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Mark 16:1-8

October 25, 2010

Before we can understand these last eight verses of Mark’s Gospel, we must decide whether they are indeed the last eight verses!  Scholars are certain that verses 9-20 are a later addition since they are missing from the earliest and best manuscripts of Mark.  These verses were composed at a later time in order to give Mark a more “proper” ending.  So then the question is:  Did Mark intend his Gospel to end after verse 8, or has Mark’s original ending been lost (torn off at a very early time)?

In favor of the view that the original ending of Mark has been lost are three strong facts:  First, there are no resurrection appearances or words from the risen Jesus to his disciples–even though Jesus foretold them that he would be raised and meet them again.  Second, the Gospel claims the women at the tomb told nobody about the angelic message to meet the risen Jesus in Galilee–which makes little sense since the narrator knows the story, and the disciples did indeed meet the risen Jesus.  Third, verse 8 ends in the middle of a sentence; the last word is “because” (English translations clean up this problem).

Despite these three facts, the majority of scholars today are convinced that Mark intended to end his Gospel at the end of verse 8–in mid-sentence and without proper closure.  If this is indeed the case, then Mark is a truly brilliant and subtle storyteller and theologian.  The following interpretations are based on the assumption that Mark 16:8 is the intended ending of the Gospel.

Surely Mark is well aware of various stories of Jesus’ resurrection appearances to his disciples.  Paul, writing almost twenty years before Mark, tells us in 1 Corinthians 15 that the risen Jesus appeared on several occasions to different disciples:  to Peter, to the twelve, to five hundred disciples, to Jesus’ brother James, as well as to an assortment of others who are called “apostles” (“sent ones”).  Mathew, Luke, and John also have a wide variety of  resurrection appearnace stories.  So why does Mark choose not to tell any of these stories?

It seems to me that Mark is intentionally wanting to keep the nature of Jesus’ resurrection a mystery.  He refuses to address questions such as:  Did Jesus have a physical body after his resurrection?  Could he walk through doors?  How was he recognizable?  Was he immediately taken up into heaven or did he stay on earth for a while?  Where was he between Friday night and Sunday morning?  Other Gospels and letters in the New Testament try to answer these questions–with sometimes contradictory results.  Mark wishes to avoid the problem of trying to imagine the unimaginable.  The resurrection of Jesus is in a unique category–it has never happened before.  So there is no way of accurately conceiving it.  No one saw him raised.  No one saw the stone moved from the entrance of the tomb.  The resurrection is a mysterious act of God that is the ultimate sign of hope and victory–but it is still a mystery.  (Upon further reflection, I do not think this is the reason Mark leaves out resurrection appearances.  After all, he has already shown what a resurrected, glorified Jesus is like in the story of the transfiguration.  I now believe Mark leaves out resurrection appearances because he is identifying with his readers who have never seen the risen Jesus.  Trust that the crucified one is the risen Messiah will have to come from hearing the message alone.  The women respond with fear and confusion and silence at this message.  Will we?)

The actions of the women are not very realistic.  On Friday they saw the tomb where Jesus was buried, and they saw the stone that sealed the tomb.  And yet, not until they are on their way to the tomb on Sunday morning–to wash and anoint Jesus’ body for a more proper burial–do they wonder how they will get into the tomb.  Matthew and Luke recognize the problem of their question and ommitted it.

The women encounter, inside the open tomb, a young man in a white robe who gives them a message from God.  This is obviously meant to be an angel–Matthew and Luke make it explicit–so why doesn’t Mark make it explicit?  This has led to speculation that the young man is not an angel, but is supposed to be the author of the Gospel, or is supposed to be the same young man who ran away naked when Jesus was arrested, or that the young man is a symbol for baptized believers (thus the white robe, which was put on after coming out of the baptismal water).  But all of these specualtions are probably wrong.  Rather, this is an angel, but Mark doesn’t want to call him an angel.  Why not?  Perhaps to keep the narrative on as much of a human level as possible.  Just as Mark chooses not to visualize the risen Jesus, so he is reluctant to visualize a miraculous, other-worldly angel.  Understatement is more powerful than overstatement.  (I now believe that Mark identifies the angel only as a man in order to emphasize the point that we the readers have no proof it was an angelic message.  It is a matter of faith.  An empty tomb is not proof Jesus is risen; a message delivered by a young man is not proof he is risen; and claims of appearances we never experienced ourselves are not proof.  This shocking news that the Son of God is a man who was crucified and then raised is a matter of faith alone.  Will we trust in the way of the cross, the way of servanthood, as the way to life?)

The young man announces that Jesus has been raised, and then tells the women to tell the disciples–especially Peter–that “he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”  This is a very odd statement for several reasons.  First, Peter is singled out for special attention.  Why?  Presumably, this is because Peter’s public denial of Jesus requires an equally public reconciliation.  Mark and his original audience surely know that Peter became the main leader of the disciples after Jesus’ resurrection, and that he eventually died for his faith.  Mark is possibly also aware that Peter, according to the earliest tradition, was the first to see the risen Jesus.  So giving special mention of Peter in the message at the tomb is a way of signaling these future facts about Peter without actually having to relate them.

To say that the risen Jesus is “going ahead” of the disciples to Galilee strikes us as an odd image.  Are we to imagine the risen Jesus walking (or flying??) to Galilee and then waiting for his disciples to show up?  And why Galilee?  Why not appear to his disciples right there in Jerusalem–as Luke and John insist happened?  Mark (and Matthew) flatly contradicts Luke who says that all of the appearances of the risen Jesus were–and had to be–in Jerusalem.  Which is right?  Did the disciples see the risen Jesus in Jerusalem (and then perhaps go to Galilee and see him again, as John suggests in an added chapter at the end of his Gospel), or did the disciples see the risen Jesus first (and only) in Galilee–as Mark implies and Matthew makes explicit?

This conundrum is perhaps solved if we consider again the circumstances during which Mark wrote his Gospel:  Jerusalem has just been destroyed by the Romans, and a lot of Christians were expecting the risen Jesus to show up immediately (in Jerusalem?) to bring about the kingdom of God.  Perhaps Mark is purposely relocating the resurrection appearances of Jesus away from Jerusalem so as to tamp down speculation that he is going to return immeditely now that Jerusalem is destroyed.  In other words, Mark is downplaying the importance of Jerusalem.  Jerusalem does not represent the future of God’s action.  Instead, Mark puts the focus on Galilee–the place where Jesus began his ministry, where he proclaimed the kingdom, where he healed the sick and cast out demons, and where he interacted with Gentiles (who will become the bulk of Mark’s own congregation).  It is in Galilee (symbol of the larger world that includes Gentiles) that the church will realize its future.

In this way, the end of Mark’s Gospel points back to the beginning, and a circle is created (by the way, Galilee means “circle” or “ring”).  Now that the true nature of Jesus’ sonship and kingship have been revealed through his self-giving servanthood, suffering, and death, we can now go back to the beginning of the Gospel and properly understand his parables and miracles in Galilee.

There’s just one problem:  the women fail to transmit this message.  In their fear and confusion, they run from the tomb and say nothing to anyone.  The religious leaders have failed Jesus, the disciples have failed Jesus, the crowd has failed Jesus, and now–the last chance–the women followers fail Jesus.  The Gospel ends on a cautionary note of how easy it is for everyone to fail the message of Jesus.  And yet, the reader knows this can’t be the “real” ending because the news of Jesus’ resurrection has indeed gone out to the disciples and the rest of the world.  So there is an implied hope–God will find a way.

(This concludes my Bible study blog on the Gospel of Mark.  I will resume a Bible study blog–on the Sermon on the Mount [Matthew 5-7]–on the first Monday of 2011.  See you then!)

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