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 resurrection.

    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 Early Judaism.

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 renewed Creation.

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 woman.

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 transfiguration.

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 of faith.

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 liturgical act.

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 human perception.

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 women.

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: Oxford, 1992).

2. [Back to text]  See William Bauer, Greek Dictionary of the New Testament, 411.

3. [Back to text]  See ibid., 307.

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 liturgical act.

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.

7. [Back to text]  See Gen. 9:2, Ex. 15:16, Dt. 2:25.

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 Memory, 296.

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, 1978), 94ff.

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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Source: Cross Currents, Summer 1998, Vol. 48 Issue 2.