’s Missing Ending: Clues from the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Peter,” by Dr. James F. McGrath. You can find Part 1 here.]
Why might Mark’s original audience not have thought the Short Ending was problematic?
Last time we discussed why the Short Ending (SE) of Mark is considered problematic. Now we’re going to look at the possibility that ancient audiences might not have felt the same way we do, i.e. wondering: “Where’s the rest of it?”
Why might they have reacted differently? Why might things be not so bleak as they seem? McGrath offers two reasons:
- The disciples could have stumbled back home to Galilee on their own, “leaving open the possibility of their fulfilling Jesus’ command inadvertently.“
- “[G]iven the primarily oral cultural context of early Christianity, it is appropriate to reflect on the significance of the fact that Mark was presumably telling a story which his readers already knew, and thus the end of his written Gospel need not have represented, either for him or for them, the end of the story.“
For McGrath, the written Gospel of Mark is simply one recording of many possible live performances. He imagines that tradents in the Christian community (probably centered in Galilee) performed the gospel from memory. Presumably, each time they recounted the “story” they changed it to fit the audience, responding to feedback.
The oral gospel — storytime for the Markan community
This process is distinct from the oral reading of Mark’s Gospel after it was written. Sometimes when reading McGrath’s paper you may notice that the word “story” starts to get somewhat squishy. I wish he had been a little clearer at the outset, since “story” could refer to different things, namely:
- The individual pericopae that comprise the written gospels. Scholars presume that the memory of Jesus is preserved in these story nuggets. These individual, smaller stories were passed down from person to person, shaped by the retelling, modified to fit the needs of the communities of early Christians.
- The oral gospel as Christians understood it. If I understand McGrath correctly, most of the time when he uses the word “story” in this paper, he’s talking about the whole oral gospel from the Baptism to the Resurrection, which he imagines was performed in its entirety before a live audience, and which changed continually in the telling.
- The written gospel. Once Mark writes his gospel, the performance of the oral gospel fades and eventually disappears. “Writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin.” –Roland Barthes
For me, Mark’s story is Mark’s written gospel. For McGrath, Mark’s story is the oral gospel that “must have” contained resurrection appearances. He writes:
I thus propose to focus in what follows less on the original form of the written Gospel and more on how the story known to the author and readers of this Gospel continued beyond Mark 16:8. Hopefully in doing so we can avoid an impasse between different approaches to the text since few would deny that the story itself points beyond the current ending, to resurrection appearances not narrated within this Gospel. [emphasis mine]
Count me among the few. I’m not saying it’s impossible that Mark and his initial readers imagined appearances in Galilee similar to those in the other written gospels. However, since the written Gospel of Mark does not contain such appearances, it seems only natural that McGrath should do a little work toward proving his assertion.
Christians reading Mark today would love to imagine that Peter is reconciled in the end, that Jesus appears to the eleven, that they all kiss and make up — however, those stories (there’s that word again!) are not in Mark’s gospel. Drawing attention to these facts does not make me hyper-skeptical; I’m merely stating the obvious.
Werner Kelber on oral gospels and Mark 16:8
Before proceeding, I need to say something about McGrath’s understanding of orality as it pertains to the Gospel of Mark. He writes:
In the terminology of current studies of orality and oral tradition, Mark’s Gospel would represent one performance of the story, and it is only our disconnection from the oral context of its writing that makes it seem the definitive one, if not indeed the only one.
This sentence ends with a footnote containing two citations, the second of which is Kelber’s The Oral and Written Gospel, p. 80. I guess to bolster his point McGrath is appealing to these sentences:
Even if one were to assume uniting the many into a single one, this story would still not be destined to become normative. No universally binding norm can assert itself in speaking actuality, for oral life escapes ownership by any single authority. In orality, one must allow for pluralism, as well as for a certain randomness. (p. 80)
While this line of reasoning, taken out of context, may seem congenial to McGrath’s thesis, anyone familiar with Kelber’s work will immediately see at least two problems here. First, Kelber is not at all amenable to the idea of a narrative, oral gospel along the lines of written Mark. Second, he very much sees Mark 16:8 as the logical, intentional ending of a sustained diatribe against the disciples and Jesus’ family.
Kelber’s position is abundantly clear if we begin reading from p. 77 (starting with Oral Pluralism versus Oral Gospel) and continue to the end of the chapter. He doesn’t doubt that the pericopae — the building blocks that constitute Mark — were formed and kept alive through oral tradition and oral transmission. Yes, he believes that the oral gospel will “gravitate toward the written gospel.” And Mark certainly uses oral conventions in chaining together the pericopae to create his written gospel. No, the problem is this:
The issue raised is whether there exists in orality the impulse to collect material into an oral gospel of the nature and scope of the written gospel. (p. 77, emphasis mine)
And Kelber thinks it does not. After summarizing Johann Gottfried Herder’s theory about the oral gospel — a full gospel story, committed to memory, and eventually written down on the page — Kelber says he remains unconvinced, partly because of issues surrounding the synoptic problem and the obvious literary dependencies among the first three gospels and partly because differences among the written gospels can be shown to have their roots in theological differences, not mutations arising from oral transmission. But perhaps his greatest objection is this:
[T]here is no evidence for a class of evangelists entrusted with the declamation of the oral gospel in the form of an extensive narration of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. (p. 78)
Furthermore, Kelber insists that our evidence shows when people began to collect oral traditions, they did not arrange them in a structured narrative, but in collections of similar types. He offers Q as an example of a genre collection. Material of a given sort attracts similar material. He writes:
Like draws like in this world, and knowledge is gathered and multiplied more than critically developed. . . . But this oral need for like to attract like is ill-equipped to draw heterogeneity into a single, consecutive plot. None of these cluster collections, including Q, can be regarded as connecting links in the tradition’s alleged evolution toward the written gospel. Deep-seated and complex as the gospel’s indebtedness is to the oral lifeworld, in the last analysis the gospel takes its cue from an authority other than the oral imperative. (p. 80, emphasis mine)
That’s about as clear as one can be on the matter. Contrary to McGrath’s assumptions, current studies in oral traditions do not support an oral gospel with a length and diversity of material comparable to Mark’s Gospel. And we can’t appeal to recitations in antiquity of oral compositions like the Homeric epics. Why? Kelber explains:
The Iliad and the Odyssey are oral poetry in metrical language. The gospels are prose narratives with a heavy oral substratum but in themselves something other than transcribed orality. (p. 78, emphasis mine)
Textuality came early to the tradition, and it is not intrinsically implausible that Mark imposed his writing authority upon an unorganized oral lore. (p. 79)
I would agree. Mark’s gospel is not “one performance of the story,” it is a new construction — Mark’s written effort, creating a narrative structure upon which to hang the short, self-contained stories he inherited from the oral tradition. So there is no oral proto-gospel of Mark, in which some versions of the performance had post-resurrection appearances and others did not.
In fact, Kelber scoffs at Norman Petersen’s claim that Mark 16:8 is inconsistent with Mark’s story, but not because he shares McGrath’s pipe dreams. It is rather because Mark’s story is all about the failure of everyone around Jesus to understand his mission, to follow his instructions, and to do his will. Kelber explains:
The disciples’ disobedience, as well as that of the women, does not damage Jesus’ credibility for the readers [contra Petersen]. Quite the opposite: the readers are to follow, where the disciples have failed. (p. 220)
And make no mistake; we’re talking total, colossal, abject failure here — with chapter 16 dealing the final blow.
Overcome by trembling, astonishment, and fear, [the women] flee. . . . As a result, the disciples, who had been absent at the crucifixion and have remained ignorant of the resurrection, never learn that the signal has been given for the reunion with the resurrected one. They are thereby effectively eliminated as apostolic representatives of the risen Lord. (p. 129)
Verdict: McGrath either has not read or does not understand Kelber’s work on the oral gospel. I’m shocked to see him cite an author who so vehemently disagrees with his main points. After all, when Earl Doherty cites scholars who aren’t mythicists, McGrath and Ehrman practically get apoplectic.
“I go a fishing.” (John 21:3)
At this point, having asserted that resurrection stories “must have” been part of the gospel in Mark’s community, McGrath goes fishing for them in other gospels. Luke, of course, is unacceptable, since his post-Easter stories all happen in Jerusalem or nearby. Matthew is not much help either, since as McGrath rightly points out, “[He] changes the women’s state of mind and introduces an appearance of Jesus in Jerusalem after it has just been announced that he would be seen in Galilee.”
What does that leave us? We’ll find out next time in part 3.
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