‘SUDDEN ENDING’ OF MARK'S GOSPEL
by Doug Ward
Of all the books written in the ancient world, the one for which we have (by far!) the most bibliographic evidence is the Greek New Testament. According to noted evangelist Josh McDowell [2, p. 34],
"Counting Greek copies alone, the New Testament is preserved in some 5,656 partial and complete manuscript portions that were copied by hand from the second through the fifteenth centuries."
When copies of translations into other languages are included, that total rises to over 24,000, a figure far surpassing the number of surviving manuscripts of Homer's Iliad, the next most well-attested book with 643 copies. Additional corroborating evidence about the New Testament is provided by ancient lectionaries and the extensive scriptural quotations found in the writings of the early Church Fathers. With such a wealth of information available, we can be confident that the message of the New Testament has been preserved and passed down to us essentially intact.
Even so, a few textual gray areas remain, one of the most intriguing of which is the sixteenth and final chapter of the Gospel of Mark.
Multiple Endings of Mark
In most manuscripts of Mark's Gospel, chapter 16 has twenty verses. Verses 1-8 describe the visit of three female disciples to the empty tomb of Jesus. Verses 9-20 summarize some of Jesus' post-resurrection appearances, give a version of the "Great Commission," and mention Jesus' Ascension and the early evangelistic work of his disciples.
Most scholars agree, however, that verses 9-20 were not actually composed by Mark. This conclusion is based upon both external and internal evidence.
First of all, Mark 16 ends with verse 8 in a number of important early manuscripts, and some manuscripts that include all twenty verses also note that vv. 9-20 are of questionable authenticity. One manuscript (known as "Old Latin k") omits Mark 16:9-20 but concludes the chapter with the following sentences:
"And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter. And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation."
These sentences comprise what is called the "shorter ending" of Mark, while verses 9-20 have been designated the "longer ending."1
Another source of external evidence is the patristic literature. For example, church fathers Clement of Alexandria and Origen in the late second and early third centuries A.D. seem to have had no knowledge of verses 9-20 of Mark 16. Furthermore, almost all the Greek manuscripts known to Eusebius of Caesarea and Jerome (fourth century A.D.) lack those verses (see e.g. [3,4]).
The internal evidence includes some notable differences in vocabulary between Mark 16:9-20 and the rest of Mark's Gospel, an indication that the longer ending had a different author. One study cited by Dr. Walter Wessel  counted "75 different significant words" in verses 9-20. Of these, fifteen do not appear in the rest of the book, and eleven others are used differently from the way they are used in the rest of the book.
Even more telling is the awkward transition between verses 8 and 9 of Mark 16. Verse 9 abruptly changes the subject from the three women's astonishment at the news of Jesus' resurrection to a listing of some of Jesus' post-resurrection appearances. Moreover, verse 9 introduces Mary Magdalene, who has already appeared in Mark 15:40, 47 and 16:1, as if she were being mentioned for the first time.
All of these factors suggest that verses 9-20 were added to the sixteenth chapter in order to bring Mark's Gospel to a less sudden conclusion. The shorter ending, which appears only in manuscripts from the seventh through ninth centuries A.D., was apparently intended to smooth the transition from Mark 16:1-8 to the longer ending. (With the exception of Old Latin k, all the manuscripts containing the shorter ending follow it with the longer ending.)
Questions about Mark 16
Since Mark 16:9-20 was most likely an addition to the original text of Mark's Gospel, should we expurgate these verses from our Bibles? I would give a negative answer to this question, for two reasons. The first is that these verses were added very early in Christian history and represent a venerable tradition. They were known, for example, to Irenaeus and Tatian in the second century A.D.2
The second is that the contents of Mark 16:9-20 are almost entirely corroborated by other passages in the Gospels and Acts, so the presence of the longer ending introduces no doctrinal or historical problems. The summary of Jesus' post-resurrection appearances given in vv. 9-14 lines up well with the accounts in Luke 24 and John 20. The announcement of the Great Commission in verse 15 parallels Matt. 28:19, and the admonition in verse 16 on the necessity of believing the gospel is reminiscent of John 3:18, 36. Finally, the Ascension of Jesus and the kinds of signs and miracles that accompanied the initial proclamation of the gospel (vv. 17-20) are recounted in more detail in the book of Acts.
Although there is no need to remove Mark 16:9-20 from our
Bibles, it is interesting to think about what the Gospel of Mark looks like
without those verses. When we stop reading after verse eight of Mark 16, it is
easy to understand why another author would have felt a need to extend the
chapter. In Mark 16:8, the three female disciples are trembling and afraid as
they leave the empty tomb. They have not yet met the resurrected Christ or told
Peter and the others the good news. The reunion of Jesus and his disciples in
Why would Mark have given his Gospel such a "cliffhanger" ending? Some have speculated that Mark planned a more conventional conclusion but died before he had the opportunity to complete it. A second theory holds that the end of Mark's original manuscript was torn away, causing the loss of some concluding verses that once existed. However, we have no historical evidence that either of these things happened.
Lacking such evidence, we should seriously consider the possibility that Mark actually intended to conclude his Gospel with verse 8 of chapter 16. Open endings, after all, are not unheard of in the Bible. The book of Jonah and the parable of the prodigal son are two examples of biblical narratives that end rather abruptly.
Some scholars point to literary evidence that 16:8 could have been the last verse in the original manuscript. Joel F. Williams  has observed that within the book of Mark itself, the account of Jesus walking on water in -52 ends in a manner similar to 16:1-8, with stunned disciples amazed at what they have seen and heard. Charles V. Dorothy  notes that a Gospel of Mark concluding with 16:8 has a sort of bookend structure, with some similarities between the beginning and ending. For example, there are predictions in Mark 1:2-3 and 16:7, both announcing the proclamation of the gospel. In 1:2-3, there is a prediction that a voice in the wilderness will prepare the way for the coming Messiah, while in 16:7, there is a prediction that the resurrected Jesus will go ahead of his disciples into Galilee, where he will give them the Great Commission (Matt. 28:16-20).
If Mark did indeed deliberately leave his audience hanging at 16:8, what lessons did he intend to communicate through his abrupt ending? This question has been carefully investigated in recent years, and some interesting answers have been proposed. As we shall see, a study of these answers can lead us to a deeper understanding of Mark's message for disciples of Jesus.
Surprise and Irony
To understand the message of Mark's ending, we must decide how to interpret the reaction of the three disciples in Mark 16:8: Are their bewilderment and silence understandable and appropriate, or is their response cowardly and inappropriate?
In favor of the former position, it has been argued that in Mark's Gospel, people often react in amazement or fear to the miracles of Jesus (1:27; 2:12; 4:41; 5:15, 42; 7:37; 9:6). According to this reading the three disciples, quite fittingly, are awestruck after hearing of the resurrection, the greatest miracle of all. They are temporarily silent, but that silence will surely end when they meet the other disciples.
On the other hand, there are indications that Mark takes a negative view of the behavior in 16:8. The angel at the empty tomb tells the three disciples, "Don't be alarmed" (NIV). Although fear and amazement are typical responses in Mark's narrative, Mark often portrays such responses negatively. Williams [4, p. 27] observes that for Mark, "fear is a negative reaction that often comes from a lack of trust and understanding or an unwillingness to suffer." A number of passages support this assertion, including Mark 4:41; ; 9:6, 32.
Overall, then, the evidence supports a negative interpretation of the behavior of the three disciples. When we read Mark's Gospel we are surprised by their silence, since Mark has been preparing us for a much more positive conclusion. He has mentioned the faithfulness of these women in 15:40-41, 47; 16:1-2. In addition, he records in 16:7 the angel's confirmation of Jesus' promise of . Throughout his narrative, Mark portrays the word of Jesus as sure-see 8:31-32; 10:33-34; 11:2; 13:31; 14:13-15, 27, 30-so the juxtaposition of verses 16:7 and 16:8 is rather jarring.
There is also an irony in the silence of Mark 16:8. At various points during his ministry, Jesus has told those he has healed to keep quiet about the miracles they have experienced (-45; -37), but they are unable to refrain from announcing the good news. In chapter 16, on the other hand, it is no longer time to be quiet. On the contrary, it is time to proclaim the good news of Jesus' resurrection, but the three women are too overcome with fright to do so.
Messages from an Abrupt Ending
A Gospel of Mark that stops with 16:8 has a sudden, surprising ending. What did Mark hope to communicate through such a conclusion?
One possibility is that Mark hopes to motivate us to proclaim the gospel ourselves, to complete what the disciples in 16:8 have left unfinished. When we read 16:8, we might protest, "No! This is no time to be quiet!" Stirred to action, we may then proceed to take up the Great Commission ourselves.
Williams  argues that this interpretation needs some fine tuning, pointing out that 16:8 by itself gives us no grounds to believe we can succeed where Jesus' most intimate disciples have failed. He asserts that a better reading weighs both 16:7 and 16:8. Even now, after the Resurrection, disciples of Jesus often slip and allow themselves to be overcome by fear. But our setbacks are only temporary, because the promise of 16:7 is sure. Though we stumble and fall, the risen Jesus will continue to work with us, as he worked with Peter (who denied him), the rest of the apostles (who fled), and the women who left the tomb in silence. The life of a disciple is challenging and can be full of pitfalls, but Jesus will help us to continue. That is indeed good news!
Charles V. Dorothy, "The Five Endings of Mark," tape available
from the Association for Christian Development,
McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a
Verdict, Thomas Nelson Publishers,
Walter W. Wessel, Mark, Expositor's Bible Commentary, Zondervan,
4. Joel F. Williams, "Literary Approaches to the End of Mark's Gospel," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Vol. 42, 1999, pp. 20-36.
1An especially good summary of all the known variations of Mark 16 can be found in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.
2It is possible that the longer ending was compiled by Papias of Hierapolis (c. 80 A.D.-c.160 A.D.), or perhaps even one of Papias’ sources, Aristion.. See the article "Who Wrote the Four Canonical Gospels?" in Issue 7of Grace and Knowledge.
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