There are no resurrection appearances in Mark’s Gospel. Instead, the Gospel concludes with a scene where Jesus is not present. Why might Mark have ended his Gospel without Jesus appearing in the final scene?
The most probable setting of the Markan community is the city of Rome, perhaps a year after the destruction of the Temple in 70. If so, the intended readers of this Gospel had suffered seven years of severe persecution during which, according to Tacitus, “a great multitude” of Christians have been put to death just for being followers of Jesus. Mark was dealing with a community that had experienced the seeming absence of Jesus during that time. His people were asking why Jesus had not come and saved them from their suffering. “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me” (Mark 15:34) is really the prayer of those Roman Christians.
Therefore, Mark describes a post-resurrection scene where Jesus is absent, but who promises, through a messenger, that they will “see him” in the place of ministry (Galilee). The messenger speaks to the women who only came to anoint a dead body. “He is risen,” they are told, and for emphasis “He is not here.” It is no use looking for a dead body; the place of the dead is not where you will find Jesus of Nazareth. Neither should the Romans think of a dead Jesus. He is risen.
It is a pity that verse 8 is omitted from our liturgical reading at the Easter vigil. In that verse, the only disciples still around (the women), after being commissioned to tell the great news (“he is risen”), do not tell anyone. They just run away out of fear as the rest of the disciples had. The spread of the gospel had been put entirely into their hands. The reader of this text is meant to be alarmed at such an ending, and hopefully resolves not to do the same. The original readers still faced the possibility of execution for becoming known as Christians. Would they also run away out of fear? Perhaps Mark’s strange ending did have the rquired effect, as the Gospel did spread in Rome, and the Church did survive.
What is outstanding in this message from Jesus to the disciples is what is not said. Throughout the Gospel, the disciples have done nothing but misunderstand. They have expected they would rule with Jesus when he became a mighty king like David (10:37), but at the first sign of trouble they have all run away (14:50), although they had all promised to die with him (14:31).
In particular, Peter gets a special mention. Peter has been cast by Mark in more or less the same light as Judas. Whenever the betrayal of Judas is mentioned, the denial of Peter is put right alongside it. The foretelling of Peter’s denial (14:26–31) frames the Eucharist with the foretelling of the betrayal by Judas (14:17–21). Peter’s trial (14:66–72) lies between the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin and the trial before Pilate, occupying centre place.
Peter was last mentioned in the text in 14:72, breaking down and sobbing in the darkness after denying he was “with Jesus” (he was called in 3:14 to be “with Jesus”), denying he was a follower of his, and denying that he was “a Galileen” (according to Epictetus, Christians were called “Galileans” into the second century). He denies everything.
Peter does not appear in the tomb scene; nor do any of the twelve. What might we have expected the message to them to say after their total failure to understand and believe in Jesus, and after they had deserted and denied him? What would we have said to them? What is outstanding in this, the earliest of the post-resurrection Gospel texts, is that there is not the slightest admonition from Jesus. There is no condemnation.
Instead, Jesus in effect says: “Come on. Let’s get on with the job again. You will see me again when you preach the Gospel and heal the sick” (16:7). There is not the slightest criticism, and Peter is especially mentioned by name (“ … even Peter”).
Of course, the Roman Christians who read or heard this text knew the end of Peter’s story. It was not the end for Peter when he denied Jesus — they knew how he was martyred in their own city just a few years before this text was written. The difference between Judas and Peter was not the severity of their sin (there is no real difference between betrayal and denial), but that Peter came back. That is the true quality of a disciple of Jesus. He came back and became the foundation of the Church, giving his life for the one he had once denied knowing.
Tacitus tells us that many had died during the persecutions by Nero through information given by some. Mark 13:12 told us that brother would betray brother, and children their parents. There must have been many who failed their moment of testing during the persecutions. For them, this resurrection news was the best news possible. Jesus, through this text, says to them: “I do not condemn you, no matter what your sin has been. Come and join me again in spreading the good news from God.”
However, it is more likely that Mark was writing, not for those who had apostatised and left the Christian community, but for those Christians who had been faithful and remained in the community. The plea of this Gospel seems to be for them to realise that, if Jesus would welcome back the worst of sinners, then they, too, should be ready, without condemnation, to readmit to the community those who had failed and sought forgiveness. Were such repentant sinners waiting at the door and being rejected by Christians who regarded their sin as ‘blasphemy’ and ‘unforgivable?’ See how Mark has constructed the scene in 2:1–12.
The good news of Mark’s Gospel is that Jesus welcomes everyone back, ”even Peter.” So, too, should those who model themselves on Jesus.