Mark’s resurrection narrative runs from Mark 15 :42 through Mark 16:1-8. Too much is made in debunking circles about the fact that Mark has no account of the risen Jesus. This is quite true, as the authentic Gospel simply stops with the women, who on finding the tomb empty, “fled from the sepulchre, for they trembled and were shocked, and they said nothing to anyone: for they were afraid” (16:8). The remaining resurrection narrative, Mark 16:9-20, is an interpolation not written by Mark, and it does contain accounts of the risen Jesus appearing to and speaking with the disciples.
Some would-be debunkers speculatively indulge in the fact that the main body of Mark, the earliest Gospel, contains no appearances by the risen Christ. They darkly suggest that Mark therefore did not know about, or rejected the reality of, Jesus’ posthumous appearances. This claim is more than a little silly, for the following reasons.
1. As with all the other Gospels, Mark claims a high christology in which Jesus is proclaimed as the Messianic Son of God. Thus Mark’s general christology is consistent with Gospel christology generally. And that christology was solidly based on the belief that Jesus was raised from death. Its absence in Mark would be a striking anomaly. However, it is not absent from Mark, as we’ll see.
2. As with all the other Gospels, Mark claims that Jesus prophesied his own death and resurrection (e.g., Mark 10:32-34). Had Mark denied the resurrection’s reality, surely he would have consciously (or unconsciously) “forgotten” Jesus’ predictions, since obviously (in Mark’s mind) they had not come true. To include them in his Gospel – which, speculatively denied or doubted the resurrection – would be to present damning evidence that Jesus had been a false prophet. That they do appear in Mark’s Gospel is a strong indication that Mark meant them to be there, and meant to use them to support the reality of Jesus’ resurrection.
3. In fact, Mark’s Gospel supports the resurrection, even though actual appearances by the risen Jesus do not appear in the main body of the text:
4. When Mary Magdalene, Salome, and Mary “the mother of James” go to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body, they find that the stone blocking the tomb entrance “was rolled away”. This is Mark’s first indication of the resurrection: the tomb has been unsealed.
5. Entering the tomb, the women find it empty of Jesus’ body. Instead, they encounter a “young man, sitting on the right side, clothed in a long white garment; and they were afraid”. This is Mark’s second indication of the resurrection: the tomb has not only been unsealed, but Jesus is not there. The absence of Jesus’ body frightens them.
6. The young stranger then tells them,
“Don’t be afraid. You are seeking Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen. He is not here – see the place where they laid him to rest.”
This is Mark’s third indication of the resurrection: a plain, unambiguous statement that that the tomb is empty, that “he is not here”, because “he is risen”.
7. Then the white-garbed youth says,
“But go on your way, and tell his disiples … that he has gone before you into Galilee. You’ll see him there, just as he told you.”
This, Mark’s fourth indication of Jesus’ resurrection, is even more to the point, referring back to Jesus’ own prophecies of his death and resurrection. In short, the young man is telling the women to be unafraid because the empty tomb they are beholding is proof positive that “he lives” and has, according to what he had already told them, “gone ahead” of them to Galilee. In all of these points, Mark’s resurrection narrative is virtually identical to the other Gospels’ resurrection stories.
Mark uses the women’s fear and trembling not as a contradiction to the resurrection, but as a signature of its “Otherness”. Even after having been assured by what is probably an angel, the women run home, terrified. And shockingly, in contradiction to the young man’s well-meant, explicit instructions, they tell no one of their seeming misadventure. Mark is not denying the resurrection. Rather, he is confirming it, while detailing a quite realistic human reaction to the inbreaking of the unknown into the mundane world.
Mark doesn’t mention resurrection appearances for the simple reason that Mark doesn’t need resurrection appearances in order to affirm the resurrection. Instead, he has his Jesus as the risen Son of God; prophet of his own death and resurrection; the tomb empty because Jesus is risen and gone to Galilee; and an angelic figure who affirms all of these points to a group of frightened women. The power and specificity of Mark’s resurrection account stands on its own, without the need of “fleshing it out” by presentation of appearances by the risen Christ. That it was fleshed out by a later editor or scribe (who apparently had a “thing” for detailed resurrection appearance narratives) takes nothing away from its stark power.
Seen in this light, therefore, Mark’s account is straightfoward and affirmative of Jesus’ resurrection. Although debunkers would love to pin something sinister, suspicious, “sketchy” and baffling onto Mark’s narrative, a full, attentive reading of Mark’s texts makes the debunkers look rather silly, if not paranoid.