Rev. Izzy Harbin
Mark 16:1-8 The Women at the Tomb
16 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 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 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.
In the Book of Mark, we find a truncated version of the resurrection story; one that ends with the women fleeing the tomb, saying nothing to anyone out of fear. The scene makes perfect sense from the perspective of the women. Everything they saw at the tomb would have registered as NOT NORMAL.
In the Hebrew world, anointing a body for burial was a normal part of the ritual of women. Unfortunately, the timing of Jesus’ death made it impossible for the women to attend to Jesus’ body because of cleanliness laws and the receiving of Passover. Still, once Passover was complete, ensuring that Jesus’ body was properly interred was of paramount importance. What the women find when they reached the tomb defied logic. It didn’t make any sense to them.
It might have been easier to wrestle with an empty tomb if the messenger of God had stayed away. The women could have easily made up a story as to what happened to Jesus. He could have been stolen. He could have been moved for safety reasons. No doubt, they would have immediately told the disciples—Jesus is missing. Eventually they might have put all the pieces together, especially when Jesus shows up. Surprise!
But, no, someone was at the tomb, someone the women did not recognize. He speaks to them and tells them that Jesus isn’t there. That alone would have been a duh moment. The women weren’t blind. But to go on to say that Jesus had risen, that was pushing the envelope. Imagine how you would react to such news.
The question that rises from this tale is, “If the women told no one, how is Mark telling the story?”
I asked that question once in Sunday school and was told not to be a “smart aleck”. It was actually a legitimate question. For those of us who study the Bible and who think about the theological implications of such statements, it makes a world of difference. It is significant in that because of Mark’s truncated ending, later writers felt the need to add two additional endings to the Book of Mark, endings that spin the gospel in a wildly different direction than I imagine Mark intended.
If Mark had added one word, it would have made his story more believable—initially…and they “initially” said nothing to no one, for they were afraid. That makes sense to me. Initially, I wouldn’t have said anything either, for fear of being seen as crazy. But after a minute or two of conversation with the other women, I would be able to convince myself that I needed to tell someone what I had just witnessed. There is no way I could keep this to myself.
In truth, we don’t know why the author of Mark ended his gospel the way he did. But we know that Mark (the individual) knew more than what he wrote, because the entire Coptic Christian tradition is built on Mark’s testimony of the risen Christ (I’ll save this topic for another post). Notice the distinction—the author of Mark may not have been Mark who becomes Saint Mark, or who was a follower of Jesus. The Book of Mark may have been penned by someone using Mark’s name to lend the gospel credibility. What we do know, though, is that whoever wrote the Book of Mark felt the need to end it with the women not testifying to anyone about the risen Christ.
From a different perspective, it feels as though the writer of Mark was okay with the women taking care of the body of Jesus, because that is woman’s work, but he was not okay with the women testifying to the resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, because their role in this story needs to be contained and controlled.
The other gospels don’t tell the story much better, especially from the women’s perspective, and is worth noting that only in the Book of Matthew do they play the star role.
In the Book of Matthew, which is the next gospel to be written following Mark, the women encounter an angel at the tomb. We read in Matthew 28:8 their reaction: “So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and ran to tell his disciples.” Matthew acknowledges the fear but adds the “great joy” bit and that they run to tell the disciples. This passage gives the women more agency over the story than does Mark. Not only do they feel great joy, as they are running to tell the disciples, they have an encounter with Jesus on the road. It is Jesus that tells them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” And, as far as we know, the women go.
In the Book of Luke, which follows Matthew in its writing, we find the women being greeted by two men who were dazzling white. This encounter frightened them, but they listened to the men and were reminded of Jesus’ words. Luke’s text has multiple women at the tomb, and they all return to tell the disciples about what they saw. Luke is more inclusive of women and takes their story more seriously. However, when the women tell the disciples, they were not believed. So much so that Peter had to run to the tomb and discover for himself that the tomb was empty. So, while Luke is more inclusive of women, Luke is also quick to point out that the patriarchy must remain intact.
The Book of John is the final gospel to be written and it rewrites the whole story. Mary Magdalene in the only woman who goes to the tomb, and as soon as she sees that the stone has been rolled away, she runs to get Simon Peter and the other disciple who loved Jesus (we don’t know who this is). She exclaims to them that someone has taken Jesus’ body and she has no idea where he is. The two disciples raced to the tomb, Peter enters first then the other disciple and they both believed. There is no supernatural encounter with a young man, an angel, or two dazzling men, just an empty tomb that signaled to Peter and the other disciple that Jesus had risen. John has the disciples returning to their home without any further information about the women.
How we read the story of the resurrection matters. The writers of the story of the resurrection shaped the characters to fulfill a particular role. Do you find yourself in the story? Would you run in fear and not tell anyone, or would you have an encounter with Jesus on the road to tell the disciples? Would you allow yourself to be disbelieved, or even written out of the story all together? We must make space for all the stories, all the ways in which Jesus shows up in the lives of those closest to him, including the women.