According to the earliest manuscripts, this passage constitutes the end of the Gospel of Mark. The “long ending” (vv. 9-20) appears only later, and consists of a collection of traditions taken from the other Gospels that were written after Mark and some non-New Testament traditions. It was apparently composed to provide Mark with an ending similar to that of the other three Gospels.
Once again, it is the women who attended to Jesus’ needs (see 15:41). There appears to be some problem with the three women named. In 15:40, Mary is identified as the mother of “James the younger and of Joses”; in 15:47 she is the mother of Joses; in 16:1 she is identified as the mother of James. Perhaps these accounts came from different traditions, but they do seem to refer to the same person. The third woman, Salome, omitted in 15:47, was also named in 15:40. The only name in all three passages is Mary Magdalene (see also John 20:1).
Their motive is to anoint the body of Jesus, which was not done when he was taken from the cross and laid in the tomb. Yet in Mark 14:8, Jesus had announced that the unnamed woman who had anointed him had done so in anticipation of his death. In that sense his body had in fact been anointed.
It is further interesting that only women are named as witnesses to the empty tomb. In the Judaism of that time, a woman could not serve in any legal proceeding as a witness (Luke 24:24 and John 20:3-10 later remedy this situation by having disciples confirm it was empty). Thus, if one had wanted to invent a story about credible witnesses to claim the tomb was empty, this was not the way to do it. That makes it very likely that this was an historical event.
Mark makes no attempt to explain how the stone was rolled away (vv. 3-4; but cf. Matt 28:2). The “young man” in the tomb is surely a divine messenger (although the same word for young man is used in Mark 14:51-52, there is no relation between them). While there are no appearances of the risen Jesus in Mark, the angel’s message (vv. 6-7) makes it clear that God had in fact raised him from the dead. The place where they laid him (v. 6) will most likely have referred to the shelf on the right side of the tomb where Jesus’ body had been placed. The specific command to tell Peter, along with the disciples, that Jesus had been raised from the dead most likely reflects Peter’s denial of Jesus during Jesus’ trial. That they will see him in Galilee reflects Jesus prediction in 14:28.
The announcement’s effect on the women is astonishment and fear. As a result, they disobey the angelic command and tell no one.
There is a great irony in this strange ending to Mark’s Gospel. The women, commissioned to tell the disciples the good news of Jesus’ resurrection and predicted meeting with them in Galilee, do not because of — fear! All human beings thus have shown themselves to be unreliable. No one is able finally to master the situation.
The women who had remained faithful through Jesus’ death now in the end also prove unfaithful. And here is the supreme irony: the disciples fled because they could not come to terms with Jesus’ death. Perhaps had they been able to do that, they could have come to terms with their own fear, which caused them to flee in the face of Jesus’ impending death. Here, however, the women come to the tomb because they have come to terms with Jesus‘ death, and — here is the irony! — it is precisely because they have come to terms with it that they flee. If the disciples were unfaithful at Jesus’ death because they could not come to terms with that death, the women are unfaithful at Jesus’ resurrection precisely because they had come to terms with his death! It was his risen life they could not come to terms with! Now where does that leave us in our ability to come to terms with Jesus? Dead or alive, Mark seems to say, Jesus remains the one finally beyond our understanding. Yet he is our way to the Father. Therefore, we hear him in faith, or we will not hear him at all. That seems to be the key to Mark’s presentation of the story of Jesus.
It is also interesting that Mark says nothing about the disciples learning either of Jesus’ resurrection or of the empty tomb. Yet it is clear from other parts of the New Testament that the disciples very soon began proclaiming Jesus as risen from the dead (e.g. Paul, 1 Cor. 15:12-22; Peter, Acts 2:24, 31-32; 3:25). Why would Mark end in this way, with disobedience and fear continuing to dog the risen Jesus as they had the earthly Jesus? Perhaps Mark wanted to convey to his readers that the events begun with John the Baptist and the appearance of Jesus in Galilee (1:1-9) were still underway. Jesus, now risen, continues to lead his disciples (v. 7) as he once led them to Jerusalem prior to his death (10:32). If such events are continuing, then suffering, ambiguity, and rejection continue as possibilities for those who follow him (see 4:14-19). Only at the last will the harvest come (v. 4:8); only at the last will Jesus return to gather up his own (13:26-27). Until then Jesus’ followers must continue to watch and wait (13:37), knowing that their victorious Lord continues to lead them.
In that hope and confidence, we lead our post-Easter lives.
Paul J. Achtemeier is professor emeritus of biblical interpretation at Union Theological Seminary (now Union-PSCE) in Richmond, Va. He is the author or co-author of 14 books, as well as the former editor of the quarterly, “Interpretation.”