Image above: Mikhail Nesterov “The Empty Tomb,” 1889.
This brief midrash on Mark’s spare but evocative Easter narrative highlights a central aspect that is routinely overlooked. Let’s begin with the body. According to Mark, after Jesus’ execution, his body was granted by the Roman procurator Pilate to Joseph, a member of the Judean council that had condemned Jesus. As described in 15:43-46, this has all the hallmarks of a political move aimed at prohibiting those in Jesus’ community from executing their duties according to Purity and custom, thus further cutting off the new movement and preventing occasion for more protest during the volatile season of Passover (for further exegetical aspects of this passage, see Binding the Strong Man, pp 392ff. /more
The strange detail included by Mark, in which Pilate questions whether or not Jesus is really dead (15:44f), suggests that Joseph may have been hurrying the process of removing the body from the cross in order to short-circuit any attempts by Jesus’ followers to recapture it. It implies continued collaboration between the Roman imperial and Judean provincial authorities, and illustrates their keen and mutual interest in ensuring that this dissident messianic movement be crushed once and for all.
But Mark also narrates a “counter-conspiracy” to the official attempts to manage the volatile political situation represented by Jesus’ execution. Key women in the Jesus circle were tracking these moves, as reported by Mark in 15:47. Not only had they kept careful vigil during the execution (15:4); they were determined to figure out—likely by stealth—where Joseph would dispose of the corpse. This was not only an act of devotion (as it is usually characterized) on their part; it is an act of resistance.
Underlining the drama of this storyline, which continues into the next episode (16:1-2), is the fact that the main protagonists of Mark’s narrative are now women. Moreover, these are women without men, trying to “get around” the death-dealing machinations of powerful men. That unaccompanied women are subjects at all is, of course, extraordinary, given the patriarchal cultural context of the Bible in general. But in this context, it takes on revolutionary significance.
To be sure, these verses paint a very credible cultural scenario. Women indeed took on the role of tending to the dead in first century Palestinian culture; in fact, there were women in Jerusalem who sponsored a charitable guild that provided proper burial to victims of Roman crucifixion. (Craig Evans summarizes “Jewish traditions of death and burial, especially with respect to the burial of executed persons or persons who in some way died dishonorable deaths,” though not with the political spin I am suggesting here, in “Jewish Burial Traditions and the Resurrection of Jesus,” available at http://craigaevans.com/Burial_Traditions.pdf).
But here the Galileans Mary, Mary and Salome were primarily concerned to anoint and likely re-bury the body of their loved one in order to follow custom, in defiance of the authorities. Thus, after properly waiting until after the Sabbath is over, they proceed to Jesus’ burial place to perform their duties. (We devoted a whole webinar to the beautiful arts of contemporary “death midwifery” in commemoration of All Souls Day 2013, exploring with Laurel Dykstra and Susie Henderson this vocation as resistance to our culture of death; see http://www.chedmyers.org/webinararchive/10-29-13-Webinar-Dykstra-All-Saints%20).
But at the empty tomb, these women are invited to transcend their traditional role by a mysterious call to become witnesses of the Risen Jesus (Mk 16:5-7). The very first transformation that occurs as a result of Jesus’ Resurrection, therefore, is an overturning of gender expectations. This is particularly dramatic in light of the fact that, as Thorwald Lorenzen (in Resurrection, Discipleship, Justice: Affirming the Resurrection of Jesus Today, 2003) and others have pointed out, women were not even qualified to testify in a court of law in the first century! Why then would Mark’s gospel rely on them to be the sole “witnesses” of the amazing things that happen next—unless, of course, this was the way it actually went down. Placing the burden of testimony on women-without-men would hardly have served a young movement trying to establish credibility, so this scene is not something they would have made up!
Nevertheless, Mark has been laying the groundwork for this shocking conclusion throughout his narrative. On one hand, the male disciples consistently fail to understand Jesus’ mission correctly, and in the end, abandon him altogether (14:50). Women, on the other hand, seem to get Jesus. The first credible disciple in Mark’s story is Peter’s mother in law back in chapter one, who is healed by Jesus and then immediately commences “serving” (diakoneo; 1:31), the archetypal verb of discipleship (see 10:43f).
As noted, our three women have already appeared together at the execution of Jesus, holding vigil. There they are described with three loaded Markan phrases: they “followed;” “served” (again diakoneo); and “came up to Jerusalem” (15:41). Each verb articulates specific aspects of Jesus’ call to discipleship throughout the second half of the gospel narrative. In other words, these women are presented here at the close of the tale as true disciples. The androcentric narrative has completely collapsed, and women have stepped in to keep the discipleship story alive.
This core element in Mark’s Easter testimony has been suppressed by androcentric churches, for obvious reasons. But this earliest narrative tradition of Jesus is clear. It is women who do the right thing from beginning to end of his story. They are the first subjects of Resurrection transformation. And it is their testimony—in defiance of patriarchal codes of veracity—upon which our gospel tradition utterly relies.
Why, then, do women still have such a hard time getting a word in edgewise in our Christian circles?
Image above: Mikhail Nesterov “The Empty Tomb,” 1889.