The question arises because in the most ancient manuscript evidence, Mark's Gospel ends at chapter 16:8. The signs are that extra verses were added later, the ones in which Jesus appears to his followers after his resurrection. Most Bibles on sale tell the reader so in the footnotes, so that the reader knows that Mark 16:9-20 was probably not originally part of Mark's Gospel. (There are other alternative endings too, but I'm trying to keep this simple.)
The sceptics' view ignores that there is an older account of the resurrection narrative, from before Mark. Paul, writing earlier, had already mentioned the resurrection and resurrection appearances (see at the bottom of this post to find out more about this). This is a significant oversight for sceptics to make, as we shall see. This post is principally about what the original Mark's Gospel says up to Mark 16:8, which includes blunt statements that post-resurrection appearances of Jesus were coming up in Galilee, that the resurrected Jesus was already on his way to Galilee (not on his way to heaven at this point, as you might expect). For that reason, the group of disciples must go to Galilee too, and see him.
In short, up to Mark 16:8, we have the resurrection, and Mark's expectation of resurrection appearances, but not stories of what happened at the resurrection appearances themselves. So, of course it does not follow that a lack of resurrection appearances means no resurrection. That doesn't follow at all. It leaves a few possibilities about where Mark's Gospel originally ended. Either Mark 16 has lost its original ending. (If so, it leaves open the question of what kind of resurrection appearances, if any, were in the original ending.) Or Mark 16:8 is the original ending, and while many scholars go with that, such scholars cannot agree on any foundation for why Mark would intend to end his book there, throwing their rival theories around. A consensus without any remotely agreed foundation would of course be unsatisfactory, and scholars know that they have themselves a problem with that. What makes it particularly unsatisfactory is the notion that Mark would do a big build up to resurrection appearances in Galilee, and then spring on his audience a big anti-climax and deliberately stop suddenly just before describing them.
Whether the original ending after 16:8 is lost, or 16:8 is the original ending, this post applies equally. The focus of this post is what Mark does say about resurrection appearances up to 16:8. At the end, I will add a few notes about the original ending of Mark.
[Mark is obviously laying it on quite thick, so as to say: yes, he was dead; yes, he was put in a sealed tomb; yes, this was witnessed. Now on to chapter 16, where we discover that this was soon unlike the normal aftermath of a burial. The women learn that the body's not there because he's risen and gone ahead to Galilee.]
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
So resurrection appearance(s) are mentioned here, but not described.
And, the messenger’s promise to be conveyed to Peter and the others about what to expect in Galilee is, “There you will see him, just as he told you.” So the promised appearance in Galilee links to something Jesus said earlier to them. Indeed, Mark’s Gospel is actually laced with the promise and expectation of Jesus’ resurrection. See Mark 8:31, 9:31, 10:34 and especially Mark 14:28 about the promise of the risen Jesus going to Galilee.
In verse 8, the women run from the tomb in fear, and, we are told, “They said nothing to anyone,” except of course that they obviously did tell, otherwise their great moment at the tomb would not be found here. So we are left anticipating the promised appearances of the risen Jesus in Galilee. In light of that story and promise, you can’t close the book there and say that Mark doesn’t believe that. Mark is clearly a believer and clearly believes that the appearances of the risen Jesus in Galilee are bona fide. But we don’t get to hear more, because that is where the text of Mark’s Gospel breaks off.
- when: Sunday morning
- where: the empty tomb
- who is there: the women and a messenger
- what: the body is not there because he has risen
- why: it is as Jesus foretold
- what Jesus is doing now: “He is going ahead of you into Galilee.”
- what will happen: Jesus will appear
- to whom he will appear: Peter and the disciples
- where he will appear: Galilee
- when he will appear: after they arrive in Galilee.
And now we come to a telling piece of evidence about the appearances. Compare 1 Corinthians 15:4-6, which was written (by Paul), with Mark 16:6-7 which was written several years later:
He is not here. See the place where they laid him.
One thing to add. Mark's idea of Jesus' resurrection - simply that the body's not there because he's risen and gone ahead to Galilee - would never give a hint that this was anything other than a bodily resurrection. Only a reader who knows other stories such as the end of Luke, or the stories of Paul's visions in Luke's Acts, would ever think that the resurrection had a non-physical potential. Luke has Jesus being both physical and seemingly non-physical at one time or another. But Mark gives no hint of anything non-physical: the body's not there because he's risen and gone ahead to Galilee.
As NT Wright observes, one place where we find Mark's promised appearances of Jesus in Galilee is in the ending of Matthew's Gospel. And since Matthew re-uses 95% of the material provided to him by Mark, then this makes it all the more likely that Matthew's description of the Galilean appearances are at least in part derived from Mark. In fact, it reads well if you tag onto the end of Mark some verses from Matthew 28. Taking a bare minimum, in fact, you would get this, where the material flows from Mark 16:8 seamlessly into the words from Matthew:
[So that has flowed seamlessly. However, at this point, you would expect a scene of the women obediently going to the disciples, and their reaction to hearing of the resurrection, including Peter specifically named above. Matthew doesn't have that, but you would assume that the underlying text from Mark was complete. However, as if there has been an elision, the narrative breaks off there, and resumes as follows in Matthew.]
Then the eleven disciples came/went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations”.
I've minimised material taken from Matthew, just to show how it flows. I could have used more. It gives an impression of what the original ending of Mark could very possibly have looked like. I am not saying it was so, just that it could have been so, given that it flows naturally; and that this delivers what Mark promises; and that Matthew reuses 95% of Mark's material; and that the Matthew ending includes Jesus teaching the disciples about his authority, which is what you might expect Mark to round his gospel off with, given his themes. So, the wording in the latter paragraph above, which is found in Matthew, could well have been derived from Mark's original ending.
It's worth mentioning that the story about the male disciples at the end of Matthew is surprisingly short. That is, in telling the post-resurrection story, after eleven verses devoted to the women, and five devoted to a story about the guards, all Matthew allows himself in telling about the male disciples is what amounts to a meagre five verses. For such a long Gospel as Matthew, this is perhaps surprising. It is very condensed compared to Luke or John's longer resurrection stories. For this, the simplest explanation for such brevity is surely that Matthew took just a few terse verses from an original ending of Mark's Gospel, adding nothing from any other source. Its brevity is more obvious still if you compare it with what Paul wrote a few years before Matthew himself wrote: thus, Paul had already detailed that Jesus had appeared to Peter before the twelve. But Matthew, writing after Paul, does not in any way build on that sort of thing known to Paul.
Notably, Matthew chooses to start and end in Galilee, no doubt following Mark. (Whereas, for contrast, Luke chooses start to start and end in Jerusalem, as he is exploring other themes.) So Matthew just rushes through a brief scene in Galilee after the resurrection, tying up his themes and leaving it at that.