The Gospel According to Mark is generally thought to be the oldest gospel. It’s the shortest gospel. Also Mark is the source for a lot of what is in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.
What’s interesting about Mark’s Easter story is, well, read it for yourself.
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. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’ When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. 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. 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.’ 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. (Mark 16:1-8)
If you look in your Bible you will find there is a longer and shorter ending present after verse 9. As you can imagine, there has been quite of bit of scholarly (and not so scholarly) discussion about all this. Some think the original ending of Mark has been lost. Most would agree that both the shorter and longer endings are later additions to the text. Others think that the author intended to end this gospel at verse 8.
Depending on your understanding of what it means for the Bible to be sacred text, this confusion around the end of the Gospel According to Mark might be, at the very least, a problem, and likely upsetting. If you read the gospels primarily as history, all this is still a problem. For both ways of reading, you’re left wondering, which ending is “correct” and which ending is “true”.
I find the idea that the author intentionally ended the gospel at verse 8 fascinating and believable. But it only makes sense if you read the text first as theology and only secondarily as history. ( I’m not saying the gospels aren’t grounded in history, I am saying that the authors were not as interested in preserving a record of history as they are a making a theological claim about who Jesus is. )
Remember that originally the gospels were heard in community, heard as part of a group, an audience even. If the author has a theological and even missional and pastoral points to make the abrupt ending starts to make sense.
If, as we think, Mark’s gospel was written before 70 CE, the original audience weren’t very far removed from the time of Jesus. It wouldn’t have been impossible for there to be people in churches who knew some of the original followers of Jesus. Jerusalem and Israel were still occupied by Rome. The First Jewish War began in 66 CE. In 70 CE the Temple was destroyed by the Romans during the siege of Jerusalem. Those were politically turbulent times. Life was dangerous for Jews and Christians. It’s not hard to imagine that the first audience understood the woman’s terror and fear.
So why end the gospel this way?
Imagine yourself in one of those first churches, hearing this story. What is your response? It’s an unexpected ending that asks hard questions. What would you have done? Imagine being in a group of friends and hearing this gospel told aloud. Imaging looking at the people around you and wondering, what would we have done? What would I have done?
You understand the women’s fear. You recognize their courage. You realize that telling the story – telling people about Jesus is important. You wonder if you would have been as brave. And you realize that you too, have to tell about what you know. How else will people hear the good news unless someone – you and I- tell them?
Every time I read Mark’s gospel I wonder, what would I have done?