I made a batch of microwave popcorn tonight. After it had all popped, I was busy writing, so I let the microwave bing every minute to remind me to remove it from the mike. Eventually, I went to the mike to remove the bag. But the oven was empty! Of course, I forgot that I had removed it earlier, but my initial sense of wonder and perplexity was little taste of what the first Easter was like -- '
whaddaya mean, the tomb is empty
The end of Mark's gospel leaves us with a mystery: Based on textual evidence, the guy who wrote everything up until chapter 16 verse 8 is not the same guy who finished the gospel through 16:20. The problem is that Mark leaves us with no appearances of the Risen Christ, ju st the mystifying discovery of an empty tomb and some unverified claims made by a young man in a white robe. Here's Chapter 16, up to the eighth verse, where the scholars say (based on terrific evidence, which I don't doubt) that the first gospel ended:
When the sabbath was over,Mary Magdalene, Mary, the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go and anoint him. Very early when the sun had risen, on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb. They were saying to one another, “Who will roll back the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back; it was very large. On entering the tomb they saw a young man sitting on the right side, clothed in a white robe, and they were utterly amazed. He said to them, “Do not be amazed! You seek Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Behold the place where they laid him. But go and tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.’” Then they went out and fled from the tomb, seized with trembling and bewilderment. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
That's it. The women find the empty tomb, then run away and don't tell anyone. The rest of the story from the gospel -- the Risen Lord's encounters with Mary Magdalene, the two disciples and the Eleven is evidently written by other hands.
This puzzles me. If a gospel is a teaching story about the Son of God, then how can it end on such as an unsatisfactory note? If you want to attract people to the person of Jesus and his role as Messiah and Savior, you can't just leave them hanging like this. And yet that's what I hear from those who discuss the abrupt ending of Mark's gospel -- that it deliberately left the story dangling at the edge of a literary and evangelical precipice.
Here are the possibilities:
1) Mark died before he could write the ending
As in the scene in the Cave of Caerbannog at the end of Monty Python's "The Search for the Holy Grail," Mark wrote the equivalent of "They said nothing to anyone because they were aaarrrrghhhh." This is an unlikely scenario. Mark is not writing about his own experience, but that of others (the Eleven, Mary M, etc.) who may well have been alive in the late 60s, as were people who had heard the story, and who could have completed the manuscript after Mark's inopportune demise.
2) Mark wrote a better ending, but it got lost.
Is this likely? Again, witnesses to the Resurrection were alive at least into the 60s CE -- Peter has likely martyred in 64 not long before Mark wrote circa 70. Even if all the eyewitnesses had died, the people they had taught would have remembered enough of the story to have fleshed out a decent ending.
3) The explosive personal account
So, what if the written portion of the gospel actually ended at 16:8, but the ending (when related to seekers after the faith) was told by people who had seen the Risen Jesus, or who knew those who had. Talk about a powerful punch line to a great story! The Messiah was condemned, beaten, crucified and buried. But on the third day, his tomb was empty. AND THEN WE SAW HIM ALIVE!!!!
Was this done for emotional impact? Did the apostles seek to give their listeners a taste of what it was like to encounter the Resurrected Lord -- not as as story on a page, but as an experience handed down? Frankly, this seems a little too intellectual and abstract for the group that was attracted to Christianity at its outset. But there is something to be said for seeing resurrection as more than a dead body popping out of a tomb. Resurrection is a relationship with the God-man. Would this have been enough to attract followers?
4) The original ending was replaced with one that was "useful"
In this scenario, Mark wrote beyond 16:8, completing his gospel with his own brand of original material. Later, his original ending was scrapped and replaced with another ending. That would explain the strange abrupt ending. And you wouldn't have to assume that the ending would be supplied by early catechists.
The present ending has some issues -- it seems to crib material from the other gospels. Jesus appears to Mary, much as he does in John's gospel. And he appears to two disciples in the country, much as he does in Acts, Luke's continuation of his own gospel. Naive readers might assume that these similarities provide internal consistency between the gospels, showing that they tell versions of the same story. But what if a later writer, let's call him pseudo-Mark, created these scenes? Craftily, he might have made them see like early, fragmentary versions of stories that were fleshed out by later gospel writers.
There is an awkward issue of timing to contend with. Mark wrote around 70, while Matthew and Luke wrote around 85 and John wrote around 90-100. Pseudo-Mark would have had to wait until at least 85 to get a sense of what Luke was going to write and until the end of the first century to get an inkling of John's Easter narrative. This is a problem, since Matthew and Luke based their Easter narrative on Mark. Mark can't at the same time be the source of the other gospels and their heir. So maybe pseudo-Mark wrote something like what we see in 16:9-16:20.
If pseudo-Mark did add a new ending to Mark's account, what might it have looked like? Surely, it would not have contradicted Mark's message that Christ was the Son of God and Messiah. Perhaps it suggested something heretical, like that Jesus was not resurrected in the body, but in the spirit. Perhaps Mark's Jesus made a prediction or claim that was demonstrably untrue -- like that the Temple would be replaced or that the Son of Man would return in glory at a particular time and place. Perhaps it reported that Jesus was never heard from or seen again, but that his life now existed in the membership of the ecclesia-- the prototypical Church. Perhaps this was too tenuous a scenario for the early church to find useful in making converts. In other words, it was a sales pitch that fail to close the sale.
Something like one of these scenarios must be close to the truth. If the original ending of Mark existed, and it was enough to being people to faith in Jesus Christ, then why change it or add to it? Something about the ending was wrong. It had to be brought into accord with the needs of the early Church. And those needs required a walking walking risen Lord. Nothing else would do.
For all my theorizing, not one alternative version of Mark 16 seems to exist For my hypothesis to be correct, every vestige of Mark's original ending would have to be destroyed. The existence of a single copy of an alternative Marcan resurrection story would prove the thesis. But as yet, none has been found. For now, my thesis remains only a tantalizing possibility, but one that raises a provocative question: what was Mark's resurrection story? Or did he really just end his gospel, his most important worldly achievement, in midair, leaving every tantalizing questions unanswered? Or (conspiracies be damned) was the resurrection scene tacked onto Mark's gospel just a better worded version of the tale that Mark originally wrote? That's the scenario I would like to believe.