“So [Mary, Mary, and Salome] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
Is that any way to end a Gospel? That’s what Mark seems to have done—on purpose, no less. Later manuscripts tried to add more satisfactory endings, but those endings are definitely later. The Emperor Constantine’s church historian, Eusebius, and Jerome, who first translated the Bible into Latin, both said in the 300s that every manuscript they knew of ended here—with everybody running away and telling nobody, and with no stories about anybody actually seeing Jesus. Mark must have meant to do it that way. Why?
His readers didn’t have Matthew or Luke or John—those were all written later. But they definitely knew that these women eventually must have told somebody. How else would we know about this episode? And they would have heard not only that Jesus had risen but that he had appeared in startling ways to his earliest followers. After all, St. Paul, writing over a decade before Mark, mentions a sort of official news release that was probably reported in some form in every start-up of a Christian community (1 Corinthians 15:1-11). Mark’s readers would have known some version of that. They would have known, not only that people were promised to see the risen Jesus (which is all that Mark mentions), but that many of Jesus’ first followers had already seen him.
Why didn’t Mark include any of that? He didn’t tell us why. He just did what he did and left us guessing.
Here’s what I’m guessing (I’ve said this before). The earliest witnesses to Jesus’ risen life, like Paul, seem reluctant to tell any detailed stories about what they actually saw. They knew that telling a story about it would never convey the intensity, indeed the incomprehensibility, of what happened to them. It wasn’t just a vision. Apparently all of their senses were engaged—seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling—all of them. And whatever they did see, hear, and so on, was too much to describe with a pretense of detachment like a police report—“Subject was observed breaking bread and vanishing.” It wasn’t that they didn’t see enough; what they saw, etc., was more than enough. Too much. Sensory overload.
They were being inexplicably overtaken by Jesus’ all-embracingly risen life, and they were beginning to realize that this life is also the life of the all-embracingly risen God. So in other words, they weren’t just having “Jesus sightings.” They were having “God sightings!” Both at once! They couldn’t be disentangled. And they were more than just “sightings.“ Trying to write this down in a story couldn’t possibly convey how overwhelming it was.
So when the later Gospel writers give in to pressure to tell more detailed stories about it, they always include hints that something mysterious was happening—people were mistaken about what they were seeing at first, he showed up suddenly, where he shouldn’t be able to, and vanished just as suddenly, and so on. But the trouble is, when we read these later stories, we overlook these hints at the incomprehensible intensity of what was happening and start thinking of maybe a blockbuster movie with lots of special effects. This was no blockbuster movie. It was more intense than that, more life-transforming too.
So what I’m guessing is that Mark left out any Jesus-showing-up stories because he knew you couldn’t describe what was happening the way you could describe Jesus’ execution. Instead he leaves us with a promise: Jesus is going ahead of us into marginal territory. (Gallilee was considered marginal territory, with a mixed population of Jews and non-Jews.) Jesus is going ahead of us. If we follow him, we’ll see him, that is, we’ll be inexplicably overtaken by Jesus’ all-embracingly risen life, the life of the all-embracingly risen God.
And the question Mark poses to us is: Will we do that? He shows every one of Jesus’ followers failing to follow through. Everybody runs away—Peter, the other disciples, even the women who stuck around longer than everybody else. He purposely ends his story on a cliffhanger. Like his first readers, we know the story continues, or we wouldn’t even have heard that much. But Mark wants to provoke us to ask ourselves what we will do with this good news.
Risen Jesus is going ahead of us into marginal territory. If we follow him there, we’ll see him. We’ll be inexplicably overtaken by Jesus’ all-embracingly risen life, the life of the all-embracingly risen God. It’s so tempting to run away. Shall we instead follow him?