Coronavirus and the mystery of St. Mark's Easter story
If you read one gospel this year...
There are four Gospel accounts of the resurrection of Jesus, which Christians celebrate on Easter Sunday. Matthew's version is short but dramatic, with a thrill of conspiracy and the challenge of the Great Commission. The Gospel of Luke has the male disciples dismissing the women's report of the resurrection and getting the fright of their lives in return. The resurrection story in John's Gospel is where we find the tale of "Doubting Thomas" and the delightfully petty, human detail that John could run faster than his fellow disciple, Peter.
And then there's Mark. The Gospel of Mark isn't a pastoral favorite for Easter under ordinary circumstances. Its ending is notoriously strange — disconcerting even — and the subject of considerable scholarly debate. But as we come to a strange and disconcerting Easter amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, Mark may be the perfect pick for the very reason we normally look elsewhere.
The conclusion of Mark is odd because, though it has a report of the resurrection, Jesus himself doesn't appear. Where the other three accounts see Jesus talking, eating, traveling, and teaching after he is raised from the dead, Mark 16:8 ends with three women fleeing the empty tomb, "for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid."
If that doesn't sound familiar, it may be because, like me, you grew up reading the King James Version of the Bible. The KJV has beautiful, often poetic language which linguists say shaped the English language more than any other work, but it's limited by the scholarship of its era. It includes uncritically a 12-verse ending of Mark which nearly all biblical scholars now agree isn't original to the text. (Most modern translations, if they include it, add a preface stating it isn't present in many of the best ancient manuscripts of Mark.)
This longer ending appears to be a rewrite of bits of Matthew and Luke, and it awkwardly re-introduces a character, Mary Magdalene, who was already present in the chapter's narrative. There's also a shorter, one-verse ending which is even more obviously a foreign addition to Mark's original. It's stiffly formal, nothing like Mark's rapid, casual style, which in the Greek reads very much like how we tell our friends stories in the present tense: "So then she says X, and then he says Y, and then we go to Z, and..."
We don't know for certain how Mark intended his account to end. Some scholars have suggested that when the book was first written — Mark is the oldest of the four Gospels, thought to have been penned as early as a decade after the events it describes — the story would have concluded with in-person testimony from an eyewitness of the resurrection. Like everything in the New Testament, Mark was written for public reading. It's plausible that the first copy was accompanied by someone mentioned in the narrative who could personally speak to what happened after that first Easter. Tradition links the book to Peter, but the three women named in the resurrection story would have been good candidates, too.
But I think the more probable truth is Mark wrote a few more verses we have lost, likely to damage of one end of an early scroll. "Laborious attempts have been made in modern scholarship not just to suggest that Mark really did mean to stop [with the women silent and afraid], but, as it were, to wallow in the dark uncertainty of that result," notes Anglican theologian N.T. Wright in his commentary on Mark. But Mark isn't a wallower and he wants nothing of uncertainty.
"These suggestions have an air of sophistication and literary imagination," Wright adds, which Mark frankly lacks. The book is structured like a mystery story, asking and answering for its audience an all-consuming question: Who is this Jesus of Nazareth?
Mark thus moves from secrecy to disclosure, riddle to revelation. He has no interest in leaving us guessing about the identity of Christ or the meaning of Easter. The whole story races toward the resurrection, which Jesus predicts to his unendingly dense and confused disciples again and again. Mark's project is to solve for us the mystery of Jesus, and it seems unfathomable to me that he would've neglected to write the resolution in full. No good mystery shortchanges the reveal.
Still, whatever the truth of the original ending, the text we have ends with fear. The resurrection is announced but not witnessed. The disciples' world has ended, and they're not sure they can trust the hope they've been offered. This can make for a fascinating and important conversation about fear and doubt and biblical scholarship, but it also knocks Mark out of the running for most Easter services. On Easter we want the commission of Matthew, the joy of Luke, or the comfort of John — not the fear and ambiguity of the surviving text of Mark.
Except, this year, perhaps we want exactly that. "Perhaps, in the strange providence of God, the way Mark's book now finishes encourages us to explore all the more not only the faith of the early church, that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead, but our own faith," Wright muses. "Do we take Easter for granted, or have we found ourselves awestruck at the strange new work of God?"
This Sunday I, like most Christians in America in this time of pandemic, will celebrate Easter online with my church. We will be isolated in our homes in a frightening time — comparisons to the fear and isolation of the first Easter will be too easy. We will struggle to rightly combine joy and lament. We will not know what will happen next.
So far removed from our ordinary habits of celebration, we may feel, much like the women in Mark 16, that we have received but a too-brief report that Christ is risen. And, like them, we will wonder: Where is he now? Where is he while terror and amazement have seized us?
The decisive endings of Matthew, Luke, and John don't thus push us to ask these questions, to admit our uncertainty and acknowledge our fear. Mark's missing ending may make it the perfect Gospel for Easter 2020, a Gospel that ends with an invitation to seek the risen Lord though his victory over death is not yet fully seen.
Editor's note: A previous version of this article mischaracterized the history of the King James Version. It has been fixed. We regret the error.