Mark 16:1-8, Is This the Conclusion of Mark’s Gospel?

[April 5, 2015] It is Easter morning, both for us and the women in today’s Gospel text. The text ends: “And they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” You will usually be told that these words end the Gospel according to Mark, and that what follows in verse 9 is a separate addition. And indeed, the reader will find that having arrived at a certain point in the narrative in verse 8, we start all over again in verse 9. Furthermore, if the reader takes note of the small print at the bottom of the page in their Bibles, they will be told that verses 9-20 were added later by another hand to “fix” the awkward ending of the text that we find in verse 8. What is a lay person to make of this?

Quite a few Bible scholars and biblical interpreters will insist that Mark intended his gospel to end with verse 8. If so, then there is no resurrection appearance of Jesus and the good news of his resurrection is not told to anyone. What we have is an empty tomb and an unfulfilled instruction (“Go, tell his disciples and Peter”) and prophecy (“He is going before you into Galilee. There you will see him, even as he told you”). These interpreters give a number of reasons why Mark would deliberately end his gospel in this way. However much irony Mark might have intended, however, all of these explanations seem strained and none of these explanations reads comfortably. Of course irony is not supposed to be “comfortable” but the discomfort that I speak of is the sense that this supposed irony is artificially created by the interpreter and is not what the author intended.

The conclusion seems to me inevitable that the gospel text that we have here is transitional and that the continuation was broken off and lost. As it is, the text that we have continues the weaving back and forth of the texts of Matthew and Luke that we find in the rest of the gospel. If, as I have concluded, and as the earliest traditions support, the text of Mark’s gospel derives from an occasion in Rome when the apostle Peter was weaving the two gospels together in order to validate the newer gospel of Luke’s, then either Peter himself unintentionally discontinued his retelling of the gospel at this point—his “reading” was broken off for unknown reasons—or the ending of the scribal transcription of Peter’s “reading,” which Mark used when crafting his gospel, was lost.

The verses that most of us have in our Bibles that follow verse 8 are called “the longer ending.” As I said, they are usually considered spurious, although it seems to me on spurious grounds. In three Greek manuscripts Mark’s gospel ends at 16:8 (the Vaticanus and Sinaiticus, which might have come from the same scriptorium, and a twelfth century commentary on Matthew and Mark). The longer ending is found in 99% of the Greek manuscripts as well as the rest of the tradition and has enjoyed over a period of centuries “practically an official ecclesiastical sanction as a genuine part of the Gospel of Mark” (David Peabody citing Kurt and Barbara Aland). This is matched in the versions, in patristic quotes and in lectionaries. There is, in fact, “no clear evidence that any manuscript of Mark was known to circulate in the second or third centuries without the ‘longer ending’” (Peabody, One Gospel from Two: Mark’s Use of Matthew and Luke, Trinity Press, 2002, page 330). It was in the early fourth century that some scholars in the Christian community began to reject the authenticity of Mark 16:9-20 on critical grounds. It was at this point that certain manuscripts and versions began to appear in which Mark’s gospel ended at 16:8.

If Mark 16:9-20 was part of the original Gospel according to Mark, as seems to me likely, then it was probably composed by Mark himself a number of years later. If the transcription of Peter’s retelling of the gospel comes from the earlier part of the decade of the 60s when the Christians in Rome were being persecuted—rounded up and executed—by the emperor Nero, then my guess is that Mark’s published manuscript comes from the decade of the eighties (there is some evidence that John, who published his gospel in the early 90s, seems to have been aware of it).

Mark, missing the continuation of 16:8, drew from and blended the resurrection accounts in Matthew and Luke and a tradition that was also used by John in his composition. Some contend that the grammatical style and linguistic characteristics do not belong to Mark. However, certain terminology that is characteristic of Mark continues in the longer ending, and hapax legomena (19 of the 163 words are new) and idiosyncratic terminology are relatively plentiful throughout Mark’s gospel: it is not quantitatively different in 16:9-20.

Whether 16:9-20 is an appropriate ending to the story Mark tells is another question. In fundamental ways it is not satisfactory. This, however, does not disprove that Mark composed it, only that he did not do a “good” job with concluding the transcripts he had in his hands. It is not the ending, in other words, that Peter would have had. What 16:9-20 does provide, nevertheless, is a version of how the resurrection tradition was received within the Christian community in the late first century.

Essentially, then, verses 1-8 testify to an empty tomb: the physical body of the crucified Jesus was no longer—physically—in the tomb, and the three women saw this with their own eyes. The young man sitting inside the tomb says that Jesus has been raised (apparently by God), and has a message for the women to bring to the other disciples, but by the end of verse 8 the resurrected Jesus himself has not appeared.

Up until now Jesus has been faithful to God in the face of total rejection. Even his disciples have continually failed him, not understanding him throughout the gospel and finally abandoning him. Jesus died in total humiliation and degradation.

Yet there are hints throughout the gospel of faith. When he dies the veil between the holiest and the holy place in the Temple in Jerusalem is torn from top to bottom (as if God tears it), and a gentile soldier confesses that the dead Jesus was the Son of God.

And then we have the discovery of an empty tomb by the women: another indication that God has vindicated the faithfulness of the solitary Jesus. God has given this very tangible sign that Jesus has not left him in Sheol (the underworld of Hades): God has raised him—bodily. Indeed, the disappearance of his crucified body suggests that the raised Jesus is inseparable from the one who was rejected, humiliated and crucified. It was this Jesus without any doubt who is raised.

Only in Mark’s own composition, in verses 9-20, do we find out what happened to the disciples who had failed so miserably up to this point. Though we are told elsewhere that Jesus appeared first to Peter, we are told here that “he appeared first to Mary of Magdala,” and she did not run away and not tell anything to anyone. Rather she was the one who reported to the mourning and weeping disciples. (Drawing from Matthew, this agrees with John’s gospel.) Having seen the risen Jesus herself, she believes. The male disciples however do not believe her testimony.

Then Jesus appeared to the two on the road to Emmaus (here Mark draws from Luke’s account). They believe and report this to the others, but they do not believe their testimony either.

Finally, Jesus appears himself to the Eleven (as Luke tells us) and reproaches them for their unbelief, and the hardness of their hearts that prevented them from believing the testimony of the others. At that point he gives them a commission (alluding to both Luke’s account and the commission that he gives the disciples in Galilee in Matthew’s account). The message that they are to deliver to “the whole creation” connects salvation to both faith and baptism and tells of signs that will accompany the believers, signs of which the early church readily testifies.

Immediately, so the account goes (as if all this takes place on Easter Sunday, though conflation is not unusual in the literature), Jesus ascends into heaven and sits at the right hand of God. And the disciples finally do what had been Jesus’ intention for them from the beginning: they go out and preach the Gospel everywhere—the Lord working with them and, as he said, confirming the word by the accompanying signs. This is Mark’s conclusion of his gospel, how he brings to a close the gospel that he had composed from the transcription of Peter’s weaving of Matthew and Luke.

2 comments to Mark 16:1-8, Is This the Conclusion of Mark’s Gospel?

  • Peter, You may want to investigate my book, “Authentic: The Case for Mark 16:9-20,” which can be obtained inexpensively as a Kindle e-book at Amazon. A summarized case for the genuineness of Mark 16:9-20 is online and begins at http://www.curtisvillechristianchurch.org/MarkOne.htm .

  • Peter

    Thank you for this link. It covers much of the same material I had uncovered. I liked how thoroughly it was researched. I appreciated reading it. Some of the orthodoxies of academia have straw feet, like the “Q” hypothesis. Unfortunately, seminarians can be as fundamentalist about these as any Biblical fundamentalist. Neither of them are reflective enough about their assumptions.

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