THE ENDING OF MARK
IS THE BEGINNING OF WISDOM
by Marie Sabin
Mark images God's Kingdom as a state of new consciousness. Here, women are followers
and reflectors of Wisdom/Jesus, prophets entrusted with preaching the word of ongoing
MARIE SABIN, an independent scholar, has a Ph.D. in English from Yale; a condensation
of her M.A. thesis in theology at Union Theology Seminary, "Reading Mark 4 as
Midrash," was published in JSNT (Journal for the Study of the New Testament)
in March 1992. This essay is excerpted from the final chapter of her just-completed
book-length manuscript, Reopening the Word: The Theology of Mark in the Context of
Christian believers in the past, reading Mark's Gospel as either biography or
kerygma, have been offended by the fact that Mark shows Jesus' disciples to be
consistently obtuse. Reading his Gospel as midrashic homily, however, shifts one's
expectation from biographical similitude or moral exemplum to theological metaphor; if one
further places the homiletic discourse into the context of the Wisdom traditions, one
finds that the disciples' weaknesses function as metaphors for folly. As Proverbs' Wisdom
invites the unwise to her banquet, so the Markan Jesus calls not the righteous but
sinners. As a community of sinners, these disciples are also a community of fools, failing
to grasp the basic instructions of their teacher, Wisdom/Jesus: i.e., the instructions to
serve others, to become dispossessed of themselves, to be awake to God's presence. In
Mark's symbolic narrative the foolish disciples seek to make themselves great, are
dumbfounded at the idea of voluntary poverty, and fall asleep at the critical hour. In a
final ironic moment Peter denies Jesus rather than risk himself, while Judas the betrayer
is the only watcher and witness to Jesus' identity.
Mark further follows the conventions of the Wisdom traditions in setting up
antitheses to folly. He does this in two distinctive ways, linking each to his theology of
transformation: first, he hints at some future change in the foolish disciples; second, he
describes disciples who are wise. Mark accomplishes the first through his patterns of
scriptural allusion which in effect create dual time-frames and a double lens through
which to view the disciples: while he shows the disciples of the present to be weak,
vulnerable, and faithless, yet through biblical allusion he links them to rich traditions
of the past (the twelve tribes of Israel) and to images of future metanoia (the friends of
the Bridegroom). Called as sinners and fools, they are yet called to a transformed state,
and the biblical allusions serve as a foil which point to this calling. But Mark also
describes disciples who are wise, and his choice of metaphor here is apparently so
surprising to most readers that they have missed it: for while he shows all the foolish
disciples to be men, he depicts all the wise as women.
* * *
In the Jewish Wisdom writings the life-sustaining activities of God are given image
though the personification of Wisdom as a female figure: the faithful, provident wife of
Proverbs, the female Wisdom "poured out" in Sirach as a divine life-force upon
Creation, and the radiant feminine Wisdom who mirrors God in the Wisdom of Solomon. It is
in keeping with these traditions that Mark dramatizes women as the immediate foils to the
foolish disciples, as symbols of the wise. Mark works out this metaphorical antithesis in
three distinct, although overlapping, ways: in the first part of the gospel he shows
Jesus' healing miracles to be acts in which women are "raised up" to a new
status; in the second part, he shows women acting out the roles the male disciples have
failed to perform; at the end, he uses language which suggests that women are so
transformed by Jesus' resurrection that they become both bearers and symbols of God's
1. The "Raising Up" of Women (Chapters 1-7)
It cannot be fortuitous that Mark, in portraying the beginning of Jesus' ministry,
describes three healings: of a demoniac, a mother-in-law, and a leper. The first and last
make clear that he is depicting Jesus' outreach to the most reviled of the community;
situated between a demoniac and a leper, "the mother-in-law," we assume, is an
ancient joke. But there are serious implications here as well: before the time of Hillel
and Jesus, women, like lepers, were relegated to the outer courts of the Temple, and women
received social status only through their relationship to males -- usually their fathers
or husbands; for a woman to be known through her son-in-law is so extreme as to suggest
that Mark is making a special point of her social anonymity. In that context, Mark's way
of describing Jesus' miracle is reflective of the new attitude toward women which was
emerging in Early Judaism:(1) the miracle has a
historical base as well as a theological purpose.
The word used to describe the mother-in-law's condition -- "lying down" (katekeito)
-- is frequently used to describe someone already dead;(2)
the word used to describe her cure -- "raised up" (egeiren) -- is the
word Mark uses repeatedly to describe Jesus' resurrection. The words describing the
woman's healing are also part of a significant pattern. Mark says "the fever released
her" (afeken), choosing a word which subsequently appears as a synonym for forgive
(2:5, and 3:28) and for the opening of the deaf man's ears ("Be released,"
7:34). Mark's repetition indicates a theological perspective in which evil binds,
while the healing acts of Jesus are consistently directed toward releasing, opening up,
and setting free.
Most important is the word describing the cured woman's immediate response: "and
she began to serve" (diekone). The word is a leitmotif in Mark's
Gospel. It is used first to describe the angels ministering to Jesus in the desert (1:13).
More significantly, it is used by Jesus to describe the essence of discipleship: "If
anyone wants to be first, he will be the last of all and the servant (diakonos) of
all" (9:35). . . Whoever wants to be great among you will become your
servant (diakonos). . . For the son of man did not come to be served but
to serve (diakoneo)" (10:43-45). It is the way of life that is clearly modeled
on Jesus' own. As such it is not surprising that diakonos eventually came to
designate the first ministers of the Jesus community. But the only person in the entire
gospel to be described as "diakonos" is a woman. In terms of the
Markan narrative, she is the first to act like Jesus himself.
In short, a close reading of Mark's vocabulary shows that this first healing of a woman
is fraught with theological meaning: although she is lying down as one dead, Jesus takes
her by the hand, raises her up, and releases her from fever; she immediately
begins to minister to him. Her transformation is significantly preceded by the
purging of "the man with the unclean spirit": just as Jesus distinguishes there
between the man and his uncleanness, so his transformation of the woman distinguishes
between the marginalized status of the woman and her capacity for a ministerial role. Her
healing is also significantly echoed by the cure of the leper: through the action of
Jesus, the leper is not only restored to his religious community, but also changed from
being one who was prohibited from normal converse into the first preacher of the gospel.
Those on the religious fringe -- the woman and the leper -- are changed into the first
minsters of food and word. In different ways Jesus acts to restore each person he heals to
the center of communal life: he distinguishes between the man possessed and "the
unclean spirit" and restores him through purgation; similarly, he cures the
"unclean" flesh of the leper and returns him to the priests and the Mosaic
ritual. The center of this triad (always a key placement for Mark) is the healing of
The transformation of the woman, placed in the middle here by Mark, is a hinge episode.
Before her cure, she is not exactly called "unclean," but she is described as
lying ill; she is not entirely anonymous, but she is identified only by her relation to a
male. Her healing involves a ritual gesture on the part of Jesus -- a taking by the hand
and a raising up. The effect of this healing is twofold: she is released from her illness
and she begins to act as one of Jesus' followers and imitators. The transformation of this
semi-anonymous woman from "mother-in-law" to diakonos is a paradigmatic sign-act
in the Gospel of Mark.
Healing the Menstruating Woman; Raising Up the Dead Girl (5:21-43)
Like chapter 1, this chapter is also organized around three healings of those
considered "unclean" -- a Gentile possessed by unclean spirits (v. 2 ff.),
a woman suffering because of menstrual blood (vv. 25-27) and a child presumed to be a
corpse (v. 35 ff.) The central story is again that of a woman -- this time of a woman
whose menstrual flow has gone on for twelve years (v. 25). The very fact that this
female condition is presented sympathetically indicates an emerging attitude toward women
which might be characterized as special to both Early Judaism and Early Christianity.
Within both later Christian and Rabbinic law, a menstruating woman was considered
"unclean." In Ancient Judaism the prophets use the image of a menstruating woman
as a metaphor for Israel defiled by idolatry. Thus Jesus' cure of a menstruating woman has
implications far beyond that of a simple miracle: on one level, it may symbolize the
healing of idolatry; on another, it seems to indicate a shift in consciousness in respect
to women. On both counts, Jesus' healing of this woman expresses an attitude of outreach
to the "unclean" rather than one of judgment and exclusion.
While the woman in the first chapter is the passive recipient of healing, the woman
here takes the initiative, even "following after" (opisthen) Jesus to
effect her cure. She also consciously reflects, "If I should touch even his garments,
I will be saved" (sothesomai, v. 28). The woman's reaction of "fear
and trembling" (fobethisa and tremousa, v. 33), is an expression
of awe, and it is followed by a gesture of faith: "[she] came and fell down before
him and told him the whole truth" (v. 33). Jesus' reply is couched in the
vocabulary of liturgical formula: "Daughter, your faith has saved (sesoken)
you. Go in peace" (v. 34). The formula of "faith" which
"saves" suggests early Christian preaching, while the formula "Go in
peace" suggests a familiar Jewish blessing, levi l'shalom. Together they
reinforce the idea that this is an episode of theological and liturgical significance.
An important aspect of this significance is the emphasis on faith: at the end of
chapter 4, Jesus reproaches his disciples for their lack of faith (v. 40); here
he commends the woman for having faith. In fact, as we have seen above, the woman,
although not called to be a disciple, acts like one, following after Jesus and
trusting him to save her. The woman is a model of the faith the disciples lack. This
disparity foreshadows the passion narrative, where the male disciples all flee while the
women remain faithful followers of Jesus. This foreshadowing needs to be kept in mind in
reading the very end of the gospel, where the women are again described as experiencing
"fear and trembling"; we need to note the echo of this earlier episode where
such emotions are unmistakably the mark of a saving faith.
The theological term "salvation" frames the incident: the woman says,
"If I should touch even his garments I will be saved" (v. 28); he
tells her "Daughter, your faith has saved you" (v. 34). The power
going forth from Jesus without his explicitly willing it is reminiscent of the seed of the
kingdom which grows without the farmer's conscious attention. Just prior to this incident
is healing in a pagan and foreign territory (the Gerasene demoniac); it is followed by
healing in a synagogue and home (the healing of Jairus' daughter). The interlocking
structure makes a parallel between the last two: the seeking of the unclean woman and the
seeking of the synagogue leader; the menstruating woman and the girl of menstrual age; the
twelve years of hemorrhage and the age of the little girl; the restoration of the woman
and the raising up of the little girl. The whole triad suggests a parallel between all
three forms of uncleanness and all three seekers of healing -- the Gentile demoniac, the
woman outcast, the synagogue leader. It further suggests that none of them represents a
fixed or permanent condition: not demon-possession or female "uncleanness" or
even death. Placing the story of the healing of the menstruating woman in the center
suggests that this illness is like those on either side, and is the key to the other two.
Ending with the raising up of the little girl hints that all three episodes are forms of
resurrection. There is a strong implication that Jesus, in allowing a woman to touch him
in a time of "uncleanness," is virtually raising her from the dead.
This implication is bolstered by Jesus' touching of the child presumed dead; it is a
parallel instance of outreach to someone considered ritually unclean. In the latter
episode the theme of resurrection is more explicit than in the first; Jesus' command to
"rise up" is given directly and given twice -- first in Aramaic and then in
Greek. The idea of resurrection is also implicit in Jesus' first observation to the
mourners: "The child is not dead but sleeping" (v. 39). The word for
"sleeping" here is katheudo (as in 4:27 and 4:38), which can mean either
death or sleep, so that the verbal effect is one of mirror images. The importance of the
scene is underlined by the presence of the same three disciples who will be witnesses to
The raising up of the little girl thus echoes the raising up of the mother-in-law and
anticipates the raising up of Jesus. At the same time, the renewed life of the
twelve-year-old girl is linked structurally to the healing of the "unclean"
woman. In this way Mark suggests that the transformations of all three women are related
theologically, not only to each other, but also to the transformed life which the
disciples witness in Jesus.
The Exorcism of the Gentile Woman's Daughter (7:24-30)
Chapter 7 brings to a climax Jesus' relation to conventional ideas of the
"unclean." In the context of these views, the Syro-Phoenician woman is
"unclean" on three counts: as a woman; as a Gentile; as one who has a daughter
possessed by a demon. Her condition combines different forms of "uncleanness"
which Mark has portrayed earlier -- women in general, the Gentile demoniac, the daughter
of Jairus. Just as the chapter as a whole summarizes Jesus' earlier encounters with
"unclean" persons, so his encounter with this Gentile woman functions as a
summary of his previous relationship to women.
Strikingly different here, however, is Mark's description of Jesus' reluctance to
become involved with this woman, and her persistence in seeking him out. Mark says that
when Jesus entered a house, "he did not want anyone to know" (v. 24),
"but straightaway a woman hearing of him -- having a little daughter with an unclean
spirit -- came and fell down before his feet" (v. 25). Earlier in this chapter
Jesus emphasizes the importance of hearing God's word, even repeating the phrase of
chapter 4, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear!" (v. 16), and also
rebuking his disciples for their slowness (as usual) to understand (v. 18). In this
context, the quickness with which this Gentile woman "hears" of him is a
significant contrast. Finally, the woman's immediate response -- her gesture of reverence
in kneeling before him -- echoes the menstruating woman's gesture of faith.
The details of the concluding miracle also have to be read symbolically. The woman,
trusting in Jesus' power even without physical contact, goes home to find the demon gone
and her daughter whole; Jesus cures the child without touching her -- a fact which
symbolizes the action of faith in a later time-frame. There are echoes of earlier
narratives: as Jesus earlier cast a demon out of the synagogue, so here he has cast a
demon out of a child; as earlier he raised up a little girl to renewed life, so here he
has brought a little girl back to a healthy existence; as earlier he responded to the
request of a synagogue leader to heal his daughter, so here he responds to the request of
a Gentile woman. As his earlier miracles implied more than physical healing, so does this
one. Mark suggests that what happens here is the same as in every previous instance in
which Jesus has responded to a woman: there is a transformation of the person which
corresponds with a shift in perception as to that person's worth. "The
mother-in-law" becomes a diakonos; the "unclean" woman becomes a
model of faith; the "dead" child is shown to be merely sleeping. So here the
Gentile woman comes to trust in God's desire and power to heal, and a Gentile child is
purged of her demons. To sum up, Mark indicates, through his recounting of Jesus' actions,
that Jesus' outreach is not excluding but inclusive, and his presence is not condemning
but transformative. Through his transforming energy Gentiles are brought into the
blessings of the Covenant, and women are given the dignity of faith and ministry.
2. The Wise Women as Foils to the Foolish Disciples (Ch. 14-15)
In the final chapters of Mark's narrative (Ch. 14-16), women become increasingly
prominent as they stand in marked contrast to the betraying, sleeping, denying, and
fleeing disciples. In the whole of Mark's passion narrative, a woman's anointing of Jesus
is the only gesture of faith. It is not incidental that the betrayal of Judas provides the
frame: just before the woman's action, we hear the chief priests and scribes plotting to
murder Jesus (vv. 1-2); just after, we hear of Judas seeking out the high priests in
order to "hand him over" (vv. 10-11). The rest of the chapter is taken up
with multiple betrayals: Jesus' prediction of betrayal (vv. 18-21), the failure of
the three disciples to watch (vv. 32-42), the actual moment of Judas' betrayal
(vv. 43-49), the flight of the disciples (vv. 50-51), the condemnation based on
false witnesses (vv. 55-65), the denial of Peter (vv. 66-72). It is no small
matter that in the midst of these betrayals of Jesus, a woman performs a gesture of honor,
a ritual of anointing.
The incident has meaning on several levels: in terms of setting, the location in
Bethany is a reminder of Jesus' glorious entry into Jerusalem; the name itself means
"house of figs," which is suggestive of Endtime abundance. On both counts, the
very name Bethany provides a setting conducive to the coming of God's chosen, christos,
the "anointed one." The conjunction of the woman with the leper here is a
reminder of Jesus' first transforming miracles; their reappearance here in "the house
of figs" is suggestive of an Endtime community in which these two once marginalized
figures are now the ones who preside. The gesture of anointing with oil links the woman to
the ministry of the disciples in chapter 6 (6:13) where they are designated apostles
for the first time (6:7). The echoing image suggests that when the woman here anoints with
oil, she fulfills an apostolic role.
Mark's precise vocabulary deepens the theological import. The woman brings the oil in
an "alabaster vase" (v. 3) -- a costly container which indicates this is no
ordinary oil. The oil is "sweetsmelling" (v. 3), anticipating the
"spices" which the women will later bring to Jesus' tomb (16:1). Mark further
describes it (v. 3) as poluteles (the word means "pure" and "of
great price") and pistikos -- a word which has no known referent other than pistis,
the word for faith. The healed woman of chapter 5 is the only person commended for
having pistis; pistikos links the two, suggesting that this woman bears the oil
Even more significant are the words describing the woman's act -- "having
shattered the alabaster vase, she began to pour the oil on his head" (v. 3) --
which serve to anticipate the passion narrative to come. There is a graphic link between
the woman's breaking of the alabaster vase (suntribo means total destruction) and
Jesus' breaking of the bread which stands for his body; between the woman's action of
"pouring out" the oil and Jesus' reference to the wine as his blood "poured
out for many" (vv. 3; 22-24). Like those of Jesus, the woman's gestures also
take place at a Passover meal (vv. 1, 3) and the anticipatory nature of the woman's
gestures are noted by Jesus himself (v. 8). This breaking and pouring out
in the house of Simon the leper is linked to the breaking and pouring out of
the Passover meal -- actions which, in turn, are linked to the breaking of Jesus' body and
the pouring out of his blood. The woman's actions anticipate both Jesus' death and Jesus'
own gestures in symbolizing his death -- the bread broken and the wine poured out.
Jesus himself gives theological and liturgical significance to what the woman has done.
When those around complain in mundane terms that this effusion of oil is a
"waste" because it "could have been sold for more than 300 denarii and
given to the poor" (vv. 4-5), Jesus replies in liturgical terms: "She has
worked a fitting work on me. . . She has done what she could beforehand to have
anointed my body in preparation for burial" (v. 8). The word for
"work" here -- ergon -- may refer to practical action, but is also used
in Scripture to characterize the deeds of God.(3)
The comment "she has done what she could" echoes Jesus' praise for the poor
widow who contributed to the Temple "everything she had" (12:44). The assertion
that she was anointing Jesus' body for burial confirms her gesture as a
Most significant of all, Jesus applies to the woman the liturgical idea of
"remembering": "Truly I say to you, whenever the good news is preached in
the whole world, then what she has done will be told in memory of her" (v. 9).
The Greek word for "memory" here, mnemosunon, must be understood in
relation to the Hebrew word zikkaron -- a word which is used for a liturgical
reenactment which reactualizes, it is believed, the moment of God's saving grace. Within
Jewish tradition this word is used in reference to Passover, expressing the belief that
through the liturgy, God frees his people again each year; the celebration is not just of
the past, but of the present. This same belief carried over to the Christian celebration
of the Eucharist. The word used here is thus rich in meaning: it suggests that since these
acts of a woman at a Passover meal anticipate the final acts of Jesus, in some future time
she will be remembered as Jesus' death is remembered, for the reenactment of his death
will also be a reenactment of her acts of breaking and pouring. Time is not linear here
but synchronic: her gestures anticipate the liturgical remembering of Jesus' death; her
gestures enact the eucharistic remembrance.(4)
As "remembrance" is a key to Jewish liturgy, so "watchfulness" is a
key to Jewish Wisdom. At the end of the crucifixion scene Mark indicates that while the
male disciples have fled the pain of Jesus' death, the women have been watching: "And
there were women seeing from a distance, among them Mary Magdalene, and Mary mother of
James the younger and Joses, and Salome, who, when in Galilee, followed him and served
him, and many others who went up together with him into Jerusalem" (vv. 40-41).
Brief though the assertion is, it is remarkable for the contrast it presents to the
behavior of everyone else: the high priests and scribes who plot against Jesus, Pilate who
condemns him, the Roman soldiers who scourge, mock, and crucify him, the mere passersby
who ridicule him, and above all, his disciples who betray, deny, and flee him.
The vocabulary of these two verses, moreover, indicates that this is more than a casual
statement. The word for "seeing" here -- theorousai -- is a word which
means "notice" or "perceive," and can also imply "spiritual
perception." This deeper understanding of the word is warranted because the contrast
here points up the fact that the women have been the only ones faithfully watching Jesus'
death. They have been faithful while the disciples have fled; they have done the
"watching" Jesus asked his disciples to do; they are the "witnesses"
Jesus called his apostles to be. While those called to be "disciples" have
failed, these women are in fact acting the part. This function of the women is borne out
even further by Mark's use of the words "follow" (akoloutheo) and
"serve" (diakoneo) to describe their relationship to Jesus -- words which
we have already seen are keywords of discipleship.
Significantly there are three women named here, so they serve as a balance and
counterpoint to the three male disciples whom Jesus chose to be his special witnesses in
the Garden, and who fell asleep instead. The naming of the three is itself worth noticing:
instead of the anonymous women we have encountered before in the narrative, these women
have achieved a new status.
Finally, the names themselves are meaningful: there are two Marys -- "Mary
Magdalene" and "Mary, the mother of James the younger and Joses." Of the
first we know nothing in Mark; the latter echoes the scene where Jesus' hometown folks
reject his miracles because they know him as "the son of Mary and brother of James
and Joses" (6:3). The clear implication, then, is that this second Mary is Jesus'
mother. Mark's focus here is not on biographical information but theological irony. Jesus'
miracles are rejected earlier because he is too common, too ordinary; yet those very
miracles, as we have repeatedly seen, are aimed at making the common and ordinary holy. So
here his mother, a common woman the homefolks think could not possibly be the mother of a
prophet, is shown to be acting with uncommon faithfulness. It is very much to the point
that Mark describes Jesus' mother Mary as neither more nor less than "Mary of
Magdala." What is remarkable about these ordinary women is not who they are
but what they do. And in terms of the Markan narrative, what they do is to act like
faithful followers (i.e., disciples), like servants (i.e., ministers), and
like unfailing witnesses and anointers (i.e., apostles). Their role is reinforced
by the final verse of chapter 15 -- "Now Mary Magdalen and Mary of Joses were
perceiving where he had been laid" (v. 47): Mark repeats the verb for spiritual
perception (theoreo), and indicates that these women were the only ones who were
witnesses of Jesus' tomb.(5)
3. The Women as Witnesses and Signs of a New Creation (16:1-8)
Mark describes the same three women who witnessed the crucifixion as the ones who come
first to the tomb. Again the two Marys reappear like a refrain. The third name, Salome,
is striking because it reminds us of the other Salome who danced for John the Baptist's
head. The effect is similar to the pairing of Simon Peter with Simon the leper or Simon of
Cyrene: while Simon Peter denies Jesus, Simon the leper welcomes him and Simon of Cyrene
carries his cross; while Herod's Salome danced for death, this Salome brings spices for
life. The repetition of names conveys a sense of alter egos, or the possibility of
transformation: "Simon" may deny Jesus, or receive him, or share the burden of
his cross; "Salome" may be a shallow woman who becomes an accomplice to murder,
or a strong and faithful woman who is among the first to hear the news of resurrection.
The scene of the three women here reverberates with echoes. These women, like the first
woman whom Jesus healed, had ministered to him (15:40-41), and like the
"unclean" woman, had followed after him. They have come to anoint Jesus
like the woman in Bethany. In fact, the anointing of Jesus by women forms an inclusio
around the whole narrative of his passion and death. While the narrative of Jesus seems to
be moving him toward total defeat, the ritual action of the women continues to claim him
as God's anointed.
This second anointing is inevitably a reminder of the first, with its sacrificial
gestures of breaking and outpouring. But there are differences which are also significant.
The first woman anointed Jesus "for his burial," while these women, coming to
the tomb, find his body is not there. Thus these spices cannot be used to perform the
ritual of sealing the body in death; they are only appropriate to a liturgy of life. These
women coming to the tomb, moreover, are in a different time-frame: they are, Mark tells
us, in a time beyond the Sabbath (16:1). In that context, the reference to spices is
suggestive of the closing of the Sabbath liturgy where the distribution of spices
accompanies a prayer that the Sabbath-time will continue to hallow and sweeten the
"ordinary time" of the week. The liturgy for death has become a liturgy for
hallowing ordinary life. In both instances, it is women who perform it.
Symbolic of a new creation, the women come "very early in the morning on the first
day of the week. . . . on the rising of the sun" (v. 2). In this
context, the entry of the women into the tomb also bears symbolic import: "And they
were saying to each other, 'Who will roll away for us the stone outside the door of the
tomb?' And looking up they see that the stone had been rolled back" (vv. 3-4).
There is an echo here of the crazed demoniac who "lived among the tombs" (5:3)
and "was bruising himself with stones" (5:5) before Jesus healed him. Even the
word for "door" (thuras) is a reminder of the "doorkeeper" in
the parable whom the master told to be "on the watch" (13:34). Both echoes may
be subliminal, but they work to raise our expectations. These expectations are then
confirmed by the appearance of a "young man sitting on the right clothed in a white
robe" (16:5). He is suggestive of three transformations: the transformed demoniac
"sitting clothed and in his right mind" (5:15); the white clothing of the
transfigured Jesus (9:3); and the rehabilitation of the frightened youth who fled naked
from the scene of Jesus' arrest (14:51). The women's entry into the tomb is thus placed in
a context of transformation, and their fleeing from the tomb (16:8) must be seen not as an
act of fear but of new life.
The message which the "young man" or angel subsequently gives the women is
one of new life in more than one sense. There is first the news that Jesus has been
raised. Beyond that, the word of the angel also suggests that they themselves, the
women, are to leave the tomb and take on a new existence. In a total reversal of
ancient conventions (both religious and social) the women are "sent forth" --
i.e., as apostles -- and given the ministry of preaching the word to the male
disciples. In a narrative which has repeatedly stressed Jesus' "raising up" of
women, it is fitting that the first effects of his resurrection should be reflected in
their transformed state.
This transformation of the women has been seriously undermined by translations. It is
therefore important to look carefully at the vocabulary Mark uses. The women's immediate
response is one of being utterly astounded: exethambethesan, a word peculiar to
Mark among New Testament writers,(6) is one he has
used to indicate the response of the crowd to Jesus' first exorcism (1:27) and the
reaction of the crowd upon seeing Jesus after the scene of transfiguration (9:15). Their
further responses -- tromos, ekstasis, and efobounto (16:8) -- are words whose
meaning is also linked to other contexts. As we have seen, tromos --
"trembling" -- is used earlier by Mark to describe the awed faith of the woman
healed of her twelve-year hemorrhage (5:33); it is coupled there with fobethisa --
a pairing which is customary in the Septuagint to express the kind of dread one has before
a superior being.(7) Here the "trembling"
is paired with ekstasis, which conveys an even stronger sense of religious awe.(8)
In Jewish Scripture, "ecstasy" is a word associated with a form of prophecy
induced by the powerful overtaking of God's spirit.(9)
In the Septuagint the word is used twice in Genesis, both times to indicate a deep trance
imposed by God in order to bring about a new order of being -- the "deep sleep"
of Abraham at the making of the covenant (Gen. 15:12), and the deep sleep of 'adam
at the making of sexual beings.(10) Both
allusions are relevant, but the reference to Genesis seems most pertinent, indicating that
Mark is deliberately choosing a word which suggests God in the process of a new creation.
Within Mark's Gospel itself the same word has appeared before to express the feelings
of those who have just seen Jesus raising up Jairus's daughter (5:42). In addition, a
related term appears in 3:21, where Jesus himself is thought by those close to him to be
"beside himself" or "out of his mind" (ecksete, aor. eksistemi).
The two words come together at the end of chapter 5 where Mark describes the response
of the crowd witnessing the child's resurrection from presumed death: "eksestesan
ekstasei" -- i.e., they were out of their minds with ecstasy. The
convergence underlines the fact that the word meaning "madness" and the word
meaning "ecstasy" are related both in idea and in etymology: they both indicate
a state of being which is other than the purely rational. The linguistic closeness is
suggestive of how that state may appear simultaneously to be irrational to the onlooker
and visionary to the one experiencing it. Here, then, is another Markan triad: Jesus, near
the beginning of the gospel, and the women at the end, are described in parallel and
balancing terms; at the center stands the crowd overwhelmed by the experience of
witnessing an unexpected restoration of life. Ekstasis, therefore, is far more than
mere "astonishment": it indicates a transformed state of consciousness.
The final word -- efobounto -- also has a range of possible meanings: while its
first and simplest meaning is "to be afraid," it also bears the sense of reverence,
as for God. In Mark, this word is twice applied to the male disciples: first, after
Jesus has stilled the storm (4:41), and second, after Jesus has been transfigured (9:6).
The first instance is translated by the NRSV as "filled with great awe," the
second as "terrified." In short, this is a clear case where translation is
tantamount to interpretation. The singular use of ekstasis here, however, lends
weight to the meaning of "awe."
"Fear" as holy awe seems to be remote from the minds of those translators and
commentators who consider all experiences of fear to be negative and unhealthy. Yet the
Hebrew Bible contains many instances in which human beings express a feeling of deep
reverence in the presence of the numinous. From Moses at Sinai to Job before the
whirlwind, the Bible speaks repeatedly of the human experience of mysterium tremens
as the beginning of wisdom. "Fear of the Lord," in these contexts, is not to be
equated with fright or terror, but rather with the profound recognition of how little one
understands of the divine mystery. In keeping with the Wisdom traditions, it is this kind
of holy fear that Mark makes his theme, and he uses the same word to express this holy
fear as an appropriate response to Jesus' stilling of the seas, to the vision of Jesus in
a transformed state, and to the news of Jesus' resurrection.
Among the commentators who do interpret the women's response as reverence rather than
timidity, are D. E. Nineham, who speaks of their "holy awe";(11) John Donahue, who refers to their
"numinous fear";(12) and Robert H.
Gundry, who relates the description of their feelings here to other instances in Mark:
"Fear is a healthy sort elsewhere in Mark. . . . as are trembling
(5:33) and astonishment (2:12, 5:42, 6:51). . . Therefore Mark is not
criticizing the women for their trembling, astonishment, or fear. Rather, he is using
these reactions to highlight the supernaturalness of Jesus' resurrection."(13) All the episodes which Gundry singles out as
using similar vocabulary to the ending are instances of miracle, and the words in every
case clearly indicate a human being not only overwhelmed, but gladdened and changed by
divine power. The woman who realizes that just touching Jesus' hem has healed her, kneels
down in "fear and trembling" (fobetheisa kai tremousa, 5:33), and
Jesus commends her for her faith (5:34). Those who see the paralytic take up his
bed and walk experience an ecstatic joy that makes them glorify God (hoste existasthai
pantas kai doxazein theon, 2:12); those who witness the raising up of the little girl
go out of their minds with ecstasy (kai exestesan ekstasei megale, 5:42); the
disciples who watch Jesus walk on the water and then quiet the wind are "utterly [and
beyond measure] beside themselves" (kai liav [ek perissou] ev eautois existanto,
6:51). Jesus himself is thought to be "beside himself" (exeste) by those
who do not understand him (3:21). If we add to these examples the moment when the
disciples, seeing Jesus still the sea, are "filled with great awe" (4:41), and
the moment when Peter, upon seeing Jesus transfigured, feels moved to build places of
worship (9:6), we see that there is precedent, indeed a pattern in Mark, of expressing
religious experience through words of fear and ecstasy. If we are aware of this pattern,
then we will perceive that verse eight, which combines these feelings, is not let-down but
climax: the meaning of the women's "fear" is contextualized not only by the
precedents of the disciples' awe, but also by their "trembling and ecstasy" (tromos
kai ekstasis) -- which are, in Mark, the feelings which accompany a breakthrough in
The connecting eixev here literally means "had," but usage suggests
the sense of being possessed by something. The same construction appears in 9:17
when the father tells Jesus about his son "having a dumb spirit." The fact that
the phrase here is similar calls attention to its inverse meaning: the child was possessed
by a demon which kept him from speaking; the women are possessed by a God-induced ecstasy,
and thus silent for opposite reasons.
Putting these meanings together, this final verse of Mark's Gospel should read:
"And going out they fled the tomb, for trembling ["mysterium
tremens"] and ecstasy possessed them, and they said nothing to anyone, for
they were filled with awe."
So translated, this verse represents a climax in the motif of transformation.
Each part of it, in fact, bears symbolic weight. The women's fleeing from the tomb not
only mirrors the change in the healed demoniac, but more significantly, Jesus' own release
from the tomb. Their sense of being possessed by holy ecstasy is the reverse of possession
by the devil. The word ekstasis points to the trance-like state of a new creation.
Their silence is not a dumb or fearful silence; their speechlessness comes from being
"filled with awe."
Mark's assertion that "they said nothing to anyone" must be taken as the
final Markan irony. The statement echoes Jesus' first charge to the cured leper "not
to say anything to anyone" (1:44); as one hears the echo, one must also remember that
the leper immediately "went out and began to talk freely" (1:45). The leper
became a preacher; so here, the very fact of Mark's Gospel is testimony to the eloquence
of the women.
The women's significance becomes clearest when they are compared with the male
disciples. The disciples are called to follow Jesus (Ch. 1), to follow after his
cross (Ch. 8), to follow him in being the servant of all (Ch. 9).
They are called to be prepared for his death, and to watch with him in his
distress (Ch. 13-14). They are called to bear witness to God's kingdom and to
heal through anointing with oil (Ch. 6). Within the boundaries of the Markan
narrative the male disciples of Jesus fail to do any of these things, while the women in
fact fulfill them: they follow and serve (Ch. 1, 5, 15); they follow
Jesus to the cross and the tomb (Ch. 15, 16); they watch faithfully to the
very end and even beyond the end (Ch. 15, 16); they prepare for his death,
they anoint with oil (Ch. 14, 16); they are the first to be sent forth as witnesses
of the resurrection. While Jesus repeatedly reproaches the male disciples for their lack
of understanding, he commends women (both a Jewish and a Gentile woman) for their faith
(Ch. 5, 7). In his dying, while the male disciples betray, deny, and flee from Jesus,
a woman gives "everything she has" to anoint him (Ch. 14).
Through the role of the women, Mark's Gospel ends as a new beginning: "very early
in the morning on the first day of the week. . . . on the rising of the
sun" the women are cast into a trance-like state -- such as that which accompanied
the first making of the Covenant (Gen. 15:12) or the making of male and female (Gen.
2:21), God's very "image and likeness" (Gen.1:26). The Endtime is a return to
Genesis. The women as the first transformed disciples exemplify the return to God's Beginning
-- in Jewish interpretive tradition, a codeword for Wisdom.(14)
Theological Implications Then and Now
Mark's representation of Jesus' disciples -- both male and female -- has significant
implications for the inclusive nature of the Jesus community, both then and now.
Comparison with contemporaneous first-century theology makes clear the significance of the
Markan perspective. In the Qumran documents, for example, we find a community oriented
toward preparation for a final war between good and evil. To be considered for the
community, one had to be examined and judged worthy; a period of initiation followed after
which one was "set apart as holy" and allowed to share in "secret"
teachings. By this separation "from the habitation of ungodly men" one could
"prepare the way of the Lord" (CRVIII). In the War Scroll, the standards exclude
anyone "who is lame, or blind, or crippled, or afflicted with a lasting bodily
blemish, or smitten with bodily impurity," and all women (WS VII). This extreme
example points up the antithesis of the Markan Gospel: the Markan Jesus reaches out to
touch and transform the very ones whom the Qumran community excludes.
The inclusiveness of the Markan community also stands in contrast to the community of
The Apocalypse, where we find images of a predestined elect, esoteric knowledge, a fixed
separation between the righteous and the wicked, and an exclusion of women from the ranks
of the saints. In Mark, the Wisdom community is an open community because it springs from
the acknowledgment that God's ways are not subject to human calculation. In Mark, we find
Jesus calling all sinners as his disciples, and discipleship validated existentially. The
most striking image of this existential authentication lies in the dramatic example of
The use of women to exemplify holiness draws out meanings implicit in the Wisdom
writings. It is in keeping with the theology which frames these traditions that the women
in Mark are repeatedly "raised up" and brought to a moment of renewed creation.
It is in the context of these traditions that the conclusion of Mark's Gospel finds its
full significance, for it dramatizes ordinary women coming to a new understanding of God's
mystery through watchfulness, through not-knowing ("Who will roll away for us the
door to the tomb?"), and through profound reverence (tromos and ekstasis).
Mark in effect ends his gospel by dramatizing the unifying theme of the Wisdom writings:
that "Fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom."
The idea of an inclusive religious community is congenial, moreover, not only with
Wisdom perspectives but in general with Jewish midrashic theology which perceives God's
word to be a dynamic, unending source of new disclosures, a timeless word which is
relevant to changing times, an open-ended, ongoing revelation. In Mark's theological
narrative, Jesus' life, death, and resurrection are constructed as midrashic commentary on
Hebrew Scripture; his very person is shown to reflect the dynamism of divine Wisdom whose
meaning is continually unfolding. It is consistent with this midrashic openness that Mark
shows Jesus forming his followers as an open, existentially defined community. It is
consistent with the perspective offered by midrashic Wisdom that membership in this
community is exemplified by women.
Within the Markan Gospel it is particularly the transformation of women -- from being
excluded and semi-anonymous to being disciples and deacons and models of faith, to being
anointer of the anointed one and celebrator of his liturgy of death, to being visionary
prophets entrusted with preaching the word of ongoing resurrection -- which functions as a
sign of God's Kingdom. These women point to an Endtime community which is inclusive and
ongoing; their transformation is the sign of God's new Creation.
Contrary to this view, many readers of Mark have found his ending abrupt, concluding as
it does with Jesus unseen, the male disciples absent, the women silent. Even the syntax of
the final verse supports the sense of things unfinished, ending (in a way that is
permissible in Greek) on gar, the preposition "for." It was
undoubtedly as an attempt to tidy matters up that some later hand added the verses 9-20.
Unfortunately, their sharp antithesis, both to Mark's theology and to his theological
method, suggest that this later author badly misunderstood what Mark was about. An
audience familiar with midrashic strategies would not have been put off by the lack of
closure. It would have understood that the absence of an ending was part of the meaning,
allowing for God's continuing revelation and their own part in receiving it. From this
perspective Mark's open-endedness is purposeful, inviting members of each faith-community
to complete the meaning for themselves. To respond to that invitation is to acknowledge
that Mark's Gospel has implications for our own time.
To consider these implications, it is important, first, to observe what Mark is not
saying. To note that Mark concludes his gospel with new symbols of Covenant and Creation
is not to suggest that Mark renders obsolete their primary value. On the contrary, the
power of the symbols here derives precisely from their significance in Jewish tradition.
Midrashic theology does not limit the times God's word can be fulfilled, but allows for
infinite repetitions of the divine being. Thus the consciousness of a new way of being
expressed through the image of the women's prophetic trance does not negate God's promise
to the entranced Abraham, but fulfills it in a different way. Similarly, the echo of the
transformative sleep of 'adam which concluded in paired creatures created to image
God through their relationship, infuses and enriches the symbolic drama here of women as
the first witnesses to men of the resurrected life.
The metaphorical level must not be dismissed. Mark is not making the argument that
women always replace men in religious leadership any more than he is asserting that
Christianity is the replacement of Judaism. Such a reading, in either case, is literalist
and reductive. Rather, the images work, in both instances, to suggest that God's will and
word are fulfilled in ceaselessly new and surprising ways. Taken as imaginative theology,
the images do not enclose us in definitions, but open us up to new possibilities.
As the earliest formulation of apostolic witness, Mark's Gospel ought to have a special
claim on the Christian conscience. As such, it provides not only a witness to the riddling
person of Jesus, but also a creative way of witnessing which we might do well to
reappropriate. Understood as part of the theological discourse of its time, it offers us a
model for doing theology which is imaginative and open-ended, dialogical and
participatory. Through its imaging, it projects God's kingdom as a state of transformed
consciousness which it inclusively invites all hearers to enter. If we accept that
invitation to dialogue with the text and complete its meaning for our own time, we will
need to ponder its image of women as followers and reflectors of Wisdom/Jesus who is image
of God. Beyond that, we will need to reflect on how the Jesus movement grew out of Early
Judaism with its imaginative language and its humble refusal to limit the fulfillment of
God's word. If we can do that, we will also be faithful, on both counts, to Augustine's
"rule of faith," which is the measure of love.
1. [Back to text] Many recent scholars
have shown that women were beginning to achieve a new status in first-century Judaism, and
even beginning to act as leaders in the synagogues. See Judith Plaskow, Standing Again
at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1990),
and "Christian Feminism and Anti-Judaism," Cross Currents 33 (Fall 1978);
Shaye Cohen, "Women in Synagogues of Antiquity," Conservative Judaism 34,
2 (1980): 23-29; Bernadette Brooton, Women Leaders of the Ancient Synagogue (Chico,
Calif.: Scholars Press, 1982); and Ross Kraemer, Her Share of the Blessings: Women's
Religions Among Pagans, Jews, and Christians in the Greco-Roman World (New York:
2. [Back to text] See William Bauer, Greek
Dictionary of the New Testament, 411.
4. [Back to text] In her first work
retrieving the role of women hidden in Scripture -- In Memory of Her (New York:
Crossroad, 1983) -- Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza makes brilliant and ironic use of this
phrase, suggesting that far from being remembered, this woman has been so totally
forgotten that no one even knows her name; she thus uses this incident to symbolize
women's forgotten place in the gospel. I am suggesting even more: that a full retrieval of
the woman's actions here would mean recognition that she performs a key
5. [Back to text] Similar insights are
expressed by Schüssler Fiorenza In Memory of Her, 320 ff., and Discipleship of
Equals (New York: Crossroad, 1993), 113.
6. [Back to text] See Vincent Taylor, The
Gospel According to Saint Mark (London: Macmillan, 1963), 606.
8. [Back to text] Bauer notes (245) that
while ekstasis may be translated "distraction, confusion, astonishment,
terror," it also has the meaning of "trance" or "ecstasy" --
i.e., "a state of being brought about by God, in which consciousness is wholly or
partially suspended." The NRSV translates the word as "amazement" but
concedes that the word "fear" in the last phrase is "probably in the sense
of overwhelming awe."
9. [Back to text] Consider the band of
prophets who greet Saul with musical instruments and change him "into another
person." (1 Sam. 10:6) The NRSV comments: "To be in a prophetic
frenzy. . . . and be turned into another person means here to dance
ecstatically and be out of one's head, in the fashion of the so-called ecstatic prophecy
of those days." This ecstatic prophecy was accompanied by "the Spirit of
God" coming upon the person. Fiorenza also discusses "the world experience
common to the ancient Mediterranean civilization" of prophecy as ecstasy. See In
10. [Back to text]'Adam before
this point in Genesis means simply "earthling" or "of the earth";
sexuality itself is created here. See Phyllis Trible, "A Love Story Gone
Astray," in God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality (Philadelphia: Fortress,
11. [Back to text]Saint Mark
(Penguin: 1963), 441. Nineham suggests throughout his commentary his belief that Mark
intends to convey feelings of reverence in his ending. Nonetheless he translates the final
phrase simply as "trembling and astonishment" (442).
12. [Back to text]The Gospel in
Parable (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988). Donahue concludes: "Mark's readers are
left not even with the assurance of a resurrection vision but simply with numinous fear in
the face of divine promise. These reactions of wonder and surprise accompany the
revelation of God in Jesus, and they signify the power of this revelation to unsettle and
challenge human existence. At the same time, this wonder is fascinating and attracting; it
invites people to confront mystery. Such motifs call for a parabolic reading of Mark: for
an approach to Mark with a sense of wonder, awe, and holy fear" (196-97).
13. [Back to text]Mark: A Commentary
on His Apology for the Cross (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1993), 1015.
14. [Back to text] This pairing of
meanings derives from the fact that in Hebrew there is a grammatical gap in the first
words of Genesis: b'reshit (in the beginning) is a phrase in the construct state,
but a verb follows where a noun is expected. The midrash explained away this syntactical
absence by connecting this verse with Wisdom's self-identification as "the
beginning" of God's way in Proverbs 8:22. Thus, the midrashic understanding goes, the
opening verse of the Bible should be read with Wisdom as a substitute, viz.,
"In the wisdom of God He created. . ."
Two different midrashic commentaries testify to it: "You find that by (or 'in')
wisdom, the Holy One, blessed be he, created the heaven and the earth" (Tanh. B.
i:11); "Torah, because it was loved more than all things, was created before all
things, as it is written, 'The Lord possessed me, the beginning of his ways' " (Sifre
on Deut. 11:10). More pertinent, perhaps, to gospel composition, the Fragmentary Targum on
Genesis simply makes the substitution: "In Wisdom the Lord
created. . ." These examples are given in Bowker, The Targums,
98-100. Philip Alexander cites the opening of the Genesis Rabba which makes the same
substitution. See "Pre-Emptive Exegesis: Genesis Rabba's Reading of the Story of
Creation," Journal of Jewish Studies 43, no. 2 (Autumn 1992): 237.
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