Year by year, the truth behind the Christian celebration of Easter, the very heart of Christianity, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is being progressively challenged. An Easter Redux is underway. Christians be warned!
Richard Dawkins, the scientist, author and campaigning atheist was asked, “What do you think happened to the body of Jesus, and how does that tally with the accounts of the resurrection?” Dawkins answered, “Presumably what happened to Jesus was what happens to all of us when we die. We decompose. Accounts of Jesus's resurrection and ascension are about as well-documented as Jack and the Beanstalk.” (The Independent)
Surprisingly, Juan Garces, British Museum Library curator of the Codex Sinaiticus Project, who should know better adds support to this popular endeavour to rewrite the story behind Easter. When he was interviewed about “the world's oldest Bible,” this is what the Associated Press article claimed:
Handwritten in Greek more than 1,600 years ago -- it isn't exactly clear where -- the surviving 400 or so pages carry a version of the New Testament that has a few interesting differences from the Bible used by Christians today.
The Gospel of Mark ends abruptly after Jesus' disciples discover his empty tomb, for example. Mark's last line has them leaving in fear.
“It cuts out the post-resurrection stories,” said Juan Garces, “That's a very odd way of ending a Gospel.”
The problem here is that Garces was commenting on one gospel; the Bible has four and the other three definitely have all the post-resurrection accounts. Unfortunately, many people have run with Garces' words and understood him to be saying the world's oldest Bible does not document the resurrection. So The Times in London reports, “Mark’s last line has them leaving in fear and makes no mention of the Resurrection.” Or a couple days after the AP news release, Irma Arkus in the Hi-Sci-Fi blog writes,
One interesting fact about Codex Sinaiticus is that one of Christian cornerstone beliefs, the story of resurrection of Jesus is not mentioned. Instead, the story simply describes disciples finding an empty burial tomb, and leaving in fear. This implies that the “resurrection” was addended by later generations of followers.
Let's be clear with the facts. The Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John in the Codex all contain resurrection and post-resurrection accounts. And the claim that the Sinaiticus Gospel of Mark does not mention the resurrection is actually false. I affirm that the Gospel ends very abruptly in the Codex Sinaiticus and in many of the oldest manuscripts, and it does not have post-resurrection accounts, but to say that it “omits” the resurrection is ridiculous. The Codex Sinaiticus records Mark 16:6 as you'll see translated below, including the words, “ηγερθη ουκ εϲτιν ωδε” translated, “He has risen! He is not here,”; you can see for yourself at the Codex Sinaiticus website. It's shoddy scholarship and sloppy journalism to report that Mark (in Codex Sinaiticus) “makes no mention of the Resurrection.”
Review Mark 16:1-8; this is TNIV Bible text, it is a translation following the Codex Sinaiticus and adds nothing not found in the Codex.
Mark 16:1 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. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3 and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”
4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. 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 “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. 7 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.' ”
8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
Most English translated Bibles in print today do not end here, even though the vast majority of New Testament Greek scholars agree that the oldest and best manuscripts end here. The most popular English translation, the NIV, for example, has another 12 verses which gives Mark's Gospel a smoother ending, more like we find in Matthew and Luke. However, in a footnote the NIV points out, “The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20,” which means we know conclusively that Mark did not pen this ending. His writing ends at verse 8, as quoted above. Verses 9-20 represent an early attempt to finish the story, to give Mark an ending just like Matthew and Luke. We assume that Christians were uneasy with Mark's unique and abrupt ending. I am not uneasy with it. It is my favourite Easter Sunday reading. What can we make of the authentic ending of Mark's Gospel (16:1-8)?
Well, it's ironic, isn't it? “They said nothing to anyone.” All through Mark's gospel, people are told by Jesus not to tell anyone about what he has just done, but they immediately disobey and go tell everyone! For example, Jesus heals a man: Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed. Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: “See that you don't tell this to anyone." Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. (Mark 1:43b, 44a, 45a)
We may question why Jesus frequently gave this command, why he didn't want too many people discovering who he was, why he didn't want a frenzied mob constantly pursuing him. We do know that in chapter 9, Jesus tells his disciples not to tell anyone until he had been raised from the dead. It is the death and resurrection of Jesus which makes sense of everything else Jesus did. And now, in Mark chapter 16, that time has come! Jesus has been resurrected, but the women are silent! Jesus' repeated command “Say nothing to anyone” is almost exactly what Mark says of the women, “they said nothing to anyone.” It's Mark's final irony.
Looking back at this, we know now that they did get over their fear, and they did tell the other disciples, and they were so effective at telling the disciples and followers of Jesus that over 500 of them gathered together 40 days later and saw Jesus ascend into heaven just after giving his final words to go and tell everyone. Why didn’t Mark tell the rest of the story like Matthew, Luke and John?
Why end the story unresolved as Mark does?
In what I think is an incredibly great book on reading this gospel, Mark As Story, the authors say this about the ending:
It cries out for a resolution, cries out for the hope that someone will proclaim the good news. And who is left at the end of the story to do this?
Not the disciples.
Not the women who fled the grave.
Only the readers are left to complete the story! (pg. 143)
The rest of the story depends on us, not them. Mark 1:1 claimed that this gospel was the beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah. The rest of the story is up to you and me. Just as it did not end with the fear and failure of the women, so it does not end even with our fear and failure. Jesus does not give up on us when we fail him. That’s just the beginning of the gospel, there’s more to be told! He's not finished with any of us. This great news of life in Christ will continue to change people’s lives as we share it with them, in spite of our fears and failures.
It's our turn. The Easter Redux is underway and Richard Dawkins gets better press! It's up to you and me to talk about the Resurrected Jesus and the difference he's made in our lives. In thinking about Mark's abrupt ending and the passing of the gospel torch so to speak, I was inspired to think again by a Starbucks coffee cup when I read “The Way I See It”:
There is no end to a story—it goes on indefinitely into eternity. Every time a story is read, it’s alive and it’s different because the reader is different.
The Rest of the Story
The ironic ending of Mark's Gospel (16:1-9) invites us to continue the story where Jesus’ first disciples left off. The gospel of Jesus Christ continues to transform lives as it is told.