A look at an alleged Bible contradiction: Did the women spread the word of the empty tomb or did the keep silent?

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Christians believe the resurrection is the most monumental historical claim that the Bible makes. But skeptics will often fire back with a question: Just how reliable can an account be if it is riddled with contradictions? To answer this claim, I’ve been writing a series of posts to answer these objections one at a time. Today let’s look at what the women said (or didn’t say) after discovering the empty tomb.

Did the women tell the disciples about the empty tomb, or did they keep silent?

In the other gospels, women discovered the empty tomb of Jesus and returned to tell the others:

“The women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples.” (Matthew 28:8).

“When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others” (Luke 24:9).

Mark tells us the women kept it hush-hush:

“Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.” ( Mark 16:8)

That’s how the original version of the gospel of Mark ended.

Wait a sec! Doesn’t Mark 16 have twenty verses?

Now some of you might be thinking to yourself: “Whoa. Hold up! Doesn’t Mark 16 have more than 8 verses? What about “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” and that strange stuff about drinking poison and handling snakes that we find at the ending of Mark?

Seemingly strange statements aside, I’m not at all here to argue against the inspiration of Mark 16:9–20. But most scholars believe that the original ending of Mark ends at verse 8. Unless you’re reading from the King James Version, most translations alert us to the fact that verses 9–20 are not in the earliest manuscripts. Here’s a sampling:

ESV : [Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include 16:9–20.]

NIV : [The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have verses 9–20.]

CSB : [Some of the earliest mss conclude with 16:8.]

NLT : [The most ancient manuscripts of Mark conclude with verse 16:8. Later manuscripts add one or both of the following endings.]

These are all fairly conservative versions of the Bible. There’s no liberal conspiracy happening here. You can still believe verses 9–20 are historically reliable and even inspired. But nearly all textual specialists agree that the long ending of Mark wasn’t part of the original text. This gives us an apparent contradiction about what the women said after discovering the empty tomb.

Letting the skeptics speak

Here are a couple of skeptics describing the problem:

Popular atheist blogger Bob Seidensticker:

Did the women tell the disciples? Matthew and Luke make clear that they did so immediately. But Mark says, “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.” And that’s where the book ends, which makes it a mystery how Mark thinks that the resurrection story ever got out.”

And here’s a quote from agnostic biblical scholar Bart Ehrman:

“One point, in particular, seems to be irreconcilable. In Mark’s account the women are instructed to tell the disciples to go meet Jesus in Galilee, but out of fear they don’t say a word to anyone about it.” Jesus, Interrupted. Page 49

Bob and Bart both want to create a contradiction by reading Mark as saying they never said a word to anyone. But is this the right reading of the passages?

Is Mark’s gospel incomplete?

While the general scholarly consensus is that the long ending of Mark wasn’t originally there, what we’re not being told by the skeptics is that there’s debate regarding whether or not Mark meant to end it there or if the original text was cut off or left incomplete. Bob might not know better, so I’ll give him a pass. Bart has no excuse.

The late Bruce Metzger was a biblical scholar and longtime Princeton professor. He thought the original ending was cut off. Why did he believe that? Mark has a pattern of making blanket statements before adding an exception. Just take a look:

  • “He did not let anyone accompany him except Peter, James, and John, James’s brother.” (Mark 5:37)
  • “Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.” (Mark 9:8)
  • “As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead.” (Mark 9:9)
  • Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked him. “No one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:18)
  • “Now concerning that day or hour no one knows — neither the angels in heaven nor the Son — but only the Father.” (Mark 13:32)

This is a clear pattern in Mark. So how would we expect Mark to continue if Metzger is right and the text is broken off? It would probably look a lot like what we read in Matthew 28:8. Let’s combine the two passages: They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid, but departing quickly from the tomb…, they ran to tell his disciples the news.

Ehrman did his doctoral dissertation under Metzger, so he has no justification in keeping his audience in the dark.

But what if Mark really intended on stopping at verse 8?

If you read Mark carefully in one sitting, you’ll find a common thread. After Jesus reveals himself in some way, he asks the witnesses to keep it on the down low.

  • “Then a man with leprosy came to him and, on his knees, begged him: “If you are willing, you can make me clean.” Moved with compassion, Jesus reached out his hand and touched him. “I am willing,” he told him. “Be made clean.” Immediately leprosy left him, and he was made clean. Then he sternly warned him and sent him away at once, telling him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go and show yourself to the priest, and offer what Moses commanded for your cleansing, as a testimony to them.” Yet he went out and began to proclaim it widely and to spread the news, with the result that Jesus could no longer enter a town openly.” (Mark 1:40–45)
  • “They brought to him a deaf man who had difficulty speaking and begged Jesus to lay his hand on him. So he took him away from the crowd in private. After putting his fingers in the man’s ears and spitting, he touched his tongue. Looking up to heaven, he sighed deeply and said to him, “Ephphatha!” (that is, “Be opened!”). Immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was loosened, and he began to speak clearly. He ordered them to tell no one, but the more he ordered them, the more they proclaimed it. (Mark 7:32–36)
  • “But you,” he asked them, “who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he strictly warned them to tell no one about him.” (Mark 8:29–30)

Reading this we see that there’s a pattern silence, or requested silence, followed by proclamation. The silence never sticks. The whole punchline of Mark is that Jesus is the Messiah. Why we’d expect this pattern to stop seems silly. Just think about Mark’s Gospel as a whole for a minute:

In the first half of Mark, everyone questions who Jesus is.

In the middle, Jesus questions the disciples’ belief about Him.

The second half tells how Jesus became the Messiah.

Mark is making a point about Jesus’ identity. Many Jews hoped that the Messiah would overthrow the Romans and rule as king, but as we read his gospel, we see that Jesus came to set up a kingdom different than their expectations. He came not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for sin. (Mark 10:45) His kingdom would start small but gradually become great, like a mustard seed. (Mark 4:26–29)

With that in mind, it’s possible that the gospel’s abrupt ending is there to intentionally challenge us to decide if we believe Jesus is the Messiah. Mark could be making the understood assumption that of course, the women eventually said something, that’s why you’re reading about this — but what do you think? Who do you think Jesus is?

Mark doesn’t contradict the other gospels

With these considerations, I think this so-called contradiction is a dud. To try and press the sudden and unexpected ending of Mark as a contradiction without making the reader aware of the scholarly debate smacks of trying to take advantage of the average reader’s ignorance. Bart is only giving us one side of the story and acting like it’s the only scholarly option. As Christians, we need to be able to do a little research on our own so as not to be duped.

And even if Mark meant to end his gospel at verse 8, if you’ve followed Mark’s storytelling at all it’s clear that he didn’t mean to say the women kept silent forever. That misses the entire point of his gospel.

Originally published at https://isjesusalive.com on May 9, 2019.

Written by

I am the Reasonable Faith Chapter Director in Cedar Rapids and the writer for isjesusalive.com. I’m interested in the intersection of Christianity and history.

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