by Pastor Doug Kings
This is the third in a series of Reflections I began developing several years ago about Holy Week and Easter. This one deals with the empty tomb story in Mark, the earliest gospel, and the earliest Easter story we have.
Alone among the gospels, Mark’s account of Easter Sunday has no appearance of the risen Jesus. Instead, women come to the tomb and find it empty, except for an angel who scares the daylights out of them. Where’s Jesus? “He is not here,” the angel announces. But go tell the disciples that he will appear to them in Galilee, the women are instructed. And with that they flee in terror.
How can you have Easter without an appearance of the risen Jesus? There obviously was dissatisfaction in the early church with Mark’s version of the story. There are multiple alternative endings added to Mark’s original text by different writers in which Jesus does appear. Most scholars agree none of them are original to Mark’s gospel. Thus, most recent versions of the Bible now end Mark with verse 8:
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’s Easter story carries special weight, however, because New Testament scholarship is nearly unanimous in believing Mark was the first of the Bible’s gospels to be written. It’s also accepted now that the authors of both Matthew and Luke used Mark as the basis of their own gospels (the author of John may also have had Mark in front of him but that’s less clear).
This means that they both the writers of Matthew and Luke added appearances of Jesus to the Easter story they found in Mark. In Matthew (this Sunday’s Gospel reading), the insertion is pretty clumsy. At the tomb, the angel tells the women to go and tell the disciples that Jesus will appear to them in Galilee (as in Mark). Just as the women leave to do this, Jesus suddenly appears and then repeats what the angel just said. It seems Jesus and the angels aren’t communicating very well.
So why does Jesus not appear in Mark’s Easter story? It’s hard to imagine Mark’s author left out such a detail if he knew of it. And therefore, as surprising as it might be, it seems likely that he was unaware of traditions or stories about Jesus walking around and talking to people on Easter Sunday. Nor was Paul, who wrote perhaps twenty years before Mark and who never mentions it in his letters. Thus, it was not until the writing of Matthew and Luke, more than a half-century after Jesus’ death, that there are written accounts of Jesus appearing to his followers on Easter.
How could that be? One clue is in Paul’s letters. Paul, who never knew Jesus during his lifetime, insists that, like the other apostles, he too has seen the risen Jesus. Further, he implies that there is no difference between his experience and theirs.
The word Paul uses repeatedly in talking of all the apostles’ experiences of the risen Jesus is “appear” (“last of all … he appeared also to me”). The Greek word translated here is the one used in talking of what happens in a vision or a dream (a relatively common subject in ancient writings). Paul never describes his experience of Jesus, though he does speak of being “caught up” into heaven, again obviously in a visionary experience. Also, the stories in Acts about Paul’s conversion (but not written by him) describe his experience as being a vision of Jesus.
Consequently, many scholars have concluded that the experiences which launched the church after Jesus’ death were visions of him raised and in heaven. Perhaps the first to have such a vision was Simon Peter, as is said in several places. Interestingly however, there are no New Testament stories describing Jesus’ appearance to Peter. More likely, the first visions occurred to women among Jesus’ followers, as the Easter gospel stories imply. Other visionary experiences then followed, likely even with groups. The appearance to Paul apparently was one of the last. His need to assert his experience indicates, however, that some in the church may have questioned its authenticity.
So, what do we make of the stories in the other gospels of Jesus’ Easter appearances? They are certainly more vivid, dramatic, and “tangible”. Yet this is what has made these stories difficult for many people to swallow, especially today. The physicality of the risen Jesus does raise all sorts of questions and problems. This bothers some people and not others. In any case, appreciation of Mark’s Easter story and the experience of Paul show that there is more than one way to faithfully understand the resurrection of Jesus.
Personally, I appreciate the Easter stories where Jesus shows up (Luke’s “road to Emmaus” story is one of my favorites). Historically, however, I do find the idea of visionary experiences of Jesus a more plausible explanation for how the “Jesus movement” got its start.
What is important to realize, though, is that Christianity is not based on beliefs about what did or didn’t happen in ancient history. Faith is not based on belief in anyone else’s experience, whether it’s someone we know personally or someone who lived centuries ago. Faith can only be based on our own experience.
Paul, again, is of help here. Never does he use his experience of the risen Jesus as a reason for others to have faith (he does use it to insist on his credentials to be an apostle). Rather, “faith comes by hearing” the words of scripture and the words of preaching and witness. Or as Luther says, faith happens “in our ears” and is itself a miracle and gift of grace. And what faith does is awaken us to the presence of the risen Christ among us now, rather than one wandering around a garden in ancient Palestine.
Did God raise Jesus from the dead? Is Christ alive? As Mark implies and as Paul says, this is not a question of history. Rather, it is an existential question of faith that we can only answer for ourselves. Whether Jesus lives here and now—however you understand that—is the only question about him that really matters. “He is not here” in this tomb, the angel says. He has gone on ahead, into the world. “There you will see him.”
Blessings in your life and ministry.