The inconceivable happens

Photo: Grant Whitty, Unsplash.

I love the 1987 film The Princess Bride. With so many quotable lines and memorable scenes, it’s hard to choose one favorite. However, high on my list is the banter about the word “inconceivable.” Several times, the character Vizzini exclaims, “Inconceivable!” Each time, the occurrence he deems inconceivable happens anyway, and his friend Inigo Montoya cautions, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means.”

Just as The Princess Bride recounts seemingly impossible scenarios, the ending of the Gospel of Mark narrates an unbelievable occurrence: the once-dead Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene (Mark 16:9-11). 

This is so inconceivable that when Mary reports her experience, no one believes her.

This story is situated within a contested part of Mark’s Gospel. Scholars debate whether the longer ending of Mark (16:9-20) was a part of the original composition. 

Some evidence from ancient manuscripts suggests this part of the Gospel might have been written as something like an appendix to the story, which would have otherwise ended with the female disciples leaving the empty tomb and saying “nothing to no one,” as the Greek states it with the emphatic double negative in 16:8.

Whether this passage was a part of the original Gospel or not, it offers a fitting first post-resurrection appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene. Mary is (re-)introduced here as a person from whom Jesus had exorcised seven demons (16:9). 

Some scholars have suggested that the identification of exactly seven demons might be meant to indicate that her possession was comprehensive. That is, she seemed to be a completely lost cause. 

However, lost causes seem to be where Jesus is most able to shine. So, it is to this formerly “lost cause” that Jesus first appears. 

The text does not tell us what Mary’s reaction was. Scared? Delighted? Confused? Anxious? Whatever her emotional response might have been, she takes action. She reports what happened to the ones who had been with Jesus (16:10). 

With the distance of time, we can affirm the truth of Mary’s proclamation. However, to her original listeners, it was inconceivable. They didn’t believe her (16:11). 

Why didn’t the first hearers of the resurrection message believe Mary? Because she was a woman? Because she had once been demon- possessed? Or simply because her message was unbelievable?

Whatever their reasons, Mary was, in fact, a reliable witness. This flew in the face of the prevailing wisdom. The ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus offers the following advice for accepting testimony: “Let not a single witness be credited, but three, or two at the least, and those such whose testimony is confirmed by their good lives. But let not the testimony of women be admitted, on account of the levity and boldness of their sex.” 

Josephus warned that women couldn’t be trusted in a court of law. 

Yet, in a world where women’s voices were discounted, the risen Christ chose Mary to bear the gospel message. This formerly possessed woman became the very first proclaimer of the Good News. 


Mary’s story might invite us to consider our own listening practices. What messages do we find inconceivable? Whose voices do we disbelieve because we discredit them as unreliable? 

This account of Mary’s experience of the risen Christ offers a subtle encouragement to believe those voices that we might otherwise ignore or diminish. 

Perhaps this story encourages us to listen more carefully to the stories of survivors of abuse. Perhaps it urges us to believe accounts of trauma that might at first seem inconceivable. Perhaps it simply inspires us to look more closely at the ways Jesus’ unbelievable resurrection continues to speak hope into what appear to be hopeless circumstances.

Let’s trust in this hope, even when it might seem inconceivable.  

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