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The Empty Tomb and valuing the right questions

The scientific mind does not so much provide the right answers as ask the right questions. – Claude Lévi-Strauss, ‘The Raw and the Cooked’

Easter is my favorite holiday. It’s pretty much the only holiday I care about, really. A big part of that comes from my discovery during my late 20s that the oldest of the Easter accounts, that found in Mark, ends not with the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus but rather at his empty tomb.

Easter morning
Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise.

Mark originally ended not at chapter 16, verse 20, but rather at verse 8:

But when they looked up, [the two women] saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “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. 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.’ Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

I know that millions and millions of people understand the story of the first Easter as one of bodily resurrection and as the answer. This was more or less what I understood it to be about for most of my life, and as I never found the resurrection to be a particularly compelling part of Christianity, I also failed to find Easter particularly meaningful. But since learning that at least some of the (proto-)Christians understood the story of the first Easter as the source of a bewildering question rather than of a reassuring answer I have been very much taken with the day.

Matthew Timothy Bradley

4 thoughts on “The Empty Tomb and valuing the right questions

  1. I really don’t get the confidence in the idea that any early Christians found the story of Easter one of bewilderment rather than reassurance. The earliest book of the New Testament may very well have been the Apostle Paul’s first epistle to the Thessalonians, and churches and the dogma emanating from the Resurrection were well underway by then. I Thessalonians itself even speaks of the reassurance of Christ’s resurrection. Even if the original edition of Mark’s Gospel book ended with verse 8 (which is by no means certain), it’s a bit of a leap to take that, from a book very likely written some number of years after the Apostle Paul began writing and more years than that after the Church began taking shape, to mean that early Christians found the story of Easter bewildering.

    I’ll grant you, ending at verse 8 makes for a compelling story of its own right. That particular coda has some dramatic merit. Kind of a cliffhanger. And if the sense of bewilderment over the story appeals to you, I surely don’t mean to argue against what you have taken from it. I think though you read a good deal into what early (or “proto,” as you say) Christians understood the Christ’s earthly end to have meant.

  2. The earliest book of the New Testament may very well have been the Apostle Paul’s first epistle to the Thessalonians, and churches and the dogma emanating from the Resurrection were well underway by then.

    True enough, but by Paul’s his own admission he did not know Jesus prior to the crucifixion.

    I think though you read a good deal into what early (or “proto,” as you say) Christians understood the Christ’s earthly end to have meant.

    Safe to assume that there were multiple understandings. The Pauline epistles and Mark may be in dialogue with one another, but they do not speak with the same voice.

  3. There were certainly early Christians who focused on Jesus’ teachings, including the salvation he offered, without focusing on his death and resurrection. This is evident from both texts and archaeology. In addition to Mark, where the added resurrection is not found in the oldest or best Mss., and is written in a different style than the rest of the Gospel, the earliest Christian art focuses on shared meals rather than imagery of crucifixion or resurrection. While Paul is an important source, and became more important to later Christianity, his letters often assume a defensive stance and are full of polemics against other view of Christ–proof that his view was hardly the only, or the dominant, one.

  4. Fair enough that Paul did not know Jesus prior to his conversion (and after the Crucifixion), but I’m not sure how compelling that is here. Paul did know Mark, and Mark traveled with both Peter and Paul besides having known Jesus face to face. More to the point here, Mark and Paul don’t contradict each other. In fact, there are miracles recorded in Mark , and even the verses leading up to 16:8 state plainly that Christ was resurrected. Mark has no issue with the supernatural or with the hope of the Resurrection.

    If it’s a question of people having “multiple understandings” and, what I take to be more the matter of your post, some folk looking at the story with doubt, since a man returning from death is such a remarkable thing, indeed incredible in purely mundane affairs, I have no qualm with the perspective. I just don’t think that that v. 8 ending of Mark demonstrates it, and even more so I don’t think the ending indicates it as an issue for early believers. Indeed, having doubts, thinking that the Resurrection is an unlikely story, just plum not believing: these are not issues unique to or uniquely demonstrated in early Church writings: they are issues that many people have, from that time right up until now.

    I think your essay makes a fascinating observation from your own perspective. And not just yours, of course, as many others ask the question in more or less the way you do here. I think there is a dramatic, kind of haunting quality to the way that particular verse ends. I just don’t see that specific ending as indicating that early believers were bewildered rather than hopeful over the Resurrection. Even just the believers at the tomb. They just saw an angel, and angelic visitations in Scripture are universally frightening to those who receive them. That they were amazed as they were doesn’t mean that they found the Resurrection bewildering rather than reassuring.

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