Thursday, June 25, 2015

Resurrection – A Reality or a Pious Dream? Part IV: The Surprise Found in Mark, the Earliest Biblical Narrative of Easter

by John Shelby Spong

What did the Christian movement know about the resurrection of Jesus before the first gospel was written in the eighth decade of the Christian era? The answer to that question is “not very much.” As I have noted in the first columns in this series, the only records we have that emerge in the years between 30 CE, the date of the crucifixion, and 72 CE, the date of the writing of the first gospel, are found in the writings of Paul, who wrote between 51 and 64 CE.

From Paul we learned first that the resurrection of Jesus was always spoken of in the passive tense. “Jesus was raised,” said Paul. He did not rise. That use of the passive verb form appears to indicate that originally resurrection was thought of as an act of God being applied to Jesus, not an act of Jesus in charge of his own destiny. We learned that Paul believed that the raised Jesus had “appeared” to certain chosen witnesses.

We noted that the Greek word that has been translated “appeared” in our Bibles was “ophthe,” and that it does not necessarily refer to physical seeing or to the seeing of an objective reality. It was the word used in the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek in 250 BCE, called the Septuagint, to describe what Moses “saw” of God at the burning bush in the wilderness as described by the book of Exodus. It is a word that could also be translated “was revealed to” or “was made manifest to.” It might better mean “insight” or “second sight,” not physical sight, as Christians have traditionally suggested.

We also learned that Paul asserted that he himself was one of those to whom the raised Christ “appeared.” Since Paul’s conversion is today believed to have happened anywhere from one to six years after the crucifixion (I think closer to one than to six), we must conclude that what Paul saw was not a physical body. Since Paul claimed that what he “saw” of the raised Jesus was identical with what everyone else on his list of witnesses “saw,” except that his was last, can we assert any longer with credibility that Easter had something to do with a physically resuscitated body?

Do not these biblical facts suggest that the way Easter has been traditionally presented to us by the Christian Church, as “an objective event that broke into history,” may not even be biblically accurate? Perhaps we Christians throughout history should have paid more attention to the biblical texts themselves, than we seem to have done to the literalized doctrines that formed the creeds in the 4th century and on the basis of which dogmatic Christian theology has been constructed. If the story of the resurrection of Jesus did not originally mean the return of the deceased Jesus to the life of this world, as most church leaders have constantly asserted, then what does it mean?

Is resurrection only a myth? A fantasy? A pious dream? If so, is not Christianity erected on a house of cards? Is not its demise, therefore, both predictable and certain? Or is there some truth, profound and life changing, about the meaning of resurrection that cannot be encompassed in this former literalistic understanding? Has some irrepressible truth managed to survive while the church for over two thousand years tried to force it into being a literal event that happened in history? Does whatever resurrection is or was disappear when that literal form collapses and breaks apart under the pressure of contemporary scholarship? Before we begin to answer any of these questions or to draw conclusions, let me continue to examine the biblical texts that purport to tell us of the meaning of Easter. Thus far we have looked at only one, the witness of Paul. There are four more. These are the witnesses of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. This study must not be short-circuited until it is complete. So today I bring into our spotlight, the witness of Mark.

The first thing that one notices about Mark is that this original gospel’s story of Easter is incredibly brief, even stark. It is only eight verses long. This was, however, quite clearly the way Mark intended it to be. Many early Christians found it so lacking in details that more than one wrote a new ending for this gospel. Two of those “new” endings were later incorporated into the text of Mark itself and they even appeared as part of Mark’s gospel in the King James Version of the Bible. Later scholarship, however, has demonstrated quite conclusively that these additions to Mark’s gospel (Mark 16: 9-20) were later and not part of the original text at all.

Today, New Testament scholars universally attest to that. Most modern translations of Mark’s gospel have dropped everything after Mark 16:8 into a footnote or they have separated 16:9-20 from 16:1-8 by a space and say in the footnotes that these verses “cannot have been part of the original text of Mark,” as my New Oxford Annotated Bible, known as the Revised Standard Version, states on page 1238 of its text. A cursory reading of these verses reveals that they were an attempt to harmonize Mark’s gospel with the texts of the later gospels. So, if we are going to be faithful to our stated task of examining what the New Testament literally says about the resurrection of Jesus, we must go next to Mark, but only Mark 16:1-8. This is the extent of first gospel’s text of Easter and as such is, therefore, the second witness to the resurrection, in the New Testament.

We notice first that there is no appearance of the raised Jesus to anyone in the first gospel to be written. There are also no angels and no supernatural signs. There is only an empty tomb, a messenger wearing a white robe, an announcement and an expression of existential fear. The first gospel’s narrative of the resurrection is hardly a picture of the birth of conviction and faith that we have long asserted.
Mark’s details are these. The Sabbath (Saturday) following the crucifixion on Friday has now passed. Dawn on the first day of the week has arrived. Three women, bearing spices, come to the tomb of Jesus. Mark identified them as Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Salome. Fearing that the body was not properly prepared for burial in the haste of getting the deceased Jesus buried before sundown on Friday, they have come to anoint him.

We need to be aware that the Sabbath for the Jews began at sundown on Friday, not at 12 midnight as it does for us. With the arrival of the Sabbath at sundown, the work of preparing the body for burial would have been prohibited, as would have been the work of taking the body down from the cross. That was the reason for haste and with it the sense of incompletion. So these women approached the grave of Jesus at the first moment they were allowed to do so. The Sabbath has passed and the dawn has broken the darkness, announcing the arrival of a new day.

As these women walked toward the tomb, Mark says that their biggest concern was how would they manage the removal of the large stone from the mouth of the grave. Unless that stone was removed, they reasoned, it would be impossible for them to gain access to the body and thus to do the work of anointing for which they had come.

We are told, however, that when they arrived they discovered that the great stone had already been removed. No explanation as to how that removal had occurred was given. Entering the tomb, these women, we are told, saw a young man. He was described quite simply as “dressed in a white robe.” His role in Mark’s story was to be “the messenger of the resurrection.” Was he a supernatural figure? An angel? The text of Mark does not say that, though the later gospels certainly upgrade him to a divine status. Could he have been a religious functionary? They do tend to be dressed in white robes. Does this story reflect an early Easter liturgical event that was conducted at the supposed gravesite? Was the white robe simply a liturgical garment? Mark’s text gives no answer to these questions. For our purposes, however, it is clear that in this first gospel to be written, this messenger was neither an angelic being nor was he meant to be understood as supernatural.

Mark describes these women as “amazed.” The messenger speaks to their fear: “Do not be amazed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go tell his disciples, and Peter, (it is interesting how Peter is singled out) that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, as he told you.” The words: “as he told you,” are a reference by the author of this gospel to an earlier text in his narrative (Mark 14:28) where Jesus was said to have spoken these words to the disciples at the Last Supper: “After I am raised, I will go before you into Galilee.”

These words of the messenger did little, it seems, to calm the fears of these women. The text of Mark’s gospel tells us: “And they (the women) went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” That is all there is to Mark’s original story of Easter.

Human beings are confronted with an empty tomb, a tomb, which was symbolic of death itself, that they asserted could not contain Jesus of Nazareth. There was no birth of faith. There were no appearances of the risen Christ to anyone. It is easy to understand that this original story was almost scandalous to the early followers of Jesus, necessitating the creation of expanded and more faith-producing additions. We must embrace, however, that this was the way that the resurrection was understood when the first gospel was written some forty-two years after the crucifixion.

What does this mean? It is important that we know what the text actually says before we try to answer the question as to what the resurrection meant to the first Christians. It is apparently not exactly the way we have always thought. Next week we will look at the second of the gospel witnesses, the one we call Matthew. So stay tuned.


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