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The Providential Ending of Mark’s Gospel

April 12, 2012

The best manuscripts we have of Mark’s Gospel end with verse 8: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” Regardless of whether or not there was originally something beyond this, I believe that there are two reasons that the present form of Mark’s Gospel is providential.

The first reason is that in its present form the ending of Mark’s Gospel  emphasizes how incredible the news that the women have just received is. Their being overwhelmed with terror and amazement reminds us of something we can too quickly pass over in the other Gospels’ Resurrection accounts: the complete awesomeness of this!

This past week I read an Easter Services’ Invitation that read “Easter Changes Everything.” And this, of course, is true! The One who loves us enough to take all our death upon himself for us, is strong enough to overcome this death with his indestructible life – and as he rises up, he takes us up with him, for we have his life is within us – we are in him, and he in us forever!

The strife is o’er, the battle done;
now is the victor’s triumph won;
O let the song of praise be sung: alleluia!

Throughout the Easter Season, it will be our joy to explore our sharing in Our Lord’s victory, the joyous song in our heart from his eternal life – the intimacy with our Risen Saviour that begins now and continues forever.

The present ending of Mark’s Gospel reminds us the Good News of Easter should leave us “overloaded,” silent, speechless as the awareness dawns upon us, just as the light dawned that Easter morn, of how incalculably and unfathomably wonderful it is that Our Lord is alive!

The second reason the present ending of Mark’s Gospel is providential is its open-endedness.

New Testament scholar Daniel B. Wallace thinks this was Mark’s intention:

The abrupt ending you have to Mark’s Gospel is really profound. [This tactic] wasn’t used in ancient literature that often, but it was used. Basically, the tactic was to stop the text right in mid-sentence and have somebody keep reading, although there’s nothing to look at. The [text says the] women were afraid, and it ends. Period. Consequently, it is moving the reader into the place of the disciples (Robert B. Stewart, ed., The Reliability of the New Testament: Bart D. Ehrman and Daniel B. Wallace in Dialogue, page 54).

But even if it wasn’t Mark’s intention, it is certainly the effect of the manuscripts’ stopping at verse 8.

The present ending of Mark invites us to complete the story, to enter into it and move it forward by our own response to the commission to share the Good News.

Ironically, throughout Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has told people to keep silent about proclaiming him, but they have done so anyway, even though their words fuelled misconceptions about him. Now, the women are invited to tell his disciples, and they are silent! What will happen – will they obey and tell others the Good News? Despite their fear? Despite the dangers? Mark’s readers are most likely the persecuted Church in Rome– Would they? We, who are hearing this today in the 21st century: will we? The Church is always one generation away from extinction. People need to hear the Good News, and we have our part to play – to give the Gospel the ending God desires.

Episcopal Priest Rick Morley, in his blog “A Garden Path” writes:

If you want to infuse in your readers a sense of expectancy and urgency…what do you do? You end with a cliffhanger.

Of course, we all know that someone had to have said something to someone about the resurrection – otherwise Mark would have never heard the Good News and composed this Gospel. Otherwise we wouldn’t be Christians today.

No, someone told someone else something. That’s for sure.

And that’s the tension that the ending of Mark evokes. You KNOW that the story has a next chapter, the story goes on.

The abrupt and awkward ending to the Gospel of Mark provokes the asking of several rhetorical questions, questions which are of ultimate importance as we celebrate the resurrection on Easter Day.

Jesus is risen. He is not here. We will not find him in a tomb. For he is no longer dead. Death has been conquered.

What will I do with this news? Who will I tell? Will I give this Story one more chapter?

Or, am I too fearful to do any of that?

Life can be overwhelming, can’t it, with many fears? But we are invited not to allow this to make us remain speechless, to take our voice away permanently. Our Risen Lord’s Presence emboldens us – comforts us in the original meaning of the word – gives us strength – to speak out the Easter message of hope, life, and love to those around us who share our desperate need themselves to hear it.

This Easter, I pray that we all, by our words and deeds and the Presence of Jesus in our hearts, may be part of today’s chapter of the continuing story of his risen life in the midst of this yearning, longing world – sharing the awesome, overwhelming Good News that our Lord Jesus is risen. He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

(This is adapted from the Sermon at our 8:30 and 10 a.m. Services on Easter Day. The image at the top of this posting is “The Three Marys at the Tomb” by French painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1825-1905. Embedded below is the 1977 song “He’s Alive,” written and sung by Don Francisco, the ending of which gives voice to the overwhelming joy of the Good News of Easter.)

3 Comments
  1. Well . . . yes; there is something that can be gained by stopping at the end of Mark 16:8 and considering the situation that the women were in, and wondering what we would do if we were in a similar situation — inasmuch as many Christians are in similar situations, relying on mysterious and unproven testimony as the basis for their faith. But that would not be a sufficient reason to ignore verses 9-20. I do not think that Mark would misrepresent the women’s reaction (as if he, knowing that the women actually proceeded to tell people about their encounter at the tomb – as Matthew reports – intentionally stated in his final sentence that they said nothing to anybody) to create a subtle dramatic effect. He was writing to definitively preserve the Petrine Memoirs about Jesus for Christians, not to challenge people to become Christians on the basis of unproven testimony.

    Plus, one has to ask, if verses 9-20 are genuine, would this not raise a challenge as to whether or not the two Greek manuscripts which stop at 16:8 are really the best ones? Those two copies are our earliest extant copies of Mark 16, having been produced in the 300’s (probably at the scriptorium in Caesarea), but they are not our earliest evidence. In the 100’s, the copies used by Justin Martyr, and by Tatian, and by Irenaeus included verses 9-20.

    I encourage you to investigate the evidence of the case in more detail. Although over 1,700 Greek manuscripts support the inclusion of Mark 16:9-20, many commentators have weighed in against it. But commentaries, like manuscripts, should be weighed, not just counted. And very many commentators appear to have been lazy regarding this subject. They have simply read Bruce Metzger’s one-sided claims about Mark 16:9-20 in his Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, and repeated them, adjusting them slightly so as to not commit outright plagiarism. When you see unqualified statements such as, “Clement of Alexandrian and Origen show no awareness of the existence of these verses,” or, “Eusebius and Jerome attest that these verses were absent from almost all manuscripts available to them,” or, “In some copies the passage is accompanied by asterisks or obeli to indicate scribal doubt about it,” that is what you are seeing. Dr. Wallace is, I believe, guilty of this. (Just compare the notes in the NET Bible with Metzger’s Textual Commentary.) And that is how readers, and even preachers, end up being thoroughly misled, with the result that they become willing to acquiesce to the effective removal of 12 verses of the Word of God.

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.

    • Dear James:

      Thank you for your stimulating comment, and for the email with attachments that you sent me on April 19.

      Regarding the question of the ending of Mark’s Gospel, I appreciate your passion and the tremendous amount of study you have devoted to this passage (and to John 7:53-8:11 as well). Most clergy, myself included, do not feel that God is calling us to spend this amount of time in this kind of study. We thus depend on scholars who have devoted their lives to such study to be our guides. You are presenting yourself as having the expertise on the manuscripts of Mark to go against what I think we would both agree is the view of the majority of scholars. I have read what you have written, and it certainly seems to make many good points. But I don’t have the expertise to know if what you are saying is correctly interpreting the evidence. To be convinced of your viewpoint, I will need to see the next step – how you do when you engage directly those who do have this expertise, via such scholars’ blogs or (better) publishing your views in the journals in which their works are published. As Proverbs 18:17 says, “The one who first states a case seems right, until the other comes and cross-examines.” I share your passion for the Word of God to be rightly divided, and so would follow such a dialogue with great interest.

      Regarding the message of my post itself, I think I must now be the one to invite more detailed investigation, because the message of my post is not about and nowhere supports “many Christians … relying on mysterious and unproven testimony as the basis for their faith.” It is about the overwhelming awesomeness of the Lord’s Resurrection; and the need for us to ask ourselves what we will do with the Good News about this: will we share it – or will we allow our fears to keep us silent?

      Thanks again for taking the time to offer such a detailed and interesting comment.

      God bless you always.

      Your Brother in Jesus,
      Fergus

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