Baker Academic

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Unintended Irony of Mark's Ending

People like to write about irony in Mark. I suppose that irony is fashionable these days (and I assure you that I write this ironically). But today I am more interested with an unintended irony in Mark: the extended ending(s). In short, Mark does not include an extended account of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. The earliest manuscripts simply end Mark on this note: 
As they [i.e. Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome] entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 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. (16:5-8)
This ending indicates that Jesus has been raised from the dead but does not portray Jesus himself—walking, talking, eating, breathing—as such. Later interpreters, it seems, added a few more paragraphs to the conclusion so to portray the resurrected Jesus. Most modern Bibles will include this detail in a footnote before moving onto verses 9-20. In this extended section, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene, Peter, to two other disciples, commissions the disciples, and ascends to heaven.

But even without these extra paragraphs, Mark’s story does indeed convey Jesus’ resurrection. This message is conveyed through the voice of a “young man” who looks as one might expect an angel to look. My point: even if read without Jesus’ appearances, the story ends with a heavenly assurance of the risen Jesus. So why embellish it?

My best and only guess is that Mark was extended for apologetic purposes. Here is the logic: if the news of a risen Jesus will elicit belief, how much more so will a portrayal of a walking, talking Jesus elicit belief? The fact that Jesus is no longer among the dead is good news. But the fact that Jesus has no interest in eating your brains is even better news! Mark's editors don't want to end with the women's horror. These editors want to end with a fully restored Jesus. I.e. Mark's editors embellish for the same reason that the Fourth Gospel does: "so that you may believe."

But the enlightened mind is a suspicious mind. Moreover the enlightened mind is not the sort of mind that Mark's editors have in mind. When we see an embellished ending, we lend less trust to the editor, not more. So the paragraphs meant to elicit belief end up doing the opposite. Such is the case for most of my students who encounter Mark's final footnote for the first time. Not only has Mark's extended ending outlived its purpose, it can and does have the opposite-than-intended effect.

Allow me to conclude with a suggestion: why don't we move all of Mark 16:9-20 to a footnote? This would better serve both the scholar and the believer. It would be a more honest rendering of Mark's first-century composition—which is what most seminarians want anyway in a translation. 


  1. RSV did this in 1946, then the 1972 update brought it back up into the text; same story on the Pericope Adulterae.

  2. Yes to this suggestion; I would love to see editions of, say, the NRSV with Mark 16.9–20 relegated to a footnote. The Harper Collins Study Bible annotated by the SBL would seem to be a prime candidate for this.

    One possibility: Could it be that Mark's ending looks defective primarily in comparison to other Gospels? In other words, if we can accept ἐφοβοῦντο γάρ as the final sentence in a book, the angelic announcement, which promises the fulfillment of Jesus' words in 14.28, brings the narrative to a close and leaves the reader in a situation like the disciples' at the end of Mark 13: "And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake." But once Mark is bound with another or other Gospels (e.g., Matthew, Luke, and John), all of which go further than Mark and have the risen Jesus himself appearing on stage, suddenly the shorter Gospel may look incomplete.

    So I guess I'm asking (I'm sure I'm not the first to suggest this, but it is the first time my mind has pondered this possibility): Could the Long Ending of Mark be a product of the collection of multiple Gospels into a single volume?

  3. Anthony, first: thanks so much for associating "good news" with the question of brain eating. This is now stuck in my memory, probably for the rest of my life, if I live that long.

    Second: doesn't Mark's original ending at 16:8 beg the question of how we know about Jesus' resurrection if none of the witnesses to the empty tomb said anything about their experience?

    I agree with you: ending Mark at 16:8 is terrific! It's like the ending of "Citizen Kane." While following 16:8 with 16:9-20 is about as satisfying as following the movie "2001" with "2010." But "Citizen Kane" didn't have to answer the question, how did the filmmakers know the true meaning of "Rosebud"?

    Finally: how can you move Mark 16:9-20 to a footnote? Wouldn't you then also have to move John 7:53-8:11 to a footnote? And 1 John 5:7-8?

  4. I would like to enter at least one caveat: the fact that contemporary scholarly readings appear to be the first reception of Mark we know of which feel 16:8 is Mark's ending, should at least cause us to question whether (grammatical disputes aside) it could have seemed a plausible narrative end to a first century announcement of good news to a first-century listener. Is it only us (post-) moderns who can read this as an appropriate ending?

    1. I am uncomfortable with accepting 16:8 as the original, intended ending for the same reasons you mention. It's an attractive ending to moderns who like "edginess" and "gritty realism". Not sure the ancients would have felt the same way.

  5. ALD: "Allow me to conclude with a suggestion: why don't we move all of Mark 16:9-20 to a footnote?"

    Allow me to answer the question with another question: if, in addition to possessing the 1,600+ manuscripts of Mark that support the inclusion of Mark 16:9-20, we possessed the copies of Mark that were used by Justin, Tatian, Irenaeus, and the anonymous author of Epistula Apostolorum, do you think anyone would still be asking, "Should we keep Mark 16:9-20 in the text?"?

    >> So the paragraphs meant to elicit belief end up doing the opposite. Such is the case for most of my students who encounter Mark's final footnote for the first time. <<

    Perhaps that is because they only view the relevant evidence through a heavily biased and selective filter -- like when you mention here that "the earliest manuscripts" end at 16:8 but fail to mention the significant earlier patristic references in favor of the inclusion of the passage.

    If you or any of your fellow-participants would be interested in a formal debate on the subject of the authenticity of Mark 16:9-20, I am willing to accept, anywhere and any time.

    1. Hi James, I once agreed to participate in a debate related to a theological matter. If given the opportunity to do that again, I think that I would rather have my brains eaten.

  6. Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    Hi Anthony, (and to James'and Larry's comments) I submit that there is one sense in which Mark has an extended resurrection appearance, and that would be the Transfiguration narrative (9:2-9). Mark seems to be saying that resurrection is not so much about appearances but about the interpretation of Jesus' life. The Transfiguration interprets resurrection: Jesus takes over as the new authority figure in Judaism. And if one can't look back to Jesus' life in Galilee and see that, then there is no resurrection for that person, and, therefore, no appearances in Mark. Those who can see the interpretation can see the the transfigured Jesus assuming the seat of authority of Moses and Elijah.

    (It is my understanding that attempts to connect the Transfiguration in some way with the Resurrection have been going on at least since Origen.)

  7. The seminarian may want *just* our best reconstruction of Mark's original text, but that reconstruction is just one iteration of the tradition. The endings represent other iterations, which functioned as scripture for their creators and audiences. Seminarians are on the hook for those iterations, too. They're part of the tradition handed down (but now we're talking pedagogy).

    I am all for bracketing these pericopae, like Mark's endings or the PA, or annotating them in some way to make their status clear, but I find myself balking at the footnote suggestion. Somehow a footnote seems like it gives these creative additions short shrift. Busy seminarians (to say nothing of even busier scholars...) don't always read footnotes closely; footnotes signal to the reader, "Hey, this is important, but not quite important enough to deal with in the main text." Bracketing, a call-out box, or other paratextual apparatus might better highlight the secondary status of Mark's endings without relegating such widespread and influential textual "performances" of Mark to the gutter of the tradition.

    Or maybe brackets already do that relegating work and I'm just being needlessly fussy. I am trying to articulate both a desire to highlight the secondary status of 16:9-20 and keep it as part of the tradition. The physical proximity of vv9-20 to 1:1-16:8 on the printed page affects the reception of the Markan tradition. A footnote almost excises the endings, while brackets and a note keep them in the tradition and alert readers to their status. NA28 impresses the messiness of the NT tradition upon its readers, and I really would like to keep as much as that as messiness as we can in Bibles for seminarians and other non-specialists.

    Thoughts from others?

    1. Danny, you almost have me convinced. I'm a sucker for embracing messiness. But allow me to push back a bit. If the purpose of Mark 16:9-20 was to solve an apologetic problem, but the text actually worsens the very same problem, has it outlived its usefulness? If the chief value of this text is to illustrate reception history, shouldn't I introduce it in class the same way that I might introduce the Diatessaron?

      Also, would you make the same argument for KJV 1 John 5:7? It too must be considered part of our tradition.

      thanks for chiming in,

    2. Danny,
      First, I would argue that placing the text in a footnote does preserve the tradition! Second, as a pastor-teacher, I want the text of the bible I teach from and God's people read to be as close to the original (ausgang text ) as can be ascertained.


    3. From Dr G

      Are you thinking of Husseral's "epoche," or skeptical "bracketing"? Memory theory and other fields borrow the idea of Husseral's phenomenological brackets. But there, that word is essentially just a metaphor. For putting all things into question.

      In that case, literally bracketing part of the text, might be misleading. Or take the skeptical/ phenomenological approach too literally or narrowly.

      But we could say that the phenomenological approach essentially brackets the entire Bible. And all readings of it as well.

      Not sure how to graphically indicate THAT in the text itself. Maybe print every word as a strikethrough? Print everything upside down?

      Different things have been tried. To achieve what Brecht called his perhaps-related "defamiliarization effect."

  8. In Matthew 28:8, the women obey the angel: they start running to tell the disciples the news that Jesus is alive (contrary to Mark 16:8). Then Jesus meets them and orders them to go and tell the disciples--which is exactly what they are already on the way to do. So this apprearance of Jesus is unmotivated. The solution I like is: Matthew was following (and "improving") a manuscript of Mark which had an ending beyond 16:8 but not one we have ever found. Whatever else it said, it reported that Jesus met the women (who were planning to stay silent) and turned their fear to joy, reiterating the angel's command with the result that the women now obeyed it.