The End of Mark

When I yesterday took exception to the comments made by Dr. Serene Jones regarding Easter and specifically the ending of Mark, I did a little reading to remind myself of why there is “no resurrection story in Mark” as Jones claimed.

Most modern Bibles do something between Mark 16:8 and 9 to mark an editorial issue. Some of them note, right in the middle of the page, something like “[Some of the earliest mss conclude with 16:8.],” while others place that in a footnote. I’ve seen a Bible put the “longer ending” all into a footnote, while several place it on the page in brackets.

The bottom line is that most scholars, whether conservative or liberal, agree that there’s something peculiar in those final 11 verses. They are not present in many of the most highly regarded ancient manuscripts and they sound suspiciously less like Mark than like a mash-up of the other three evangelists.

So what does that mean for us?

Professor James Tabor tries to draw a huge amount of meaning from the ending of Mark at 16:8. When he finally gets around to arguing a conclusion, Tabor suggests that Mark’s abrupt ending somehow proves that the earliest followers of Jesus did not believe in a bodily resurrection but that Jesus had been lifted up to God. He doesn’t really bother to explain why this lifting up to God needed to include the body being absent, whether there is a dead body in heaven, or if the promised appearance in Galilee would involve a corpse.

Before he makes that case, Tabor has a great deal to say about the present Mark 16:9-19:

This original ending of Mark was viewed by later Christians as so deficient that not only was Mark placed second in order in the New Testament, but various endings were added by editors and copyists in some manuscripts to try to remedy things.

If one of my students were to write this, I would ask who those later Christians were and how he knew they saw the ending as “deficient” or that they were trying “remedy things.” Could he read their minds or did he have a source? He goes on to disparage the passage as “concocted,” “bogus,” “forged,” “patently false,” and “spurious.” You’ll pardon Professor Tabor for his stuffy academic prose.

Here’s my question. Is there any possible interpretation of the supposed original ending of Mark that does not wind up at Tabor’s conclusion that the literal, physical resurrection is nonsense? How about several possibilities?

  • There was an original ending of Mark that closed out the story in a manner similar to how Matthew, Luke, and John do. This theorized ending was somehow lost and then replaced by well-meaning editors.
  • The post resurrection story was so well known among the early church that it did not need to be written down.  If I write a script about how someone tries to dissuade Abraham Lincoln from going to Ford’s Theatre only to watch the president walk out the door, do I really need to narrate what happens next?
  • That this was the original ending of Mark and was considered completely sufficient. While the present Mark 16:1-8 does not relate appearances of Jesus, it does suggest them. Otherwise what does, “He is going ahead of you to Galilee; you will see him there just as he told you” mean? Mark 16:8 ends with the women saying nothing, but obviously they did eventually say something or we wouldn’t know this.
  • The present Mark 16:9-19 actually is authentic, despite the protestations of Tabor and many others. Its similarities to the other evangelists derive from them copying Mark rather than them being copied into Mark.

Is any of these possibilities a fact? That’s not provable, but they are at least as plausible as Tabor’s assertion that he can read the mind of Mark and the early church. But of course you don’t get to write New York Time bestsellers by saying that the traditions of Christianity are true. Hey, that mind-reading trick can be seductive.

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