This is the forty-ninth installment, comprising Act 6, Scene 12, chapter 16:1-8, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I am blogging on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the forty-eighth installment here. Links to the entire series are available in one spot at The Complete Gospel of Mark Online Commentary.
This is my division of the Gospel:
Act 1, 1:14-3:6;
Act 2, 3:7-6:6;
Act 3, 6:7-8:26;
Act 4, 8:27-10:52;
Act 5, 11:1-13:37;
Act 6, 14:1-16:8(20).
Scene 12: 16:1-8
1 When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 They had been saying to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?" 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 6 But he said to them, "Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you." 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. (NRSV)
When Mark first mentioned the women, they were “looking on from a distance,” but he quickly named them as Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome (15:40). They appear by name at the beginning of Scene 12, “Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome” (16:1). Mark establishes immediately that the ones who remained faithful to Jesus in his suffering had not abandoned him in his death. The women had waited until the Sabbath was over so they could care for Jesus’ dead body. Mark makes it clear that they expected a dead body, since they “bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him” (16:1). The spices were perhaps used to perfume the body due to decay, but more likely to cleanse, honor and care for it as preparation for the afterlife.
Andrea Berlin in her article “Jewish Life Before the Revolt: The Archaeological Evidence” in Journal for the Study of Judaism: In the Persian Hellenistic & Roman Period (November 2005) states that the type of burial Jesus experienced was the most common at the time of his life and death (454). She speaks of “vessels for oil or perfume” which have been found in many of these tombs and understands that these might be properly considered as “gifts for the departed” (455-457). The wrapping of the body in perfumes and spices, however, are thought by some to mask the scent of the decaying body. Deborah Green, though, believes that the role of the spices and perfumes in the first order, according to the Rabbinic literature, indicate the cleaning and the preparation of the body after death. This, I think, is the purpose of the women in Mark, who bring arōmata (spices or perfumes) to care for the body as they could not do so when the body was brought down from the cross. They had to wait for the Sabbath to pass and then they purchased arōmata at the market. The fact that they purchased these at the market means that these spices and perfumes were not grave gifts, since they were not possessions of Jesus. The best interpretation of the women’s action is their desire to care for the mistreated and battered body of their dead teacher in a manner congruent with the honor and respect his body deserved.
The English translation of Mark gives us the verb “anoint” here, which plays on Jesus’ “anointing” as Messiah as well as for his burial. It is possible, of course, that this sense of “anointing” was present in the minds of Mark’s first listeners too in 16:1, but it is important to point out that the double entendre of Mark 14:8 (“She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial”) relies on a different verb (myrizō) than 16:1 (aleiphō). Most important, again, to my mind, is that Mark has produced an initial scene in which the women steal back into view as the only ones who are prepared to risk their security to offer Jesus’ body the care it deserves. That they expect to find a body is explicit in the arōmata they carry.
They also expect to find a stone blocking their entry into the tomb, which Andrea Berlin notes is the common method of blocking the rock-cut burial places (454). In fact, these details, and the women’s concern regarding this looming practicality, take up much of this scene. They arose early to go to the tomb to care for Jesus’ body, but Mark tells us that “they had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’” (16:3). Lost in their question is a simply reality: they could not think of any men who had followed Jesus, perhaps 1 or 11 of them, upon whom they could depend on for help. Maybe Peter? John? James? Anyone? No one came to mind and that indicates that the apostles were gone or in hiding.
Yet, “when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back” (16:4). This is the first shock that Mark throws into the scene, for if the rock has been moved, who has moved it? The women do not spend any time discussing their fears or worries, but enter the tomb where the second shock occurs:
They saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ (16:5-7)
Now, their alarm shows, which the “young man, dressed in a white robe” acknowledges and then encourages them to let go. The “young man,” who sometimes scholars have attempted to tie to the young man in 14:51-52, must be considered an angelic figure. He is a messenger in the truest sense, with all of the information regarding why they had come to the tomb, what had happened to Jesus – crucified, laid in a tomb, he is now resurrected - and where Jesus would be to meet Peter and the disciples. The young man stresses that they would meet Jesus in Galilee “just as he told you” (16:7). This young man has divine insight and knowledge.
The women say nothing now, but in light of Jesus’ absence and the appearance of a young man who knows about what Jesus said, what happened to him, and where he will be, they do the right thing and run away. It is the logical move, in order to protect themselves and make sense of what had just happened. How many good things happen in tombs? How long do you want to spend with a mysterious stranger in a tomb, even if his robe is white? “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them” (16:8).
It is the last clause, though, in which the dramatic nature of Mark’s Gospel climaxes: “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (16:8). It takes on the nature of most dramatic clause by virtue of the fact that numerous biblical scholars have argued, on the basis of excellent ancient textual evidence, that Mark’s Gospel ends here. But if the Gospel ends at this point, is this dramatic or unsatisfying?
If the Gospel ends here, I opt to understand this scene as the dramatic cliffhanger Mark intended it to be. What happened next? Has not Mark throughout this Gospel told over and over, in the Passion Predictions and elsewhere, what had to occur? That Jesus would suffer, die, be buried and then raised up? Has Mark not made clear the inability of Jesus’ own disciples to grasp the nature of his mission? But how do we know all of this? Because we have just heard or read the Gospel! If you ask, well did the women get over their fear and amazement and tell someone the stories we have just read or heard, the answer is in the reality that you just heard or read the Gospel. The Gospel is the answer to the ending. This ending fits perfectly with Mark’s dramatic scheme from the beginning. He has been introducing us to the disciples and Jesus throughout the Gospel, but more than that he has asked us to become disciples by following Jesus throughout the story and responding to each incident. It is up to you to answer, as it has been through all of Mark, but now even more so as the women run scared from the tomb, what do I think happened to Jesus? Who is he? Where is he? What just happened?
While I do think the Gospel works perfectly if it ends at 16:8, it is necessary for us to examine the last verses of chapter 16, which I will treat as an Epilogue and then offer concluding thoughts on the Gospel of Mark as a whole.
This blog post was written in Rome.
John W. Martens
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