The Gospel of Mark is often puzzled over: while often accepted as the earliest of the four gospel accounts in the New Testament (written c. AD 66-70, or potentially earlier), it ends abruptly as the women who had discovered the empty tomb “went out and fled … for terror and amazement had seized them” (16:8). It is widely believed that, since the shorter and longer endings to Mark after 16:8 were not present in the earliest manuscripts, they were not original to the text; this is a consensus to the extent that most modern Bible translations make this clear by bracketing off these sections.
This means that the original version Mark makes no direct reference to seeing Jesus raised from the dead. Does this imply there was a legendary development of a Resurrection narrative from the basic Mark narrative to the more detailed accounts in the other gospels?
If this were the case, two concepts would need to be true:
- Mark must be the earliest source available referring to the death of Jesus, in that there must be none earlier which refer to the Resurrection.
- No reference to the literal Resurrection of Jesus can be present in Mark
Concept (1) is demonstrably false according to a consensus of even critical scholars. For instance, the extended passage on the Resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 (that Jesus “was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures” (15:4)) is almost universally accepted to be referring to an earlier Christian creed, as seen by the difference in language (i.e. “Cephas” instead of “Peter”) from Paul’s typical writing. Even Gerd Lüdemann, a sceptical scholar who would not accept the Resurrection as having occurred, argued “the elements in the tradition are to be dated to the first two years after the crucifixion of Jesus... not later than three years...” Since the crucifixion of Jesus occurred around AD 33, this places early Christian belief that Jesus “was raised on the third day” (15:4) as effectively established by at least the time of AD 35-36.
As such, it is fundamentally not possible that Mark’s account is indicative of an earlier tradition of an empty tomb without a Resurrection, since the early Christians already believed in the Resurrection many years before the time Mark was written.
This brings us, however, onto concept (2) with a little confusion… Indeed, why did Mark not refer to the raising of Jesus?
Or did he? A deeper look at Jesus’ teaching reveals an expectation of physical Resurrection running through the narrative of Mark, particularly in the form of the “after three days” motif that exists in 1 Corinthians 15. This exists in its arguably strongest form in Mark 8:31-33:
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
Here is a classic version of the so-called ‘criterion of embarrassment.’ Peter was the primary spiritual leader of the early Church, well established by the time Mark was written. Yet here Jesus literally calls Peter ‘Satan’. Awkward. Not something you want to hear from the Son of God! Imagine the early reader thinking this through, and asking, “Does this mean the Church is led by Satan?” This is an intensely negative expression and would have absolutely no reason to be included unless it were simply an expression of the fact of what really happened. This means that, without presuming the authority of Scripture, we can confidently trust this passage, including the mention of the Resurrection, simply based on standard historical method. It’s actually a testament to the writer of Mark’s commitment to truth and honesty.
Significantly, this passage refers to the “after three days rise again” motif, confirming that the literal Resurrection was expected and present as a tradition in Mark, and was not a later development invented by the disciples. The statement – “three days after being killed, he will rise again” – is repeated by Jesus in the following chapter in Mark 9:31, again with the embarrassing caveat that none of the disciples were able to “understand what he was saying” (9:32). Again, this is an extremely humiliating statement for the early disciples, now the spiritual leaders of the Church, and thus there is no historical or logical reason to doubt that this was a genuine statement and belief of Jesus, which the disciples genuinely did not understand at the time.
Mark even refers to a false accusation against Jesus during the trial in 14:58, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’” This accusation is said to be false, in that Jesus did not claim to seek to destroy the physical temple, instead, given the ‘three days’ pattern again, seems to be referring to His own body as the ‘temple’ which would be destroyed by others and then raised again. Indeed, these accusations are central to the narrative, and subtly imply and corroborate the earlier statements of Jesus in Mark 8 and 9 that also refer to Resurrection after ‘three days’.
As such, it is demonstrably false that Mark’s account is devoid of references to a literal Resurrection, as evidenced by numerous, historically well-evidenced, sayings of Jesus that indicate both that Mark was not contradicting the much earlier creed from 1 Corinthians 15, and that Jesus had anticipated the Resurrection in a way which the disciples had not understood. This emphasises both just how truly the Resurrection acts as a confirmation of the predictions and teachings of Jesus, and how the apparently unfinished ending of Mark was not intending to contradict the very well-established (by then) Christian belief in the literal Resurrection.