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Mark & the Crucifixion

Mark & the Crucifixion


For nearly two thousand years, the concept which stands at the center of Christian thought has been that the death of Jesus is the means by which the creator of the universe rescues humans from the problem of evil. Over this time, theologians have offered a variety of theories for how, exactly, this is accomplished. While many of them fixate on the letters of Paul to define their arguments for a proper salvation theology, the actual narrative for Jesus’ death is found elsewhere.

The four gospels of the New Testament have a complex relationship to each other. The vast majority of scholars have agreed for ages that Matthew and Luke are directly dependent on Mark. While the former two gospels do contain details not found in the latter, Mark was nevertheless the foundation they built on. The apparent outlier is John, with its heavier philosophical dialogues and seemingly more abstract presentation of Jesus as a divine being rather than a divinely-empowered human. However, there is a slowly growing agreement within scholarship that John likely was dependent on Mark (if not all three of those gospels), even if the author was not prone to copying the earlier book verbatim as his counterparts did.

This means that, in regards to learning about the circumstances which led to Jesus’ death—that is, the historical event which Christians seek to understand in theological terms—all of our available sources depend on Mark. This lack of independent corroboration for an event in ancient sources would be highly problematic in any other context. It makes it difficult to know how reliable that lone source actually is.

In our present case, while we do not have any independent sources which describe the death of Jesus that we can compare with Mark, we do have a wide range of texts which discuss elements which make up Mark’s narrative. This can help us find a more nuanced appreciation for how Mark’s crucifixion account functions as literature. However, it also calls into question the historical plausibility of large parts of his narrative.

Betrayal During Passover

The crucifixion narrative begins with the Passover meal celebrated by Jesus and his disciples. Two days before the Passover, the religious authorities in Jerusalem were plotting Jesus’ death, with the help of his disciple Judah Iscariot (14.1–2, 10–11). Once the day of Passover arrived, his group settled into a welcoming home for the ritual meal prescribed in the Torah. The moment they sit down to eat, Jesus declares that one of them is in the process of betraying him (14.12–21).

By the time of the Passover meal, Jesus has told his disciples multiple times that he will be killed after he arrives in Jerusalem (8.31; 9.9, 12, 31; 10.33, 45). He has already hinted that he will be betrayed by one of his own followers; the verb used to describe Judah’s actions (14.17–21), παραδίδωμι, has been used twice before to describe the circumstances of his death (9.31; 10.33). The disciples are shocked, yet they carry on with Passover as normal. This gives Jesus the opportunity to use their meal to illustrate the divine purpose of his death. The broken bread represents his body, and the wine represents his spilled blood.

The question of whether Jesus actually predicted his own death persists in scholarship.1 It is certainly possible he did, if he saw himself in continuity with the ancient prophets, most of whom were popularly understood in Jesus’ day to have suffered persecution or martyrdom (cf. Matt 23.29–37; Luke 11.47–51; 13.34).2 However, I find reason at least to doubt the specificity of his predictions in Mark.

There is an initial discrepancy in Mark’s depiction of Judah Iscariot. Namely, the idea to reward Judah for helping the priests arrest Jesus only comes after he has already decided to betray his teacher (14.10–11). What was Judah’s original reason to betray Jesus, before money entered the picture? The motivation Mark assigns to Judah only comes after he had already committed to his betrayal.3 There are other early texts which pose a problem to the idea Jesus was betrayed, or that he expected to be betrayed, by one of the Twelve. Within the ‘Q’ tradition, Jesus expected the Twelve to rule Israel after the eschaton (Matt 19.28; Luke 22.30). We have no indication this statement excluded Judah Iscariot. Prior to any of the gospels, Paul mentions that Jesus appeared to the Twelve after his resurrection (1 Cor 15.5). After Mark, Matthew acknowledges the vacancy left by Judah Iscariot among the Twelve by referring to them as ‘the eleven disciples’ (Matt 28.16). It is not until the second century that we find a source claiming the vacancy was filled, restoring the group back to Twelve (Acts 1.15–26).

The revelation that the ‘son of man’ Jesus must be killed in Jerusalem by the religious leaders is first brought up at Mark’s halfway point, immediately after the disciples first express their belief he is the Messiah (8.31). The two revelations—that Jesus is the Messiah, and that he must die—are placed in tandem at the book’s center, around which the narrative turns. The reader is reminded of this theme in the following chapters, before Jesus goes to Jerusalem. He brings it up again during the Passover meal, and it even returns during Jesus’ trial: the moment he confirms to the religious authorities that he is the Messiah is the moment they sentence him to death (14.61–64).

Jesus reiterating his prediction at Passover, given with an exposition on his imminent betrayal, provides the author an opportunity to reinterpret the meal as a symbol of how Jesus’ death accomplishes salvation. This reinterpreted meal became the ongoing Christian ritual we call the Eucharist. However, we have another ancient text which offers a different understanding of the Eucharist’s symbolism. The Didache is an instructional book which many scholars agree contains traditions or layers of text predating the gospels. One of the earlier sections explains the Eucharist: the bread represents God’s people, who have been scattered and will be reunited during the end times (hinting at common Judean expectations of a restored Israelite nation; cf. LXX Deut 30.1–5; Mark 13.27), and the wine represents the vine of David’s dynasty, which is restored through Jesus. This interpretation of the Eucharist is at least partially alluded to by Paul (1 Cor 10.17), suggesting the Didache was not teaching an unusual doctrine.

With the possible exception of the Didache, Paul is our earliest source to discuss the Eucharist (1 Cor 10–11). While Paul does interpret the bread and wine as symbolizing Jesus’ body and blood, and he does claim Jesus espoused this symbolism the night before his death, he does not identify it as having been a Passover meal. Paul only once explicitly connects Jesus to Passover (1 Cor 5.6–8), but he does so in a context where he is using the unified festivals of Passover and Unleavened Bread to make analogies for the moral state of the Corinthian church. And, importantly, Paul shows no awareness that Jesus was betrayed. He uses the verb παραδίδωμι to describe not just what happened to Jesus the night before his death (1 Cor 11.23), but many kinds of transfers (e.g., he ‘handed over’ his teachings to the church in 1 Cor 11.2, or Jesus will ‘hand over’ his kingdom to God in 1 Cor 15.24). Paul was not saying Jesus had been ‘betrayed’ by one of his own followers ‘on the night’ he instituted the Eucharist ritual. In that case, the word προδίδωμι would have been a better fit.4 Rather, following the language of LXX Isa 53.6 (καὶ κύριος παρέδωκεν αὐτὸν ταῖς ἁμαρτίαις ἡμῶν, ‘the Lord handed him over for our sins’), Paul meant that Jesus had been ‘handed over’ by God himself to be killed (cf. Rom 8.32; Gal 2.20).

It has been suggested by a few scholars that the author of Mark had at least some of Paul’s letters as sources, and 1 Corinthians is usually the suspected point of intertextual contact.5 The Eucharist ritual in Mark and 1 Corinthians is not identical, which poses a challenge to the thought Mark used Paul,6 but the wording and structure are far too similar to be accidental. The most obvious element from 1 Cor 11.23–26 missing in Mark 14.22–25 is the instruction to ‘do this in remembrance of me’, though the topic of perpetual remembrance does come up only a few verses earlier (14.9).7 The location of the pericope of the woman anointing Jesus with perfume is not arbitrary; Jesus states that her action prepared him for burial (14.8). The episode, which is framed between the priests’ scheming to kill Jesus, also features ‘breaking’ and ‘pouring’ in context of a meal. It is integral to the overall crucifixion narrative and invites comparison with the Eucharist ritual a few paragraphs later.8 If Mark did use 1 Corinthians, his hermeneutic may have led him to conflate Paul’s analogy between Jesus and the Passover lamb (5.7) with the ‘last supper’ (11.23), resulting in Mark thinking Paul meant Jesus had been crucified on the actual day of Passover, and the Eucharist was instituted during the Passover meal the night before. And if Jesus was ‘handed over’ to be killed, one of the people who attended the meal must have been the agent responsible, a betrayer.

Sentenced to Death

After the Passover meal Jesus takes his disciples to the Mount of Olives, where he shocks the disciples with another revelation: they will all abandon him. In a garden at the base of the mountain, Jesus fervently prays that God will provide some way for Jesus to avoid his imminent death (14.26–42), a sharp contrast against all his predictions that his death was utterly certain within God’s plan. When he finishes praying, Judah Iscariot arrives with a ‘large crowd’ sent by the religious leaders. (When Judah actually left Jesus and the disciples is unclear. The text implies he was present through the meal.)9 Jesus is arrested, but one disciple retaliates, cutting off the ear of a slave of the high priest. Jesus rebukes the crowd for treating him like a violent revolutionary. The disciples flee, including an unnamed ‘young man’, whose clothes are snatched by the crowd, leaving him naked as he runs away (14.43–52). Jesus is taken before the high priest and the Sanhedrin sentences Jesus to death (14.53–65).

The Passover festival provided Mark with a setting to allow multiple items to coincide in a historically plausible (if narratively convenient) way. However, having the Passover festival as the backdrop for Jesus’ death is only the first of several major discrepancies scholars have come to notice with the text. The historical problems with Mark’s account are numerous.10

There were tens of thousands of pilgrims visiting Jerusalem during Passover.11 It is highly unlikely the religious leaders were so concerned with Jesus this day; they would have been far too busy with the necessary rituals for the festival. With masses of people moving through the city, that ‘large crowd’ would have been better suited assisting in the temple services, rather than out in the middle of the night to make a four-mile round trip just to find one offender who was not known for violence. They did not think Jesus posed an imminent threat (otherwise they would have charged him with such a crime). The level of effort and attention they spend on one man is disproportionate to how busy the week of Passover would have kept them. The degree of importance these actions place upon Jesus are anachronistic; they reveal how Mark thinks of him, not what Jerusalem’s leaders thought nearly fifty years earlier.

The trial of Jesus begins at night, ends at night, takes place on the day of a festival, takes place on the day before the Sabbath, has no charges decided upon before it convenes, begins with the assumption of the defendant’s guilt, renders its guilty verdict on the same day when the trial first convened, and renders its verdict with unanimity. Every single one of these was impermissible for capital offense trials (M Sanh 4.1).12 In addition, the trial is convened in the home of the high priest, which was also not permitted (M Sanh 11.2). Jesus is not rendered guilty on the basis of two witnesses, which was the required minimum (Num 35.30; Deut 17.6; 19.15).13 After all this, for which capital offense did the Sanhedrin decide Jesus was guilty?

Mark 14.61–64

Again the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Messiah, the son of the Blessed?’

Jesus said, ‘I am, you will see the son of man seated at the right hand of the Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.’

Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, ‘Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?’ All of them condemned him as deserving death.

Despite arguments to the contrary, nothing in Jesus’ response would have been considered blasphemy without an intense debate first. It was generally required that, to even qualify for a blasphemy charge, the accused must have used the divine name ‘Yahweh’.14

Leviticus 24.16

Mishnah Sanhedrin 7.5

One who blasphemes the name of Yahweh shall be put to death; the whole congregation shall stone the blasphemer.

One who blasphemes, i.e., one who curses God, is not liable unless he utters the name of God and curses it.

We see the high priest avoid the name, referring to God as ‘the Blessed’. Likewise, Jesus uses the circumlocution ‘the Power’, fully complying with this legal ruling. Without uttering the name, could Jesus still have said something defamatory about God? Could ‘blasphemy’ have been applied in a wider sense?15 The high priest asks Jesus if he is the Messiah, which Jesus affirms. Claiming to be the Messiah or ‘son of God’ (a royal epithet in certain parts of the Hebrew Bible) was not blasphemy. Jesus also mentions the ‘son of man’, saying he was seated at God’s right hand and will come on the clouds. Literature written in the late Second Temple period, and just after, used similar concepts and language (see here). Jesus mentioning the son of man seated at God’s right hand—his wording does not identify this figure as himself, in this context—may have raised some eyebrows, but it was certainly not a universal opinion such declarations were blasphemous. The entire Sanhedrin, and any witnesses among them, would see the high priest was accusing Jesus of a crime he did not commit.

The trial scene is so egregiously contrary to all known evidence for how the Sanhedrin practiced law, that scholars tend toward two opinions: either the Judean leaders were genuinely that hyperbolically corrupt, or Mark does not depict a ‘trial’ at all. Instead, it has been proposed, the author is telling us about a preliminary ‘hearing’.16 The Sanhedrin did not render a unanimous guilty verdict with a death sentence, they agreed on a ‘complaint’ to file with the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate. The prefect, in turn, may not have held a formal trial, instead having Jesus condemned through a more expedient process (cognitio extra ordinem).17 This does not explain why Pilate would bend over backwards to spare Jesus’ life. He urges Jesus to defend himself, and openly expresses his belief that Jesus is innocent. Still, Pilate buckles under pressure, ‘wishing to satisfy the crowd’ (15.1–15).

Josephus and Philo tell of multiple incidents when Pilate deliberately offended both Judeans and Samarians, or responded to their complaints with brutal methods of control.18 Another gospel alludes to Pilate’s proclivity for violence (Luke 13.1). Even by the turn of the century, the general perception remained that Pilate was the one to blame for Jesus’ death.19 After all, it was the Romans, not the Judeans, who crucified people. In the end, Pilate’s exhibitions of Roman authority were so cruelly heavy-handed, his disposition so ‘obstinate’ and ‘merciless’, that his superiors removed him from office as the prefect of Iudaea Province. Mark’s portrayal of Pilate is incompatible with his depictions in other, independent sources.20 There is a third opinion we might consider for Jesus’ trial: the author has purposely cast the Sanhedrin in as negative a light as possible, having them violate every acceptable practice of how to conduct a court case.

Crucifixion Under Darkness

Pilate draws attention to the injustice of Jesus’ arrest by means of a festival tradition. Every year at Passover, Pilate releases a prisoner chosen by the people. This time, he gives them two specific choices: Jesus, or Barabbas, who ‘was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection’. (For Pilate to give them the option of having Jesus receive a pardon would mean he accepted the guilty verdict, or ‘suggestion,’ of the Sanhedrin, despite the final call for Jesus’ fate being his decision alone.)21 At the crowd’s insistence, Pilate releases Barabbas (15.6–15). The ‘whole cohort’ of Roman soldiers in Jerusalem assemble in the palace courtyard, where Jesus is mocked and beaten. After a passerby is forced to help him carry his cross outside the city, Jesus is stripped naked and crucified. The crowds continue his belittlement. Even those who are crucified nearby mock him (15.16–32). Soon, the land is covered in darkness (15.33–39).

While the text explicitly mentions two other crucifixion victims, ‘one on his right and one on his left’, we have no reason to think they would be the only ones executed that day. It was common for larger groups to be crucified together, often next to well-traveled paths.22 Judeans traveling to Jerusalem would likely have found a scene of a dozen or more crosses standing alongside the road. It was Rome’s warning not to cause trouble, especially in a place like Jerusalem, a city rife with the history of nationalistic politics stirring up revolt.23

There is no evidence of the prisoner tradition Pilate uses in a last-ditch attempt to save Jesus’ life.24 Barabbas functions as a literary foil for Jesus: he is a violent insurrectionist whom the crowd prefers over the non-violent Messiah.25 It is also widely thought the dichotomy of Jesus and Barabbas is meant to allude to the Day of Atonement.26 That holy day included a ritual in which the high priest randomly selected one of two goats to be sacrificed to Yahweh as a sin offering. The other goat was released into the wilderness (Lev 16.5–10). At this point some readers may start to notice a pattern of references to key passages in the Hebrew Bible; it becomes apparent these allusions actually began much earlier. In addition to LXX Isa 53.6 standing in the distance behind Mark 14.21, a careful search will reveal the following parallels.

Mark 14.18–20

Psalm 41.9

And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, ‘Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me. […] It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me.’

Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me.

Mark 14.21

1 Enoch 38.2

’For the son of man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the son of man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.’

And when the Righteous One27 appears in the presence of the righteous, whose chosen works depend on the Lord of Spirits, and light appears to the righteous and chosen who dwell on the earth, where will be the dwelling place of the sinners, and where will be the resting place of those who have denied the Lord of Spirits? It would have been better for them if they had not been born.

Mark 14.24

Exodus 24.8 (cf. Zech 9.11)

He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.’

Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people, and said, ‘See the blood of the covenant that Yahweh has made with you in accordance with all these words.’

Mark 14.48–49

Isaiah 53.9

Then Jesus said to them, ‘Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit?’

although he had done no violence

Mark 14.56–57

Psalm 27.12

For many gave false testimony against him, and their testimony did not agree. Some stood up and gave false testimony against him

Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence.

Mark 14.61 (cf. 15.5)

Isaiah 53.7

But he was silent and did not answer.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.

Mark 14.65

Isaiah 50.6

Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying to him, ‘Prophesy!’ The guards also took him over and beat him.

I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.

Mark 15.18–19

Micah 5.1

And they began saluting him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him.

Now you are walled around with a wall; siege is laid against us; with a rod they strike the ruler of Israel upon the cheek.

Mark 15.24

Psalm 22.16–18

And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.

For dogs are all around me; a company of evildoers encircles me. My hands and feet have shrivelled; I can count all my bones. They stare and gloat over me; they divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.

Mark 15.29–32

Psalm 22.7–8

Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!’ In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, ‘He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe.’ Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.

All who see me mock at me; they make mouths at me, they shake their heads; ‘Commit your cause to Yahweh; let him deliver—let him rescue the one in whom he delights!’

Mark 15.34

Psalm 22.1

At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?

Mark 15.36

Psalm 69.19–21

And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’

You know the insults I receive, and my shame and dishonour; my foes are all known to you. Insults have broken my heart, so that I am in despair. I looked for pity, but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none. They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.

Amid all these is where we find that the land was shrouded in darkness. There is no historical corroboration for the phenomenon.28 In an effort to defend the historicity of the darkness, it is occasionally argued Mark describes a solar eclipse (the moon blocking the sun). This is impossible. The Judean festivals were organized according to a lunar calendar, with Passover assigned to the middle of the month (Exo 12.6, 18). This places Passover during the phase of a full moon, when solar eclipses only occur during a new moon, at the beginning of the month.29 While the list above shows the author preferred Isaiah and the Psalms, we find at least one instance of him occasionally using other books of the Hebrew Bible. This is where the darkness comes from.

Mark 15.33

Amos 8.9–10

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.

On that day, says the Lord Yahweh, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day.

The turning point was the revelation of the main theme, that the Messiah must be killed. Jesus explains to his disciples that the son of man’s death in Jerusalem would be the means by which God will accomplish the eschatological salvation (10.45; 14.24). But these explanations are soon followed by a repeated emphasis on Jerusalem’s destruction (11–12), when the ‘son of man comes on the clouds of heaven’ (13.1–27). Jesus indicates via parable that Jerusalem’s destruction will be vengeance from God for its leadership killing his ‘son’, the Messiah (12.6–9, 12). The climax of the Sanhedrin trial scene is when Jesus admits that he is the Messiah. He follows this with a declaration that his accusers will see the ‘son of man coming with the clouds of heaven’ (14.61–62).

By casting a shadow over the land of Israel specifically ‘at noon’ during Jesus’ crucifixion, the author not only provides an omen to mark the death of an important person,30 his allusion to the prophecies of Amos is made abundantly clear.31 Recognizing the author’s use of that book also offers an answer to the question of the mysterious young man mentioned during the arrest. Now and then there are arguments that this man’s intrusion into the story, and his equally sudden disappearance, must be a clue the author expected his readers to know who he was. Perhaps it was Mark himself, or Jesus’ brother James, or someone kept anonymous for protection.32 Instead, he comes from another case of intertextuality. Jesus informed his disciples that they would all abandon him, even citing a prophecy about sheep abandoning their shepherd when the latter is struck down (14.26–28).33 Peter leads the disciples as they valiantly insist they will never leave Jesus’ side. However:

Mark 14.50–52

Amos 2.14–16

All of them deserted him and fled. A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.

Flight shall perish from the swift, and the strong shall not retain their strength, nor shall the mighty save their lives; those who handle the bow shall not stand, and those who are swift of foot shall not save themselves, nor shall those who ride horses save their lives; and those who are stout of heart among the mighty shall flee away naked on that day, says Yahweh.

For the author, it was not enough to simply show the disciples running away. He needed to demonstrate that this, too, was the beginning of the Day of Yahweh.34 Despite that his disciples claimed to have courage, when the moment for conviction came they ran in terror, leaving even their clothes behind.

Burial in a Tomb

Jesus dies in the middle of the afternoon. The temple’s curtain rips in half, and the centurion guarding Jesus realizes he must be the son of a deity. Later in the evening, a man named Joseph is given permission by Pilate to take Jesus’ body. Joseph places the body in a tomb outside Jerusalem, and blocks the entryway with a large stone (15.42–47).

The cause for the centurion’s reaction is unclear. It seems it was due to the temple’s curtain tearing apart at the moment of Jesus’ death, but this would be nonsensical. The curtain was inside the temple, behind walls, atop Mount Zion, off inside the city. The centurion could not have seen it, especially not while it was dark.35 And, as with the darkness, there is no corroboration from any other sources the curtain was torn. This is a second omen the author has created, illustrating the temple’s coming doom as punishment for Jesus’ death.36 The only alternative explanation would be the mere fact Jesus had died, which is hardly enough on its own to elicit the epiphany that Jesus must have had divine parentage.

The centurion’s reaction happens because the author is driving in another part of his main theme. While Jesus’ disciples have their revelation of Jesus being the Messiah halfway through the story, the author has other characters in the book recognize his importance before this, each of them commanded to keep it a secret (1.25, 34; 1.44; 3.12; 5.43; 7.36; 8.26, 30; 9.9). The ones who make these declarations about Jesus are evil spirits, ailing lepers, and rural laborers. The educated religious authorities, the people who (in the author’s mind) should be most prepared to recognize who Jesus is, are the ones wholly opposed to everything he says and does. When Jesus confirms for them that he really is the Messiah, they call for his death. Having a gentile soldier make the connection is the penultimate irony of the book.

It is sometimes thought that Jesus, as a crucifixion victim, would have been denied burial in a tomb. It is argued it would be more historically accurate if he was carelessly thrown in a mass grave. But the placement of Jesus’ body in a tomb is entirely plausible. In 1968 an ossuary with the bones of a Judean man who died in the first century was found, his name inscribed in Hebrew on the stone box. Jehoḥanan, son of Ḥagqol, was crucified.37 When his ossuary was discovered, the nail remained in his right foot. This was not out of the ordinary.

Josephus, Judean War, 4.5.2

No, [the Idumeans] proceeded to that degree of impiety, as to cast away their dead bodies without burial. But the Judeans used to take so much care of the burial of men that they took down those who were condemned and crucified, and buried them before the sun went down.

The only apparent problem is that the man who buried Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, is identified as someone ‘who was himself also waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God’. The author says his request to Pilate was ‘bold’. This man evidently agreed with Jesus’ message. Yet, the narration also says Joseph was ‘an honorable councilman’. He was a part of the very same Sanhedrin whose every member sentenced Jesus to death. It seems the author may have forgotten the verdict was unanimous. This casts doubt over the historicity of at least some of Mark’s description of the burial.

The Resurrection

A group of women who followed Jesus observe his death (15.40–41). They come to the tomb on the third day, intending to anoint his body for a proper burial. They wonder how they will move the heavy stone blocking the entry, but upon arriving they find the tomb already open. Inside, ‘a young man’ informs them that Jesus has been restored from death and is going to Galilee, as he had promised (16.1–7; cf. 14.28).38 The man instructs the women to tell the disciples, but the women fail in their duty ‘because they were afraid’ (16.7–8).

There are attempts to identify the ‘young man’ waiting for the women with the naked ‘young man’ who fled during Jesus’ arrest—based on the shared word νεανίσκος, among other, more strained arguments39—but this is not usually supported.40 He is usually understood to be an angel, which are sometimes presented simply as ‘men’ in the Bible (e.g. Gen 18.1–2; 19.1; Dan 8.15–16).

The book shockingly ends with the women remaining silent when told to inform the disciples that the risen Jesus will be waiting for them in Galilee. This was bothersome enough that later Christian scribes invented endings to append to the book. The so-called ‘long ending’ (Mark 16.9–20) appears to be written by someone who had Matthew, Luke, Acts, and possibly John, suggesting it was written sometime after the mid-second century CE. While the late origin of those endings is broadly accepted, the real debate is whether the book was designed to end with verse 16.8, or if there was more to the story that was lost before it could be widely copied.41 I am unconvinced by arguments for a lost ending, that it would resolve any of Mark’s loose plot threads. Hypothetical sources like J (for the Torah) or Q (for Matthew and Luke) at least have tangible material to make a case from. A lost ending for Mark is, by definition, unknowable. We cannot make arguments for its existence by citing its non-existent contents.

In the letters of Paul—our earliest sources—we are told about his experience with the risen Jesus that led to him believing he was the Messiah. Paul was a seeker of visions, the sort commonly found within apocalyptic streams of Judaism (2 Cor 12.1).42 It was during such a visionary revelation that Paul encountered the risen Jesus (Gal 1.11–16). When Paul elsewhere describes the appearances of the risen Jesus to the other disciples, he makes no distinction between their experiences and his own (1 Cor 15.3–8). If Paul’s letters were the only surviving sources for Christian theology, we would be left with the impression that Paul understood the earlier resurrection appearances to have been visions like the one he received.

In discussions of the book’s value as a dependable source of history, it is often argued that the identification of women as the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection is a strong point in favor of the empty tomb’s historicity. Because women in this time period were allegedly stereotyped as poor, flighty witnesses, an author would not try to convince people of a spectacular claim on the testimony of women unless he was absolutely sure what they said was true. Yet, this argument skips a vital detail: the Gospel of Mark, in fact, does not present the women as reliable witnesses. Their portrayal here is overwhelmingly negative.43

Mark 16.8

So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them. And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

In my opinion of the text, this ending performs two functions. The first is that it reads as a deliberately blunt conclusion to the book. Jesus must regularly command people to keep his identity as the Messiah a secret. But now, the only people given explicit permission to spread the word that Jesus is alive again, commanded to tell others, instead fail to reveal it to anyone. It is the final twist of irony on the theme of the ‘messianic secret’.44

The second function of their silence requires another look at Paul.

Part of the puzzle is not whether Paul thought Jesus had been buried. He knows Jesus was (1 Cor 15.3–4). The question is whether Paul had any awareness that Jesus was buried in a tomb which was then found empty. This would require that Jesus’ resurrection body was the same body which had been buried in the first place, a mortal body restored to life and transformed to be immortal. This does not seem to reflect what Paul thought resurrection was. In his discourse on the nature of the resurrection, the only bodies Paul describes as being ‘transformed’ or ‘changed’ are those still alive when the eschaton arrives (1 Cor 15.50–57). Otherwise, ‘the resurrection of the dead’ consists of earthly, soulish bodies being traded for heavenly, spiritual bodies (1 Cor 15.42–49). He elsewhere compares the resurrection to an old tent being replaced with a new one, or old clothes replaced with new clothes (2 Cor 4.1–4). These analogies do not suggest a mortal body becoming immortal, but the person ‘inside’ the mortal body leaving it behind and later receiving an immortal body.45 The question of what happened to Jesus’ earthly body, whether it was buried in a mass grave or a tomb, whether it remained on earth or disappeared, may simply not have mattered to Paul. The person ‘inside’ the dead body buried in the earth below was translated into a living body in heaven above,46 which then appeared before his followers through visionary experiences. With Paul as our representative for how the first generation of Jesus-followers seem to have understood their Messiah’s resurrection (however widely we may apply Paul’s view to his contemporaries), the possibility should be explored if the ‘empty tomb’ concept originated with Mark’s author.

Some recent scholarship has drawn attention to the work of a Roman author, the Satyrica by Gaius Petronius, as a point of comparison for the gospels. In one passage, the reader learns of the Widow of Ephesus, a woman grieving her dead husband in his tomb. A nearby centurion, guarding a crucified man, is distracted by the commotion. While the centurion is away from his post on the third day, the crucified man’s body is stolen. Not wishing for the centurion to be punished, the widow assists him in placing her own husband’s body on the cross. This causes other people to wonder how someone already dead wound up on a cross, away from his tomb.47

There are many striking elements to the Widow of Ephesus if one has the gospels in view. The robbers, the crucifixion, guards, three nights in the tomb, missing crucified corpses, and so forth are all shared topoi. […] The episode also evokes the motif of the empty tomb with the widow’s husband ascending the cross.48

The Satyrica’s date of origin is disputed. The ‘vast majority of scholars’ put it as early as the 50s CE, but others suggest a time around 115 CE.49 The precise date of the Satyrica, or Mark for that matter, is not the point. Regardless if one of these books was written with knowledge of the other, they were both written with knowledge of story-telling tropes found in older written (and oral) traditions. The various components found in the Widow’s tale and Jesus’ crucifixion—the mystery of a disappeared body in particular—are by no means unique to those two books.

Missing corpses were a very common occurrence in antiquity. [There are too many cases to detail here] Throughout Mediterranean literature (and material culture), more often than not, these missing dead were understood to have experienced some form of apotheosis, resurrection/rebirth, or transition into a supernatural state.50

Looking past the sheer surface of the narrative, we do not have to suppose some kind of historical basis for Mark’s empty tomb simply because (to borrow from one academic) ‘some stories are so odd that they may just have happened’.51 We hazard to guess Mark’s thought process. Perhaps through his interpretation of Paul’s meaning in 1 Corinthians—conflating the ‘resurrection of the dead’ with the ‘transformation’ of the living, so that Jesus’ resurrection body was the very body which had been buried—Mark realized the risen Jesus would need to be mobile in order to appear to his disciples. If the two obvious options for burial were a mass grave or a tomb, then the latter would be the more sensible choice. Joseph was probably wealthy, to afford a tomb as described.52 And, while searching the Hebrew Bible for inspiration during his writing process, Mark found justification for this addition to the story: ‘they made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich’ (Isa 53.9).

The author, of course, would not want to say he determined the fact of Jesus’ burial in a tomb by means of his own inspiration while reading Greco-Roman literature, Paul’s letters, and the Book of Isaiah. This is the second function of the women’s silence: it hermetically seals the narrative, similar in purpose to Daniel being told to hide away the account of his apocalyptic visions (Dan 8.26; 12.4, 9). For Daniel, it explained how an ancient prophecy about the Maccabean Revolt just happened to be discovered during that very event. This kind of literary ‘seal’ preemptively answers the critical question, ‘How come we have never heard about this before?’ Because the only witnesses, a small group of women, never told anyone.

Changes in the Other Gospels

My conclusion on the literary nature of Mark 14–16 is probably obvious at this point. Before we bring this to a close, however, we should first explore the other gospels and survey how they interact with Mark’s version of the story.

Matthew sometimes places Mark’s narration into Jesus’ mouth (e.g. 26.1–2, 26–29). He explicitly identifies the high priest as Caiaphas (26.3–5). He makes several changes to Judah Iscariot’s subplot: his motivation for betraying Jesus is greed (26.14–16); Jesus clearly identifies Judah as his betrayer (26.25); Jesus now bravely faces his enemies when Judah points him out (26.50); and, Judah is consumed with regret, returning the money to the priests and killing himself before Jesus is even taken to Pilate (27.3–10). Jesus not only complains to the crowd for their injustice, he now first takes a moment to rebuke his own disciples for attempting to prevent his arrest and thus thwart God’s plan (26.52–54). Matthew not only adds details; he cuts the small pericope of the naked young man, probably confused about its meaning. Matthew seems to think Jesus did threaten to destroy the temple, and so rewords the accusation at his trial to imply it did not come from a ‘false witness’ (26.59–61; see here). He also modifies Jesus’ response to the high priest, adding the word ἄρτι (‘now you will see the son of man …’).53

Legendary elements in Matthew’s account are even more obvious than Mark’s: Pilate is absolved of all guilt (27.19, 24); a vicious fabrication is placed in the mouth of the entire Judean populace (27.25); and, other omens accompany the temple curtain (27.51–53; the centurion now reacts to an earthquake, rather then the curtain he can’t see). Joseph of Arimathea is now plainly ‘a rich man’ and is no longer a member of the Sanhedrin (27.57–61). Matthew asserts the presence of temple guards assigned to watch Jesus’ tomb; they see an angel open the tomb, but are subsequently commanded by the nefarious priests to lie about what they saw (27.62–66; 28.4, 11–15). Finally, and most importantly, the unsatisfying and abrupt ending of Mark has been ‘fixed’: the women now witness the tomb being opened (28.1–2); they eagerly run with ‘great joy’ to tell the disciples (28.8); they see the risen Jesus (28.9–10); and, the disciples find Jesus in Galilee as promised (28.16–20).

Luke moves the story of Jesus being anointed with perfume to a completely different part of the book (7.36–50). The satan is directly involved in events: he possesses Judah Iscariot (22.3–6), and he is the cause for Peter’s denial of Jesus (22.31–34). The wine of the Passover meal is featured twice, and adheres closer to Paul’s phrasing in 1 Corinthians (22.17–20). Luke also provides a reason for how anyone could possibly think Jesus posed a threat of violence: not because he threatened the temple—this accusation is omitted from the trial—but because he specifically told his disciples to carry swords with them that night for the express purpose of forcing prophecy to be fulfilled (22.35–38). Jesus rebukes his disciples when they fight back, as in Matthew, but he now goes a step further by healing the slave’s ear (22.51). Jesus calls out Judah’s betrayal (22.48), as well as the Sanhedrin’s disbelief (22.67–68). Similar to Matthew, he adds the word νῦν (also meaning ‘now’) to Jesus’ response (22.69). The charge of blasphemy is cut, though it is now unclear why Jesus was sentenced to death (22.71). Pilate explicitly declares Jesus’ innocence (23.4). Jesus is briefly sent to Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee (23.6–16).54

Luke inserts another pericope: women mourn Jesus’ death, and he cites back a prophecy about Israel coming under judgment (23.27–31; Hos 10.8). Jesus offers one of the crucified men salvation (23.39–43), possibly to show that even last-second repentance is valid. Luke keeps Joseph of Arimathea on the Sanhedrin, but removes the unanimous verdict from the trial scene, here noting that Joseph objected (23.50–51). He also specifies that the tomb was brand new, truly ‘empty’ (22.53). The women now find two men at the tomb, and, as in Matthew, tell the disciples what they saw (24.8–9). However, it is here that we now notice a significant change to Mark: Luke has completely scrubbed all references to Jesus’ plan to meet the disciples back in Galilee after his resurrection. Instead, he simply happened to be in Galilee at the time he mentioned his coming resurrection (24.6–7). Thus, Jesus appears to several of his disciples not only in Jerusalem, but on a road far away from the city (24.13–48). He even requires them to stay in Jerusalem (24.49) and disappears into heaven the night of that same day he rose from the dead (24.50–53), which prevents any attempts to harmonize with Matthew’s ending.

The Gospel of John is substantially different from the other three overall. The etiology for the Eucharist is moved to an earlier dialogue (6.22–59). Judah Iscariot, as in Luke, is possessed by the satan, and Jesus reveals his betrayal to other disciples early on (13.21–30). Jesus delivers a long series of philosophical monologues before his arrest (13.31–17.26). Judah Iscariot is not even given the chance to point Jesus out; Jesus approaches his enemies and identifies himself to their surprise (18.1–9). The violent disciple and the maimed slave are both named: Peter and Malchus. Jesus rebukes only Peter, not the crowd arresting him (18.10–11a). Jesus nowhere prays for God to ‘remove this cup’, allowing Jesus to avoid his death; he now flatly says he must ‘drink the cup’ set before him (18.11b); this resolution is more in line with a typical martyrdom account.55 At this time, Caiaphas’ father-in-law Annas, who was previously high priest, was still alive. John is the only gospel to include Annas (18.12–14, 19–24), but is no longer any trial before the Sanhedrin. After Annas questions Jesus, Caiaphas takes Jesus straight to Pilate, where he engages in more philosophical debate (18.28–40). Pilate refuses to sentence Jesus to death, until the Judeans make a veiled threat to get the Roman emperor involved (19.1–16). John changes both the date and time of Jesus’ death: it is not Passover but the day before, and he is crucified not at the third hour of the morning, but at noon (19.14). After Jesus dies, the soldiers verify his death by stabbing him with a spear (19.31–37). John directly identifies Joseph of Arimathea as a ‘secret disciple’ (19.38). Jesus’ body is prepared for burial before Joseph places him in the tomb (19.39–42), so there is no need for a group of women to do the same on the third day. Instead, just one woman visits the tomb. When she finds it already open and empty, she brings Peter and another disciple to inspect it (20.1–10). The risen Jesus then makes a series of appearances, apparently over multiple days, in both Jerusalem and Galilee (20.11–21.25).

There are more than just the four gospels of the New Testament, but we will look at only one of them. The Gospel of Peter explains that Pilate granted Joseph’s request because they were friends. Jesus is stated to feel no pain when crucified. The Judeans acknowledge Jesus’ innocence, declaring that God’s judgment was on Jerusalem. The tomb’s entry is sealed shut, and Pilate sends Roman soldiers to guard it. A crowd from Jerusalem witnesses angels open the tomb and accompany the risen Jesus as he emerges. The cross, evidently buried with Jesus, follows him out of the tomb and speaks. The next day, the women find the tomb open, but run away in fear. A full week later, at the end of the eight-day festival, the disciples still have not seen the risen Jesus.


In each one of these later gospels, we see how items are rearranged, added, removed, and altered. There is a general sweep across those books to portray Pilate (and all Romans, by proxy) better and the Judeans worse. They fix plotholes, adjust motivations, and completely fabricate new details to serve their individual agendas and theological perspectives. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke both embellish Mark, and the Gospels of John and Peter both further embellish all three of their predecessors.

Mark may have had an existing ‘passion’ document as a resource, but he was not simply slavishly copying extant documents and passing on oral traditions. We have no reason to think the author of Mark was not capable of the same kinds of authorial decisions his successors made. We see him regularly exercising his prowess as a creative writer.56 His goal was to develop a narrative which resonated with his audience while conveying his own theology. Mark 14–16 may be read to understand what Mark’s author believed about the meaning of Jesus, the man from God. But skepticism is warranted when treating these chapters as a historical account about the death of Jesus, the man from Nazareth.

The general outline of Mark 14–16, the suffering of a holy man, had plenty of ‘literary models’ to survey for ideas on how to construct a narrative.57 Many individual elements of the narrative appear to be inventions of the author. Some of these may come from his use of tropes in Greco-Roman literature. Perhaps by exercising his literary freedom, the author channeled his reading of 1 Corinthians to tell how the night Jesus instituted one of Christianity’s most important ritual practices was the same night as one of the most important festivals in Second Temple Judaism. Judah Iscariot was also probably a ‘legendary’ addition to the account.58 The person may have existed, but his role as a betrayer does not appear historical. There are also a strange number of parallels with Josephus’ report of another Judean man, Jesus son of Hananiah, who was scourged as punishment for prophesying the destruction of Jerusalem in the late 60s CE.59 Maybe Mark’s narrative was influenced by stories about this other Jesus. Mark also crafts the Sanhedrin trial scene in such a way to deliberately shift blame onto the Judeans, away from the Roman authorities actually responsible for Jesus’ death.60 It is generally thought this was motivated by the growing exclusion of the Jesus sect from the synagogue, or to extend a gesture of good will to the Romans by showing Jesus’ followers did not blame them for his death, or both.

As Mark’s author established his basic story structure for the crucifixion and decided how it would tie into his ongoing ‘messianic secret’ theme, he also searched through the scriptures. He found a handful of especially poignant chapters which focused on the suffering of God’s followers and which prophesied judgment against Israel itself. He borrowed from these texts—especially Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22—to convey that Jesus was a truly righteous man whose unjust suffering had resulted in divine vengeance coming upon Jerusalem. The Day of Yahweh had arrived, and festivals like Passover would turn ‘into mourning’ because the people killed the Messiah, the ‘only son’ of God.

When we peel away the editorial side of Mark 14–16, searching for the bare story underneath, what we find is that Jesus was crucified by the Romans on charge of sedition, sentenced to death perhaps through an expedited legal process.61 Maybe this occurred around the time of Passover, but little would change if it happened another day in the year. The sedition charge was likely substantiated on one or two accusations. First, that Jesus caused a disruption in Jerusalem’s temple and threatened its destruction, acts which easily could have been interpreted as the prelude to something more dangerous.62 On this point, it is possible Jerusalem’s religious authorities did send him to Pilate, legitimately afraid he might instigate a revolt, as Judah of Gamala had attempted some twenty-four years earlier, bringing Rome’s wrath on Jerusalem.63 There would be no need for a betrayer; the temple guards would simply have arrested him on the spot. Second, that Jesus had claimed to be the true king of Israel, despite that Rome held the sole authority to decide who ruled their provinces and client territories. (Fixing a sign to the cross stating this as his capital offense would then be plausible.)64

Jesus may have been buried in a tomb, though not surrounded by fearful guards or scheming priests. Perhaps he was even buried by a disapproving member of the Sanhedrin, someone concerned not for Jesus, but for obeying the Torah. Jesus was probably one among many crucified that morning, and would not have received special attention from Pilate or the executioners. The temple curtain was not torn, and the sun was not eclipsed. There were no omens to mark the day.


1 E.g., Craig Evans, ‘Did Jesus Predict His Death and Resurrection?’, Resurrection, 82–97; Michael Licona, ‘Did Jesus Predict His Death and Vindication/Resurrection?’, Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus 8.1, 47–66.

2 Or see Craig Evans, Mark 8:27–16:20, 375, who offers a ‘natural’ explanation that Jesus knew he would be betrayed because ‘his knowledge derives from various friendly sources in Jerusalem’.

3 R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark, 556. See Evans (Mark, 366) for an example of how many scholars blithely assume Judah betrayed Jesus because he was upset by his message (and may have even intended to force Jesus to initiate the kingdom of God once confronted by a threat to his life).

4 Evans, Mark, 365; France, 556.

5 E.g., Joel Marcus, ‘Mark—Interpreter of Paul’, New Testament Studies 46.4, 473–487; Thomas Nelligan, The Quest for Mark’s Sources: An Exploration of the Case for Mark’s Use of First Corinthians; Tom Dykstra, Mark, Canonizer of Paul. This theory does not require that Mark agreed with everything Paul said, anymore than, say, Luke agreed with everything in Mark; cf. Marcus, ‘Mark—Interpreter of Paul’, Mark and Paul: Comparative Essays Part II. For and Against Pauline Influence on Mark (ed. Eve-Marie Becker Troels Engberg Pedersen, Mogens Müller), 33–34.

6 Elizabeth Dowling, ‘“Do this in Remembrance”: Last Supper Traditions in Paul and Mark’, Paul and Mark: Comparative Essays Part I. Two Authors at the Beginnings of Christianity (ed. Oda Wischmeyer, David C Sim, Ian J Elmer), 229–230, 237–239.

7 Mar Pérez i Díaz, Mark, a Pauline Theologian: A Re-reading of the Traditions of Jesus in the Light of Paul's Theology, 167.

8 Dowling, 234–235.

9 France, 566 and 569.

10 Morna Hooker, The Gospel According to Mark, 354.

11 France, 548.

12 Hooker, 354–355.

13 This point becomes more baffling when the reader stops to think about it, given the situation Mark portrays. The Sanhedrin spent a week plotting this kangaroo court (11.18), after weeks or even months of trying to think of a plan altogether (3.6). They are willing to pay off a member of Jesus’ inner circle to betray him. Yet, they could not even bother to find just two men willing to corroborate a planned false accusation.

14 France, 610; Hooker, 362; Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark, 705–706.

15 David Wallace Chapman, The Trial and Crucifixion of Jesus: Texts and Commentary, 99ff; Craig Evans, Jesus and His Contemporaries: Comparative Essays, 409–410.

16 France, 601–603; Hooker, 354; Yarbro Collins, 626.

17 Yarbro Collins, 636; cf. George Mousourakis, The Historical and Institutional Context of Roman Law, 307ff.

18 Josephus, Judean Antiquities 18.3.1–2; 18.4.1–2; Judean War 2.9.2–4; Philo, On the Embassy to Gaius 299–305.

19 First Timothy 6.13; Josephus, Judean Antiquities 18.3.3; Tacitus, Annals 15.44.

20 Hooker, 356–357.

21 Ibid., 366.

22 Yarbro Collins, 740.

23 France, 548.

24 Hooker, 366–367.

25 Yarbro Collins, 714.

26 Jennifer K Berenson Maclean, ‘Barabbas, the Scapegoat Ritual, and the Development of the Passion Narrative’, The Harvard Theological Review 100.3, 309–334.

27 This figure is later identified in 1 Enoch 37–71 as ‘that son of man’ multiple times, making the parallel here even more pronounced.

28 Hooker, 376.

29 France, 651; Mann, Mark, 650.

30 Yarbro Collins, 752.

31 Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, 475; Herman C Waetjen, A Reordering of Power: A Socio-Political Reading of Mark’s Gospel, 217–218.

32 France, 595–596; Yarbro Collins, 688–689.

33 Mark’s author may not have noticed that having Jesus identify himself with this ‘shepherd’ from the Book of Zechariah was not a good decision. Contrary to the optimistic interpretation implied by France (575–576), the shepherd in 13.2–9 is not a righteous man suffering undue harm. He is struck down by God for being a ‘worthless’ leader who ‘wails’ under God’s wrath, shown repeatedly throughout Zech 10–11; cf. Robert J Miller, Helping Jesus Fulfill Prophecy, 159–161.

34 Mann, 650.

35 Yarbro Collins, 764–765.

36 Hooker, 377–378.

37 John Granger Cook, Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World, 189–190.

38 France, 578.

39 Robin Scroggs & Kent Groff, ‘Baptism in Mark: Dying and Rising with Christ’, Journal of Biblical Literature 92.4, 531–548; Paul Danove, The Rhetoric of God, Jesus, and Jesus’ Disciples in the Gospel of Mark, 131–132.

40 E.g., France, 596; Yarbro Collins, 690 and 695.

41 Larry Hurtado, ‘The Women, the Tomb, and the Climax of Mark’, A Wandering Galilean: Essays in Honour of Sean Freyne (ed. ed. Zuleika Rodgers; Margaret Daly-Denton; Anne Fitzpatrick McKinley), 427–450.

42 Compare Paul’s identification of ‘the third heaven’ as ‘paradise’ (2 Cor 12.1–4) with similar ‘visions and revelations of the Lord’ found in the likes of Revelation of Zephaniah, 3 Baruch, 2 Enoch, the Revelation of John, 2 Baruch, and the Ascension of Isaiah.

43 Danove, 133–135.

44 Danove, 135; contra Hurtado, 438ff.

45 While some object that ancient Judaism ever made room for the ‘Platonic’ belief that a person’s spirit or soul continued to exist apart from their physical body, we do find the belief across a variety of literature ranging several centuries. There are only brief windows into the afterlife in the Hebrew Bible. The ghost of the prophet Samuel is once summoned (1 Sam 28.6–20). Ghostly ‘shades’ in the underworld are mentioned occasionally (Isa 14.9; 26.14; Job 26.5; Psa 88.10; Prov 2.18). The spirits of the hybrid-children of angels and humans were sentenced to wander the earth after their physical bodies died (1 Enoch 6–13). There were traditions that when Abraham died, his soul departed to dwell in heaven, while his body was buried on earth (T Abr 20.9–14). A similar fate came to Adam (Life of Adam & Eve, Vita 45–48; Rev 32–42). Paul may also refer to the idea of a disembodied spirit outside the context of resurrection (Php 1.20–24).

46 M. David Litwa, How the Gospels Became History: Jesus and Mediterranean Myths, 169.

47 Robyn Faith Walsh, The Origins of Early Christian Literature, 146–147.

48 Walsh, 147 (italics original).

49 Ibid., 138–141.

50 Walsh, 148 (footnote interpolated with brackets); cf. Litwa, 170–176.

51 N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 636.

52 Yarbro Collins, 776.

53 Explanations for this vary. I lean in favor of the view Matthew uses ‘now’ to spiritualize the ‘son of man’ event, part of the author’s revision of Mark’s apocalyptic expectations that the eschaton would arrive not long after Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 CE.

54 This turns out to be pointless, as Herod Antipas simply sends him back to Pilate. Its inclusion in Luke seems designed to explain how ‘Herod and Pilate became friends’, and maybe to exculpate Antipas.

55 Cf. France, 585–586.

56 Yarbro Collins, 622.

57 Marcus, 958; Yarbro Collins, 627–628. See examples in 2 Macc 6.18–31; 7.1–42; 4 Macc 5.1–7.23; 8.1–18.24; Wis 2.12–20.

58 Yarbro Collins, 636; contra Marcus, 952.

59 Josephus, Judean War 6.5.3. Cf. Marcus, 1014–1015; Theodore J Weeden, Sr, ‘Two Jesuses, Jesus of Jerusalem and Jesus of Nazareth: Provocative Parallels and Imagination Imitation’, Forum 6.2, 137–341.

60 Hooker, 355.

61 Yarbro Collins, 636 and 700.

62 Hooker, 358–360.

63 Yarbro Collins, 699.

64 Ibid., 747.


  1. Anonymous27.1.23

    Doesn’t Matthew also record the curtain being torn, not just Mark? Also, do you think it’s “plausible” that Jesus’s body was just thrown into a mass grave (and still remains there to this day)?

    1. Matthew does keep the curtain (dependent on Mark), and adds other omens.

      I think it is possible Jesus was buried in a mass grave. I don't know if I would rate it more likely than a tomb.

    2. Anonymous28.1.23

      Do you think it’s likely that his bones are still in the tomb (or wherever he was buried) today? I think it would be really cool if we found Jesus’s bones, since that would probably be the greatest discovery of all time, although I don’t know how you would be able to determine if the bones were his or not.

    3. On the basis of Jehoḥanan, Jesus may well have been buried in a tomb, then his bones transferred to an ossuary. I don't think we have any way of knowing, however, and I think it's incredibly unlikely we'd ever find it

  2. "I am unconvinced by arguments for a lost ending, that it would resolve any of Mark’s loose plot threads. Hypothetical sources like J (for the Torah) or Q (for Matthew and Luke) at least have tangible material to make a case from. A lost ending for Mark is, by definition, unknowable. We cannot make arguments for its existence by citing its non-existent contents."

    What are your thoughts about the proposition that John 21 contains the "lost ending" of Mark's Gospel? See the following Reddit post and follow the links to read more about it: https://www.reddit.com/r/AcademicBiblical/comments/hwgtrk/comment/fyzo3va/?utm_source=reddit&utm_medium=web2x&context=3

    1. I first learned of this theory maybe five or six years ago. I think it's interesting, but my opinions on source criticism of the Gospel of John are still up in the air.

      Currently, my tentative, personal theory is that the so-called 'Signs Source' or 'Signs Gospel' is not a separate or earlier document, but the Johannine evangelist's own innovation on the synoptic gospels. That is, he loosely adapted material from the synoptics to be his narrative framework, which he then filled in with the heavier, more philosophical material. Rather than preserving an alleged lost ending to Mark, maybe John 21 is instead the Johannine evangelist's adaptation of the fishing miracle story from Luke, which he left out in the earlier edition of his gospel.

  3. Regarding Paul's conception of the resurrection body and its implications for the empty tomb, what are your thoughts on James Ware's papers on the subject? He argues that Paul's description of the resurrection body elsewhere in 1 Corinthians 15, along with the language of resurrection, show that he must have understood the resurrection as a physical event that involved Jesus' body getting up out of his tomb. If you're not familiar with them, please don't feel like you have to read them; I'm just wondering if you were aware of his arguments and had any thoughts.

    Ware, James. “The Resurrection of Jesus in the Pre-Pauline Formula of 1 Cor 15.3–5.” New Testament Studies 60, no. 4 (October 2014): 475–98. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0028688514000150.

    Ware, James. “Paul’s Understanding of the Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:36–54.” Journal of Biblical Literature 133, no. 4 (2014): 809. https://doi.org/10.15699/jbibllite.133.4.809.

    1. His name is familiar, but I don't see either article in my collection. I can't recall if I've read these, sorry. I'll keep my eye out for them and get back to you.

  4. Anonymous28.4.23

    Do you see Matthew’s account in 28:11-15 about the guards arguing over Jesus’s tomb as historical? It’s a common apologetic view to take this passage from Matthew and argue for Jesus’s literal resurrection from the dead because people will argue that even the guards placed at Jesus’s tomb knew where he was, and they will also argue for the idea that “Everyone knew where the tomb was”, and use this passage as proof of that. Justin Martyr also records the same tradition that some of the Jews were arguing that Jesus’s body was stolen from the tomb, so this doesn’t appear to be an invention of Matthew’s author, since Justin is independent of Matthew. But what are your thoughts on the historicity of this account?

    1. I think it is historically probable that by Matthew's time (circa 90 CE) the 'empty tomb' story had become commonplace among Christians, which led to Jewish critics responding with a counterargument that Jesus' body must have been stolen from that tomb by his own disciples, which led to Matthew's author retroactively putting that counterargument in the mouths of the priests as a deliberate lie. I think the guards, and their dialogue with the priests, are a non-historical invention of Matthew's author for a polemical reason.

      In Justin's 1 Apology, he mentions 'the memoirs composed by [the apostles] which are called gospels'. He knows of multiple 'gospel' books attributed to Jesus' disciples, though he may not have known them by the names later assigned to them by Irenaeus. In the 1 Apology, Justin quotes the Gospel of Matthew multiple times (according to Larry Hurtado, Matthew is the gospel which Justin quotes the most often). This includes sayings or versions of sayings unique to Matthew (e.g. in 1 Apology 19, Justin quotes the wording from Matt 10.28, not the parallel version in Luke 12.5). In Dialogue with Trypho 108, Justin criticizes 'all the men of your nation' by referring to something Jesus said: 'that he would give the sign of Jonah, exhorting you to repent of your wicked deeds at least after he rose again from the dead, and to mourn before God as did the Ninevites'. While the 'sign of Jonah' is mentioned in Luke 11 and Matt 16, its specific association with Jesus' resurrection is only found in Matt 12, again showing Justin's familiarity with Matthew. This paragraph, Dialogue 108, is where we find Justin mentioning the guards uniquely found in Matthew. I think it's very safe to say that Justin Martyr was dependent on the Gospel of Matthew for his knowledge of a tradition about guards at the tomb.

  5. Anonymous31.5.23

    “Amid all these is where we find that the land was shrouded in darkness. There is no historical corroboration for the phenomenon.”

    Don’t Thallus and Phlegon record the darkness?

    1. Phlegon, as cited by Eusebius, wrote that a solar eclipse and earthquake happened at the end of the 202nd Olympiad (circa 33 CE). Phlegon was writing in the late second century, and appears to have slightly confused the dating of the eclipse, which happened at the beginning of the 202nd Olympiad (24th November 29 CE). This is several months out of season for the Passover scene depicted in Mark, which, as noted above, cannot be a solar eclipse because they cannot occur during a full moon. (Phlegon also states that the earthquake was felt in Bithynia, northern Türkiye, much too far from Jerusalem to be the one in Matthew.)

      The statement from Thallus, as I understand, is only known to us through third-hand accounts (writers citing someone who cited Thallus), and may not have been talking about events in this time period in the first place.

  6. Anonymous3.6.23

    Mark, you cited one of John Granger Cook’s books, but I absolutely have to recommend his book called Empty Tomb, Resurrection, Apotheosis, especially for comparisons between the empty tomb element in the gospels and other same motifs found in both Jewish literature and Greco-Roman literature. If you haven’t read it yet, you absolutely have to! John cites over a dozen examples of figures in antiquity undergoing apotheosis (like Walsh and Litwa mentioned), but it’s an absolutely amazing book!

  7. Anonymous20.6.23

    “There is no evidence of the prisoner tradition Pilate uses in a last-ditch attempt to save Jesus’ life.”

    1. Josephus records that when the Roman governor Albinus was preparing to leave office he released prisoners who had been incarcerated for crimes other than murder. 'he was desirous to appear to do somewhat that might be grateful to the people of Jerusalem; so he brought out all those prisoners who seemed to him to be most plainly worthy of death, and ordered them to be put to death accordingly. But as to those who had been put into prison on some trifling occasions, he took money of them, and dismissed them; by which means the prisons were indeed emptied, but the country was filled with robbers.' (Antiquities 20.9.3).

    2. In the Mishnah (Jewish oral tradition, written in around AD 300) it records that “they may slaughter the passover lamb for one….whom they have promised to bring out of prison”. Now its not exactly clear but this certainly records a prisoner being released specifically at Passover.

    3.A piece of papyrus also records a Roman governor of Egypt saying: “You were worthy of scourging but I gave you to the crowds.” (P.Flor 61, c. AD 85).

    4. Pliny the younger from one of his early second century letters also has something important to note on such practices and who had responsibility to do so, "It was asserted, however, that these people were released upon their petition to the proconsuls, or their lieutenants; which seems likely enough, as it is improbable any person should have dared to set them at liberty without authority" (Epistles 10.31).

    5. The author William Lane states ‘There is….. a parallel in Roman law which indicates that an imperial magistrate could pardon and acquit individual prisoners in response to the shouts of the populace’ (The Gospel according to Mark, p. 553).

    Don’t these sources debunk this claim?

    1. I do not think any of these points debunks the claim. While trying to find the source of the quotation in the second point, I discovered that this five-point list has been copied across several apologetics websites. I did not read any of them beyond this initial discovery, so the thoughts below are my own, in response to how the list has been presented in the comment above.

      1 — This only tells us of an exceptional occasion when Albinus was trying to impress a visiting Roman official with how much Jerusalem enjoyed Albinus' leadership. He tried to accomplish this by sloppily rushing pending death sentences while also releasing the rest of the other prisoners.

      2 — The list wants us to assume this prisoner is waiting to be executed, but is suddenly released from prison because a Passover lamb has been killed in their place (i.e. substitutionary atonement). This is not remotely what the text describes. The given quote refers to a passage in Mishnah Pesachim 8, which lists various categories of people who may be unable to bring their own lamb for the Passover sacrifice due to circumstances outside their control, and thus how other Torah-observant individuals should carry out the sacrifice on the absent person's behalf (with additional guidelines on when not to do it on their behalf). The examples provided include: a woman currently on her period, someone currently mourning the death of a relative, someone currently in prison but 'whom the governing body promised to release from prison on the night of Passover' (i.e. the conclusion of someone's prison sentence happens to coincide with Passover), and certain sick or elderly individuals.

      [continued below]

    2. [continuing above]

      3 — P Flor 61 is a sort of transcript of a civil suit which the Roman governor of Egypt (Gaius Septimius Vegetus) presided over. It appears that Phibion (plaintiff) was suing Polydeukes (defendant), accusing him of being a loan-shark because of a loan with a forty-year repayment plan. But Phibion evidently made some kind of procedural error when bringing suit, and this papyrus records how Kephalon (Phibion's legal advocate) argued that Phibion should not be punished with the usual flogging due to—what was essentially—his confusion over paperwork. The governor ultimately agreed, telling Phibion that ‘You deserve to be flogged ... but I shall concede your case to the crowd and be more humane to you.’ The governor proceeds to rule that Phibion must makes his loan payments to Polydeukes as agreed, but that the payments may stop after only twenty years if Phibion returns to court after that time.

      4 — The citation comes from Letter 40 of Pliny's correspondences with Trajan. In Pliny's own estimation, he was dealing with an unusual situation where criminals sentenced to this or that standard punishment (e.g. working in mines) have fallen into the routine of working as their city's public slave. Pliny writes to Trajan for advice on what standard to follow when he finds such cases, since several of these criminals have reached old age and now behave properly. Pliny thought it would be unnecessarily cruel to force them back to their original punishments. In the meantime, Pliny has taken to simply letting local authorities claim the criminals had long-since been released on appeal, excusing why they were not carrying out their original sentences.

      5 — Lane makes his claim by citing P Flor 61. Specifically, he claims the papyrus shows how 'an imperial magistrate could pardon and acquit individual prisoners in response to the shouts of the populace'. No such scene is portrayed in the papyrus. Phibion was not a prisoner, he did not commit any crimes in order to need a pardon or acquittal, and the governor was swayed by Phibion's lawyer's argument in court, not screaming crowds.

      None of these texts supports Mark's claim that Pilate pardoned a criminal as part of a well-known Passover tradition in Jerusalem. We have no evidence such a tradition existed. I have to be honest that I think the person who originally wrote the list was desperate to find proof-texts. (Note how points 3 and 5 are redundant, artificially lengthening the list to make the defense appear stronger.) Each one is severely misrepresented, whether out of laziness or dishonesty.

    3. Anonymous27.6.23

      Thanks again for the responses Mark!

      Yesterday, I was reading more through your responses and I happened to come across two more “sources” that weren’t on the list I originally sent. Do you think you could respond to these for me? Thanks! (I don’t want this to just be a back and forth debate on apologetics because that’s not the purpose of your blog, but I just thought you’d find them interesting.)

      1. An inscription in Ephesus (441 AD) mentions a decision of a proconsul to release prisoners because of the outcries of the people. (Adolf Deissman, “Light from the Ancient East,” 2004, Pages 269-270 n7).

      2. Josephus tells us Herod Archelaus released several prisoners to appease his fellow Jews (Antiquities 17.204).

      Source: https://youtu.be/P0HfUOihf5c (2:36)

      I just thought these two were particularly interesting because they both (are said to) mention releasing prisoners to appease other people, just like what’s recorded in the gospels about Jesus and Barabbas.

    4. I don't see how either passage could be interpreted as evidence for the historicity of the Barabbas scene which Mark portrays. The Phlegethius inscription concerns an event which happened four hundred years later. The Josephus passage concerns how, when Archelaus came to power, he bent over backwards to show the people he was a kinder ruler than his father by fulfilling a variety of requests. Neither of them demonstrates, in any way, the existence of a first-century tradition that the Roman governor of Iudaea Province would release a violent prisoner each year in celebration of a Judean holiday. These citations (and the others above) are grasping at straws to defend the historicity of a practice for which we have no evidence.

  8. Anonymous20.6.23

    Thanks for the responses! I actually found these sources on an apologetics website which you can find here: http://apologeticsuk.blogspot.com/2012/04/would-pontius-pilate-have-released.html

    Also, Inspiring Philosophy recently made a YouTube video responding to a tiktocker on this subject, which you can find here: https://youtu.be/dyVhZmJFrlw

    One of his main points was to cite Craig Evans on some of the sources listed above (such as the Mishnah text). He also made a claim that saying that there is no evidence for the Barabbas releasing tradition (which you said in the article) is just an “argument from silence”, and he said that “the gospels should not be judged guilty until proven innocent” or something like that. How would you respond to this? Also, I’m not sure if you really like critiquing apologist YouTubers on your blog, but what are your thoughts on Inspiring Philosophy as a whole? I feel like a lot of people consider him “unbeatable” in the whole theist/atheist debate, which I personally think is pretty ludicrous on the surface. But what do you think about him as a whole? Thanks for the responses!

    1. I'm not familiar with Inspiring Philosophy to be able to give an opinion. I don't watch many YouTube channels in general (and the only relevant one is Religion For Breakfast).

      I don't think saying 'there is no evidence for the tradition' is an argument from silence. Rather, it is an argument which explains that silence. The only sources we have which reference this tradition are ultimately dependent on Mark. Given the amount of sources we have from that era, it is reasonable to expect even one of them to independently reference this tradition. Yet none do.

      I think the statement 'the gospels should not be judged guilty until proven innocent', and the implication it raises, is disingenuous. This field of scholarship is history + literary criticism. The method is to study the texts by means of being informed by contemporary evidence. The texts are not studied in regards to authorial intent (as much as such a thing is possible for us to identify), and, at least in the case of claims about historical events or figures, plausibility and probablity. Flattening all this into a linear spectrum of 'guilty' and 'innocent', where 'guilty' means 'false/bad' and 'innocent' means 'true/good', is an absurd simplification.

      I don't think such an argument can be made in good faith. Does a Christian apologist who says we should simply assume the 'innocence' of the Gospel of Mark (read: its complete accuracy, over and above all contrary evidence, so that we necessarily accept its theology and join the apologist's religion) also say we should simply assume the 'innocence' (complete accuracy) of the Quran, 3 Enoch, Book of Mormon, Avesta, Vedas, etc? Almost never. It is an anti-academic notion, where a person has predetermined what we should think/feel/believe ahead of time, so that evidence is accepted, discarded, or ignored accordingly.

      I just don't have much interest in the sort of intellectual gymnastics required for debates over religious apologetics. I really just want to understand the biblical texts as pieces of a tiny corner of history, independent of any claims for or against their theological 'truth'.

    2. Anonymous20.6.23

      I agree on all of this.

      However, I should correct myself because what Michael (Inspiring Philosophy) actually said in the video I linked to above was “we don’t just assume the gospels are guilty unless they are proven innocent.” This was a response to the claim made by the tiktocker that BECAUSE this practice is only mentioned in the gospels, then this means that it likely doesn’t exist in the first place. He was trying to make the point (as an implication) that the gospels should be judged like any other ancient text and that we should not just dismiss them just because they are religious texts and therefore religious texts have bias. The problem with this line of reasoning is that ALL ancient writers were biased, so this argument doesn’t work. We have to examine each claim independently on its own. I know you weren’t making this specific argument, but I thought I would present what he said accurately so I wasn’t misleading. So that might change the discussion just a bit. My apologies about that.

    3. Anonymous20.6.23

      My question originally hinged on “we don’t just assume the gospels are guilty unless they are proven innocent” instead of “the gospels should not be judged guilty until proven innocent. Do you think the saying that “we don’t just assume the gospels are guilty unless they are proven innocent” is a valid response to what, for example, the tiktocker said in the video? I know that saying might sound the same as the one I originally asked, but after I posted it, I realized that the words “assume” and “unless” have different implications on the overall argument than than the words “judged” and “until” because they mean different things.

      Basically, my question is do you think Inspiring Philosophy’s response to the ticktocker in the video I linked is accurate? The video can explain it much better than I can ha ha.

  9. Anonymous2.7.23


    Mark, could you tell me what you think of this report given by Jefferson Williams please? Thanks! You didn’t spend too much time on Matthew’s gospel in the article, but I thought this was still interesting when I first discovered it.

    1. As the geologist wrote, the study assigned a ten-year range to when the earthquake may have happened (26-36 CE), with 31 CE landing in the center of that range. The geologist also says that the author of Matthew may have ‘borrowed’ the earthquake. I think this is the most information we can get from the study, and I think the latter detail—that Matthew was inspired by a historical earthquake—is dubious. As the geologist admits, he is a scientist and not a biblical scholar. (Given the scripture-inspired literary invention found throughout the narration, I think that is the most plausible explanation for the earthquake. The author isn't trying to record history; he wants to convey a theology interpreting Jesus and his death, which he does in part by inventing details lifted from passages of the Hebrew Bible.)

      What the study actually shows is far from the claim that the geological survey confirmed an earthquake happened in Jerusalem on the conveniently precise date of 3 April 33 CE. That is such a ‘sensationalist’ headline (as the page’s author says), it could only come about through a deliberate misrepresentation of the study in question. I don’t see any value in pursuing alleged ‘scientific evidence’ regarding the crucifixion narrative from individuals who do that.