Tuesday, February 8, 2011 Login

The Empty Tomb (2): Gospel of Mark

This brings us to the gospels, the only Christian texts (or any texts from this period) that mention an empty tomb. What is clear from the texts themselves is that none of the people now associated with each gospel – Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John – are ever described as being present when the empty tomb was discovered. Their testimony, at least, could not be as eyewitnesses. Even more troubling, all four gospels were written at least 40 years after Jesus allegedly died, with Mark being the earliest and John being the latest. Because Matthew and Luke are clearly dependent on Mark, and John (being the last) influenced in some ways by all three of them, this leaves us with only one independent account – The Gospel According to Mark. Here is how Mark describes the occasion:

“When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ 4When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ 8So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (Mark 16:1-8Open Link in New Window)

There are a few things that are notable about this. First, it is not at all clear who this “young man” is and why he is sitting in the empty tomb. A very interesting discovery known as the Secret Gospel of Mark may help understand this. In 1958 a man named Morton Smith found a partial copy of a letter by Clement of Alexandria, in which Clement speaks of a “Secret Mark” and provides two quotations, one long and the other only a sentence, before the letter cuts off. The long quotation reads:

“And they come into Bethany. And a certain woman whose brother had died was there. And, coming, she prostrated herself before Jesus and says to him, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me.’ But the disciples rebuked her. And Jesus, being angered, went off with her into the garden where the tomb was, and straightway a great cry was heard from the tomb. And going near, Jesus rolled away the stone from the door of the tomb. And straightaway, going in where the youth was, he stretched forth his hand and raised him, seizing his hand. But the youth, looking upon him, loved him and began to beseech him that he might be with him. And going out of the tomb, they came into the house of the youth, for he was rich. And after six days Jesus told him what to do, and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the Kingdom of God. And thence, arising, he returned to the other side of the Jordan.” (Clement claims that this is to be found between what is now Mark 10:34Open Link in New Window and Mark 10:35Open Link in New Window)

It should be immediately obvious how this might be relevant. Here we have Jesus visiting the house of a woman whose brother, described as a “youth”, has recently died. The young man is laying in a tomb, so Jesus approaches the tomb and rolls the stone away from the door. After entering the tomb, Jesus stretches out his hand and the young man is brought back to life. The young man loves Jesus, and Jesus takes him under his wing so to speak by teaching him the mystery of the Kingdom of God. Fast-forward now to when Jesus is arrested in Jerusalem. Here we have this otherwise strange and out of place passage:

51 A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, 52but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.”

Who is this “certain young man” following Jesus? Probably the same young man whom Jesus previously raised from the dead, according to Secret Mark. Then we have Mark’s empty tomb story, of course. Mary, Mary, and Salome approach the tomb only to find that the stone has been rolled away. Whom do they find? A young man. Taking the cue from Secret Mark, this time the young man rolled away the stone from Jesus’s tomb and this time it was Jesus who had been raised. Having already been taught the “mystery” of God’s kingdom, he is easily able to explain quite clearly to the women that Jesus was crucified and then raised, and that he can now be found in Galilee. I should also note that the woman Salome is not mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament except in Mark, and yet Mark does not explain who she is. However, she is mentioned in Secret Mark:

“And the sister of the youth whom Jesus loved and his mother and Salome were there, and Jesus did not receive them.” (This is the second, shorter, passage quoted by Clement)

The second thing that is notable about Mark’s version of the empty tomb story is that he claims that all three women, after seeing that the tomb is empty, immediately run away and do not tell anybody about what they saw! “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8Open Link in New Window). Yet, in the very next few passages, we are told that Mary Magdalene “went out and told those who had been with [Jesus], while they were mourning and weeping.” How could that be? The answer is in this case is simple. All of our earliest surviving copies of the Gospel of Mark end at Mark 16:8Open Link in New Window, with the women fleeing and not telling anyone. The “longer ending” of Mark, as it is called, was added much later – obviously by a pious Christian who did not like the original ending. So this leaves us with the fact that Mark ends with the only witnesses to the empty tomb not telling anyone about it. That begs the question, of course: how did the author of Mark know about it? The only logical explanation is that the empty tomb story had been recently invented, possibly by the author of Mark himself. If the author of Mark knew that his readers had never heard this empty tomb story before, then he might also know that they would likely find it suspicious if the three women ran off and told everybody over and over again about what they had found! Even if the author of Mark did not actually have this intention in mind when he wrote the ending – that is, to explain why the story had not been heard before – he most certainly would not have ended his gospel in this fashion if it was already well known before Mark that the women ran off and told everyone about it. If that had been the case, then Mark would have said as much. Robert M. Price suggests that “an empty tomb story without any resurrection appearances is quite understandable, even natural, once we understand that the story falls neatly into a particular form of ancient literature…It is an ancient apotheosis narrative, such as were frequently told about figures both ancient and contemporary” (Incredible Shrinking Son of Man: How Reliable Is the Gospel Tradition?, pg. 334). An apotheosis narrative is simply a story in which the hero disappears without any traces of his body left behind. The conclusion is that the hero has ascended into heaven with god or the gods. Thus, anyone reading Mark’s gospel in the 1st century would have understood the empty tomb as a sign that Jesus had “risen” to heaven, just as Paul a few centuries earlier understood that Christ had “risen”. Whereas Paul explained the risen Jesus in terms of a vision, Mark explains it in terms of a story of an empty tomb. That Mark ended his gospel with the three women not telling anyone about the empty tomb can be further considered as the culmination of a theme that runs prominently through Mark’s story but is suppressed or entirely forgotten in the other gospels. That theme is discipleship. In Mark’s gospel, all of Jesus’s disciples fail him. Consider:

“The role of the disciples in the Gospel of Mark is a very important one. The first act of the ministry in Galilee is that of Jesus calling disciples (1:16-20), and disciples are constantly with Jesus throughout that ministry. In 3:13-19 Jesus formally appoints the Twelve, whome Mark carefully names, and in 6:7-13 he sends them out on a mission on his behalf. After their return from this mission the disciples began to figure even more prominently in the narrative, but with a change in that they are now depicted as failing in understanding. In 6:52 “they did not understand about the loaves…their hearts were hardened,” and in 8:14-21 Jesus has occasion to enter into a dialogue with them about their failure to understand. In the long central interpretive section of the gospel this failing becomes more acute as the disciples misunderstand each of the three predictions of the passion. We noted above how Mark represents these misunderstandings schematically at 8:32-33, 9:32, and 10:35-41. More than that, in this section also the disciples are depicted as losing the ability to cast out demons, a power they had possessed since their appointment (9:14-29). So they are now being depicted as failing both in understanding and in power. “As the story of Jesus and his fate moves to Jerusalem and the passion narrative, the depiction of the disciples’ failure escalates, for now they are shown as failing in loyalty also. At the Last Supper Jesus predicts his betrayal by a disciple (14:18-21) and on the Mount of Olives he further predicts, “You will all fall away; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’” And when Peter protests his loyalty, Jesus says to him, “This very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” (14:26-31). In the following narratives these predictions are dramatically fulfilled. At Gethsemane Peter, James, and John fail to keep watch with Jesus (14:32-42); at the betrayal and arrest of Jesus, “they all forsook him, and fled” (14:50); and while Jesus is on trial before the Sanhedrin Peter denies him three times, formally and with oaths (14:66-72). “After their flight from the arrest the disciples disappear from the narrative of the Gospel of Mark, except for Peter, who similarly disappears after his denial of Jesus. The only further reference to them at all is in the words of the young man at the tomb to the women, “Go, tell his disciples and Peter…” (16:7). At his cross Jesus is surrounded by strangers, and in an ultimate act of irony he is confessed as Son of God in his death not by a disciple but by the centurion responsible for his execution (15:39). “Now it is precisely at this point that the women appear in the narrative, for the three-part narrative concerning the women at the cross, the burial, and the empty tomb begins immediately following the centurion’s confession, as I pointed out at the beginning of this chapter. From this point the women take over the role in the gospel narrative which one might have expected to be played by the disciples…But it is precisely at this point that the women, like the disciples before them, fail their trust. They are entrusted with the message to the disciples and Peter, but “they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid.” In the Gospel of Mark the discipleship failure is total. The disciples forsake Jesus as a group and flee from the arrest; Peter denies him with oaths while he is on trial; the women, who take on the role of the disciples in this final three-part narrative, fail to deliver the message entrusted to them. “We are so used to reading Mark in light of Matthew and Luke, where the women do deliver the message, that it is difficult for us to appreciate the sheer, stark force of the Markan narrative. In Mark every disciple fails the master; every intimate sooner or later fails him in one way or another. It is the centurion who finally understands him, and a sympathetic outsider who buries him. The disciples, Peter, the women – these all ultimately fail their responsibility and trust.” (Norman Perrin, The Resurrection according to Matthew, Mark and Luke, pp. 27-28.)

And, I might add, if we are to incorporate Secret Mark, the “young man” whom Jesus loved, although not an outsider, also does not fail him (why that is so being an interesting question in itself). Nevertheless, if Mark’s story of the empty tomb was a later invention and not a historical narrative, did the author simply make it up as he went, or did he derive the story from something else with which he would have been intimately familiar? The best place to look is in the Jewish Scriptures, or the Old Testament. Randel Helms believes that the empty tomb narrative in Mark was inspired by Mark’s reading of the book of Daniel:

“In the 30’s and 40’s, the empty tomb story was not part of the tradition about the resurrection; Paul was quite unaware of it. The legend grew in Mark’s community, or one from which it borrowed, as part of its stock evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. As Matthew was to do again a generation later, certain Christians, perhaps in the 50’s or 60’s, searched the Old Testament, a major source of what was for them authoritative information about Jesus, in order to construct their account of the passion and resurrection, and found in the Book of Daniel much of what was needed. Consider the parallels: a leader of the nation opposed to the spokesman for God’s people (Darius of Persia; Joseph of Arimathea), yet one who in his heart reveres that spokesman (Daniel; Jesus), though greatly distressed, feels obliged to place the spokesman into a pit in the ground and cover it with a stone (the lion’s den; the tomb), an act that clearly means the spokesman’s permanent end. In both stories the death of the spokesman is required by law (the law of the Medes and Persians; the law of Rome), and in both, the executor of the law is reluctant to enforce it (Darius “exerted himself until evening” to save Daniel; Pilate attempted to convince an angry mob that Jesus should be released). But despite reluctance and delay, late in the afternoon both heroes are placed into the pit. In both stories a stone is put over the opening, and in both the placer of the stone has hope in the providence of God (Darius says, “Your own God…will save you”; Joseph “looked forward to the kingdom of God”). Early on a subsequent morning in both stories (“At dawn, as soon as it was light” – Dan. 6:19Open Link in New Window, “just after sunrise” – Mark 16:2Open Link in New Window), the pit is approached by those who cared deeply for the hero (Darius; the three women). Next comes joyful news (Daniel lives; “He has been raised again”). In both stories, the stone is removed, death is miraculously overcome, and deliverance is assisted by an angel (“My God sent his angel,” to shut the lions’ mouth, says Daniel; “a young man…dressed in a white robe” has removed the stone, says Mark). “As Matthew studied Mark’s account, he perceived its transparence upon Daniel, and found in the latter not only the literary source of the empty tomb story (which because of that particular first-century orientation he recognized as a prophecy rather than as a source), but also the means of both enlarging and clarifying Mark and of overcoming what he regarded as its deficiencies. The modern reader who grasps the dependence of Mark on Daniel might be led to see the gospel narrative as carefully constructed fiction which in the absence of real evidence is based on a belief in what must have been the case, since Daniel had “predicted” it. Matthew’s reaction was in keeping with first-century oracular views of the Old Testament: any detail in Mark which differs from Matthew’s interpretation of Daniel’s “prediction” must be historically inaccurate. For example, Mark does not make it clear enough to Matthew’s satisfaction that the figure the women see at the tomb is an angel (aggelos) as Daniel had clearly called him; Mark’s figure is merely a youth (neaniskon) in a white robe. For the sake of prophetic fulfilment, Matthew changed “youth” to “angel of the Lord” (Matt. 28:2Open Link in New Window). Moreover, since Mark does not describe the figure in terms unmistakably angelic, Matthew alters the description, again on the basis of the Septuagint version of Daniel, where he finds a heavenly being whose “raiment was white as snow” (to enduma autou leukon hosei chionDan. 7:9Open Link in New Window); thus Matthew’s angel has “raiment white as snow” (to enduma auto leukon hos chionMatt. 28:3Open Link in New Window). Matthew’s angel has a spectacular mien: “His appearance was like lightning” (en de he eidea autou hos astrapeMatt. 28:3Open Link in New Window), as in Daniel, who says of an angel that “his face was as the appearance of lightning” (to prosopon autou hos he horasis astrapesDan. 10:6Open Link in New Window). Mark’s figure says, “Do not be amazed” (Me ekthambeisthe – 16:5); Matthew, however, knowing that angels, when they appear, say “Do not be afraid” (Me phobouDan. 10:12Open Link in New Window), changes the opening of the angel’s speech to the women to accord with the Old Testament: “Do not be afraid” (Me phobeistheMatt. 28:5Open Link in New Window). Finally, Matthew found in Daniel justification for changing Mark’s statement that the announcement of the resurrection left the women only fearful and silent: When Darius learned that Daniel was still alive, “the king was very glad” (6:23). Thus Matthew declares that the women, on learning that “he is risen,” reacted with “awe and great joy” (Matt. 28:8Open Link in New Window).” (Randal Helms, Gospel Fictions, pp. 135-136.)

Thus, although the fact of an empty tomb (despite other possible natural explanations) could be considered as strong evidence in favor of the central claim of Christianity, its basic historicity does not seem to pass close scrutiny. One must, once again, take comfort in faith.

Go to Part 3

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This page was last modified on November 13th, 2009 at 7:17 pm


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