Jesus' Resurrection and the Empty Tomb

An Analysis and Commentary of Mark 16:1-8

Women at the Tomb of Christ, by Albert Baur, 1882
ZU_09 / Getty Images

After the Jewish Sabbath, which occurs on Saturdays, women who were present at Jesus’ crucifixion came to his tomb to anoint his corpse with spices. These are things his close disciples should have done, but Mark portrays Jesus’ female followers as consistently showing more faith and courage than the men.

Women Anoint Jesus

Why did the women need to anoint Jesus with spices? This should have been done when he was buried, suggesting that there wasn’t time to properly prepare him for burial — perhaps because of how close the Sabbath was. John says that Jesus was properly prepared while Matthew relates that the women made the trip merely to see the tomb.

Faithful as they may be, none seems to be strong when it comes to thinking ahead. It’s not until they are almost upon Jesus’ tomb that it occurs to one to wonder what they’ll do about that great big stone that Joseph of Arimathaea placed there the earlier evening. They can’t move it themselves and the time to think of it was before they set out that morning — unless, of course, Mark needs this in order to answer charges that Jesus’ disciples stole the body.

Jesus Has Risen

By an amazing coincidence, the stone is already moved. How did that happen? By another amazing coincidence, there is someone there who tells them: Jesus has risen and is already gone. The fact that he first needed the stone removed from the tomb’s entrance suggests that Jesus is a reanimated corpse, a zombie Jesus wandering the countryside seeking out his disciples (no wonder they are hiding).

It’s understandable that the other gospels changed all this. Matthew has an angel move the stone as the women are standing there, revealing that Jesus is already gone. He’s not a reanimated corpse because the resurrected Jesus has no physical body — he has a spiritual body which passed through the stone. None of this theology, however, was part of Mark’s thinking and we are left with a slightly odd and embarrassing situation.

The Man at the Tomb

Who is this young man at Jesus’ empty tomb? Apparently, he is there solely to give information to these visitors because he doesn’t do anything and he doesn’t seem to plan on waiting — he tells them to pass the message along to the others.

Mark doesn’t identify him, but the Greek term used to describe him, neaniskos, is the same used to describe the young man who ran naked away from the garden of Gethsemane when Jesus was arrested. Was this the same man? Perhaps, though there is no evidence of it. Some have believed this to be an angel, and if so, it would match the other gospels.

This passage in Mark may be the earliest reference to an empty tomb, something treated by Christians as a historical fact that proves the truth of their faith. Of course, there is no evidence of an empty tomb outside the gospels (even Paul doesn’t reference one, and his writings are older). If this “proved” their faith, then it wouldn’t be faith anymore.

Traditional and Modern Takes

Such modern attitudes towards the empty tomb contradict the theology of Mark. According to Mark, there’s no point in working signs that would facilitate belief — signs appear when you already have faith and have no power when you don’t have faith. The empty tomb isn’t proof of Jesus’ resurrection, it’s a symbol that Jesus has emptied death of its power over humanity.

The white-clad figure doesn’t invite the women to look in the tomb and see that it’s empty (they appear to simply take his word for it). Instead, he directs their attention away from the tomb and towards the future. Christian faith rests on a proclamation that Jesus is risen and which is simply believed, not on any empirical or historical evidence of an empty tomb.

The women told no one, however, because they were too afraid — so how did anyone else find out? There is an ironic reversal here of circumstances because in the past for Mark women showed the greatest faith; now they are arguably showing the greatest faithlessness. Mark has previously used the term “fear” to refer to a lack of faith.

Implicit in Mark here is the idea that Jesus appeared to others, for example in Galilee. Other gospels explain what Jesus did after the resurrection, but Mark only hints at it — and in the oldest manuscripts this is where Mark ends. This is a very abrupt ending; in fact, in Greek, it ends almost ungrammatically on a conjunction. The validity of the rest of Mark is the subject of much speculation and debate.

Mark 16:1-8

  • 1 And when the sabbath was past, Mary Magdalena, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, had bought sweet spices, that they might come and anoint him.
  • 2 And very early in the morning the first day of the week, they came unto the sepulchre at the rising of the sun. 3 And they said among themselves, Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the sepulchre? 4 And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away: for it was very great.
  • 5 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. 6 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.
  • 7 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. 8 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.
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Your Citation
Cline, Austin. "Jesus' Resurrection and the Empty Tomb." Learn Religions, Apr. 5, 2023, Cline, Austin. (2023, April 5). Jesus' Resurrection and the Empty Tomb. Retrieved from Cline, Austin. "Jesus' Resurrection and the Empty Tomb." Learn Religions. (accessed May 29, 2023).