Sunday, 21 May 2017

Mark’s Gospel: where are the resurrection appearances?

I come to be writing about the story of Jesus’ resurrection in Mark’s Gospel in particular for one reason: the ending from Mark 16:9-20 which forms part of it, arguably shouldn’t be there at all. Some would argue that case by saying that all that should be included at the end of Mark’s Gospel are Mark’s own words, and that 16:9-20 are someone else’s words. Not Mark’s words. And so they should be dismissed. And so, I’ve heard it claimed, that leaves Mark’s Gospel without a resurrection account, or at least without mention of the resurrected Jesus appearing to his disciples and teaching them. But, I have to ask, is that true? And how do we know?

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.)

It matters when you factor in that most experts would say that Mark’s Gospel is our oldest gospel. Some internet fringe voices claim that the supposed absence of the resurrected Jesus appearing and teaching his disciples in this oldest gospel means that belief in resurrection appearances was somehow invented after Mark wrote his Gospel. And according to such fringe sceptics, supposedly, dire consequences for the truth of the resurrection and Christianity would follow. in other words, so the sceptics' claim goes, the first Christians didn’t believe in a real resurrection of Jesus at all, and this is supposed to explain there supposedly being no resurrection appearances originally in this earliest gospel.

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. 

For the purpose of this post, I am going to dismiss Mark 16:9-20 out of hand[1], simply in order to see what Mark definitely says about resurrection appearances. (Up to verse 16:8, Mark does say something about it.) This is the test: if we only go by Mark’s words up to 16:8, we can ask what his words tell us – if anything – about Jesus being resurrected and Mark's own repeatedly stated expectation of resurrection appearances.

So that leaves us only with Mark 16:1-8 and a few earlier verses in Mark. This is what 15:44-47 to 16:1-8 says in Mark's resurrection episode:

Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where he was laid.

[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.

And there it breaks off. If you were to add Mark 16:9-20 - and I won't do that here - then you get stories in which is told what happens during appearances of the resurrected Jesus to his disciples. But we don’t have that here. Now, I am going to zoom in on what we do have here, in Mark 16:1-8, the words that are normally accepted by scholars as Mark's words. Some sceptics say there is no resurrection account here. But is that true? This is what we find in it.  

In verse 2, we have, early on the Sunday, three women visiting the tomb of Jesus.

In verse 4, the women witness that the stone had been rolled away from the tomb entrance.

In verse 5, the women witness a man, a messenger in effect, in the tomb.

In verse 6, this man tells them that the body's not there because Jesus "has risen" and gone ahead to Galilee.

They witness that the tomb is otherwise empty, as the man explains, “See the place where they laid him.” It is clear that the order of things is sight of an empty tomb first and sight of a risen Jesus afterwards. (The same order occurs in each of the biblical gospels.)

And in verse 7, crucially, we learn where the resurrected Jesus will appear, to whom and when: it will be to the disciples and especially to Peter, it will be in Galilee after they arrive there: "‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’" Note that it says that the resurrected Jesus is on his way to Galilee, not on his way to or from heaven! For that reason, the group of disciples must go to Galilee too. That's where the story is at. Given that Mark says nothing about Jesus going to or coming from heaven, the natural reading of Jesus going ahead to Galilee is of Jesus undertaking a journey there from the empty tomb. Only a view reading the text with a preconception from elsewhere of a ghost-like Jesus would come to any other conclusion.

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 reported 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.

So after dismissing Mark 16:9-20, what do we have left here of the resurrection story in Mark? We have this:

  • 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.

That seems to me to be the basics of the resurrection story. That is the story Mark tells. Mark in writing what he did clearly believed that the resurrection happened and that resurrection appearances were about to happen at that point in the narrative. To claim that there is no resurrection story in Mark is spurious.

What is absent is the cued-up Galilee scene, and that is the blank filled in by the addition of Mark 16:9-20. Without it, all you have is the basic resurrection story, the empty tomb witnessed by the women, the message that Jesus is resurrected, that Galilee is where the disciples will see the resurrected Jesus appear to them. As said, resurrection appearance(s) are thus mentioned in Mark's Gospel, but not actually described: Mark is not in doubt that resurrection appearances are part of the story. It is a resurrection narrative, plain and simple, without the extras. To deny this, as some sceptics do, borders on desperation.

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 separately (they were written a few years apart:

1 Corinthians 15:4-6

he was buried
that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,
and that he appeared to Cephas [Peter],
and then to the Twelve.
After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time

Mark 16:6-7
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.’”

What these two passages say is not a million miles apart from each other, is it? In particular, notice that distinct resurrection appearances are to be credited to Peter and the disciples. Peter perhaps on his own, and the group of disciples: that's what both passages say. It is not reasonable to write this off merely as coincidence. Paul wrote several years before Mark, it is thought by most scholars. The only reasonable conclusion is that Mark was told the same as Paul was told: that Peter and the disciples were eyewitnesses to distinct resurrection appearances. As such, the fact that Peter and the disciples were reported to be eyewitnesses to more than one post-resurrection appearance of Jesus is multiply attested, and so it is historically highly likely that they really were held to be eyewitnesses according to Christians. And thus we have evidence of this from within about two decades of Jesus' crucifixion. (Paul's letter above was written in the 50s of the first century.)

If you would like to read more about the ending, NT Wright approaches it with a historian’s common sense. As does Ben Witherington.

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 historian N.T. 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:

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.

Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshipped him. Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” 

[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 as if there has been an elision, the narrative changes scene there, and then resumes as follows in Matthew.]

Then the eleven disciples came 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 - he's relying on Mark.

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, and in so doing gives us his best clue as to how the Gospel of Mark originally ended.

[1] The argument that Mark 16:9-20 should be dismissed is actually a kind of fundamentalist version of scepticism. Its basic premise is that the Bible should exclude any additional material found to be attached to the ‘original’ version of a gospel. Quite why this should be so is never clear to me. The Bible itself is a compilation of different books. And Luke’s Gospel announces boldly at its start that it is a sort of compilation itself, making one long gospel from other writers’ shorter attempts. So the Bible itself announces in various ways that it is fine to be a compilation and still be an inspired religious text. Nevertheless, one finds this kind of fundamentalism that says compilation is not fine, that compilation is a kind of naughty tampering with the text, and so Mark 16:9-20 has no place in the Bible. But for the sake of this post, I am merely interested to see what the end of Mark’s Gospel looks like without Mark 16:9-20.


  1. If Paul can see a bright light on a dark desert highway and believe that he has seen the physically resurrected Jesus then it is entirely plausible that this is what happened to Peter, James, the Twelve, and the “Five Hundred”. They all saw a strange bright light and believed it was an appearance of the physically resurrected Jesus. Paul may have believed that his bright light spoke to him, but a guy who believes that he has taken an intergalactic space voyage to a “third heaven” to hear confidential communications between space people is not dealing with a full deck.

    The Gospels were written by non-eyewitnesses, decades after the death of Jesus, writing works of evangelism. The Appearance Stories in Matthew and Luke have nothing in common. Any non-biased reader would see these two stories are fictional embellishments of the bare-bones appearance accounts in the Early Creed. And John’s Appearance Stories, written one or more decades later, look like an amalgamation of Matthew and Luke’s Appearance Stories. Fleshed-out Appearances Stories involving seeing and touching a resurrected corpse are going to convert many more souls than a dry, non-descript list of alleged eyewitnesses.

    Unlike Jesus’ disciples, Paul was a highly educated Jew. He was also a pharisee. Yet he converted to the new Christian sect due to a (talking) bright light. How much more likely then are the chances that the “unlearned” disciples converted due to even less dramatic experiences, such as vivid dreams, false sightings, or non-talking bright lights!

    The Christian faith is an ancient superstition, originating in the fertile imaginations of first century zealots.

  2. You may think it 'plausible' that 'Peter, James, the Twelve, and the “Five Hundred”' had such and such an experience, but there is of course a difference between speculating that or producing evidence from antiquity of that - i.e. describing those people's experiences the way you do.

  3. Irenaeus knows the longer ending of Mark.