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Peter Kirby Tomb Fictional

Fictional Characteristics in Mark

With the previous section, this section aims to provide a likely explanation for how the empty tomb story came to be without a historical basis. This section does more to discredit the story because indications in Mark will be used to suggest the fictional, legendary, or redactional character of the first known empty tomb story. Like most arguments, this one is inconclusive but does form an important part of the entire argument.

It is, naturally, difficult to prove that any story is written as fiction. After all, any incident in the story that suggests fiction can be met with the retort that the incident was included because it was historical. For example, there is the well-known tendency of novelists to have characters bump into each other far beyond reasonable coincidence. This might be taken as a sign of fiction, but then it might be objected that the writer could have included these incidents because there were, in fact, many odd coincidences in which the historical people crossed paths. If this kind of objection is accepted, I cannot think of any indication of authorial creation that is unobjectionable. For this reason, I will allow that all such indications are objectionable yet that they still do tend to support the fiction hypothesis.

One well-known indication in favor of fiction is the existence of previous stories of the same type on which the narrative could have been modeled. Randal Helms believes that he has found a clear precursor for Mark’s story:


In the 30’s and 40’s, the empty tomb story was not part of the tradition about the resurrection; Paul was quite unaware of it. The legend grew in Mark’s community, or one from which it borrowed, as part of its stock evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. As Matthew was to do again a generation later, certain Christians, perhaps in the 50’s or 60’s, searched the Old Testament, a major source of what was for them authoritative information about Jesus, in order to construct their account of the passion and resurrection, and found in the Book of Daniel much of what was needed. Consider the parallels: a leader of the nation opposed to the spokesman for God’s people (Darius of Persia; Joseph of Arimathea), yet one who in his heart reveres that spokesman (Daniel; Jesus), though greatly distressed, feels obliged to place the spokesman into a pit in the ground and cover it with a stone (the lion’s den; the tomb), an act that clearly means the spokesman’s permanent end. In both stories the death of the spokesman is required by law (the law of the Medes and Persians; the law of Rome), and in both, the executor of the law is reluctant to enforce it (Darius “exerted himself until evening” to save Daniel; Pilate attempted to convince an angry mob that Jesus should be released). But despite reluctance and delay, late in the afternoon both heroes are placed into the pit. In both stories a stone is put over the opening, and in both the placer of the stone has hope in the providence of God (Darius says, “Your own God…will save you”; Joseph “looked forward to the kingdom of God”). Early on a subsequent morning in both stories (“At dawn, as soon as it was light” – Dan. 6:19, “just after sunrise” – Mark 16:2), the pit is approached by those who cared deeply for the hero (Darius; the three women). Next comes joyful news (Daniel lives; “He has been raised again”). In both stories, the stone is removed, death is miraculously overcome, and deliverance is assisted by an angel (“My God sent his angel,” to shut the lions’ mouth, says Daniel; “a young man…dressed in a white robe” has removed the stone, says Mark).

As Matthew studied Mark’s account, he perceived its transparence upon Daniel, and found in the latter not only the literary source of the empty tomb story (which because of that particular first-century orientation he recognized as a prophecy rather than as a source), but also the means of both enlarging and clarifying Mark and of overcoming what he regarded as its deficiencies. The modern reader who grasps the dependence of Mark on Daniel might be led to see the gospel narrative as carefully constructed fiction which in the absence of real evidence is based on a belief in what must have been the case, since Daniel had “predicted” it. Matthew’s reaction was in keeping with first-century oracular views of the Old Testament: any detail in Mark which differs from Matthew’s interpretation of Daniel’s “prediction” must be historically inaccurate. For example, Mark does not make it clear enough to Matthew’s satisfaction that the figure the women see at the tomb is an angel (aggelos) as Daniel had clearly called him; Mark’s figure is merely a youth (neaniskon) in a white robe. For the sake of prophetic fulfilment, Matthew changed “youth” to “angel of the Lord” (Matt. 28:2). Moreover, since Mark does not describe the figure in terms unmistakably angelic, Matthew alters the description, again on the basis of the Septuagint version of Daniel, where he finds a heavenly being whose “raiment was white as snow” (to enduma autou leukon hosei chion – Dan. 7:9); thus Matthew’s angel has “raiment white as snow” (to enduma auto leukon hos chion – Matt. 28:3). Matthew’s angel has a spectacular mien: “His appearance was like lightning” (en de he eidea autou hos astrape – Matt. 28:3), as in Daniel, who says of an angel that “his face was as the appearance of lightning” (to prosopon autou hos he horasis astrapes – Dan. 10:6). Mark’s figure says, “Do not be amazed” (Me ekthambeisthe – 16:5); Matthew, however, knowing that angels, when they appear, say “Do not be afraid” (Me phobou – Dan. 10:12), changes the opening of the angel’s speech to the women to accord with the Old Testament: “Do not be afraid” (Me phobeisthe – Matt. 28:5). Finally, Matthew found in Daniel justification for changing Mark’s statement that the announcement of the resurrection left the women only fearful and silent: When Darius learned that Daniel was still alive, “the king was very glad” (6:23). Thus Matthew declares that the women, on learning that “he is risen,” reacted with “awe and great joy” (Matt. 28:8).[42]

While not all the parallels adduced by Helms should be attributed to borrowing from the book of Daniel, it does become apparent that the account of the discovery of the empty tomb was to some degree modeled after the story in Daniel.

Johannes Leipoldt, translated by Eric Weinberger, comments on the likelihood that there was some mythology associated with the inability to find the body of the risen in the person’s tomb:


It seems highly probable that the Greek romantic novels presuppose the stories of dying and rising dieties. Narrative forms used in the legends emerge in the novels in a new guise, adapted to the human realm and the conditions of the present, shorn of superstition and cut into manageable pieces with the knife of enlightenment. What is important in the present context is that the novelist Chariton, writing at the beginning of the Christian era, if not earlier, mentions an empty sepulcher. Chaereas goes to the grave of his (supposedly) deceased wife, Callirhoe. Here are the key sentences with which Chariton describes this visit: Chaereas “arrived at the tomb at daybreak.” “He found the stones removed and the entrance open. At that he took fright.” “No one dared enter (the tomb).” “He could not believe that his wife was not lying there.” “He searched throughout the tomb, but could not find anything.” Finally, Chaereas says, speaking in spirit to his wife, “I will search for you by water and by land.” Much here is admittedly different than in the New Testament accounts, the most striking difference being the “enlightened” point of view: Callirhoe is not really dead, but only seems to be so. . . It seems that the motif of an empty tomb occurs in several stories of gods (though not in the case of Osiris, of course) and resurfaces in early Christianity.[43]

There is some precedent for a searching-and-not-finding-the-body story in the Jewish scriptures. In 2 Kings 2:9-18, Elijah is carried off into heaven in a whirlwind in the presence of Elisha. But some believe that Elijah may still be around somewhere, so they persuade Elisha to send fifty men “who searched for three days without finding him.” Obviously the story is different in the Gospel of Mark because the women do not go to the tomb with the purpose of searching for Jesus but simply to anoint him (cf. Mk 16:1). However, the act of the women evinces poor faith and misunderstanding concerning the resurrection of Jesus, and in that way the stories are similar.

Norman Perrin explains the function of the empty tomb story in the Gospel of Mark by connecting it with Mark’s theme of discipleship. All those who knew Jesus fail, including the three named male disciples, Peter and James and John, as well as the three named female followers. The named women who expect to find and anoint the corpse of Jesus in the tomb also serve as a foil the unnamed faithful woman who anointed Jesus before his death and receives the only praise in the entire Gospel of Mark (14:3-9). Perrin writes:


The role of the disciples in the Gospel of Mark is a very important one. The first act of the ministry in Galilee is that of Jesus calling disciples (1:16-20), and disciples are constantly with Jesus throughout that ministry. In 3:13-19 Jesus formally appoints the Twelve, whome Mark carefully names, and in 6:7-13 he sends them out on a mission on his behalf. After their return from this mission the disciples began to figure even more prominently in the narrative, but with a change in that they are now depicted as failing in understanding. In 6:52 “they did not understand about the loaves…their hearts were hardened,” and in 8:14-21 Jesus has occasion to enter into a dialogue with them about their failure to understand. In the long central interpretive section of the gospel this failing becomes more acute as the disciples misunderstand each of the three predictions of the passion. We noted above how Mark represents these misunderstandings schematically at 8:32-33, 9:32, and 10:35-41. More than that, in this section also the disciples are depicted as losing the ability to cast out demons, a power they had possessed since their appointment (9:14-29). So they are now being depicted as failing both in understanding and in power.

As the story of Jesus and his fate moves to Jerusalem and the passion narrative, the depiction of the disciples’ failure escalates, for now they are shown as failing in loyalty also. At the Last Supper Jesus predicts his betrayal by a disciple (14:18-21) and on the Mount of Olives he further predicts, “You will all fall away; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.'” And when Peter protests his loyalty, Jesus says to him, “This very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” (14:26-31). In the following narratives these predictions are dramatically fulfilled. At Gethsemane Peter, James, and John fail to keep watch with Jesus (14:32-42); at the betrayal and arrest of Jesus, “they all forsook him, and fled” (14:50); and while Jesus is on trial before the Sanhedrin Peter denies him three times, formally and with oaths (14:66-72).

After their flight from the arrest the disciples disappear from the narrative of the Gospel of Mark, except for Peter, who similarly disappears after his denial of Jesus. The only further reference to them at all is in the words of the young man at the tomb to the women, “Go, tell his disciples and Peter…” (16:7). At his cross Jesus is surrounded by strangers, and in an ultimate act of irony he is confessed as Son of God in his death not by a disciple but by the centurion responsible for his execution (15:39).

Now it is precisely at this point that the women appear in the narrative, for the three-part narrative concerning the women at the cross, the burial, and the empty tomb begins immediately following the centurion’s confession, as I pointed out at the beginning of this chapter. From this point the women take over the role in the gospel narrative which one might have expected to be played by the disciples. After the death of Jesus they provide the element of continuity as they move to the climactic discovery of the empty tomb. Moreover Mark himself has already warned his readers of the importance of the story of the attempt to anoint the body of Jesus, with which the passion narrative ends, through his introduction of the passion narrative by means of the story of the anointing of Jesus by the woman at Bethany. It is a literary characteristic of Mark that he frames large sections of his narrative with related stories which serve to interpret that narrative to the reader. So he begins the first major section of his gospel by means of the two feeding stories (6:30-44; 8:1-9). Then the central section of the gospel is framed by the two anointing stories, and the one serves to call attention to the other. Mark is telling his readers that the body of Jesus had to be anointed “beforehand for burying” because the resurrection would make a later anointing impossible, as indeed it does.

We are now almost in a position to begin a direct discussion of Mark’s understanding of the resurrection of Jesus, but before we do that there is one last point to be made about the women and their role in the Markan narrative as compared to that of the disciples: like the disciples, the women also fail their master. Unlike the disciples the women stay faithful to the extent of “looking on from afar” at the cross, and being prepared to play their role in anointing Jesus. Hence it is their great honor to discover the empty tomb and the fact of the resurrection. But it is precisely at this point that the women, like the disciples before them, fail their trust. They are entrusted with the message to the disciples and Peter, but “they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.” In the Gospel of Mark the discipleship failure is total. The disciples forsake Jesus as a group and flee from the arrest; Peter denies him with oaths while he is on trial; the women, who take on the role of the disciples in this final three-part narrative, fail to deliver the message entrusted to them.

We are so used to reading Mark in light of Matthew and Luke, where the women do deliver the message, that it is difficult for us to appreciate the sheer, stark force of the Markan narrative. In Mark every disciple fails the master; every intimate sooner or later fails him in one way or another. It is the centurion who finally understands him, and a sympathetic outsider who buries him. The disciples, Peter, the women – these all ultimately fail their responsibility and trust.[44]

This is indeed an endless source of fascination for scholars (Mk 16:8): “Then they went out and fled from the tomb, seized with trembling and bewilderment. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” In support of his contention that the silence was surely meant to be just temporary, Craig writes in footnote 72 of “The Historicity of the Empty Tomb of Jesus”:


See the helpful discussion of the women’s silence in Bode, Easter, 39-44. He distinguishes five possible interpretations: (1) The silence explains why the legend of the empty tomb remained so long unknown. (2) The silence is an instance of Mark’s Messianic secret motif. (3) The silence was temporary. (4) The silence served the apologetic purpose of separating the apostles from the empty tomb. (5) The silence is the paradoxical human reaction to divine commands as understood by Mark. But (1) is now widely rejected as implausible, since the empty tomb story is a pre-Markan tradition. (2) is inappropriate in the post-resurrection period when Jesus may be proclaimed as the Messiah. As for (4), there is no evidence that the silence was designed to separate the apostles from the tomb. Mark does not hold that the disciples had fled back to Galilee independently of the women. So there is no implication that the disciples saw Jesus without having heard of the empty tomb. It is pointless to speak of ‘apologetics’ when Mark does not even imply that the disciples went to Galilee and saw Jesus without hearing the women’s message, much less draw some triumphant apologetic conclusion as a result of this. In fact there were also traditions that the disciples did visit the tomb, after the women told them of their discovery, but Mark breaks off his story before that point. As for (5) this solution is entirely too subtle, drawing the conclusion that because people talked when Jesus told them not to, therefore, the women, having been told to talk, did not. Therefore (3) is most probable. The fear and silence are Markan motifs of divine encounter and were not meant to imply an enduring silence.

I do not accept Craig’s analysis. Because I do not believe that the empty tomb story is a pre-Markan tradition, I cannot reject (1) for the reason given. I do agree with Craig in rejecting (2). Although Craig doesn’t clarify that this theory usually states that the obligation of the Messianic secret is dissolved only when Christ appears to the male disciples,[45] it confuses me that the women should be commanded to do what they should not do, presumably by an agent of God. I cannot reject (4) for the reason given, for even if Mark does not explicitly state that the disciples went to Galilee independently of the women, Craig will remind us in his discussion of Paul that no explicit mention does not mean “no implication,” and moreover that “no implication” deas not imply “does not hold.” It is plausible enough that Mark and his audience held as a matter of course that the disciples returned to Galilee without any knowledge of an empty tomb. I do not hold to (5), but it is possible. To the list provided, I may add (6) that Mark’s ending may be the final note on his theme of the failure of the disciples who knew Jesus. With their failure, the reader is challenged to do what was left undone by these disciples and preach the gospel. Or, closely related to this, the reader is challenged by the dramatic inconclusion to “rescue” the story.[46]

I do reject (3) as improbable. By “temporary,” I suppose it is meant that Mark believed the women did tell others about the empty tomb later on Easter Sunday (as in the other gospels). I consider this improbable for two reasons.

The first reason is that it does injustice to the fact that the author of Mark ends the gospel on this note. The gravity placed upon the fact that the author chose to end the gospel by saying this is hardly appreciated by the explanation that the silence was temporary. Indeed, this is hardly an explanation in the proper sense, as opposed to a mere possibility, because it does not help in any way to explain why the author of Mark ended by saying this. Even if the author of Mark may have thought the silence to be just temporary, why end the gospel this way? Craig conjoins his belief that Mark considered the silence to be only temporary with the idea that the women’s fear exhibits a Markan motif of divine encounter. Not only is there no connection between these two ideas (with only the latter helping towards an explanation), but neither adequately explain why Mark chose to end the gospel in this way. As I have said, “the silence is temporary” has no explanatory power, if not negative explanatory power! And concerning the latter, Hans von Campenhausen writes: “The intention cannot be taken exclusively to be that of bringing out the ‘numinous terror’ arising from the empty tomb and the angel’s word. Such a modern and romantic explanation of the last words is certainly inadequate. Something more concrete must have been meant.”[47]

The second reason is that it is inconceivable for the author of Mark to have believed the silence to be “temporary” and not to continue the narrative. This is subtly distinct from the previous point, for while the previous reason focuses on the gravity of the ending, this reason focuses on the absence of a continuation. The reasoning for this argument is that we have the empirical evidence that at least three writers who knew the Gospel of Mark and who believed the silence was temporary could not bring themselves to fail to continue the narrative. The author of Matthew glosses over Mark’s ending by writing, “Then they went away quickly from the tomb, fearful yet overjoyed, and ran to announce this to his disciples.” While the author of Matthew modifies Mark to say that they were “fearful yet overjoyed” and thus went away quickly to tell the disciples, the author of Luke chooses to ignores Mark 16:8 almost completely. An anonymous scribe, who did not even have the intention of writing a new gospel but was supposed to be copying Mark, could not resist writing an ending of Mark based on his knowledge of the later Gospel accounts (the longer ending in 16:9-20). The shorter ending may be one more example of the same phenomenon. It seems that someone who believes that the women went on to tell others the same day could not have failed to include some type of narrative after this point and could not have ended the story in this way.

In rejecting (3), I believe that the author of Mark must have understood the silence in a more permanent sense than would be allowed by the author of Matthew or Luke. That is, the author of Mark could not have meant that the women told other people the same day. Moreover, I do not think that the author could have meant that the women told the disciples any time before the disciples saw Jesus in Galilee. This is because, if the author believed that, then there is no reason for the author not to place such a telling conveniently on the same day, or at least in the narrative, as all other writers did. Whenever the telling would be in the mind of Mark, it is not plausible for the author to fail to narrate the telling, as the author of Matthew did and as the author of Luke did. Again we have the problem that the author would not have ended his gospel this way unless he took the silence of the women to be more serious than a slight hesitation or delay, perhaps quickly overcome by an appearance of Christ (so Matthew) before rushing onwards to tell the disciples. One function of the silence, seeing as it comes immediately after v. 7 where the women are commanded to tell the disciples to go to Galilee, is to imply that the women did not tell the disciples to go to Galilee. The appearance of Christ to the disciples in Galilee represents the reconstitutive event (cf. Mk 14:28), not an exhortation from the silent women. Galilee is the place from which the mission will go forth. Thus, I do think that it is implied that the men made their way back to Galilee without any impetus from the women.

For a different reason than Craig, I do not consider it likely that the function of 16:8 is to be an explanation for why the story hadn’t been heard previously. I agree with Fuller here:


The silence of the women can hardly be explained as the Evangelist’s device to account for the recent origin of the story; that is altogether too modern and rationalistic an explanation, and assumes that the early church was concerned, like the modern historical critics, with conflicting historical evidence. The early church expanded its traditions anew in new situations: it did not investigate them historically to discover their origins and Sitz im Leben.[48]

While I would not say that the author has included the detail about the silence of the women as a rationalization for why the story hadn’t been heard before, can this be taken as an indication of some sort? If the women historically had run off to tell the men in Jerusalem, with Peter and the beloved disciple checking up, and with the discovery of the empty tomb becoming part of early Christian catechesis, then is it likely that the author of Mark would have ended the way that he did? The ability of Mark to end this way, for whatever reason he had, suggests that the story did not exist before the writing of Mark in the way that it had existed before the writing of Matthew and of Luke. For if it had, and if this were known long before Mark, it is not likely that the ending of the story would have been that the women told nothing to anyone. This is certainly not to say that the intention of the author was to explain why the story had not been heard before. The intention of the author could be a number of different possibilities. But if the story had been known far and wide, from the beginning of Christianity, I would suggest that the author of Mark would not have received it in this form. For that reason, the story is probably of recent origin in the Gospel of Mark.

What was, in fact, the intention of the author? Although I reject as improbable the idea that the silence of the women was intended to be only temporary, I have not necessarily decided which explanation is most probable. It may be that the author had more than one of the enumerated intentions in mind, and there is even a slight possibility that Mark’s purpose hasn’t yet been fathomed despite enormous scholarly speculation.




[42] Randal Helms, Gospel Fictions (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1988), pp. 135-136.

[43] Johannes Leipoldt, translated by Eric Weinberger, published in the Journal of Higher Criticism (Fall, 1997), (<URL:http://www.depts.drew.edu/jhc/leipolt.html>, 1998), accessed 14 Dec 00.

[44] Perrin, ibid., pp. 27-28.

[45] Fuller, ibid., p. 64. “We should like to suggest that the silence of the women, which, as we have seen, was in the tradition an expression of the biblical reaction to angelophany, has been re-interpreted by the Evangelist in connection with this special theory of the messianic secret. For, as teh crucial secrecy passage in Mark 9:9 indicates, it is not until the resurrection that the secret is fully lifted, and then it is to be proclaimed by the disciples. This is why the women may not proclaim it.”

[46] J.D.H. Amador, “Dramatic Inconclusion” (<URL:http://home. earthlink.net/~thevoidboy/Drama.html>, n.d.), accessed 14 Dec 00.

[47] Hans von Campenhausen, Translated by A. V. Littledale, Tradition and Life in the Church; Essays and Lectures in Church History (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968), p. 60.

[48] Fuller, ibid., pp. 52-53.

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