Mark 16:8 is regarded by many as the closing verse of that Gospel, with verses 9-20 considered a later addition to bring Mark’s story of Jesus into conformity with those written by Matthew and Luke, i.e. to include stories of resurrection and commission. The interpretation of this verse then, if it is the verse that Mark intended to be his final word, becomes critical to understanding the entire thrust of his Gospel narrative.
The content of the verse is straightforward. The message of the “young man” at Jesus’ tomb and the state of things in the tomb cause the women to flee in astonished fear. Mark then explains why – “for trembling and ekstasis was taking hold of them.” The result of all of this is that “they said nothing to no one [Greek has a double negative for emphasis here], for they were afraid.”
Mark’s use of the compound expression “trembling and ekstasis” has generated a large debate. Did Mark intend to communicate that the women were terrified by everything they were experiencing and remained silent? Or does his use of ekstasis suggest that their fear is similar to that experienced by people in the Old Testament when they met God, a kind of awestruck astonishment and bewilderment, leading to a temporary silence as they reflected on this encounter? Or is it referencing the more negative kind of response that describes Israel’s response to the report of the ten spies about giants in the land of Canaan. Their report generates “consternation (ekstasin) for the land” because the Israelites think the people of the land are too powerful (Numbers 13:32(31)). Is Mark making a more negative or a more positive comment about the women’s experience and subsequent behaviour?
Mark used this word in one other context (5:42). In that setting he links it with the cognate verb, existēmi. The New International Version translates that entire expression as “they were completely astonished (exestēsan ekstasei megalēi).” This describes the reaction of the disciples and the parents when Jesus raised Jairus’ daughter from the dead. Literally “they were astonished with great astonishment.” Perhaps it is noteworthy that Mark used this noun in the two contexts in his gospel where he describes the reaction of people to resurrection events.
The more extensive use of the cognate verb existēmi in Mark’s Gospel causes us to pause before reaching a conclusion. Two occurrences seem to reflect a similar sense of awe and astonishment: 2:12 (the healing of the paralyzed man) and 6:51 (the response of the disciples when Jesus climbs into the boat after walking to them on the water and calming the wind).1 Its use in 3:21 (the accusation that Jesus was exestēi) is not paralleled elsewhere in Mark’s narrative.2
When the crowds in Mark 2 saw the paralyzed man arise and walk, carrying his pallet, the writer says that as a result “all [including the religious leaders?] were astonished (existasthai) and glorified God.” Such an event had never occurred in their experience. They attribute the power to do such a thing to God himself, presumably in their view, acting through Jesus. Their response of awesome wonder to the miracle causes them to praise God.
Similarly the disciples “are extremely awestruck (existanto)” when Jesus, having walked across the Sea of Galilee in the early morning hours as strong wind impeded the progress of disciples’ boat, climbed up into the boat to be with them and the wind calmed (6:51). His appearance, like a phantom, initially generated great agitation (etarachthēsan, deeply disturbed) within them; but as Jesus identifies himself, encourages them “not to be afraid,” and decides to join them, this agitation was turned into awe and wonder. They seem to struggle to comprehend what has just happened and fit it into their definition of Jesus.
This pattern of prior usage of the noun and verb in Mark’s Gospel leads us to conclude that probably in 16:8 the author intends us to understand part of the women’s response to the messenger, his message and the empty tomb to be awe and wonder. These things were totally unexpected and beyond the realm of their experience. Deity is responsible for these things. But raw fear is also mingled with their astonishment and so Mark describes them as possessed by “trembling and astonishment…for they were afraid.” The noun tromos, “trembling” occurs with phobos, “fear” in Exodus 15:15-16 to describe the response of the leaders of Edom, Moab and Canaan to the news of what God did to the Egyptians in the Red Sea and leads Moses to desire “fear and trembling [to] fall upon them” as they discover God’s intent to lead Israel into their territories.
Mark has used the verb exethambēthēsan in 16:5 as he narrates the women’s response to the young man sitting in the opened, empty tomb. This verb seems to indicate a kind of astonishment that generates serious alarm, perhaps rendered best by our English word “dread”. So Mark has signaled earlier in this account the kind of fearful encounter that is occurring here. No wonder they “fled from the tomb.”
I think when Mark used the noun ekstasis and the verb existamai the astonishment described arises because people are surprised at the extraordinary things they are experiencing. Jesus does the totally unexpected. In Mark 6:52 the response of astonishment to Jesus walking on the water, climbing into the boat and calming the water is said to result from their failure to comprehend the significance of the loaves, i.e. their heart was hardened. They just did not perceive Jesus having the ability to do these kinds of things. So when they happen, they are caught off guard and struggle to integrate what they are observing with how they are understanding Jesus and his mission. For many, it does not compute. The extraordinary actions generate an astonishment and wonder that is embedded simultaneously in fear, uncertainty, surprise, and awe. In the case of the women their experience stuns them into silence.
In Mark 16:8 the author has carefully expressed this combination of dread and awe by using words that describe flesh-quivering fear and mind-numbing astonishment. This language speaks of incomprehension when people encounter God’s power and authority in Jesus. His mystery overwhelms. No wonder the women “say nothing to no one!”
If my evaluation of Mark’s language is correct, then I am not sure we can say that Mark is speaking negatively or positively in 16:8 about the women’s experience. He describes it in language he has used previously. The motif of silence is also found in previous stories, but in those cases the silence is usually something Jesus commands, not something that happens as a result of people’s experience. Perhaps the women’s silence is intended to show that this event they experienced had an impact that supersedes anything else narrated in the story.
What I think Mark does in 16:8 by this reference to “trembling and astonishment,” as well as silence and fear, is signal their incomprehension at what they have seen and heard. It raises the question how their incomprehension will be resolved and by whom? None of the apostles are around to offer explanation. Jesus is not present, the one who elsewhere in Mark’s Gospel provides answers to the mysteries people experience in his presence. If the women “remained silent,” then the instructions of the young man in the tomb for his disciples to go to Galilee where they will see Jesus were not communicated.
The mystery of Jesus only gets fully resolved in his resurrection appearances and discourses.
- is there still mystery for you in the person and work of the Lord Jesus such that it generates awe and wonder in your heart? Our hymns often express “the wonder of it all;”
- discerning God’s extraordinary actions for the advancement of his plans and our salvation should create within us the response of awe-filled worship, whether it is the terrible events of Calvary, the reality of the empty tomb, the vindication and promise of Jesus’ resurrection, or the presence of God’s Spirit within us. What will you praise God for today in your worship?
- perhaps you no longer sense the awe and wonder of Jesus’ person and ministry. If so, it is time to reread the Gospels and recapture the astonishment that he generated among his contemporaries.
- 1Luke used this verb even more extensively (Luke 2:47; 8:56; 24:22; Acts 2:7,12; 8:9,11,13; 9:21; 10:45; 12:16). In several contexts it describes the response of people to acts of magic or sorcery performed by Simon Magus (Acts 8:9,11). The verb, in many contexts, seems to convey the idea of wonder induced by an extraordinary event. Whether in every case the event was thought to be generated by divine power is another question.
- 2Space forbids consideration of this context.