Bad conjectures

by James Dowden

Sometimes the text in front of one is so manifestly non-original that the temptation is to determine that an unattested variant is original. This is the realm of conjecture. Unfortunately, people just aren’t very good at making conjectures, and tend to reveal rather more about their own outlo0k on things than that of the author they are trying to recover the text of. And with the passage of time, what was once seen as reasonable may well stand out as embarrassingly dated.

So imagine my amusement when I stumbled across a conjecture that manages to be all of this in just two words.

First, a little background for the uninitiated. The Gospel of Mark ends καὶ οὐδενὶ οὐδὲν εἶπαν, ἐφοβοῦντο γάρ (“And they said nothing to no-one; for they were afraid”). Right back into antiquity, this was felt to be a very strange ending for any book – it ends with a conjunction – less still for a book describing itself as “good news”. What sort of good news is it if no-one is told about it? Various spurious endings were composed early on, and there has been much speculation about a lost ending.

So here’s what J. Rendel Harris says in one of the lectures collected into Side-Lights on New Testament Research (1908, p88):

I am not going to speculate on these matters, further than to tell you the first two words that will be found on the missing leaf, if it should ever be recovered. The narrative went on like this:
[For they were afraid] of the Jews.
ἐφοβοῦντο γάρ τοὺς Ἰουδαίους.

I think we can categorically state that any missing leaf did not start with τοὺς Ἰουδαίους. It just isn’t how Mark uses the word Ἰουδαῖος. It only occurs six times in the entire Gospel, five times as part of the accusation “the King of the Jews”, and once in that bizarrely wrong generalization about what the Pharisees and all the Jews did (7.3). Nowhere does Mark have a group of anti-heroes called “the Jews” – that is the preserve of John and Acts. And these days that is rightly considered a problematic literary trope in those two books in itself. But more of that another time. For now let’s just laugh at the oopsiness of this conjecture.