Tuesday, May 7, 2013

2013 redaction of Appearances of the Risen Christ: Mark’s Gospel (Part 3 of 5)

Let’s start with a brief summary of where we are to date in this series. I have told you that I believe that the appearances of the Risen Lord after the resurrection are the easiest way to understand the truth of the resurrection of Jesus. Yet, we are told in the Gospel according to St. Matthew that even when the Risen Lord appeared to many of them on the mountain before he gave them the Great Commission, "some doubted."  And I believe that would be true for some if Christ bodily appeared today.

These Gospel narratives containing stories of the Resurrection Appearances are explanations of the truth of the faith proclaimed first by St. Paul and accepted by the earliest Christian communities.  They provide for us, and for all later generations of Christians, testimony that we use to help support our own belief in the truth of the resurrection. But we should be clear that no testimony by any witness from 2000 years ago is likely going to be considered "true" unless we first have faith and are willing to believe that the stories in the Bible are true.  

Some Biblical truth is clearly not intended to be universal dogma for all time.  But looking at the basic proclamation in First Corinthians 15 1-11, it is the clear intention of St. Paul that the resurrection be taken as literal truth. There are not many "essentials" of the faith but that passage certainly is, as are the two ancient creeds of the Church, the Apostle's and Nicene Creeds which rely heavily on St. Paul's testimony. Both creeds assume the literal truth of the Resurrection. So I assume that the Resurrection is true. That assumption comes from first having faith and then studying this event within the Biblical witness of the Church. This way of study is orthodox and follows in the footsteps of Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, and hundreds of other theologians throughout the centuries.

Let us turn now to the Gospel according to St. Mark. Interestingly, there are no resurrection appearances in the original manuscript of Mark, the first Gospel written. The Gospel as written by the original "Mark" ends with chapter 16, verse 8, as follows:
Mark 16: 1 ‘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 very 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 very 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.’

Later writers added first a shorter ending and then a later longer ending which does have resurrection appearances. Both added endings appear in most modern Bibles, with appropriate footnotes indicating that they were not part of the original manuscript of Mark. These later writers likely did this because it is obvious that eventually the women had to have told someone or else Mark would have not been able to write about what they heard and did. Some scholars argue that the original ending of Mark was lost. Most others, including me, argue that Mark's Gospel simply ended at verse 8.

If Mark has no resurrection appearances, bothering with this Gospel in this series may seem strange.  But it is one of those cases where the "null curriculum" can tell us much about Mark's intention. In other words, what can we learn from what Mark chose NOT to write? We shall see that NOT writing about the appearances of the Risen Christ is wholly consistent with what Mark has insisted that we understand about faith in Jesus from the beginning of his Gospel.

Mark's Gospel dealing with the resurrection is little more than a repetition of the earliest kerygma, proclamation, that Jesus was raised. And thus, Mark's story ends with the empty tomb. 
The proclamation of the angel, that Jesus is not in the tomb, that he has been raised, and is going ahead of Peter and the disciples to Galilee, where they will see him, is, of course, a divine explanation of the meaning of the empty tomb.  

And, for many, that is "proof" enough. Many church leaders to this day rely on the empty tomb as sufficient "evidence" that Jesus was raised. Others, like myself, find that to be less that compelling. Obviously, for the women to whom the angel spoke it was enough to terrify them, for Mark tells us that they did not obey the angel, but rather fled from the tomb in terror and amazement, and told no one!  And, interestingly, on that strange note, Mark ends his Gospel!  

But the empty tomb "proves" nothing, other than that the body was missing. And that is why the later Gospel writers recognized the weakness of the empty tomb argument, and sought to strengthen it by including testimonial evidence of the appearances.

But Mark's original ending is not so strange when we think about it.  We need to focus on what the purpose of Mark's entire Gospel was, and how he repeatedly, urgently and consistently pushed this one purpose throughout the entire book. Mark, much more than any of the other Gospel writers, from the very beginning of his Gospel, insisted on the need for each individual person to make his or her own decision about who Jesus is.  And that decision is to be a decision of faith, not of fact.  

The very heart of the Gospel of Mark is found in the question Jesus asks the disciples, exactly in the middle of his Gospel, in the eighth chapter, "But you, who do you say that I am?"  If you recall, Peter gets it right for a brief moment, only to immediately misunderstand Jesus' statement that he must suffer and die, and, after three days, rise again.  

And, recalling Mark's Gospel as a whole, we must remember that all of the disciples desert him in his darkest hour.  The key question for US from Mark is, "Who do you say that I am?" In other words, Mark asks us, "Will you have faith without evidence?"  Or will we, as constantly pointed out by Mark, be like Jesus' own disciples, demanding signs which might help us to believe? Will we believe through faith alone, or will we insist on "proof"?  Mark's Gospel is not for the reader who demands proof in order to have faith.  

He would have us look at the information that he provides in his Gospel and decide without even the comfort of human eye witness testimony about seeing the Risen Christ. Even at the very end of his Gospel, Mark demands that we have faith based on the word of Jesus before he was crucified and that of an angel after he was raised. If you think about it, that should be enough, provided we already believe that Jesus is who he has said he is. 

Ironically, Mark’s insistence in a strong faith based strictly of Jesus’ own actions and words, inevitably laid the groundwork, via the statement of the angel in the empty tomb, for the later narratives of the other three Gospel writers, which will include specific descriptions of and by eye witnesses to the appearances of the Risen Lord. The angel did, after all say “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." 

Those later Gospel writers knew that faith without proof would satisfy some, but many others, would be more likely to believe if they included the stories of the appearances of the Risen Christ in their accounts. And so they tell us "what happened" after Mark's gospel ends, with the intention to quell arguments claiming that the empty tomb was an inadequate proof, and to share the stories of the eye witnesses to the Risen Christ which had been told in their communities.

And, without those later accounts of the appearances, I think that people may have had a much harder time coming to belief, to making that "leap of faith" necessary to believe that Christ was actually raised. Yes, Christianity would have arisen anyway because Paul had planted many churches with only the proclamation of faith which he lays out in First Corinthians, which includes no details at all. But we know that even within the church in Corinth there were believers who were having second thoughts, which is why Paul felt he had to write what is now Chapter 15 of his first letter.

This is why I always come back to my original contention, that the appearances of the Risen Lord after the resurrection are the easiest way to understand the truth of the resurrection of Jesus. 
Strange as some of the appearance narratives may be to our modern eyes and ears, they provide solid testimony that Christ did appear to many, and do not require what Mark insists on: what we would today call "blind faith." Even today, for many blind faith is enough; but for many others it is not. And that brings us full circle back to the essence of faith: trust in things unseen, which is the point Mark makes in his Gospel by what he does NOT say, rather than what he does say.

Mark's test of faith is not for the faint at heart. Nor was Jesus' test. His most troubling question for the believer today remains "But you; who do you say that I am?" Ultimately, with or without the aid of the stories of the Resurrection Appearances, that question lies at the heart of Christian faith. 

When we return to this series we will look at the resurrection appearances in the Gospel according to St. Matthew. 

In the meantime, I encourage each of you to contemplate the essence of your own faith.  If you were living in Mark's community and had available to you only the statements of Jesus while he was ministering among us on this earth, the proclamation of St. Paul in First Corinthians, and the statement of the angel in the empty tomb, what would you believe about the resurrection? 

May God bless each of you.