Monday, October 10, 2016

Mark 16 on a Roll

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Many New Testament scholars consider Mark 16.8 to be the original ending of the gospel. Others regard the original ending as now lost. For those who think it’s lost, the most frequent explanation is that it was lost at some point given that the beginning and ends of books are particularly liable to damage and loss. Those who think that Mark 16.8 is the original ending sometimes argue against this by pointing out that, because Mark was most likely written on a roll, a loss at the end is actually very unlikely.

Dan Wallace makes this argument in Perspectives on the Ending of Mark (2008). After saying that it is very unlikely that Mark wrote his gospel as a codex, he says
However, if Mark’s Gospel is earlier than this [end of the first century]—as virtually all scholars acknowledge, regardless of their view of the synoptic problem—then he would have written his Gospel on a roll, and the first generation of copies would also have been on rolls. And if the Gospel was written on a roll, then the most protected section would be the end, because when someone rolled the book back up, the end would be on the inside. To be sure, some lazy readers might not rewind the book when finished—of course, they would get fined a denarius at their local Blockbuster for such an infraction! But the reality is that this sort of thing was the rare exception, not the rule. Consequently, if Mark was originally written on a roll, it is hard to imagine how the ending could have gotten lost before any copies were made. (pp. 35–36)
Appeal has also been made to the placement of the title in a scroll in this debate. F. G. Kenyon actually changed his mind on whether the end was liable to loss. He felt that the position of the title at the end of the roll would mean that “the reader of a roll would not want to wait till he had read to the end in order to know the name of the author and the title of the work; and an intending reader would not want to unroll the entire roll in order to ascertain these facts.” Because of that, Kenyon takes the opposite view of Wallace on whether a scroll might account for the loss of Mark’s original ending.

I don’t find Kenyon’s speculation convincing. While it is true that titles in scrolls are more often found at the end rather than the beginning, the more regular practice was to use a slip of papyrus or vellum hanging from the end (the σίττυβος). In other cases, the title could be written on the outside. The point is, there are many ways ancient readers solved the problem of not knowing what was inside a rolled up scroll. Re-rolling in a certain way seems like an unlikely solution.

Fresco from Pompeii showing a scroll in the bottom left corner with a title tag (source)
In fact, the issue of how scrolls were rolled up is beside the point. This is because damage is most easily done, not when the scroll is stored, but in the process of (un)rolling itself. F. W. Hall makes this clear in his discussion of rolls in A Companion to Classical Texts (1913):
Papyrus was by no means a durable material except in dry climates. When new it was exceedingly tough, but its strength diminished with age and use. It was quickly spoilt, if not destroyed, by damp and was soon attacked by insects unless treated with cedar oil. The first sheet (πρωτόκολλον) and the last (ἐσχατοκόλλιον, Martial, ii. 6. 3) were peculiarly liable to damage. To enable the first sheet to withstand the strain of constant handling it was sometimes stiffened by a strip about an inch wide pasted on the back. The last sheet was similarly protected. The papyri which have hitherto been found do not show any traces of the rollers (ὀμφαλός, unibiliais) of wood or ivory which the Roman authors constantly mention as attached to the beginning and end of the roll. There is, however, no reason to doubt that they were in use, though they were probably confined to the more expensive rolls. It is obvious that the first or last sheet might easily be torn from such a roller if the reader was not careful in unrolling his book or in rolling it up again. The effect of mutilations at the beginning and end of the roll upon the texts of classical writers will be considered later. (pp. 13–14).
The important point here is that Hall directs our attention to how the first and last sheets of rolls were damaged—and it has nothing to do with which direction they were rolled up. Rather, the problem is that they have to be rolled at all in order to be read. And the parts that are most liable to damage during rolling are the first and last sheets. That is what could explain a loss of Mark’s original ending.

To be sure, the theory that Mark’s ending was lost due to material damage remains just that—a theory. But it won’t due to argue against this theory by appealing to how scrolls were or were not rolled back up. That’s not the issue. The issue is the need to roll them at all.

18 comments :

  1. Interesting post, thanks.

    I think the possibility of loss is always on the table. I think Wallace makes the same mistake that many do: underestimating the effects of ms loss, overestimating the integrity of the transmission line. The extensive loss of mss between earliest times and now means that the surviving ms base does not necessarily reflect the earliest state.

    In other words, any corruption - including the end of mark - need not have happened early in order to predominate the modern ms base. Later corruptions could also dominate the surviving line of transmission, simply by virtue of surviving and being copied while alternate versions were lost, as the majority were.

    All that to say, in my view the loss of mark's ending is always a possibility. Whether it's probable is, it think, decided by whether the text itself seems to suggest it.

    I'm torn on the suggestive power of the current final words "for they were afraid." they do seem to me to be an odd way to end a writing. Are they odd enough, though, that they could not possibly have been the intended final words? I don't think that's been shown either.

    What's most telling for me, right now anyway, is the very fact that alternate endings were created. That tells me that multiple early readers - who I suspect probably had a better natural feel for the text than me - read those last words and felt "hey, that's not right." their reaction is the most telling evidence to me. If the earliest readers didn't feel like ephobounto gar was an ending, then it probably wasn't an ending. Which would mean that the actual ending had to have been lost, or never written in the first place.

    Bottom line, I think the presence of corruption should always be decided by whether the text itself reads as corrupt. And as far as that decision goes, lots of texts may read as corrupt to me, but when multiple early readers read the text as corrupt, I think that's hard to argue with.

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  2. Thanks Ryan,

    Just to pick up one point here. You said:
    "the very fact that alternate endings were created. That tells me that multiple early readers - who I suspect probably had a better natural feel for the text than me - read those last words and felt “hey, that’s not right.” their reaction is the most telling evidence to me. If the earliest readers didn’t feel like ephobounto gar was an ending, then it probably wasn’t an ending."

    Another way to look at this was outlined by Denyer on the basis of the ending of a speech by Protagoras which ended in a short sentence ending in GAR. Denyer suggested "that Mark chose precisely such a means of leaving the reader in what is, after all, a proper frame of mind for someone who has just read a gospel: thinking that the story of the risen Christ cannot be over yet, and yearning to hear more."

    N. Denyer, ‘Mark 16.8 and Plato, Protagoras 328d’ Tyndale Bulletin 47 (2006), 149-150

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  3. A short article is a good article.

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  4. An excellent post, Peter. As George Houston discussed in his excellent "Inside Roman Libraries" titles could also be found written on the back of rolls, vertically, along the outside. Titles could aslo be found indicated on the book-boxes or cuboards that contained the rolls as well.
    In more elaborate rolls, generous margins were designed into the physical layout of the text. Margins above, below, the columns of text, and at the beginning and end of the roll, were designed into the layout in order to give room for fraying edges and damage incurred through use as the book was rolled and unrolled.

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  5. Agree, Tim, but if I read Houston correctly, I think the titles written on book-boxes were intended to be supplemental to the titles in the rolls themselves, for easier reference in the context of a library/collection.

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    1. Yes, I think that you are right. These titles were supplementary.

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  6. So what's most telling to me is the triple tradition just stops at Mark 16:8 after cranking along so strongly in the passion and early resurrection verses. It seems clear that either Luke or Matthew (or both) already had a 'defective' Mark, which means the ending was never penned or it was already lost in earliest copies of Mark. If Matthew and Luke had strong agreement after Mark 16:8, we could reasonably conclude that we could probably reconstruct the ending of Mark from Matthew and Luke. That doesn't appear to be the case. If our current ending of Mark had strong agreement with Matthew or Luke, we could conclude it was probably original. That also doesn't seem to be the case.


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  7. Bob: "If Matthew and Luke had strong agreement after Mark 16:8, we could reasonably conclude that we could probably reconstruct the ending of Mark from Matthew and Luke. That doesn’t appear to be the case."

    Alternatively, Eta Linnemann, "Der (wiedergefundene) Markusschluß", ZThK 66 (1969) 255-287, sees only a Matthean source plus part of what appears in the Long Ending of Mark as the original ending (her position later critiqued by K. Aland, ZThK 67 (1970) 3-13, who has his own ideas).

    All this, by the way, before Linnemann's later rejection of nearly all of her previous views.

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  8. Peter Gurry,

    I would add that while “others regard the original ending as now lost,” still others regard verses 9-20 as the original ending of the Gospel of Mark in the form in which it was initially disseminated for church-use. The theory of accidental loss does not account for the non-transition between v. 8 and v. 9, just as the theory that a second-century scribe composed verses 9-20 does not account for the non-transition either.

    Even though the theory of accidental loss (the loss of verses 9-20, or of some non-extant ending imagined to resemble the post-resurrection scenes in Matthew 28) is not something I defend, I agree that Dan Wallace’s objection against it is rather weak. (It's one of several dubious and incorrect statements in Wallace's chapter of the "Perspectives" book.) It’s not as if we can visit the first century to keep track of how many scroll-readers did, or did not, rewind their scrolls after reading. Nor can we even be sure that the autograph of the Gospel of Mark was a scroll (regarding this see N. Clayton Croy’s “The Mutilation of Mark’s Gospel”).

    Regarding what Hall wrote: when he says, “It is obvious that the first or last sheet might easily be torn from such a roller if the reader was not careful in unrolling his book or in rolling it up again,” this does not mean that the first or last sheet would be detached from the second or second-to-last sheet, does it? Isn’t he only saying that the roller would become unglued from the papyrus? The loss of a roller wouldn't cause the loss of text, would it?

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    1. No. It’s just an example of how the ends are damaged in normal handling.

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    2. "It’s not as if we can visit the first century to keep track of how many scroll-readers did, or did not, rewind their scrolls after reading" - see however Emanuel Tov's Scribal Practices and Approaches Reflected in the Texts Found in the Judean Desert (2004 1st ed.), page 108: "the evidence presented below seems to indicate that more scrolls were rolled up with their beginning on the inside".

      Matthew Hamilton

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    3. But even if scrolls were almost always rolled up so that the end was on the inside, then the end of the scroll would still be one of the most likely parts of the scroll to be damaged by the very fact that it is at the end and therefore exposed to more manipulation and possible damage in the regular use process than any other part of the scroll except the beginning.

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  9. Speculation produces much better results when based on evidence. If the gospel of Mark were written on a scroll, what is the evidence that the final leaf could have contained text the length of 16:9-20? If I was going to make such a claim, I would have first tested the hypothesis with a real papyrus scroll.

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  10. Daniel, what would such evidence as you require look like? I am trying to think of a way to show that 16.9-20 couldn’t fit on the last sheet (ἐσχατοκόλλιον). It is not hard at all to imagine dimensions which would allow for it.

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  11. Bob Relyea,

    BR: "BR: If our current ending of Mark had strong agreement with Matthew or Luke, we could conclude it was probably original."

    Or, its detractors could simply argue that its alignment with Matthew or Luke shows that its creator based his work on Matthew or Luke. Verses 9-20 face a lose-lose scenario in the hands of commentators: material shared with Matthew and Luke implies non-originality. Material *not* shared with Matthew and Luke implies non-originality too.

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    1. Yes, my deduction assumes Markian priority, which I should have stated. The position of the break in the triple tradition is still a little odd, but if you assume Mark was written after Matthew and Luke, then the oddity becomes why did Luke break with Matthew at that point.

      "Verses 9-20 face a lose-lose scenario in the hands of commentators: material shared with Matthew and Luke implies non-originality. Material *not* shared with Matthew and Luke implies non-originality too."

      So my issue isn't that they don't share material, it's that the level of agreement between the three gospels in the passion is pretty strong, mostly word for word except with minor tweaks, and ends abruptly at 16:8. The only agreements left is Mark and Luke describe the road to Emmaus story (Mark with just a summary), Mark and Matthew share the Great Commission. That's it. If Mark were last, then 16:9-20 could make sense as original (Mark could get the Emmaus summary from Luke, Mark's following the triple tradition ends because his double tradition in front of him ends).

      If Mark were first, however, it looks very much like the ending was lost before Matthew and Luke got a hold of their copy Mark. This would be particularly true if our current ending wasn't original (which is really the point I was trying to make).

      Succinctly: If you assume that Mark was first, and you assume that there was a smooth ending that was lost, then you have to conclude that either Matthew or Luke or both did not know that smooth ending (ergo it was lost *very* early).

      bob

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    2. Bob,
      David Alan Black has a view much like what you've depicted -- that Mark wrote after Matthew and Luke.

      However, I would argue that the least complex explanation of the most evidence, as far as the Synoptic Problem is concerned, is that Proto-Mark, not the Gospel of Mark, was Luke's source for Marcan material. To go into detail, however, would detour from the subject of the initial post.

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    3. As regards your side point, in a way you're not far Helmut Koester on this, James

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