Sunday, September 27, 2020


there were also women looking on afar off:
among whom was Mary Magdalene,
and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome;
who also, when he was in Galilee,
followed him and ministered unto him
and many other women
which came up with him unto Jerusalem.

There is an epilogue.

It introduces four — arguably five — new characters. This is not a natural way of telling a story. But it’s the only way Mark can tell it. The hero is dead. The supporting cast have all run away.

Jesus screams. We cut to the temple. The holy curtain is hanging in shreds. We cut back to Golgotha. Jesus is dead. The Centurion sneers. And as the lights come back on, the camera slowly pans to three characters, in the background, who haven’t been mentioned before.

Of course, they are women.

There are always women in the background. Ministering; it says, like Peter’s mother-in-law. Serving. Doing the practical stuff. They had to eat didn’t they? And I suppose someone had to launder the clothes. And when the big guys with the famous names have run away, the women are still there. To clean up the mess.

Mary Magdalene we know nothing about. Her first name was Mary and her last name was Magdalene. Anyone who refers to her as “Mary the Magdalene" or "Mary of Magdala" is seeing stuff in the text which isn't actually there.

We know even less about the other Mary. She had two sons: James “the less” and Joses. Jesus definitely had two disciples called James: James the Son of Zebedee and James the Son of Alphaeus. Zebedee's son is one of the inner circle; so maybe Alphaeus's son was known as the Less Important James? But in that case why not call his mother “Mary the Wife of Alphaeus”? James the Less could just as well mean Little James or Young James. We don’t know.

It would be nice if one of the women in the epilogue turned out to be the most famous Mary of all. It would be nice to think that she had made up with her son since since she called him a crazy man back in Capernaum. Maybe a scribe wrote “Mary the Mother of Joses” when he meant to write “Mary the Mother of Jesus”? But Mark was written in Greek and Iostos / Iesous is a much less plausible typo.

Iostos is Joseph and Joseph was the name of Jesus’s earth-dad and Jesus definitely had a brother called James so maybe when Mark writes "Mary the Mother of Joseph and James…" he expects us to say "…And Jesus as well!"

Maybe he does. And maybe he doesn’t. We just don’t know.

Salome we don’t know one single thing about. Christians have decided she was the wife of Zebedee and therefore the mother of Big James. James and John’s Mum gets a walk-on in Matthew, but we don't know what she was called. Salome was an incredibly common name.

Three women. Two called Mary, one not. One identified by her children; one by her surname; one not identified at all. That’s all we have to go on.

The camera turns to them. And then it turns away again. We haven’t quite got to their part of the story yet.

and now when the even was come
because it was the preparation
that is the day before the sabbath,
Joseph of Arimathaea, an honourable counseller
which also waited for the kingdom of God
came, and went in boldly unto Pilate, and craved the body of Jesus.
and Pilate marvelled if he were already dead
and calling unto him the centurion
he asked him whether he had been any while dead.
and when he knew it of the centurion, he gave the body to Joseph.

Jesus has died quickly. Pilate is surprised. Enter Joseph of Arimathea.

And exit Joseph of Arimathea, almost immediately.

If you read a certain kind of literature you know all about Joseph. He collected the blood of Jesus at the crucifixion. He hosted the Last Supper. He brought the Holy Grail to Glastonbury. He was Jesus’s Uncle and a tin-merchant and used to visit Priddy (where they hold the folk festival). His descendents were the Fisher Kings.

Mark tells us nothing about him. We don’t know where Arimathea was, or indeed if there ever was such a place.

Rich guy. Probably on the Sanhedrin. Secret follower of Jesus. Asks Pilate for the body. Pilate hands it over. Performs a hasty funeral and disappears from history.

Why does Pilate surrender the body of Jesus to Joseph? Because he doesn’t want to antagonize the people by leaving a dead body rotting on a pole during the festival? Or precisely in order to antagonize them. “I couldn’t stop you lot lynching him; but you can’t stop me giving him an honourable burial.” Or maybe Pilate was just a decent chap who thought that even criminals deserved a decent funeral. We are told that Albert Pierrepoint was rather fussy about how the authorities disposed of his clients after he had finished with them.

and he bought fine linen
and took him down
and wrapped him in the linen
and laid him in a sepulchre which was hewn out of a rock
and rolled a stone unto the door of the sepulchre
and Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses
beheld where he was laid.

Joseph bought the linen-cloth specially. Mark thinks that is important: something we need to know. The fine linen is sidoni: the same word Mark used for the clothes that Naked Guy lost in the garden of Gethsemane.

Mark has abandoned any pretence that Jesus literally died on Passover: Joseph is concerned about the Sabbath, but goes out and buys a linen shroud on the holy day. The women have been to the spice-market, too.

Joseph wraps Jesus in the cloth.

He put him in a sepulchre. Most modern translations say “tomb”: if we wanted to be literal we should probably say “memorial”. He rolls a stone in front of the door. He must have been a big guy. He can move a stone by himself which three grown-up ladies couldn’t move together.

And that’s it: Joseph’s part of the story is over.

And we pull back again. The three mysterious ladies are still in the background. Watching.

and when the sabbath was past,
Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome,
had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.
and very early in the morning the first day of the week,
they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun.
and they said among themselves,
“Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre?”
and when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away
for it was very great
and entering into the sepulchre,
they saw a young man sitting on the right side,
clothed in a long white garment;
and they were affrighted.
and he saith unto them,
be not affrighted:
“ye seek Jesus of Nazareth,
which was crucified:
he is risen;
he is not here:
behold the place where they laid him.
but go your way,
tell his disciples 
and Peter
that he goeth before you into Galilee
there shall ye see him
as he said unto you”
And they went out quickly
and fled from the sepulchre
for they trembled and were amazed
neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid…

And this is where Mark's story ends.

Dot. Dot. Dot.

The disciples ran away. Some women stayed. So the women first heard the news.

Jesus had no truck with the prejudices of his day. Women were crucial to his ministry and it’s silly that some churches still have a problem with women taking on pastoral roles. Mary, Mary and Salome were in a very real sense Apostles to the Apostles. Mary Magdalene became the Holy Grail…

Yes. All that. Maybe.

But also, this:

The people who were, or should have, expected the Resurrection ran away. Jesus told the disciples that he was coming back. He told them five times, at least. But Judas defected. Peter recanted. Everyone else scattered.

What happened next — according to Mark?

Not according to Matthew or John or Luke. Not according to Robert Powell or the Ladybird Book of Jesus. Not according to the Easter Morning liturgy. According to Mark.

Imagine yourself reading this book, for the first time, on what would have been Jesus’ seventieth birthday.

Dot. Dot. Dot.

What happened next?

No-one knows.

Or at any rate, Mark doesn’t know. Or if he did know, he didn’t want us to know. People who understand Greek tell us he broke off mid-sentence. Your Bible might have some verses after this: it may very well print them in [square brackets]. That’s because different manuscripts have different endings and the different endings are written in different styles and they are pretty much just summaries of John, Matthew and Luke. But the two oldest Bibles in existence break off at this point.

Dot. Dot. Dot.

It has to be girls who go to the tomb. The boy disciples, the eleven, were expecting to Jesus to come back to life. Because he told them that he would: over and over again. The three women are not expecting Jesus to wake up or stand up. They are expecting to embalm a dead body.

They are expecting to anoint him: which is probably a good thing to do with a horribly mutilated corpse, but also, ironically, the appropriate thing to do with a dead Messiah.

The people of this time practiced burial and reburial: after a year or so the bones of a dead person were exhumed and reinterred in ossuaries. We shouldn’t think of the tomb as a single cave with a single bier for a single body: it was more likely to a mausoleum or a morgue, with spaces for a number of burials and an entrance that could be sealed and unsealed. That is why the young man has to point out the place where Jesus was laid.

Yes; it is a young man.

Pretend you are reading this story for the first time.

Would you read this and say “Oh, when Marks says ‘they saw a young man in a white shirt’ he obviously means ‘two angels came down from heaven and caused an earthquake’”?

Or would you say “Oh. Some other disciple got here first.”?

Would you, perhaps, say “Oh, it’s naked guy from Gethsemane: I knew he was going to turn out to be of some importance later on?”

I think that if you were reading the story for the first time, you might say: someone got to the tomb first. And it must have been a guy, because he was strong enough to move Joseph’s stone. And that person found that Jesus’ body wasn’t there. So he waited for the other disciples to come. But they never did. Only some women.

So: Mysterious Young Guy says to Mysterious Women. “Of course his body isn’t here. Haven’t you been paying attention? He's going to meet you all back home Galilee. Go and remind the disciples. Go and remind Peter in particular. And do call him Peter. He can have his name back. That’s important.”

Dot. Dot. Dot.

The women panic. They run away. The don’t pass the message on. They vanish from the story.

They never tell no-one, so no-one never knowed.

Dot. Dot. Dot.

That is the story. That is not Matthew’s story or Luke’s story or John’s story, and it isn’t the church’s story. But it is Mark’s story.

The boys ran away. The girls heard that Jesus had come back to life. But they never passed on the message. The disciples were meant to meet Jesus back in the Galilee. But they never went. They missed the appointment.

Dot. Dot. Dot.

Matthew changes the story. The young man is now an angel who has come down from heaven and created an earthquake. He is waiting for the women outside the tomb. But there is still an odd emphasis on his clothing: white as snow. The women run out of the tomb to tell the disciples, but they bump into Jesus himself, who repeats the angels instructions: tell the disciples to meet me in Galilee. The disciples do indeed go back to Galilee; where they do indeed see Jesus: he tells them to pass his teachings on and then goes back to heaven.

Luke changes the story. The young man in a white robe is now two men in dazzlingly shiny garments. The women go and tell the disciples straight away. Peter checks out the tomb, and what do you think convinces him that the story is true? Linen cloth. Eventually, they all see Jesus: the meet him one last time in Bethany and he goes back to heaven. But they don’t return to Galilee. They stay in Jerusalem. Jesus specifically tells them to.

John changes the story. A group of women go to the tomb and encounter no young men and no angels: only — what do you think? — linen garments, folded up. They go and get John and Peter. John goes into the tomb but Peter doesn’t. John is convinced that Jesus has come back to life but Peter less so. Mary stays behind and sees the resurrected Jesus. Then all the disciples apart from Thomas see him. Then Thomas does. Everyone drifts back to Galilee and take up fishing again, where they see Jesus one last time.

But we are reading Mark’s version.

Dot. Dot. Dot.

“And that is what happened; forty years ago. And only now is the truth coming out. Jesus told Peter and Peter told me and I am telling you. He knew all this would happen. The thousands of bodies hung up on crosses. Pigs in the Holy of Holies. The temple reduced to a pile of rubble. Jesus warned us in advance. And he said that when that happened — that would be the proof that he had gone back to his Papa, and his Papa had put him in charge of the universe. And he’ll be back. Any day now. So hang in there. Don’t fumble the ball this time. Don’t fall asleep like you did in Gethsemane. Don’t say you never met Jesus. Don’t lose your shirt and run away naked. Don’t fail to pass on the message. We have another another chance. Don’t blow it….”

That, it seems to me, is Mark’s understanding of the Gospel. A secret that got out; a message that didn’t get passed on. It is how we would read Mark’s Gospel if we were truly reading it for the…


Irina said...

Wow. Thank you.

Andrew Rilstone said...


AndrewSshi said...

What's weird about Mark's epilogue is that we definitely get accounts of Christ's resurrection and exaltation in the epistles written in the 50s -- and it's... sort of mostly an account of a bodily resurrection? But I sort of wonder how one might read Paul's accounts of Christ's resurrection and ascension if one weren't reading them with Matthew, Luke, and John in the back of our minds.

Seriously good stuff man.

Marcus Maxwell said...

Thanks for your essays. Andrew. I've really enjoyed reading them. Very thought provoking, and lots of stuff I'd never really noticed in many years of reading the NT.I don't think, though, that we can assume the original readers were encountering the story for the first time. And certainly they would know about (and believe in) the resurrection. So the dot dot dot would surely raise questions, but not exactly of the "What came next?" variety.

Great stuff though. Thanks again.