2006-12-18

Those strange NT endings (Mark, John, Acts)

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by Neil Godfrey

It is widely assumed that the endings we know of Mark (16:8), John and Acts cannot have been the ones originally intended but after reading “Classical Closure: Reading the End in Greek and Latin Literature” edited by Deborah H. Roberts, Francis M. Dunn, and Don Fowler (1997) I have less confidence in that assumption. Nowhere are Mark, Acts and John discussed in the book and the extrapolations below are entirely my own.

In the book Carolyn Dewald discussion of “Strategies of Meaning at the End of Herodotus’s Histories” struck me as raising the same sorts of questions over Herodotus’s ending as are raised over the present endings of Mark and Acts. Herodotus leaves his work in mid-air too. This could only have been intentional since Herodotus throughout his work manages to consistently draw many satisfying conclusions to his many story sections. The question that arises then is what Herodotus was wanting to achieve by way of response from his audience by not framing a formal final conclusion to his work. ‘Histories’ can be read more accurately as a kind of theological tragedy than as a history in a modern sense. It is about the fate of Athenians and their lot within the common destinies of mankind, and their future is left in doubt. The mid-air ending of Histories inevitably left the questions about how one understood the present and future as uncertain and as issues to be questioned in the light of all that had just been read.

Francis M. Dunn discusses the ending of Euripides’ Heracles is tormentingly ambiguous and incomplete, so much so that there have long been many attempts rearrange the text or re-write the ending. The ending is indecisive and the audience has no way of knowing if it is meant to see Heracles as a failure or a hero let alone what sort of future is in store for him. Again, it appears that the author was by this means seeking to provoke a certain type of response in the audience to the deeper questions raised in the play.

Philip Hardie has much to say about the Virgil’s Aeneid and hellenistic fiction in general that is also reminiscent of issues that arise in the scholarship relating to the endings of Mark, John and Acts. He writes: “Ancient novels use many paratextual devices, usually to give a sense of (historiographic) authenticity to the fiction …” By paratextual devices he means those sorts of intrusive authorial comments we find in John 20:30-31. With this consideration the disputed ending of John can then be read as something like: “I can’t possibly write about everything but I have to add just one more thing before I close…. ”

The Aeneid is another case of an abrupt “improper” ending leaving the reader on the point of lurching in mid-air. Hardie says the more appropriate ending has been already written and is tucked away in Book 8 with its prophecies of the future history of Rome and Augustus. Deaths always need a resolution of some kind, a new treaty or funeral etc. but in the Aeneid we have the treaty of peace being made near the beginning of the story and the death it is meant to follow is at the end. Not only so, but there are many textual allusions in the final scenes that echo those found in the opening scenes thus reassuring the reader/listener that this ending really is as intended however unconventional it is. So Mark was by no means the first to create an unconventional story with suitable endings in the middle and an ending that leaves readers hanging, and wondering, and scrambling back over all they have read before to find its meaning.

The obvious objection is that Mark is alone in ending his work with that conjunction ‘gar’. Maybe so, but “Classical Closures” leaves less assurance that the endings we find problematic in Mark, John and Acts were not originally intended to be just as they are.

Neil

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