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Resurrection: A Symbol of Hope by Lloyd Geering


Lloyd Geering is a Presbyterian minister and former Professor of Old Testament Studies at theological colleges in Brisbane and Dunedia, and Professor of Religious Studies at Victorian University in Wellington, New Zealand. He is author of Tomorrow's God (1994), The World to Come (1999) and Christianity Without God (2002). Published by Hodder and Stoughton: London, Auckland, Sydney, Toronto, 1971.


Chapter 3: Was There a Tomb Found Empty?


The traditional mental picture associated with the belief in the resurrection of Jesus has been so centered on the story of the empty tomb, that we must now examine it and discuss its origin and historical value. At the outset we do well to remember that even if the historicity of this discovery by the women could be confidently substantiated, it would still not be a proof of the resurrection of Jesus. In the Gospel stories themselves the discovery of the empty tomb does not by itself lead to faith in the risen Christ. Even in the New Testament there is a sense in which the empty tomb plays a secondary role, namely, to confirm an Easter faith already established rather than to initiate it, for by far the chief emphasis of the New Testament is that faith in the risen Christ originated out of his appearances to the disciples.l

We are examining the origin and historicity of the tomb story to see if the conception of resurrection that it leads to is the only one and the true one. We have four versions of the tomb story in the New Testament. Yet, as we have already pointed out, there is good evidence for concluding that they are not only not narrated to us directly by eye-witnesses, but that, in addition, they are not even independent of each other.

This means that the version of the tomb story we must turn to is that of Mark, for, being by far the earliest, it is independent of the other three and is therefore the crucial one. It will be shown in a later chapter that Matthew and Luke used Mark’s story as the basis for their own, and each made his own changes and additions. John’s Gospel is recognized as the latest, and has quite unique characteristics, but even here the tomb story still carries the bare outline of Mark’s story, and there is no good reason for believing that this outline belongs to a tradition which is wholly independent from Mark. Rather it represents what has been called the ‘end-product of the development of the story of the empty tomb’.2 The fact that it is the latest, and at the same time the fullest, account of the discovery of the empty tomb, points to the conclusion that it represents a late stage in a developing tradition. But the fact that it is the fullest and possesses the greatest human appeal of all the versions, also means that it has been the most popular -- the one read most commonly, for example, on Easter day. We must take care therefore not unconsciously to read the content of John’s version back into the earlier one of Mark where it may not properly belong.

For Mark’s account of the discovery of the empty tomb turns out to be remarkably short. The oldest manuscripts take us no further than Mark 16:8. What follows is now universally regarded as a later addition, made in the light of the material in the three later Gospels. It has been called ‘a sort of compendium of the proofs and promises of the resurrected Lord, made up some time after the beginning of the second century’.3

Mark’s account of the discovery of the empty tomb (now reduced to eight verses) is not however a complete narrative in itself but is dependent upon the burial story which precedes it, and of which it now forms the conclusion. The chapter division (which, in any case, was added much later) can easily give us a false impression. The tomb story which we wish to look at has a clear beginning at Mark 15:40 and runs through to 16:8.

Once we have isolated the limits of the tomb pericope some quite striking facts leap into prominence. The key persons in the story, viz. Joseph of Arimathea, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome, appear nowhere else in the whole Gospel (the mention of Pilate and the centurion are only incidental to the burial story). Moreover, these persons are never heard of again; they find no mention in the early chapters of Acts, which is our only picture of the primitive church.4

On the other hand, all the chief characters of Mark’s Gospel, except Pilate and the centurion, are noticeably absent in this pericope. Is it not strange that, when Mark narrates what later generations have often regarded as the sine qua non of the Gospel, there is a sharp hiatus in the key personnel? One would have expected those who had discovered the empty tomb to have played a prominent part in the primitive church.

When we examine the tomb story further, we find that it divides into two parts, and though the second is dependent upon the first, the first is complete in itself. That is the burial story (vv. 42-46) in which Joseph of Arimathea alone is the active figure. The women who play such an important role as the discoverers of the empty tomb are simply stated to be observers at the cross (vv. 40-1) where they were ‘watching from a distance’, and once again observers at the burial (v. 47) in that they ‘saw where he was laid’. They play no active part in the burial and it is for a reason other than the burial that they are now mentioned in both places.

Was there a time when the story of the burial by Joseph was told by itself without being followed by what now forms the sequel? The particular way in which the references to the women are introduced supports the view that there was. It was important to establish the fact that they knew who was crucified and where he was buried, before their discovery of an empty tomb could be of any significance, but the narrator has introduced these references in such a way as not to disturb the already existing forms both of the Passion narrative and of the burial story. Goguel comments that ‘with a certain clumsiness they (the evangelists) fail to create a real connection between the story of the burial and that of the discovery of the empty tomb’.5

In the last chapter we began the discussion of the burial story but left the question of historicity open. The tradition may stem from an historical foundation, and again, quite equally, it may not. In support of the latter Goguel believes that it is possible to learn something of the development of the burial story by distinguishing between a ‘ritual burial’ and an ‘honorable burial’.

The basis for the ‘ritual burial’ was the Jewish law found in Deuteronomy 21:22-3. ‘When a man is convicted of a capital offence and is put to death, you shall hang him on a gibbet; but his body shall not remain on the gibbet overnight; you shall bury it on the same day, for a hanged man is offensive in the sight of God. You shall not pollute the land which the Lord your God is giving you as your patrimony.’

This law determined what the Jewish practice was. Though it was the custom of the Romans to leave the bodies of the crucified on the cross until they rotted away, on this occasion they may have allowed the bodies to have been taken down just before sunset as a concession to the Jewish interests, particularly when feeling was running high at the time of the Passover festival. According to Goguel the New Testament preserves direct evidence of a ritual burial for Jesus in the words attributed to Paul in Acts 13:28-9, ‘Though they failed to find grounds for the sentence of death, they asked Pilate to have him executed. And when they had carried out all that the scriptures said about him, they took him down from the gibbet and laid him in a tomb.’ There is further evidence of the same tradition in John 19:31, ‘Because it was the eve of Passover, the Jews were anxious that the bodies should not remain on the cross for the coming Sabbath, since that Sabbath was a day of great solemnity; so they requested Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down.’6 Goguel believes that ‘The tradition referring to the ritual burial must have been very much alive to have left traces in a book by a writer, who in his gospel had related the burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea.’7 Incidentally, this well-established custom was in itself quite sufficient to be the origin of the phrase ‘that he was buried’ in the early creed quoted by Paul.

The story of Joseph of Arimathea, found in Mark and followed in the later Gospels, is called by Goguel an ‘honorable burial’, for the motive is no longer simply to prevent the desecration of the land, but to do all that is fitting to the mortal remains of an honorable man. Joseph is said to have been ‘a respected member of the Council, a man who looked forward to the kingdom of God’. Such a man was obviously displaying real courage when, out of his secret admiration for Jesus, he made the approach to Pilate, at the same time running the risk of earning the disfavor of all his fellow Councilors. This was no ‘ritual burial’ for he went to the trouble of buying a linen sheet. It is a very different account of burial from what might have been given if a group of anonymous Jews had been concerned simply to throw the body of Jesus (and perhaps those of the two thieves also) into the grave or tomb of the common people in order to prevent the precincts of the holy city from being defiled.

But if the story of the ‘honorable burial’ is historical, and was known from the beginning, then there was no cause for the story of a ‘ritual burial’ to arise, such as seems to have left traces in the tradition. Goguel believes ‘the honorable burial’ is the transformation of the other. We can readily see how the story of the ‘ritual burial’ would arise. Once the Easter faith had come to birth among the disciples, who, we are told, had scattered at the time of the crucifixion, questions would eventually be asked as to what had happened to the body of Jesus. Because of the Jewish practice, they had very good reason for believing that some unknown Jews in Jerusalem had treated the body of Jesus in exactly the same way as they would have done with any other executed criminal, and thus buried it. Goguel notes that ‘there is no particular reason to doubt that this is what happened’.8

Once the story of the ‘ritual burial’ was started, it was natural for oral tradition among Christians to transform it into an honorable burial’. The unknown Jews now became personalized and identified in one Joseph of Arimathea. It is possible that Arimathea (like the later Emmaus) is actually an imagined site, for it is not known from any other source.9 It is just possible that the name ‘Joseph’ may have been used to personalize the unknown Jew, presumed to have been responsible for the ritual burial, because of the biblical tradition which told of the care with which Joseph, the patriarch, transported the body of his father all the way back to Machpelah for burial.10

The form and the content of the burial story in Mark’s Gospel is therefore no guarantee of its historicity. On the contrary we can well understand how such a story could have arisen in the early church, and developed to the form in which Mark records it. Further, when we compare it with the versions in the later Gospels, we can see the way in which the development was still continuing. In Matthew Joseph has become a rich man, who had already himself become a disciple of Jesus, and who used for the burial of Jesus the tomb he had already prepared for himself. Luke has slightly condensed Mark’s story, but notes that Arimathea (possibly because he had not heard of it before) was a city of the Jews. In John’s version Joseph has been joined by Nicodemus (known from John 3:1-12) and it was they and not the women who anointed the body with spices, specified in detail as ‘a mixture of myrrh and aloes, more than half a hundredweight’. It seems to be typical of developing traditions that information of this kind becomes more detailed the later the version. Even today those who recount a story they have been told earlier may often find themselves creating a detail or two to add verisimilitude to their narration.

We must now look at the relationship of the burial story with the rest of the Gospel. We have already noted the hiatus, so far as the chief characters are concerned, between the tomb pericope as a whole, and the rest of the Gospel. Is it possible that the Gospel was originally intended to end with the words of the centurion? ‘Truly this man was a son of God’ would have made a very fitting climax to a Gospel which ‘has been described as "the martyr Gospel" -- that is, the Gospel designed for the strengthening and encouraging of Christians facing martyrdom.’11

We have become so used to the pattern of the four canonical Gospels, all of which end with the tomb story and three with further resurrection stories, that it is easy to regard it as unthinkable that a Gospel should have ended in any other way. We must remember, however, that Mark’s Gospel was the first, and there was no established pattern to which it had to conform. Just as there are no birth stories in Mark, so also the author could have ended his Gospel with the passion narrative if he had so wished, particularly in view of the theological emphasis which runs through the Gospel. When D. E. Nineham comes to the words of the centurion in his commentary, he notes, ‘In a very real sense this verse rounds off not only the crucifixion narrative but the whole Gospel.’12

Did Mark have it in mind as he was writing his Gospel that he would end with the tomb story? This is a question which cannot easily be settled one way or the other. We can certainly say that his real climax is in the Passion narrative, for the tomb pericope which now ends the Gospel has little of the Easter joy and human interest that are to be found in John’s tomb story. Indeed, if our associations with the tomb tradition had not already been well and truly colored by the latter, this short and abrupt narrative in Mark may have left us with no more than an unsettling feeling. The story does not continue the magnificent theme of cross-bearing that dominates the Gospel, nor does it express the Easter faith. As it stands it comes near to being an anti-climax, and is saved from this only by the words of the unknown man, usually taken to be an angel (and this, incidentally, is the most difficult part of the story to accept as historical). It reads, not as a joyful climax, but as an epilogue, or even more as an appendix, added perhaps to satisfy questions being asked by the curious.

We have seriously to reckon with the possibility that the author of this first written Gospel had no intention of ending it with the tomb pericope which is now to be found there, firstly because, in several respects, it is not integrally related to the rest of the Gospel, and secondly, because this ‘martyr Gospel’ sees the cross as its chief theme, and presents the death of Jesus on the cross as sufficient in itself to create faith, in that it brings forth a confession from the lips of a Gentile. In other words, it is possible that the tomb story was added later, either by the same author or by someone else, and that it formed an appendix. From a literary point of view this is just what it appears to be.

It is worthwhile noting that in the later Gospels these features are not so noticeable. There the resurrection narratives do form a fitting climax to the whole Gospel in each case, and they do express the surprise and joy of the Easter faith. In all three cases the empty tomb story is brought into closer relationship with the disciples. Thus the sharp change between Mark’s tomb pericope and the rest of the Gospel is much less marked, and while the link between it and the Passion narrative remains almost the same in Matthew, it no longer obtrudes in Luke and has disappeared altogether in John, where Passion narrative and tomb story have finally become welded into a continuous narrative.13

The suggestion that the Gospel of Mark has received the addition of an appendix not originally intended need cause no surprise, for in the ancient world it was not at all uncommon for such a thing to happen to a book. We know that later material was in fact added after Mark 16:8, probably early in the second century, and for most of Christian history this was accepted as coming from the original author. Many regard the last chapter of John as being a later addition to the Gospel, which already has a natural ending in John 20:30-1. In the books of the Old Testament there are many examples of this same phenomenon. Such an addition could be made by the author himself, as a kind of afterthought, or it could just as easily be made by someone who was copying it or editing it for wider distribution.

If this supposition is anywhere near the truth, something further yet emerges. Once the tomb pericope is separated from the rest of the Gospel it is seen that it could not have existed in this form as an independent tradition, for the mention of the women with which it begins has had to take the form it does in order to link what follows with the preceding Passion story. And yet the references to the women who were ‘watching from a distance’ and who ‘saw where he was laid’, are essential premises for the later discovery narrative.

Let us set down three observations: (a) Mark 15:40-16:8 possesses several features which divide it so sharply from the Passion narrative that it could hardly have been the natural continuation of that in the stage of oral tradition, (b) this pericope, however, could not have existed in its present form as an independent tradition, (c) the pericope itself falls naturally into two parts, the first of which can exist as an independent story, but the second of which cannot, for it depends upon the first. These conditions find a satisfactory explanation in supposing that the Gospel was originally intended to end with the words of the centurion. Then someone, possibly even the original author, added the burial story (vv. 42-6). Subsequently to this, a second appendix, concerning the discovery of the empty tomb by the women, was added, but in such a way as not to intrude into either the Passion narrative or the burial story. We have already noted what Goguel called the ‘clumsiness’ with which this later step was taken. The links, which state that the women were observers from a distance at both the crucifixion and the burial, appear to be editorial additions made by a literary editor, rather than part of an original narrative from oral tradition.

We have already noted that there are reasons for thinking that the burial story had been in circulation in oral tradition for some time, as it exhibits signs of having passed through a transformation. But when did the discovery story originate? Some have maintained that Mark actually created the story of the empty tomb.14 Since it is really dependent for its meaning and significance upon the burial story to which it is now linked, but which appears to have been once complete in itself, it probably never existed separately, at least not in the form of words in which it is now expressed. This suggests that the empty tomb story originated no earlier than the time when Mark’s Gospel was being completed.

Such a suggestion receives some confirmation in the last words of Mark 16:8. Ever since it was realized that the earliest extant manuscripts do not take us beyond this verse, there has been considerable discussion about the end of Mark’s Gospel, for the words ‘and they said nothing to anyone for they were afraid’, seem an exceedingly weak and rather strange way in which to draw the Gospel to a conclusion. It has been commonly supposed that the original end has been lost, or suppressed, or alternatively that for some reason the original author never succeeded in finishing his Gospel. A more likely explanation was first put forward by Wellhausen,15 and it has been widely adopted.16 This states that the story of the discovery of the empty tomb ends with these strange words in order to explain to readers why, as late as the mid-first century, they had never heard of this story before. The author of this appendix would be aware that readers would be genuinely puzzled by the sudden appearance of what seemed to be an important piece of evidence, and so he implied that it had never come out into the open before because for a long time the women who witnessed it were so afraid that they said nothing to anyone.17 This explanation of these otherwise strange words is even more convincing if this verse is seen, not as the original author’s conclusion of the whole Gospel, but as the end of an appendix added to the Gospel.

There was yet a further addition to be made. The only reference to an appearance of the risen Christ to be found in the tomb story is in Mark 16:7, ‘But go and give this message to his disciples and Peter: "He is going on before you into Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you."’ This seems to point back to Mark 14:28, ‘But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.’ It has been pointed out by many that both of these verses are strangers in their respective contexts, for in each case the words that follow more naturally point back, not to these verses, but to the words which precede them.18 We may further note that both Mark 14:28, 16:7 are repeated by Matthew (26:32, 28:7) but in contrast with Mark’s Gospel, Matthew reports that the women immediately ‘ran to tell the disciples’. Luke, on the other hand, does not repeat the earlier verse, and when in the tomb story he comes to the second verse, he changes the content of what the women are told to ‘Remember what he told you. . .’ But along with Matthew, Luke narrates that ‘returning from the tomb, they reported all this to the Eleven and all the others’. Both Matthew and Luke therefore reject the implication in the present arrangement of the Marcan story that the women disobeyed the command of the unknown messenger in keeping silent about the message they were instructed to tell the disciples and Peter. But this implication was only unwittingly introduced into Mark, if and when the addition of 16:7 was made. Originally the silence of the women did not refer to the instruction given to them, but to the discovery of the empty tomb and the announcement of the messenger that Jesus was risen.19

We can summarize the discussion up to this point by saying that the literary form of Mark’s tomb pericope shows definite signs of having developed in three stages, consisting of two appendices with one third final addition (leaving aside the fact that in the second century a still further addition of Mark 16:9 -- 20 was made) and that because of this, it may not have been part of the author’s original plan as he set out to write his Gospel.

At this point, however, it must be clearly stated that most New Testament scholars still accept the tomb pericope as part of the oral tradition already in circulation at the time Mark wrote his Gospel. Many of these assume it to be a legend that developed in the later apostolic period. B. W. Bacon wrote: ‘The present narrative is as certainly earlier than the elaborations of Matthew, Luke and John, as it is certainly later than the series of visions in Cor. 15:3-8 which are to Paul the proof of the living and glorified Christ. Manifestly constructed as it is only for insertion between the Crucifixion and a modified form of the appearance to Peter in Galilee, it has led ultimately by gradual stages . . . to the well-nigh complete suppression of the Apostles’ experiences in Galilee in favor of the women’s in Jerusalem.’20

There are other scholars who defend the substantial historicity of the tomb pericope, and since we must reckon with this possibility, we now turn from the literary form of the story to its content to see in what way the latter may point to historical reliability rather than to legend. We must allow for the fact that both the burial story and the discovery story are very short and contain very few details. Some of the elements we may have expected to find there are absent, it may be argued, simply because of brevity. Nevertheless it is really details of this kind that one is justified in looking for if the story is to have the ring of truth. Some of these very points seem to have caught the attention of Matthew and Luke, who have adjusted their versions accordingly.

First of all, how much time was there for the burial by Joseph, between the death of Jesus on the cross and the sunset at which the sabbath began, and before which the burial should be completed? It would appear to be about three hours at the most, since the Passion narrative states that Jesus ‘gave a loud cry and died’ at ‘three in the afternoon’. But the Marcan story of Joseph begins by saying that the evening had already come, the narrator here betraying no awareness that he has in fact left no time at all in which the burial could take place. Matthew, perhaps aware of this difficulty, has omitted the word ‘already’, making it possible for the words to mean, ‘while evening was coming’, and both Luke and John have understandably omitted the whole of this time reference which reduced the available time to nil, and instead have ended their versions of the burial by saying that the sabbath was then about to begin.

Now even if the full three hours had been available, there was still none too much time, seeing that it involved obtaining official permission from Pilate and this in turn entailed the summoning of the centurion. There was probably time for the ‘ritual burial’ referred to above, but was there time for an ‘honorable burial’, which involved Joseph in going to buy a linen shroud? Once again the later Evangelists appear to be more conscious of the shortness of time available and they omit all references to the summoning of the centurion and to the actual purchase of a linen shroud.

But was this a task which could be performed by one man on his own? The Marcan version presents it as if it was. A little thought makes one realize that it would have been very difficult, perhaps well-nigh impossible, for one man to carry the body the distance required, and to roll the large round stone against the entrance. One of the reasons why the stone was so large was to prevent unlawful entry. This is a fact that the narrator of the discovery story was certainly aware of when he knew that not even several women could have rolled it away. It could be said that Joseph employed servants, who, as such, did not warrant any mention in the story. Nevertheless, the mention of them would have added a little more verisimilitude to the story and it may have been awareness of this difficulty which caused John to mention that Joseph was assisted by Nicodemus.

There are already then in the burial story some difficulties standing in the way of its historicity. Let us now turn to the discovery story. We start with two aspects which appear historically improbable even to von Campenhausen, as he attempts to defend the historicity of the empty tomb. He writes, ‘The desire to anoint, "on the third day", a dead body already buried and wrapped in linen cloths, is, however it be explained, not in accordance with any custom known to us, and in itself unreasonable in view of the Palestine climate. Furthermore, the assertion that the women only realized when they were already on the way that they would need help to roll away the stone and gain access to the tomb implies a degree of thoughtlessness quite out of the ordinary. Accordingly, the later evangelists all made changes in this place, and tried to help out with omissions, new interpretations or broader rational explanations.’21

Matthew Omits all reference to the anointing and says the women came ‘to look at the grave’. In John the anointing is transferred to the burial story, where it was now done by Joseph and Nicodemus, while Mary simply came to the tomb for an unspecified reason. All three later evangelists seem to have recognized how impractical it would have been for the women to continue to the tomb once the problem of the stone occurred to them, and they omit this element in the story. It was probably the intention of the Marcan narrator to prepare the reader so that he would appreciate more fully the miracle of the opened, and hence emptied, tomb, and to forestall the counter-explanation that it was simply due to theft.

Von Campenhausen recognizes that the Marcan narrative ‘has, to some extent, an undoubtedly legendary character,’22 and he is prepared to dispense with the form of the young man whom he, like most, takes to be an angel. Then he looks for an historical core and finds it in the names of the women and their discovery that the tomb was empty. But once the non-naturalistic elements are removed, i.e. the removal of the stone, and the presence and words of the messenger, it is difficult, as C. F. Evans points out, ‘to see what historical nucleus would be left’,23 for ‘the crux of the story involves the legendary element of the angel’.24 The whole point of the story is not that the tomb was found empty, which by itself said nothing at all, but that it was empty because Jesus had risen, the interpretation proclaimed by the unknown messenger, and without which the significance of the story disappears. If the historicity of the story is to be defended, so also must be the women’s witness to the unknown man and his words, but this takes one further than von Campenhausen is evidently prepared to go.

Von Campenhausen believes that if the story were simply a legend ‘it would not have specified three women (who, by Jewish law, were not competent to testify) as the decisive witnesses’25 and he is supported at this point by H. H. Rex who claimed that ‘This is in itself a point in favor of the authenticity of the tradition.’26 The weakness in this argument is that the women are not being appealed to as witnesses to the resurrection in any case. It is true that in the later Gospels the empty tomb story assumes an apologetic role in the proclamation of the Easter faith but that is not its function here since the last we hear of the women is that they told no one. If the story had an historical foundation, and if the women had been regarded as witnesses to something vital, they would have found a place in the Pauline tradition.

In this earliest form of the discovery story, the women, the chief human characters though they be, may be said to be incidental to the story. The narrator is using them as the recipients of the divine message so that the reader of the story may hear the vital message, viz, that Jesus is risen. Thus C. F. Evans writes, ‘The empty tomb interprets the message of the resurrection, not vice versa. . . . Thus in Mark, the visit to the tomb is the means by which the resurrection itself is declared, and not a prelude to, or presupposition of, appearances of the risen Lord to follow. It is only when in the other Gospels it lies side by side with such appearances, with which awkward connections have then to be made, that it takes on the note of apologetic.’27

We may now start to draw together the threads of this examination of the origin and historicity of the tomb story. Both the literary form and the actual content of the earliest version, viz, the Marcan, show not only that it definitely contains some legendary elements, but that it is unlikely to have had any historical foundation at all. It appears to have developed in several stages and may have been added to the Gospel in the form of appendices. This means that though the burial story may have been known somewhat earlier, the discovery story originated about the same time as the composition of Mark’s Gospel. This then would account for Paul’s silence about the empty tomb, since if it had been historical he should have known about it no later than his conference with Peter and the other apostles.

The discovery story probably reflects the changing understanding of the nature of the resurrection which can be traced in the first century. We have seen that Paul denied that resurrection should be thought of in terms of flesh and blood, but by the end of the century this is exactly how it was conceived, and the materialistic descriptions of the risen Jesus were being used to counter certain known trends, which were then tending to remove even the historical Jesus from the material world of flesh and blood.

At some point in this development, which coincided approximately with the writing of Mark’s Gospel, it came to be assumed that the resurrection of Jesus necessarily implied an empty tomb. At such a point a writer would have no reason for believing that he was misleading his readers if he referred to the resurrection within the context of a story which seemed to him to be a necessary corollary of the Easter event. This is exactly how midrashic28 stories arose, and they were necessarily legendary. Moreover, since it is likely that none of the original Apostles was still living, there was no-one to raise authoritative objections.

The use of the women as the characters and the mention of the anointing of the body may be elements suggested to the author of this legend by the story in Mark 14:3-9, in which an unknown woman, and the only woman ‘disciple’ mentioned elsewhere in Mark’s Gospel, anointed the feet of Jesus with costly perfume.

This story in itself shows evidence of development because the universal Christian mission referred to in v. 9 is post-Pauline. But our immediate concern is with the words, ‘she is beforehand with anointing my body for burial’. D. E. Nineham comments, ‘after Jesus’ death no opportunity ever presented itself for the proper anointing of his corpse a circumstance which apparently caused considerable distress to his intimate friends and disciples -- and to some of those who knew of this incident it came to appear as "a kind of anticipatory rectification of the omission". In time this interpretation of it was attributed to Jesus himself.’29

Consequently, if this concern to rectify the omission of an honorable burial helped to shape the form of this incident, and also the burial story, as we have seen above, it is understandable if it should have provided the basis for a legend about the tomb. This story in Mark 14 may have been not only the stimulus for the discovery story, but the fact of its own development adds a little further support to the view that the women’s attempt to anoint the body, resulting in the unexpected discovery, was a later development. Some decades later, the Fourth Gospel, by advancing the anointing to the burial story, succeeded in reporting that everything possible had been done to perform the customary rites for the dead body of Jesus.

Once the empty tomb story began to circulate, it is only natural that it would be seized upon for its apologetic value, and this is exactly the concern which became more prominent in the later Gospels. But in Mark the discovery has not yet reached that status. It does not bring to the women any of the joy of the Easter faith. The women simply fade out of the story leaving the readers to hear for themselves the words of the unknown interpreter, ‘He is risen.’

From the time this story appeared at the end of a Gospel, the first Gospel, it set the pattern for all later Gospels, which not only presented the story of the empty tomb in more developed forms, but also added further resurrection stories. The Fourth Gospel had little choice but to follow this pattern too, even though it could be said that John the Evangelist had developed such a view of Christ and the resurrection that resurrection narratives were really superfluous. In that Gospel, already in his ministry, Jesus could say of himself, ‘I am the Resurrection’, while in his death on the cross Christ was so glorified and ‘lifted up’ that C. H. Dodd can comment, ‘To this the resurrection can add nothing; for the spiritual reality of resurrection is already given in the act of self-oblation.’30

For reasons similar to, and including some of, those offered above, many scholars would today agree with C. F. Evans when he writes, ‘attempts to establish an historical kernel of the empty tomb story are not very convincing’.31 On the contrary, the literary form and content of the earliest known version of this story, along with the additions to it to be observed in the later Gospels, present just the phenomena we would expect if a legend were to arise shortly after the death of Paul (and any other surviving apostles), and from a simple, relatively colorless beginning, to receive further elaborations which added verisimilitude, human interest and, above all, the joy of the Easter faith.

This now concludes our discussion of the arguments usually advanced in order to support the traditional view of the raising of Jesus as ‘bodily resurrection’. We find that the age-long tradition of the ‘events’ of Easter day, so old that it was caught up in the New Testament itself, can no longer be defended as an historical description of the resurrection of Jesus. Hugh Anderson in his excellent survey of the state of New Testament studies today speaks of ‘the almost complete failure of historical criticism to authenticate and establish for us the "history" of Easter’.32

 

Notes:

I. See W. Marxsen, The Significance of the Message of the Resurrection for Faith in Jesus Christ, p. 25.

2. Evans, op. cit., p. 120.

3. B. H. Branscomb, The Gospel of Mark, p. 313. See also D. F. Nineham, The Gospel of Saint Mark, pp. 449-53.

4. In the latest Gospel-John-the first mention of the women, including Mary Magdalene, is made at the foot of the cross, before Jesus died. The only other reference to Mary Magdalene is in Luke 8:2. There are no grounds for identifying Mary Magdalene with the woman who broke the jar of ointment (Mark 14:3-9), the only other woman referred to in Mark’s Gospel. This latter woman is identified with Mary, the sister of Martha, in John 11:2.

5. op. cit., p. 37.

6. The apocryphal Gospel of Peter reports Herod as saying, when Joseph’s request is referred to him, ‘Brother Pilate, even if none had begged for him, we should have buried him, since also the sabbath dawns; for it is written in the law that the sun should not set upon one that has been slain.’

7. op. cit., p. 31.

8. op. cit., p. 33.

9. Attempts have been made to locate it, but they depend upon a good deal of speculation.

10. Gen. 50:1-14.

11. D. E. Nineham, op. cit., p. 33.

12. op. cit., p.431. B. W. Bacon also recognized this verse as a culmination. ‘What now follows after 15:39 was added, together with the story now suppressed but echoed still in Jn. 21, Lk. 5;4-8, and Ev. Petri, of the appearance to Peter and the other disciples.’ The Beginnings of Gospel Story, p. 227.

13. Compare carefully Mark 15:39-42, Matt. 27:54-7, Luke 23:47-50, John 1925-38.

14. Thus Neill Q. Hamilton, ‘Resurrection Tradition and the Composition of Mark’, J.B.L., Vol. LXXXIV, pp. 415-21.

15. Das Evangelium Marci, 1902.

16. e.g. V. Taylor, H. Grass, G. Bornkamm.

7. There is possibly a similar apologetic motive present in Luke 2:19, 51.

18. See Vincent Taylor, The Gospel According to St Mark, pp. 549, 608. In the latter reference the support of Wellhausen, Meyer, Bultmann, Kiostermann and Creed is cited for the secondary nature of Mark 16:7. See also D. E. Nineham, op. cit., pp. 388, 445-7, where he states, ‘Most commentators think the verse was inserted into the tradition by St Mark.’

19. Vincent Taylor, op. cit., p. 6o8, ‘There is then no longer any need to ask why the message to the disciples and to Peter was not delivered, while the reference to the silence of the women is apologetic. Mark seeks to explain why the story was not known earlier.’

20. The Beginnings of Gospel Story, p. 230.

21. op. cit., p. 58.

22. op. cit., p. 75.

23. op. cit., p. 76.

24. ibid., p. 77.

25. Op. Cit., p. 75.

26. Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? p. 19.

27. op. cit., p. 78.

28. See Chapter 9 for an explanation of midrash.

29. op. cit., p. 372.

30. The Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, pp. 441-2.

31. op. cit., p. 76.

32. Jesus and Christian Origins, p. 189.

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