Sunday, 21 May 2017

Mark’s resurrection narrative: where is it?




I come to be writing about the story of Jesus’ resurrection in Mark’s Gospel in particular for one reason: the ending from Mark 16:9-20 which forms part of it, arguably shouldn’t be there at all. Some would argue that case by saying that all that should be included at the end of Mark’s Gospel are Mark’s own words, and that 16:9-20 are someone else’s words. Not Mark’s words. And so they should be dismissed. And so, I’ve heard it claimed, that leaves Mark’s Gospel without a resurrection account, or at least without mention of Jesus appearing to his disciples. But, I have to ask, is that true? And how do we know?

The question arises because in the most ancient manuscript evidence, Mark's Gospel ends at chapter 16:8. The signs are that extra verses were added later. Most modern bibles tell the reader so in the footnotes, so that the reader knows that Mark 16:9-20 was probably not originally part of Mark's Gospel. (There are other alternative endings too, but I'm trying to keep this simple.)

It matters not least because most experts would say that Mark’s Gospel is our oldest gospel. This means, if you listen to some internet voices especially, that the absence of a resurrection in the oldest gospel means that the resurrection story was somehow invented after Mark wrote his Gospel, with dire consequences for the truth of the resurrection and Christianity. in other words, so the claim goes, the first Christians didn’t believe in a real resurrection of Jesus at all, and the sceptics think so because they think the resurrection wasn't originally in the earliest gospel. (This view ignores that Paul, writing earlier than Mark, had already mentioned the resurrection, but that's for another post, and I am keeping things simple here. This post is just about what Mark says.)

For the purpose of this post, I am going to dismiss Mark 16:9-20 out of hand[1], simply in order to see what Mark really says without it. That is the test: if we only go by Mark’s words, we can ask what they say – if anything – about Jesus being resurrected.

So that leaves us only with Mark 16:1-8. This is what it says in its resurrection episode:

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

And there it breaks off. If you were to add Mark 16:9-20 - and I won't do that here - then you get stories in which is told what happens during appearances of the resurrected Jesus to his disciples. But we don’t have that here. Now, I am going to zoom in on what we do have here, in Mark 16:1-8, the words that are normally accepted by scholars as Mark's words. Some sceptics say there is no resurrection account here. But is that true? This is what we find in it.  

In verse 2, we have, early on the Sunday, three women visiting the tomb of Jesus.

In verse 4, the women witness that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb entrance.

In verse 5, the women witness a man, a messenger in effect, in the tomb.

In verse 6, this man tells them that Jesus, the one who had been crucified, now ‘has risen!’

They witness that the tomb is otherwise empty, as the man explains, “He is not here. See the place where they laid him.”

In verse 7, we learn where the resurrected Jesus will appear, to whom and when: it will be the disciples and especially Peter, it will be in Galilee after they arrive there. So resurrection appearance(s) are mentioned here, but not described.

The messenger’s promise to be conveyed to Peter and the others about what to expect in Galilee is, “There you will see him, just as he told you.” So the promised appearance in Galilee links to something Jesus said earlier to them. (Mark’s Gospel is actually laced with the promise and expectation of Jesus’ resurrection. See Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:34 and especially Mark 14:28 about the promise of the risen Jesus going to Galilee.)

In verse 8, the women run from the tomb in fear, and, we are told, “They said nothing to anyone,” except of course that they obviously did tell, otherwise their great moment at the tomb would not be found here. So we are left anticipating the promised appearances of the risen Jesus in Galilee. In light of that story and promise, you can’t close the book there and say that Mark doesn’t believe that. Mark is clearly a believer and clearly believes that the appearances of the risen Jesus in Galilee are bona fide. But we don’t get to hear more, because that is where the text of Mark’s Gospel breaks off.

So after dismissing Mark 16:9-20, what do we have left here of the resurrection story in Mark? We have this:

  • when: Sunday morning
  • where: the empty tomb
  • who is there: the women and a messenger
  • what: Jesus has risen
  • why: it is as Jesus foretold
  • what Jesus is doing now: “He is going ahead of you into Galilee.”
  • what will happen: Jesus will appear
  • to whom he will appear: Peter and the disciples
  • where he will appear: Galilee
  • when he will appear: after they arrive in Galilee.

That seems to me to be the basics of the resurrection story. That is the story Mark tells. Mark in writing what he did clearly believed that the resurrection happened. To claim that there is no resurrection story in Mark is spurious.

What is absent is the cued-up Galilee scene, and that is the blank filled in by Mark 16:9-20. Without it, all you have is the basic resurrection story, the empty tomb witnessed by the women, the message that Jesus is resurrected, that Galilee is where the disciples will see the resurrected Jesus appear to them. As said, resurrection appearance(s) are thus mentioned in Mark's Gospel, but not actually described: Mark is not in doubt that resurrection appearances are part of the story. It is a resurrection narrative, plain and simple, without the extras. To deny this, as some sceptics do, borders on desperation.

If you would like to read more about the ending, NT Wright approaches it with a historian’s common sense. As does Ben Witherington.

POSTSCRIPT


As NT Wright observes, one place where we find Mark's promised appearances of Jesus in Galilee is in the ending of Matthew's Gospel. And since Matthew re-uses 95% of the material provided to him by Mark, then this makes it all the more likely that Matthew's description of the Galilean appearances are at least in part derived from Mark. In fact, it reads well if you tag onto the end of Mark some verses from Matthew 28. Taking a bare minimum, in fact, you would get this, where the material flows from Mark 16:8 seamlessly into the words from Matthew:




As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.


Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”... Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations”.


I've minimised material taken from Matthew, just to show how it flows. I could have used more. It gives an impression of what the original ending of Mark could very possibly have looked like. I am not saying it was so, just that it could have been so, given that it flows naturally, and that this delivers what Mark promises, and that Matthew reuses 95% of Mark's material, so the wording in the latter paragraph above, which is found in Matthew, could have been derived from Mark's original ending.




[1] The argument that Mark 16:9-20 should be dismissed is actually a kind of fundamentalist version of scepticism. Its basic premise is that the Bible should exclude any additional material found to be attached to the ‘original’ version of a gospel. Quite why this should be so is never clear to me. The Bible itself is a compilation of different books. And Luke’s Gospel announces boldly at its start that it is a sort of compilation itself, making one long gospel from other writers’ shorter attempts. So the Bible itself announces in various ways that it is fine to be a compilation and still be an inspired religious text. Nevertheless, one finds this kind of fundamentalism that says compilation is not fine, that compilation is a kind of naughty tampering with the text, and so Mark 16:9-20 has no place in the Bible. But for the sake of this post, I am merely interested to see what the end of Mark’s Gospel looks like without Mark 16:9-20.