In this section I would like to apply one of the lessons of Mark as Story to a scene of Mark’s Gospel. The lesson I have chosen is on narration, though I will also interact sparingly with some of the other lessons, such as characterization. The scene I have in mind is what is considered to be the true finale: (after) the resurrection. In Mark 16.1-8, Mary Magdalene, Mary mother of James, and Salome journey to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. (For ease of writing, I shall refer to them simply as “the women.”) They are surprised to find the stone rolled away
and a young man dressed in white sitting in the tomb. He tells them of Jesus’ resurrection and gives them further instructions. The women then flee in fear, telling no one anything.
We can be informed by the narrative approach in a general way when we consider the nature of narrative and some characteristics of the narrator. In narrative there is no incidental information—that is not to say that we should painstakingly exegete every word, deriving hyper-nuanced interpretations from every little choice in case or word order, but that details (including word choice) are purposeful (3). Think about it: when you tell a story, do you give every detail or do you select some over others because they help achieve your purpose in telling the story? Anytime we construct a narrative, we are automatically making evaluations (3). When the narrator is omniscient, etc., creating a persona whom the audience can trust, and biased, trying to make certain points, to direct the audience to certain conclusions and to elicit certain responses, we should be especially attentive to what we are reading, or hearing (41-44). In Mark’s Gospel, details about characters, such as what they are wearing or if they are given proper names, are especially important, as it is not common place and as we mostly learn about characters through their actions (100).
With these things in mind, I would like to work through the passage, making note of narrative elements, giving some attention to characterization as well. In the first two verses, we are told it is very early in the morning on the day after the Sabbath, the sun is rising, and the women are making their way to the tomb so that they might anoint Jesus’ body. At this point in the story, if we are aligned with the ideal audience, we are at the edge of our seats. We know that Jesus has already thrice predicted his death and his resurrection on the third day. Here we get hints of the narrative elements of foreshadowing and prophecy, or at least the fulfillment of these elements (48-49, 58). This is the day that we expect his words to come true, especially since he has been proven from the beginning of the Gospel to be trustworthy by narration and characterization, mostly his words and actions (105). The setting is even symbolically indicative of what we expect to follow! (Remember: the sun is rising; it is the dawn of a new day.) And who is going to the grave when all others have fled: the women—these women having previously exemplified good discipleship, as well as belonging to the less broad character type “women” and to the more broad type of “minor characters”, which have also in general been exemplars of discipleship (133). Will we see the risen Christ? Will the women receive rewards for the faithfulness? Discipleship is on our minds. Additionally, these two verses bear similarity to the “coming” stage of the healing type-scene. In this case, however, the characters are unaware of Jesus’ being resurrected.
On the way to the tomb, the women face a dilemma: how are they going to get in? How will they ever get past the extremely large stone blocking the entrance? Upon discussing this, they find the stone has been rolled away. This is the content of verses three and four. While not quite so loaded as the preceding ones, these verses help maintain the tempo of the passage, moving the story along. Here we have the “request” and “obstacle” stages of the type-scene. Their question acts, apart from their own knowledge, as a request, which is answered. Their obstacle is overcome for them. Seeing the open tomb, confusion and alarm begins to sink into the women. Knowing what we do as the audience, our suspense grows, becoming palpable as we anticipate the Jesus’ resurrection.
Upon entering the tomb, the women are alarmed when they see a young man in a white robe sitting to the right (verse 5). The young man tells them not to be alarmed and informs them that Jesus has been raised, pointing out the very spot where he had lain (verse 6). Here is the climactic encounter of the type-scene, we find that Jesus has acted. The anointed one has risen! Our anticipations have come to fruition! Not to our surprise, the characters are frightened. They did not expect this. In their faithful devotion to Jesus, even after his death, the women have come to find that he has risen. However, there is more yet to hear from the young man. The women are to give the news to the disciples, even to Simon Peter (Rock), that Jesus will be in Galilee just as he said he would be (verse 7). This continues the encounter of the type-scene, but the true climax, the healing, is more subtle. Not only are the disciples given the opportunity for redemption, but even Peter, who denied Jesus three times! A spiritual body has been mended, the flock that was scattered is able to come together again. (The latter image is more fitting admittedly, as the former imports Pauline concepts.)
Before addressing the cliff-hanger ending that is the last verse, I would like to explore the mysterious character of this passage, the young man in the white robe. If we compare Mark with the other Gospels and read them into his story, the character is less of a mystery; for, one might say, “Surely, this is an angel!” I do not think, however, that this reading is faithful to Mark’s narrative. While he plays the role of messenger, which is the same Greek word from which we derive the word “angel”, he is not identified as one. He is a “young man.” He also happens to be introduced in a climactic passage involving critical decisions of discipleship. Sound familiar? He makes me think back on the young man in the linen cloth who fled naked from Jesus’ captors (Mark 14.51-52). I never quite understood why this young man is mentioned; it just seems so random. However, as I have already established, happenstance does not occur in narratives—at least I do not think it is simply a coincidence that in two similar situations a young man with clothing that is of interest to the narrator is mentioned and that the word neaniskos (the Greek) is only used in these two places in Mark. What could the connection be then? Perhaps, the young men are the same or are at least acting as parallel symbols. Perhaps, they are symbolic of the disciples. The young man in the linen cloth leaves behind his cloth that he might flee. He is shamed and separated. The young man is then clothed in a white robe, having been redeemed. The young man in the white robe’s good news for the disciples is made possible by Jesus’ “redeeming” act, and, perhaps, is reflective of the fate that resides in the decisions of the disciples, their remembering Jesus’ words, their forgiving themselves, possibly. They are given the choice to capitalize on the offer given them. There may be many problems with this approach, but it is something to consider.
At this point we may think, we can just stop. The story is over; it ends happily. The women who have been exemplars of faith have listened to the young man and told the disciples about the risen Jesus. Except for the fact that this is not what happens. The women do not go forth courageously spreading the good news but flee from the tomb, trembling and astonished, telling no one anything on account of their fear. This is the close of Mark’s Gospel, the completion of the healing type-scene: the reaction of those involved. In this final verse, situational irony abounds. Previously, when people were told to be quiet, they would not be. Now, when told to spread the word, the women are silent (60). The audience is left gawking, trying to figure out what just happen. At this point, all have failed, moving the mantle of discipleship onto our shoulders and all who hear or read Mark’s story.
Some of the most apparent literary elements of the passage are those of two-step progression, type-scene, and irony. The narrative strategy of two-step progression permeates the passage just analyzed: structuring the narrative, moving the story along, leading us to take note of certain details, and creating suspense (49-50). These eight verses of Mark can be grouped in two’s, and they all more-or-less conform to all of the suggested effects. Though I chose to split verses seven and eight, joining the former with verses five and six, so that I might better explore the significance of the young man in the white robe. This passage also seems to be a type-scene of what I would call faith as demonstrated by minor characters. It is very similar to the “healing” type-scenes; they seem to have a structure like this: “coming to Jesus, making a request, overcoming an obstacle to demonstrate faith, the touching or speaking Jesus does, the healing, and the reaction of the crowd” (51). This passage does not line up perfectly with this form; however, it does contain a healing, not one of a physical body but of a “spiritual body,” or it at least potentially facilitates such healing. Situational irony is especially pungent in this passage (60). In this passage, we have a reversal of what is sometimes called the Messianic Secret of Mark’s Gospel: when the characters are finally told to spread the news, they are silent (60). The audience is consequently faced with the choice of discipleship, will they spread the “good news about Jesus the anointed one, the son of God” (60)? This seems to be the focal point of Mark’s Gospel in its entirety, the catalyst for transformation. The question lingers over us: will we be faithful disciples?
Dewey, Joanna, Donald Michie, and David Rhoads. Mark as Story: An Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel. 3rd ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012.