Thursday, March 15, 2012

Did the earliest gospel end with Jesus still in the tomb?

Every now and then you see the claim that the earliest Christian gospel ended with Jesus still in the tomb -- without a resurrection. The starting point for this claim is typically that the oldest texts of Mark seem to have either ended very abruptly -- without closing remarks that a reader might expect -- or that those original closing remarks were lost early in its history. (This was an indirect part of the conversation here about the history of Mark's closing remarks.) At any rate, the critics' claim is roughly that the very end of Mark is not original, and Mark is the oldest of the four recognized gospels, therefore the oldest Christian teachings did not involve Jesus' resurrection. (Therefore, somebody came along later and invented that story, and it's not true.)

That claim is factually wrong on a couple of different levels. First, the closing remarks in Mark 16:9-20 -- the verses that many scholars believe are not part of the original text -- are not the first mention of Jesus' resurrection in the gospel of Mark. Just a few verses before that, there is a discussion of Jesus' resurrection:
He said to them, "Do not be afraid. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen. He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you shall see him, as he told you." (Mark 16:6-7)
So if someone were to completely discard the questioned ending of Mark, it would not change the fact that Jesus was plainly stated to have risen in the earlier verses of the gospel of Mark. No matter what your view is about the questioned verses, either way the Gospel of Mark ends with Jesus having been raised from the dead.

Second, many scholars believe some of Paul's letters to be from an earlier date than the Gospel of Mark. It is a mistake to assume that the gospels were written earlier -- that they are the earliest information we have on Christian teaching -- simply because our New Testaments have the gospels collected in the front and the other writings behind. Jesus' resurrection is a key point in Paul's writings. Paul's letter to the Galatians may date to the late 40's or early 50's A.D.; Jesus' resurrection is mentioned in the very first verse of that letter. Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians also may have an early date, in the 50's A.D. Again, Paul does not get far into the letter before he proclaims Jesus' resurrection: "his [God's] Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead -- Jesus" (1 Thessalonians 1:10). Paul's first letter to Corinth, again often dated to the 50's A.D., contains a lengthy discussion of resurrection and an early list of witnesses who had seen Jesus alive again after he was raised from the dead. Here are texts that many scholars believe to be the earliest Christian writings. Here are texts that most would agree were written in the lifetime of people who knew Jesus in person. And in them, time and again, there are clear references to Jesus' resurrection. There are even references to people still alive in that day who had seen him with their own eyes.

In short, when people say that the Gospel of Mark ended without a resurrection, they are mistaken. They may have confused the closing remarks with the earlier verses where the readers are told of Jesus' resurrection. Or they may not be aware of the earlier verses where the readers are told of Jesus' resurrection. And if the dates that scholars assign to Paul's letters are correct, the announcement of Jesus' resurrection went well back into the lifetimes of those who knew him in person.

6 comments:

Martin LaBar said...

I'd never heard that argument, but you refuted it well.

Weekend Fisher said...

Thank you. It's an argument that mostly comes from very inexperienced (and so not very well-informed) critics, but I heard it again recently, & not for the first time ... thought it deserved an answer.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

James E. Snapp, Jr. said...

Weekend Fisher,

All sound clarifications, yes. But an objection may still be posed about the nature of Jesus' resurrection -- that is, Mk 16:6-7 does indeed state that Christ is risen, and that the disciples will see Him in Galilee, but it does not state that He is raised with a tangible body, or that His post-resurrection appearances were of a nature different from a vision.

Regarding Mark 16:9-20, please contact me and ask for my research on this subject. Many commentators have spread false and misleading claims about it. (I'm sure that sounds dubious, but it is, alas, indeed the case.)

Yours in Christ,

James Snapp, Jr.

Weekend Fisher said...

Oh, for goodness' sake. The question about the "tangible body" is answered by the fact that the "tangible body" is not in the tomb.

On the theory that "no tangible body was raised", the empty tomb would be unnecessary.

Take care & God bless
WF

James E. Snapp, Jr. said...

I should have been clearer: Mark 16:1-8 doesn't say that the body of Christ is not in the tomb. It says that the young man (=angel) said that Jesus was not in the tomb.

Now, as you said, the empty tomb would not be necessary on the theory that no tangible body was raised. But let's think about what has been proposed by some who deny that Christ was physically raised from the dead. Those folks do not deny one miracle -- the resurrection of Christ -- but then accept another miracle -- the appearance of an angel at the tomb. They regard the young man at the tomb in Mark 16 as a non-angel, and they reckon that the intent of his words was to convey that Jesus' body had been taken (by perfectly natural means) out of the tomb that belonged to Joseph of Arimathea, and was being transported to a family plot in Galilee.

Such an interpretation of Mk. 16:1-8 is disallowed by a plain reading of the text, but it would be much more forcefully disallowed by accounts of Jesus' post-resurrection appearances to the disciples -- which we don't have in Mark if 16:9-20 is not included in the text.

Again, please, write to me for some resources about this passage.

Yours in Christ,

James Snapp, Jr.
Minister, Curtisville Christian Church
Indiana
www.curtisvillechristianchurch.org

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi there

I think the argument, "It doesn't say Jesus isn't in the tomb -- it says the young man says he isn't in the tomb" -- as an argument, that's a non-starter. In the gospels it's common practice for the authors to record peoples' words because they're accurate reflections of what happened; see for yourself the number of times the authors make a point about what happened by recording what people said about what happened. Regardless of whether any given reader believes it happened as recorded, it's artificial to drive a wedge between what these authors record and what these authors want the readers to understand. That's a forced and contrived kind of argument.

If someone did actually buy that argument, the implication is that the body is still there; but that isn't actually what you mean anyhow, since the next argument presented is that the body really isn't there after all. The two arguments presented there are in conflict with each other.

The "reburial in the family tomb" theory has always seemed against everything we know about his family. Before the crucifixion, his brothers wanted no part of the Christian movement; afterwards they were on board. What happened? Jesus' family was part of the early Christian community proclaiming the resurrection. Why in the world would that be, if there was an inconvenient body in the family tomb? One of his brothers (James) was even a Christian martyr in the 60's A.D.; I can't see that having happened if Jesus' body had been stashed in the family tomb for 30+ years. Somebody would have noticed, or sprouted a conscience.

And the arguments that take something recorded, ("He is not here, he is risen") and count part as reliable ("he is not here") and another part as unreliable ("He is risen"), based solely on which part fits their own theory -- that doesn't actually support the theory; it shows how someone's commitment to a theory can cause them to cherry-pick around data that doesn't fit.

So if you're one who believes the records of Jesus' resurrection: rest assured, the early records we have are unanimous that Jesus rose. The arguments such as you've mentioned are far-fetched, conspiracy-theory stuff. Seriously, they require Jesus' family, who were leaders in the early Christian community, to be willfully engaged in deliberate fraud that cost their friends' lives, and eventually their own.

And if you're not one who believes the resurrection, I can't say I've seen any plausible arguments against it. The best and most honest I've seen was probably Michael Martin's, which boiled down to: People don't rise from the dead. At least he said what he meant as was up-front about what he believed.

Take care & God bless
WF