This is the fiftieth installment, comprising Act 6, Scene 13, chapter 16:9-20, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I am blogging on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the forty-ninth 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 13: 16:9-20
9 Now after he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. 10 She went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. 11 But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it. 12 After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. 13 And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them. 14 Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. 15 And he said to them, "Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. 16 The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover." 19 So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. 20 And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it. (NRSV)
While I have noted that the Gospel works well dramatically, thematically, and narratively if it ends at 16:8, the theatre from its ancient origins is full of examples of plays which tie up the loose ends at the end of the play or attempt to explain clearly what the audience has been pondering for a period of time. We describe this with a word derived from Greek, epilogue, which literally means “upon-word” or, in clearer English, “afterword.” Whether the final verses of Mark were a part of the earliest manuscript or edition of the Gospel of Mark, at some point the Epilogue was needed or desired by its hearers or author(s). The reasons for this are simple, I would suggest, and do not detract from the coherent story which the Gospel of Mark has told.
There is often a desire to know what happened next with the main protagonists – What sort of future did they have? Where is Peter now? What did happen to Jesus? Most of these things have been subtly explained throughout the Gospel, and are solidified as I noted previously by the very existence of the Gospel - after all, how did the story of the women at the tomb, about which the women are told not to tell, make it into the Gospel if the women did not tell? – but this is not the same as a few clear words from the major protagonist himself. The epilogue is not the time to place you in the story, but to step outside of the account and have the narrator tie up all of the loose ends.
Though it is obvious to readers and hearers of Mark’s Gospel that Jesus is risen, the first verses of the Epilogue explain and outline clearly how this took place and how the story was spread. Again, a woman, Mary Magdalene, is at the center of the explanation, which follows from the final two scenes of the drama. The explanation, that Jesus “rose early on the first day of the week” and then “appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons,” is straightforward (16:9). The narrator continues to explain how the story spread, since the first witness of the risen Jesus “went out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping” (16:10). “Those who had been with him” includes not only the apostles, I would suggest, but all of Jesus’ disciples. The response of the other apostles and disciples -“but when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it” (16:11) – fits with all that we have heard in the Gospel. We are then told that Jesus “appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them” (16:12-13), which continues the pattern once more. Still, the forlorn saga of the apostles continues in the Epilogue, in that Jesus then “appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table; and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen” (16:14). What happened to Jesus and the disciples after the empty tomb has now been explained and it fits with the narrative themes of the whole Gospel.
It is only after this that Jesus is allowed to speak for himself and in which the future dimension of the Gospel and task of the followers of Jesus is outlined. Jesus instructs the eleven to “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover." So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it” (16:15-20).
In these few verses, the Gospel has Jesus outline the universal missionary task of the Church, especially to baptize for salvation, but also adds interesting “signs” of belief in Jesus. One of these signs has been seen before, casting out demons (9:38-39), but speaking in new tongues, drinking poison and snake handling are all new. “New tongues” is found in the letters of Paul, especially 1 Corinthians 12-14, and in Acts 2. The source of snake handling – unless the story of Paul on Malta in Acts 28:3 is known to the author of Mark – is obscure, yet even more so is the source or impetus for drinking deadly poison which appears nowhere else in the New Testament tradition. When we add these all together, there is little influence from the other Gospels, but possibly some from a Pauline/Lucan source. Lurking in the background is the desire to connect the missionary activity of the Church to the miraculous power of Jesus.
The final question regarding Jesus is then answered – where is he now? – with the curt description of his ascension into heaven. He is no longer physically with his followers, but they apparently (and finally) understood their task and “proclaimed the good news everywhere,” just as Jesus asked them. In fact, he continued nevertheless to accompany them and in some way “confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it,” the signs which were just outlined.
A few things are necessary to add to this Epilogue. It does not seem based upon any particular resurrection account from Matthew or Luke, in structure or in themes, though it is possible that 16:12 reflects the same tradition as the Road to Emmaus account in Luke 24:13-35. While it is possible that it was inspired or influenced by other resurrection accounts, it is more likely that it was added to the Gospel due to internal concerns. By internal concerns, I mean the dramatic and narrative concerns of the Gospel of Mark itself. I do not know, naturally, whether the author of the Gospel was the source of these additions, but they do “fit” with Mark, despite or perhaps particularly because of the obscurity of certain elements, such as drinking poison and handling snakes. Other elements of the resurrection appearances, from 16:9-14, “fit” exactly with the presentation of the apostles and disciples throughout the Gospel. This is a Markan ending, whether added by Mark or someone else.
This indicates to me that the impetus for the additions were internal. Explaining what is to come and what happened to the major characters is a key aspect of an epilogue, and so an author might have wanted to add these aspects to the Gospel by way of completion more than addition. This remains a strong possibility. The most compelling impetus for me, though, is that these additions were internal not to the structure of the Gospel or the needs of the author(s), but to the audience. It might be that the first hearers of the Gospel clamored for more: more information on when Jesus was raised, more of what he said to his apostles, or more on how the actual mission, of which the first hearers were a part, started. The entire Gospel is intended to draw each reader into the disciple circle of Jesus and these last verses which make up the Epilogue are essential to complete the story and send these new disciples into the world themselves with the authority of Jesus.
John W. Martens
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