I usually never post items like this on the blog. But hey, it’s Friday. Below you’ll find a brief academic paper I wrote exploring different scholarly views on the ending to the Gospel of Mark. I’ve written devotionally on that ending before, but this gave me a chance to explore more of the scholarship behind it.
As a general rule, I don’t think people should put up blog posts that have a Works Cited page attached (haha). Such posts usually go against everything the blog medium stands for: brevity, clarity, and accessibility.
But as I researched this topic, I found it difficult to find similar, short, web-accessible writings and bibliographies like this so, in the interest of academic exploration, I’m putting the paper up here for all the future Googlers that might be able to use this, and for those of you that might care about some of the scholarly opinion concerning Marks’ incredibly odd ending. Enjoy. (You can also find this document on Scribd.)
BL537 Paper #1: The Ending of Mark
For centuries, the Gospel of Mark more or less sat dormant, gathering the dust of Church interest. It was a broken Gospel, after all. It was a crude, geographically confused, narratively-challenged, more-or-less bastardized version of The Gospel of Matthew. And what of that ending?
But with the Enlightenment came Higher Criticism and with Higher Criticism came not only a “re-illusionment” with Mark, but a dis-illusionment with the supernatural in general. Modernists writers rose up, pessimism sank in. From Eliot’s Wasteland to Kafka’s oddities to Duchamp’s redefinitions, the dark, the strange, and meticulously ordered disorder became the darling of the Modernist Project. And with this interest came a new evaluation of Marks’ ending. Could it be that the boring thesis—that Mark died before finishing his Gospel, or the last page was lost during one of its earliest transmissions—was in fact not true? Could it be that Mark was a man before his time; indeed, could he have been a true Modernist representative, whose dark literary shadows and Messianic secrets intentionally culminated in the strange ending we have bequeathed to us now? It is the contention of this paper that this thesis is not tenable and does not in fact make sense of the data we have before us when looking at the ending of the Gospel of Mark. It falls short due to textual and grammatical manuscript evidence, as well as the structure and literary themes seen throughout Mark’s Gospel.
A brief survey of the literature shows that the discussion is often centered more around exploring why the Gospel may have ended the way it did rather than whether it ended that way in the first place. The initial reason is understandable. After all, the claim of a lost ending is seen as an argument from silence that reflects a seeming inability to sit with unresolved tension. And yet, though this initial instinct is laudable, the resulting justification for pursuing such assumptions quickly devolves into odd interpretations of this stunted ending, as well as an imposition of modern literary theory onto the ancient text.
On the odd front, there are those that take minor Markan thematic elements and make them of such seeming importance that they would dictate his ending. In The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Joel Williams argues that Mark’s ending makes the most sense when seen as a continuation of the Gospel’s juxtaposition of promise and failure. Williams says that though 16:7 predicts the risen Christ will meet with his disciples regardless of their failure or doubt, the women’s silence is meant as a warning that even after the Resurrection disobedience and failure is still possible (22). Laura Sweat, of Princeton Theological Seminary, writes in The Theological Role of Paradox in the Gospel of Mark that Mark’s Gospel ends the way it does in order to highlight Jesus’ presence-within-his-absence; to highlight the often-paradoxical way in which God works and moves in the Gospel; his presence is more often felt in its absence and effects, as is Jesus’ presence in his ominous absence at the tomb (161-162).
Another more common perspective holds that the Gospel, in effect, is demanding active participation from its readers, and in so doing is calling them to action (this is the conclusion of the editors of the NET Bible). For some, this action is evangelization, pointing out the failure of nearly every character in the book to obey Jesus’ proclamation in 13:10 that this Gospel would be preached to all the nations. This puts the burden on the reader to follow these words of the Christ after even the women fail in it (Tolbert 297-9).
Others define this reader-response activity to be found in much more modern literary terms. Robert Fowler, writing in 1986, for example, stresses the “openness” of Mark in its use of irony, parataxis, and metaphor, to put one more burden on the reader of Mark to “finish the story”:
The empty tomb is a narrative gap par excellence. The emptiness of the tomb is a story-level figure for the emptiness the narratee encounters in the discourse of this episode. The empty tomb is indeed empty; it becomes meaning-full only when the reader fills it with meaning. The tomb awaits the fulfillment that only the reader can supply. (154)
One widely-cited defense of the position that Mark’s present ending is original is found in J. Lee Magness’ book Marking the End, in which the author provides an extensive survey of ancient and biblical literature that includes “suspended endings”. He explores their purposes and function, attempting to trace this literary device throughout Mark’s telling of various traditions and stories in his Gospel. The argument is then made that Mark provides ample foreshadowing of this type of abrupt ending, and therefore ancient readers would neither find it odd nor especially surprising that the text ends at 16:8. As for the reason why this is, Elizabeth Malbon summarizes and quotes, saying (329):
The empty tomb signifies the (predicted) resurrection; the announcement stands for (predicted) resurrection appearances; the women’s reaction is the part that represents the whole, the fear that suggests proclamation. [Magness says of] 16:1-8 the ‘emphasis of the Gospel thus shifts from past history to present proclamation, from chronicle to commission’, and from text to reader.
One of the biggest problems with this and other similar approaches (which Magness admits, though he feels is justified) is that he opens with a conscious extended treatment of modern literary theory on the device of “absent endings” and how they demand a reader’s participation in the work. He then goes to provide examples of this device in ancient literature, but he never strays far from reading even these works through this modern literary lens. He (and indeed, most 20th century scholars of Mark) never seems to stray from the modern assumptions and theories through which they strain the texts, most forcefully, Mark. This, in many scholars’ minds, discredits most attempts to find a literary reason for the ending (France 683-684 and Bratcher 506)
There are many problems one can find with these views, even beyond the presuppositions one brings to the interpretive task. The first place one would look is in the textual and grammatical evidence. In Bruce Metzger’s classic The Text of the New Testament, one can begin seeing some of the contours of the case for a lost ending. Metzger brings up the odd grammar of the final words of 16:8, which would make this an exceedingly odd and unprecedented ending to a work in the ancient world. There is some manuscript evidence that the final verb is of a form that means “they were afraid of”, but the text as it is would not finish the sentence and describe what it is the women feared (326). Also, as is noted throughout the scholarly literature, the book ends with the preposition gar. Metzger points out that not only are there just a few examples of any Greek sentence ending with this preposition, but we have no example of an ancient book ending in this way (326). Lastly, one would note that if Mark’s audience was truly comfortable and absolutely “got” the ending of the book at 16:8, there would be little need for new endings to be added to the book within such a short amount of time after its circulation began (Brooks 272-273). In the textual and patristic evidence, there seems to be a near-universal sense that this ending is mistaken, or at least in need of more (Metzger 80-81, 119-121, 322-327).
Textual uncertainty aside, the clearest evidence for a lost ending comes from the contents of Mark itself. The opening words of the book, proclaiming this to be an account of “the gospel concerning Jesus Messiah, Son of God” (1:1) do not carry with them the ominous foreshadowing that 16:8 entails, and indeed, 16:8 seems to be a completely non-sensical ending in light of this “purpose statement” of the gospel (Guelich 523). Further, the apocalyptic nature of the entire Gospel in nearly all its parables, miracles, and teachings has a future component of which almost all see an explicitly described display of their fulfillment at some point in the narrative (524). Not so, however, of freeing his disciples to speak of the Transfiguration (9:9), nor of meeting his disciples in Galilee (16:7)—both of which are promised to happen after the Resurrection, and yet we never see their fulfillment.
N.T. Wright offers a clear and extensive defense of the “lost ending” hypothesis in The Resurrection of the Son of God and comes at it from many angles, all of which cannot be summarized here. He spends a lot of time showing not only how Mark explicitly shows the reader the fulfillment of Jesus’ words, but the entire structure of the book is built around Resurrection predictions from Jesus that increase in frequency, intensity, and length as the book goes on. It appears to be building to a final climax that never comes in the ending’s form as we have it (620-622). Mark’s well-known use of irony is always shown, not simply implied. When Jesus tells some people to not speak, they do. He tells others to speak, and they don’t. In all of these cases, and others, the reader gets to see this unexpected turn take place. And so, one would expect that the women’s silence would hold similar anticipation for irony being displayed and not merely assumed. Further, in Mark, “fear” is not simply a motif in and of itself that appears on its own. The theme is fuller than that; it is that fear must be overcome by faith in those that are experiencing the fear (623). We do not get to see this from the women of Mark 16. And lastly, the extended section of Jesus’ disputes with the religious leaders lends itself to a belief that Jesus would be seen vindicated in all he was teaching and declaring. Again, we don’t see this in our form of Mark (624).
A brief survey of the scholarly literature concerning the ending of Mark shows that it is incredibly difficult to assess. In the process of coming to conclusions based on such little evidence and much conjecture, one’s own preferences and assumptions will inevitably get caught up in the process. In the course of this current writing, multiples sources were found, each saying what “most scholars” think, and they were each contradictory. This makes it even more difficult to find a solid resting place. Regardless, there can be confidence that scholars have been far too quick to apply modernist literary theory (not to be confused with legitimately helpful applications of modern literary methods, typing, and research), and this has resulted in turning Mark into a type of Faulknerian literary genius, shocking the reader with his inaccessibility that paradoxically (it is assumed) empowers and invites. It is for this presuppositional reason, and the manuscript and internal literary elements of this Gospel, that it appears far more likely that a fuller ending was either intended or written, and was somehow lost to the pages of time.
Biblical Studies Press. The NET Bible First Edition Notes. Biblical Studies Press, 2006.
Bratcher, Robert G. and Eugene Albert Nida. A Handbook on the Gospel of Mark. UBS Handbook Series. New York: United Bible Societies, 1993.
Brooks, James A. Mark. The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1991.
Fowler, Robert M. Let the Reader Understand: Reader-response Criticism and the Gospel of Mark. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity International, 2001. Print.
France, R. T. The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text. New International Greek Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2002.
Guelich, R. A. “Mark, Gospel of.” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Ed. Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard. Marshall. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 1992. 512-25. Print. The IVP Bible Dictionary Ser.
Malbon, Elizabeth S. “Sense and Absence: Structure and Suspension in the Ending of Mark’s Gospel by J. Lee Magness.” Rev. of Sense and Absence: Structure and Suspension in the Ending of Mark’s Gospel. Journal of Biblical Literature 107.2 (1988): 327-29. Print.
Metzger, Bruce M., and Bart D. Ehrman. The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration. 4th ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.
Sweat, Laura C. The Theological Role of Paradox in the Gospel of Mark. N.p.: A&C Black, 2013. Print. The Library of New Testament Studies.
Tolbert, Mary A. Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary-historical Perspective. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996. Print.
Williams, Joel F. “Literary Approaches to the End of Mark’s Gospel.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 42.1 (1999): 21-35. Print.
Wright, N. T. The Resurrection of the Son of God. Vol. 3. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2003. Print. Christian Origins and the Question of God.
[image credit: a page from the “Lindisfarne Gospels: Mark” by manuscript_nerd on flickr]