Choose your own adventure

Responding to the short ending of the Gospel of Mark

The Empty Tomb

What next? This is the challenge, the opportunity and the requirement. What next.

When I was young. To my children of course this means sometime in the late 1800s and to others richer in years the phrase is nonsense since I clearly am still young (I like this opinion more). When I was young, there was a brief period in which ‘choose your own adventure books’ become popular. These books made the reader the hero of the story and offered them choices on which their success of failure would depend. E.g. when confronted by the three-headed fish monster should they fight? (turn to page 5), run away? (turn to page 74) or jump back in the pond? (turn to page 134). The reader was invited to work their way through different paths to save the day, get the treasure or whatever. The experience, and the story line, depended on logical choices and occasionally chance. The objective was reader engagement as you essentially became the story.

The gospel of Mark has a very peculiar feature. Like Schubert’s 8th symphony it a masterpiece, but one missing a fairly normal, fairly important bit. The end. Or so it appears.

Evidence for the short ending of Mark

The gospel of Mark as original written ends at Mark 16:8 (this is “virtually [the] unanimous verdict of modern textual scholarship1). While not the specific subject now, the evidence for this is briefly summarised below (based on the UBS handbook on Mark2):

  • The longer ending is conspicuously missing from major/quality early 4th century witness like the Vaticanus and Sinaiticus. This is also true of the earliest Syriac, Georgian, Ethiopian and Armenian copies.
  • Some early manuscripts which include the ending as per the KJV have it marked with the ancient equivalent of an asterix (i.e. observing reservations about it)
  • While some early church fathers allude to it, Origen and Jerome (who put the Vulgate together) note the majority of ancient manuscripts didn’t have it.
  • There is a secondary lightly shorter ending floating around in some manuscripts (indicating a third option but more likely discomfort at the abrupt ending).
  • The vocabulary changes markedly – consistent with a new writer.
  • The focus abruptly changes without concluding the story of the women in v8 or following up on the statement to go to Galilee.
  • The words put into Jesus mouth in v14 are the same harsh words used of Jesus enemies
  • Jesus promised signs which clearly did not last rather than focussing on the Word – more in line with the comforter of John’s gospel
  • An additional point not raised in the UBS book but perhaps of interest is that the record contradicts Luke’s gospel – the two running back from Emmaus in Luke 24:34 are greeted by the believing 11 who know Peter saw the Lord, whereas in Mark 16:13 the 11 don’t believe the resurrection report.

So in summary, the evidence of the manuscripts, the writing of early Christians, and the internal evidence all point to this not being part of Mark’s account.

Conservative opinion kicks back against such observations but the evidence marshalled is thin. An initial objection about the odd grammar at the end of v8 is not decisive as other (admittedly limited) examples exist and such constructions are not unknown within Mark3. LG Sargent accepted the evidence as it was in 1936 (although the editor of The Christadelphian Magazine, John Carter, clearly disagreed!)4. Time has strengthened the case. Whether the long addition represents an ancient and/or authentic tradition is a different question to whether it is part of the inspired gospel – and to this the evidence says no which is why many modern translations omit it (or footnote the issue).

The elements of Mark’s conclusion (of sorts)

Let us summarise the critical elements of the picture Mark has constructed before us, focussing on his work rather than the later (although likely early) addition.

The women went to the tomb to honour Jesus. They were devoted to him but didn’t expect anything other than a body in a tomb. They wondered about the logistical difficulties of rolling back the heavy stone Mark 16:1-3.

They find the tomb empty and a messenger tells them Jesus is raised and the disciples should relocate to Galilee (another discontinuity with the later ending which is all in Jerusalem). They are terrified and shaking – fair enough you would think. They keep quiet and remain afraid. Mark 16:4-8. A natural reaction to the shock they experienced, to the surprise and wonder of the empty tomb.

So what? Well I’m glad you asked. Having examined what might at first blush be an unsatisfactory ending to this masterpiece, let’s go back to the beginning and see if we can determine where the author was heading.

Back to the beginning

Mark commences what is widely considered to be the earliest gospel. We have writings from Eusebius quoting a lost commentary from circa 140AD which itself refers to an older report that Peter dictated the book5. However, this old early tradition may simply be an attempt to justify the canonicity of the gospel by linking it to an authority figure. As to the suggestion that the author is John Mark, we have no “basis for this distinction in the Church tradition6 and it is not a concern of scripture. Interestingly the gospel contains a number of Latinised words consistent with the early tradition of claiming the gospel was written in Rome7.

How does Mark begin?

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Mark 1:1 (NRSV)

The good news, or gospel in many translations – a word which meant the message of the believers not the books of the bible until circa 150AD8 But the Greek word Mark uses is a loaded term, especially when you consider his Roman readers.

In the Roman Empire, a “gospel” (Latin evangelium) was an announcement of good news about the emperor, sometimes a declaration of military victory…While the hearers of the preaching about Jesus would have known that Roman use, the Christian use of the word originates in the Septuagint. In the Septuagint translation of the latter parts of Isaiah (40:9, 52:7, 60:6, and 61:1), the term euangelion is used in a verbal form to announce the good news of God’s rule.9

This is the message of God’s rule and God’s victory – of which the Imperial Roman successes were just a walking shadow”10. This lasting meaningful “good news” was a term which promised the fulfillment of the promises of restoration and the incredible blessings outlined in the later third of Isaiah. The gospel, the good news, is not a weak, moderating voice. It is one of profound importance and change. It is a strident revolutionary voice – albeit grounded in the love and promises of God. We must guard the vitality of this gospel – this is ours now, our message and we must ensure that, in the words of NT Wright, we do not “make the gospel good advice rather than good news11.

Further, Mark makes it very clear on who this good news is about – Jesus, the ‘salvation of Yah’, the promised Jewish Messiah and the son of God.

In addition to the immediacy of Mark’s letter, one of the central themes is the identity of Jesus (see Guelich for discussion12). What is the source of his miraculous power and authority? The disciples, his family, neighbours and the nation are perplexed by this question. Peter makes a breakthrough, declaring Jesus is the Messiah in Mark 8 before expressing a profound misunderstanding of Jesus’ mission and coming death. Finally Mark gives his Latin readers the Roman centurion to declaration that, at his death, Jesus was indeed the son of God – Mark 15:39.

The identity of Jesus and our response to it is critical. It is a core theme for Mark and right up-front he wants us to understand exactly who Jesus is, what he is and his central role in bringing to fruition the promises of God. As his masterpiece unfolds, Mark will show the consternation of many as they try to grapple with this reality and translate the implications into their lives.

After this unambiguous declaration about Jesus, Mark grounds his reader in a direct Old Testament citation:

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight (Mark 1:2-3 NRSV)

While attributing the passage to Isaiah, Mark is clearly also quoting Mal 3:1 (with echoes of Exod 23:20) in a composite quotation. Scholars would have us note that the precise wording owes much to the Septuagint13 which makes the derivation even clearer. How do you prepare the way of Messiah? The community in Qumran read Isa 40 to mean quiet contemplation of the Torah was the way to bring on the restoration14. There is an attraction to this, a quiet life of contemplation, going about our lives as in the world but not of it. Mark has an alternative view though, the gospel must be declared not merely demonstrated in the privacy of your own home. Preparing the way of Jesus means making a difference. Why the use of Malachi? Because the messenger and the day of Lord in Malachi has an urgency to the good news. The coming of Messiah would NOT align with most people’s gentle expectations of restoration, life going on as usual but better. Malachi’s Messiah is not Santa – promising good stuff for good kids but really giving loot to everyone – Messiah would bring justice (along with mercy), he was the agent of change.

What is Mark telling us? John the Baptist was the chosen voice of God to witness to His son, to prepare the way of the Lord. The arrival of the Lord Jesus Christ, the son of God was announced powerfully, cutting across political and socio-economic lines. John was an integral part of Jesus mission. More than this. Mark wants us to know right up front that this powerful, fearless witness was commissioned by God. Planned by God. Wanted by God.

The coming of Messiah is not a smooth road, it is making a smooth road for him (Isa 40:3-4). The coming of the Lord doesn’t mean our hands are strengthened and our legs steady, it means we are strengthening the weak hands and supporting the feeble knees of others (Isa 35:3). Walking in anticipation of our Lord’s coming will challenge us. It brings trial and reversals. Will we be able to translate the evident facts of our risen messiah the son of God, into action or will we be paralyzed? Will we be empowered by the will of God or will we allow our voice to be muted? We can be a voice, or make smooth roads or even strengthen the weak and say to the fearful behold your God! God commissioned, planned for and wanted us just as He wanted John. He empowered John. He will do no less with us.

Drowning out the resurrection of Jesus

We believe the good news about Jesus. But how does the knowledge of the remarkable power of God impact us?

Shortly after I married his daughter, my father in law fixed a major shortcoming in my life. He bought me a kit to change the oil in my car. He showed me how to do this fairly simple and important task. 21 years later the bucket thing is still sitting in my garage in as new condition storing a few car bits like a (now) vintage sparkplug or two and a crumbled spare fan belt – tags still attached). It was the first (maybe) and certainly not the last in a long line of failures. In the case of Jesus though our knowledge should translate into personal action.

The hope of the Christ follower lies in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The fact of the empty tomb is essential to our faith and hope, without it the whole crumbles (1 Cor 15:17-19). However the empty tomb must have an impact, knowledge is not enough. Knowledge of this most important fact can be robbed of its impact. It can’t be left on the shelf in pristine condition, lest it turn to clutter used only to store the odd unused spark plug and fan belt.

The disciples were with Jesus constantly. They knew he was special. They sacrificed a lot to be with him, because they believed. But even they struggled to comprehend and cope with the good news about his impending victory through suffering. Mark provides three instances where Jesus specifically discussed his death and resurrection. He discussed it with men and women who daily saw his miracles and heard his teaching. Yet they couldn’t hear it. The three predictions from Jesus are in Mark 8, 9 and 10. Why did they not hear? The context of each prediction shows their comprehension was hindered by human thinking, by an unwillingness to serve each other and ambition. The same things limit our ability to translate the good news of Jesus resurrection into our lives, to change knowledge to action now.

Following Peter’s confession Jesus gives the first prediction of his death and resurrection. Despite having articulated his faith that Jesus was Messiah, Peter cannot accept this unexpected future. Christ rebukes Peter stating that he was “setting your mind not on divine things but on human things“ (Mark 8:33 NRSV). Translating the work of Jesus into our lives requires a new mode of thinking – one that we have to keep developing. From time to time we might consider ourselves, or others, as consumed in human thinking. It’s easy to be feel we haven’t lifted our cross to follow Jesus (a requirement he goes on to discuss in Mark 8:34). However Peter’s failure comes immediately after his faithful insight into Jesus. Any Christ follower sitting in the metaphorical gutter has slipped there – it’s not where you (or they) belong. You, and your siblings in faith, have confessed Jesus is Messiah. Our Lord worked with Peter despite his downs because of his ups. He works with you and me. He will help us pick up our cross and get back on the path of divine thinking, because he wants us as his witnesses. Yes human thinking often fogs our view but it doesn’t define us.

In Mark 9 Christ gives the second prediction. Again this is not understood by the disciples. They were distracted as they argued about prestige and power. Jesus responds to this distraction by teaching them that service to him is about service to all. How do we prepare the way of the Messiah, the son of God? How do we take up out cross? Well a large part of it is service to each other. It is welcoming a child in Jesus’ name – Mark 9:37. It is accepting we cannot and should not control all things – like those whose teachings or loyalties might be unknown – Mark 9:38-40. Living as Jesus’ witnesses does not mean tearing down the fortress of the wicked, but rather providing a cup of cold water to the needy. It is strengthening the weak hands and feeble knees, speaking words of comfort to the fearful heart. Supporting your siblings in faith, no matter their needs. That is how to translate the resurrection of our Lord into action.

Mark 10:32-34 has the third prediction. Rather than think about Jesus’ words, the disciples focus on James and John’s request for positions of privilege. Oh they got the message – a little. They knew a kingdom was coming, they knew who the king was. But they failed to understand what this meant, what discipleship was. Jesus was first a slave and we must be too. We have to be slaves and give for each other like our Lord Mark 10:43-45. The family of faith is no place for ambition. It is the place of self-sacrifice, of service, not out of oppression but as a response to love. Paul saw himself in this light – a slave and debtor to all. Why?

For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. 2 Cor 5:14 NRSV

When we fall into human thinking, when we fail be kind to each other, and when we feed our ambition rather than build others up, we are failing to declare Jesus. We are not preparing the way of Messiah. We have the tools, the oil change kit if you will, we have the knowledge. The challenge is translating this into our lives. How can we retune our witness, clarify our thinking and recommit to serving the one we have declared is the Messiah and the son of God?

I am not suggesting we all adopt camel hair clothing and be the greatest preacher ever. There is a need for preaching, yes. But, recognising the resurrection, proclaiming the Lord also involves service, bringing a cup of cold water to the needy. The little things are enormous. What little things can you do? What little things can we do again, to refire the beginning, to restart living a life constrained by the love of Christ?

So back to the end of Mark again

Mark commenced with the declaration of Jesus as the Messiah and the son of God. The good news, the promises of God were to be fulfilled in this one. Jesus would achieve a victory which far superseded any Roman event. All this was witnessed to by the God-appointed, God-empowered John the Baptist; the greatest prophet of all.

At the end of the gospel we have the declaration made by the centurion (of all people – the one who supervised the nails being banged in to Jesus, the on-the-spot man responsible for his death! God through Mark uses him as a witness!) and finally the angel who spoke to the women. However in ending abruptly Mark leaves us hanging, as Lane says in his commentary:

The account of the empty tomb is soul-shaking, and to convey this impression Mark describes in the most meaningful language the utter amazement and overwhelming feeling of the women. With his closing comment he wished to say that “the gospel of Jesus the Messiah” (Ch. 1:1) is an event beyond human comprehension and therefore awesome and frightening…15

This is true but it is not the end. In Mark 1:1, the writer tells us his history is “the BEGINNING of the good news”. We know the actual conclusion as did Mark’s readers. His readers were in Rome and the gospel had come to them. From fear, amazement, and silence, the first believers rallied. Let’s be honest, initially they failed. They struggled to understand what had just happened. But Jesus worked with them. Not because of their actual performance but because of their potential as unlocked by his love. So by the time of Acts 2 they are empowered by the spirit and boldly proclaiming the revolutionary good news. More than just preaching, they are a community which is characterised by the following qualities:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers…All who believed were together and had all things in common…praising God (Acts 2:42-47 NRSV)

See what is happening here? This vital energetic community had a variety of things happening. Teaching, fellowship, communion, prayer, spending time together/socialising, welfare, praise. We know from Acts that different people took different roles. E.g. the apostles focussed on prayer and teaching; Stephen and others worked on welfare. Some were preachers like Philip. Others provided cups of cold water like Barnabus the son of encouragement, who provided for others’ needs (Acts 4:36).

They took the victory of Christ to the world. With many a setback along the way, eventually their opponents would say the disciples turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6).

So choose your own adventure

Our early siblings initially failed. But their potential was unlocked by Jesus’ love and God empowered their efforts.

Now we rightly expect the return of Israel’s Messiah. We have good reason to expect the son of God to return from the Father’s right hand soon. This is a revolutionary message. This is good news indeed.

2,000 years ago the beginning was made by John. Then by the Lord’s early disciples. The way of the Lord needs to be prepared again. His kingdom is coming. This needs living witnesses.

“Oh but my failures” we exclaim. No. Jesus did not retire from action in 33AD. The same One who unlocked the potential of the disciples can work in us. It might be in a whole variety of ways. It might be preaching, teaching, praying, serving, sharing, or caring. Empowered by faith we can do these things. All of them are necessary. However somethings are not needful – human thinking, self-service, and ego need to be curbed – they mute the power of the resurrection and cloud our service. As these things impacted our early siblings in faith so they can temporary impact us. That doesn’t mean failure. Self-examination and the love of Christ will dispel these clouds and let us refocus on the good news we hold.

The gospel of Mark ends with unfinished business. It is the responsibility of each reader to pick up the mantle and complete the book, to choose to make the adventure ours, the story ours, personally and together.

When we pause to take the bread and wine, to remember our Messiah and God’s son, to remember the promises of God, we connect with this unfinished story; we connect with the first believers who made the memorial feast a signature activity of their community. The opportunity, the challenge, and the requirement is to find ways to contribute to building all the other wonderful features of their community. As we connect with the emblems we commit to prepare the way of the Lord.

In the spirit of Mark let us end abruptly, what’s next? Over to you.

Footnotes

  1. France, R. T. (2002). The Gospel of Mark: a commentary on the Greek text (p. 685). Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press.
  2. Bratcher, R. G., & Nida, E. A. (1993). A handbook on the Gospel of Mark (p. 517). New York: United Bible Societies.
  3. Collins, A. Y., & Attridge, H. W. (2007). Mark: A Commentary on the Gospel of Mark (p. 798). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.
  4. (1936). The Christadelphian, 73(electronic ed.), 493–495.
  5. Lane, W. L. (1974). The Gospel of Mark (p. 8). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
  6. Guelich, R. A. (1998). Mark 1–8:26 (Vol. 34A, p. xxviii). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.
  7. Guelich, R. A. (1998). Mark 1–8:26 (Vol. 34A, p. xxix). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.
  8. Brooks, J. A. (1991). Mark (Vol. 23, p. 38). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
  9. Law, T. M. (2013). When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible (p. 95). New York: Oxford University Press.
  10. Shakespeare, W. (n.d.). The Tragedy of Macbeth. (B. A. Mowat & P. Werstine, Eds.) (p. 179). Folger Shakespeare Library.
  11. Wright, N. T. (1999). The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is (p. 181). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  12. Guelich, R. A. (1998). Mark 1–8:26 (Vol. 34A, pp. xxiv–xxv). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.
  13. Waetjen, H. C. (n.d.). John the Baptist: An Anomalous Prophet at the Culmination of the Second Temple.
  14. Watts, R. E. (2007). Mark. In Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament (p. 115). Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos.
  15. Lane, W. L. (1974). The Gospel of Mark (pp. 591–592). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Author: Daniel Edgecombe

Daniel is a lifelong Christadelphian and married to Sarah. They have a poodle and three teenagers. He is interested in apologetics (partly to answer his children’s questions) but suffers from an addiction to all books but particularly history and science.