Christian Colligation of Apologetics Debate Research & Evangelism
The Missing Ending of the Gospel of Mark
By Christopher Price
I. The Modern Ending of Mark is Not Original
Almost all scholars, whether conservative or liberal, agree that the ending of Mark common to modern English versions -- Mark 16:9-20 -- was not a part of the original text. The reason for such a strong consensus is twofold.
The first is that the oldest manuscripts lack verses 9-20. As Donald Guthrie, notes:
The two Alexandrian Unical Mss, Vaticanus and Sinaiticus" end at 16:8. New Testament Introduction, at 90. Additionally, early Christian writers noted that the ending was not in their earliest manuscripts. "Jerome and Eusebius both state that the best manuscripts available to them did not contain this longer ending.Douglass Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, page 103. Given the lack of early manuscript evidence, it is very unlikely that these verses were original to the text.
The second reason, is that there are significant linguistic and stylistic differences between 9-20 and the rest of Mark. "The longer ending contains several non-Markan words and expressions." Moo, op. cit., page 103.
As a result of these two facts, "[t]oday it is generally recognized that the report of the Resurrection and Ascension (16:9-20) found in the majority of the manuscripts and versions was not a part of the original Mark." W.G. Kummel, Introduction to the New Testament, page 71. Where then, did the modern ending of Mark come from? Most likely later scribes added endings based on how they "knew" the story ended by relying on Matthew, Luke, and, perhaps, John. "The resemblances between what is narrated in these verses and the narrative of Jesus' resurrection appearances in other gospels suggest that this longer ending was composed on the basis of these other narratives to supplement what was felt to be an inadequate ending to the gospel." Moo, op. cit., page 103.
II. Mark's Original Ending
A more disputed question than whether verses 9-20 were the original ending to Mark is whether Mark ended at verse 8 or had a longer ending that, for whatever reason, was lost. The immediately apparent reason that such a theory occurs to readers of Mark is the fact that an ending at verse 8 seems remarkably abrupt:
When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might come and anoint Him. Very early on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun had risen. They were saying to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?" Looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled away, although it was extremely large. Entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting at the right, wearing a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, "Do not be amazed; you are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who has been crucified. He has risen; He is not here; behold, here is the place where they laid Him. "But go, tell His disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He told you.'" They went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
A. Did Mark Believe in the Resurrection?
The difference between an ending at v. 8 and the endings we are used to from the extended Marcan ending and Matthew, Luke, and John is striking. There are no resurrection appearances by a risen Jesus.
Although some have seized on this omission to argue that Mark--and, in an even greater leap, early Christianity--had no tradition of resurrection appearances, such a conclusion is untenable. For the same reasons, it is untenable to suggest that Mark did not believe in the resurrection. That the early Christians had traditions of, and greatly valued, the resurrection appearances of Jesus is made clear by Paul's own letters. Not only does 1 Corinthians 15 establish this beyond dispute, but Paul's entire conversion story is based on a resurrection appearance of Jesus.
Moreover, Mark clearly knows of and values traditions about Jesus' resurrection and resurrection appearances. Indeed, it is beyond reasonable dispute that Mark means to communicate the fact of Jesus' resurrection to his readers. He foretells Jesus' resurrection throughout the gospel. Indeed, he has Jesus specifically predicting his own resurrection.
But Mark goes even further. He specifically has Jesus predict his resurrection appearances to the disciples, in Galilee.
Mar 14:27-28: And Jesus said to them, You will all fall away, because it is written, "I will strike down the shepard, and the sheep shall be scattered." But after I have been raised, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.
Mark goes on to carefully narrate the fulfillment of Jesus' predictions. Jesus is handed over to the Chief Priest and scribes. He was condemned to death and handed over to the Gentiles. He was mocked and spat upon, scourged, and, finally, killed. Mark then writes of the empty tomb just as the other gospels do. And, in verse 7, Mark has a messenger of God tell Mary and the other women that Jesus has risen and will appear to the disciples in Galilee, just as Jesus had foretold. Accordingly, Mark's belief in Jesus' resurrection, as well as his belief in Jesus' resurrection appearances, are not in serious doubt.
B. A Greek Tragedy?
Still, some argue that Mark's story is one of disappointment. Of raised hopes and expectations that go unmet. A Greek tragedy perhaps. He raises expectations of great hope and accomplishment, only to have them end in failure and hopelessness. There is no merit to such arguments. Not only does Mark clearly believe in the resurrection, but the entire purpose of his Gospel is to spread good news. Remember, Mark opens on a tremendously upbeat note: "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." Mark 1:1. As most of you probably know, the greek word for gospels -- euaggelion -- actually means "Good News." In other words, Mark declares that the purpose of his writing is to declare the "Good News" about Jesus Christ. It is also clear that, to Mark, Jesus' resurrection was the culmination of his Good News. Throughout his Gospel Mark predicts the resurrection. He leads us to the empty tomb. And he specifically announces that Jesus will appear to the disciples and others in Galilee. Clearly, therefore, Mark believed in Jesus' resurrection. Knew about traditions of his appearances after his resurrection.
The comparison with Greco-Roman tragedies is quite beside the point. Mark's Gospel is about tragedy transfigured and transformed into triumph. It is about good news triumphing over and through the suffering and resurrection of Jesus and over and even through the disciples' desertions and misunderstandings. Mark's narrative is not a play to be enacted but a story to be read about the good news of Jesus. 'They fled in fear and said nothing to anyone' may suit the ending of a tragedy, but not a laudatory biographical Gospel.
Ben Witherington, The Gospel of Mark, A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary page 415 n. 14.
C. An Incomplete Ending
Given that Mark was aware of traditions involving Jesus' resurrection appearances, sought to impart knowledge of Jesus' resurrection, and intended to convince his readers that this was "Good News," it is unlikely that he leaves us at verse 8. It might be more understandable, though still unlikely, that he ended at verse 7, with an announcement of the resurrection and the foretold resurrection appearances. But that is not how this proposed close of Mark ends. It actually ends with the women departing in fear and telling no one.
An ancient biography of one's heros is most unlikely to end in this fashion. It probably does not imply a total and eternal silence of these women, disobeying the command of the angel. If we note the parallel construction of v. 8 in the Greek, it suggests that we should take seriously the imperfect verb tenses and relate the two sentences, which each follow kai, as well as the two yap clauses. The implication would be that, for the circumscribed period of time the women were in terror and fled from the tomb, they say said nothing to anyone. Naturally, the fear would at some point subside, and the women would cease to be tongue-tied at that juncture.... [H]ad Mark wanted to suggest that they disobeyed the command given to them, he would have introduced their activity with an adversative such as de, not with kai, for every other place we have disobedience as a response in Mark it is introduced with de (cf. 1:45; 7:36; 10:14, 22, 28; 15:23, 37).
Witherington, op. cit., pages 415-17.
The abrupt ending cannot easily be explained away. Even those scholars who maintain that verse 8 was the original ending of Mark are pressed to explain why the author would have ended the Gospel here.
Luke Timothy Johnson, who tends to reject the idea of an extended ending, nevertheless explains the problem of that idea concisely.
A puzzling finale it is. The women approach with amazement (16:5) and leave in fear (16:8). They do not pass on the message of a future appearance. The identity of the young man who delivers the message to them is unspoken (16:5). What are we to make of this? Mark obviously believes Jesus was raised from the dead, but 'goes before them.' He will appear, but at his own choosing. But if Mark and his readers knew traditions of Jesus' having appeared--traditions, we have seen already, that are very old (see 1 Cor. 15:3-8)--then why didn't he narrate them?His answer? "We can only guess."
Johnson, The Writings of the New Testament, page 154.
One attempted explanation is to suppose that the reference to Jesus' appearance in Galilee is a reference to the Second Coming (or parousia), not to Jesus' resurrection appearances. That Mark intended to refer to Jesus' coming in glory suffers from many fatal defects. Mark has Jesus specifically predict his appearance in Galilee after the resurrection. Indeed, the entire statement is a command to go to Galilee where Jesus will be waiting for them. The coming in power from heaven, as the parousia was envisioned, is fundamentally incompatible with Jesus already waiting for the disciples and Peter in Galilee.
A private seeing of the resurrected Jesus in Galilee will not measure up to the public seeing of the Son of man coming in clouds with much power and glory (13:26; cf. 14:62) and with the holy angels (8:38), as though Mark intends the fulfilment of 'there you will see him' (16:7) to count for the Second Coming. For since pxoayei means that Jesus is preceding the disciples and Peter into Galilee, his arrival ahead of them precludes their seeing him coming in clouds with angels. If pxoayei meant that he is leading the disciples and Peter into Galilee, they would still not see him coming in clouds with angels. And the Second Coming follows both the preaching of the gospel among all the nations and the unprecedented final tribulation, yet the Jewish war beginning in 66 C.E. did not fulfill Jesus' prediction of that tribulation and Mark will hardly have put at the close of his gospel a Jesuanic prediction disproved by decades of non-fulfillment.
Gundry, op. cit., page 1008.
Perhaps the best attempted explanation as to why Mark might have ended his gospel where he did is provided by William L. Lane: "the present ending of Mark is thoroughly consistent with the motifs of astonishment and fear developed throughout the Gospel. These motifs express the manner in which Mark understands the events of Jesus' life." The Gospel of Mark, page 591.
The problem with this argument is that, while it might explain why Mark includes verse 8, it does not explain as to why Mark ends there. Mark could convey the sense of astonishment and fear and continue to complete what he started by including references to Jesus' resurrection appearances. Moreover, even if this point had some merit, it does so at the expense of Mark's overriding sense of fulfilled promise. While fear and astonishment are important aspects of Mark's gospel, the overriding message is the Good News of fulfilment. God has fulfilled his promise to Israel and to humanity. Over and over again Mark has a character predict or describe a future event, and he thereafter describes its fulfillment. Fulfilment, therefore, goes to the very heart of Mark's Gospel. And, when Mark has Jesus predict a future, earthly event, he always narrates its fulfillment.
This is especially important when it comes to the ending of Mark. In verse 7, the messenger of God makes an important prediction: "You will see Him." Moreover, the messenger makes it clear that the appearances of Jesus were predicted by Jesus himself: "Just as He told you." That Mark would have left these predictions unfulfilled, or fulfilled only by implication, is unthinkable.
This point is most persuasively made by Robert Gundry. He notes how again and again Mark has Jesus make a prediction, and that again and again Mark goes on to explain the fulfillment of that prophecy in his narrative. This includes 1) the Transfiguration, 2) the finding of a colt to ride into Jerusalem, 3) the disciples being met by a man with a jar of water, 4) finding the Upper Room where the last supper would be held, 5) Jesus' betrayal by one of the Twelve, 6) that the rest of the Twelve would abandon Jesus, 7) Peter's denials of Jesus, and 8) numerous details about the Passion of Jesus. Every time Mark not only notes the fulfillment, but explicitly narrates it.
Mark has repeatedly and in detail narrated the fulfillments of Jesus' to other predictions so far as those fulfillments, occurred during Jesus' time on earth.... They include the seeing of God's kingdom as having come with power at the Transfiguration, the finding of a colt, some disciples' being met by a man carrying a jar of water, the showing of the Upper Room, the betrayal of Jesus by one of the Twelve, the scattering of the rest of the Twelve, the scattering of the rest of the Twelve, the denials of Jesus by Peter, and of course the Passion (including numerous details predicted by Jesus) and the Resurrection. Though Mark has quoted Jesus as predicting events to take place later, particularly just before the future coming of the Son of man and that coming itself, there remains one prediction whose fulfillment is to take place while Jesus is still on earth, the prediction in 14:28 that after his resurrection he will go ahead of the disciples into Galilee. At 16:7 the young man in the empty tomb recalled this prediction and added it to both the enhancement, 'and there you will see him,' and an allusion to the reliability of Jesus' word: 'according as he told you.' It seems highly unlikely that Mark has included not only that prediction in its original setting but also a recollection of the prediction and two additions to it, the first one enhancing it, the second calling attention to its reliability (cf. the repetitions and elaborations of the passion-and-resurrection predictions in 8:31; 9:9, 12, 31; 10:32-34) only to omit a narrative of its fulfillment even though this fulfilment, like the others that he has narrated, took place during Jesus' time on earth.
Robert H. Gundry, Mark, A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross, pages 1009-10.
Confirmation of any theory is unlikely to be forthcoming. However, it seems, on balance, that an ending at verse 8 is unlikely. Mark's entire gospel is about the good news of the Gospel and fulfilling foretold events--with a special interest in narrating the fulfillments of Jesus' prophecies. There is no satisfactory explanation as to why he would depart from this focus only as to the Jesus's specifically foretold resurrection appearances.
III. What Happened to the Original Ending?
If Mark did not end at verse 8 and the modern version is not original to the text, what happened to the original ending? Whatever it was--and we will likely never know--it probably happened fairly early in the textual tradition. Nevertheless, the most likely explanation is that the manuscript was damaged.
This is not an unlikely event. As B.H. Streeter points, the ending of a gospel written on a scroll would be a particularly vulnerable part of the manuscript. If such a manuscript was damaged, the ending (or the beginning) would be the most likely part to suffer. "There is no difficulty in supposing that the original copy of Mark, especially if the Gospel was written for the Church of Rome about A.D. 65, almost immediately lost its conclusion. The two ends of a roll would always be the most exposed to damage; the beginning ran the greater risk, but, in a book rolled from both ends, the conclusion was not safe." B.H. Streeter, The Four Gospels, A Study of Origins, at 333. N.T. Wright provides confirmation, and an interesting example, of this proposition. "[T]he beginning and ending of a scroll were always vulnerable. A glance at any edition of the Dead Sea Scrolls, in particular at facsimile photographs, will reveal that even the scrolls which are preserved almost in their entirety are in many cases damaged at both ends." The Resurrection of the Son of God, at 619. Gundry adds further support for this point. "At first thought it may seem difficult to imagine that a break occurred at all; for the last segment of a scroll, by being the innermost when the scroll is rolled up, is the most protected. But on second thought, when a scroll is not rolled up at the time of a break, the last segment has been subjected to the most stress by being rolled up the most tightly, and deteriorative dampness may have been trapped in it when the scroll was rolled up." Gundry, op. cit., page 1017.
Streeter adds these additional thoughts:
How in the case of Mark the damage occurred it is useless to speculate. At Rome in Nero's day a variety of "accidents" were by way of occurring to Christians and their possessions. The author of Hebrews, writing to the Roman Church, alludes to the patient endurance of "spoiling of their goods." That the little library of the Church, kept in the house of some prominent adherent, should have suffered in some 'pogram' is highly credible. Curiously enough, there is evidence that copies of Romans were in circulation which lacked the last two chapters, which looks as if one of the earliest copies of that Epistle, the one other documents of which we can be quite sure that the Roman Church had a copy of at this time, was similarly mutilated.
Streeter, op. cit., page 333.
Accordingly, there is nothing extraordinary about postulating that an early manuscript of Mark was damaged. Especially if--as Mark's many latinisms suggest--it was written in Rome, the site of the great fires and early persecution of Christians by Nero.
©2003 Christopher Price
Questions or comments concerning this article or the use of this article should be directed to Christopher Price.