by Tim Widowfield
Awhile back I bought the Kindle edition of McGrath’s e-book, The Burial of Jesus: What Does History Have to Do with Faith?, hoping to get a review post out of it. Unfortunately, the work is just a tepid rehash of what you’ll find in Bart Ehrman’s (far superior) lectures from The Great Courses (aka The Teaching Company). Dr. McGrath adds nothing especially new or interesting in his assessment of the life and death of Jesus, probably because we’re not in his target audience — Christian believers who are troubled by the Talpiot tomb story.
I was about to write off the effort as a complete waste of time when I came upon the section header, “Evidence for a Conspiracy?” Now we’re getting somewhere. This could be fun. Perhaps my slogging through page after page of leaden prose wasn’t for nothing. So, what sort of conspiracy is James talking about? He writes:
There is one point at which, if one were inclined to make a case for some sort of conspiracy or cover up in connection with early Christianity, one could do so particularly plausibly. I am referring to the missing ending of Mark’s Gospel. As all recent translations of the Bible point out, our earliest manuscripts end abruptly at Mark 16:8, after the phrase “they did not say anything to anyone, for they were afraid.” (Kindle Locations 1436-1443)
Ugh. Here we go again. As regular readers know, McGrath has a special curiosity about the end of Mark’s Gospel, which drove him to write a paper, “Mark’s Missing Ending: Clues from the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Peter,” which was recently reviewed (and corrected) here in Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
Mark’s “Missing Ending” — Redux
James is much more forthcoming in his e-book than in his paper. When writing for the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) or the Bible and Interpretation web site, he didn’t come out and say he thought an unknown ending once existed but is now missing. He left himself some wiggle room, some “plausible deniability.” But now we’re going to see his true colors:
There have been attempts to treat this ending as the way the Gospel originally ended, and the way the author intended for it to conclude. However, when we consider that copyists of the Gospel of Mark independently added at least two different endings, and that Matthew and Luke both felt the need to complete the story when they used Mark’s Gospel, it seems clear that early readers of Mark’s Gospel found its sudden ending at 16:8 unsatisfactory. Once we realize that it makes little or no sense to tell a story that ends with an assertion that no one was told about the events in the story, it begins to seem far more likely that the original version of Mark’s Gospel must have once continued beyond this point. (Kindle Locations 1442-1446, bold emphasis mine)
An argument from silence
McGrath is pointing out what many readers over the years have noticed. Mark’s Jesus predicts his death and resurrection throughout the gospel. Then when we finally reach the resurrection scene, we find out it has already happened “off stage.” Worse still, instead of treating us to a set of entertaining resurrection stories, Mark informs us that the women told no one and ran away in terror. The End.
James finds this silence displeasing. No, it’s more than displeasing; for him, it’s impossible. He doesn’t simply suspect Mark’s gospel continued after 16:8, he says it “must have once continued beyond this point.” Curiously, when Paul’s silence about Jesus is the focus of our discussion, the main alternatives are (1) Paul chose not to write about the historical Jesus or (2) Paul knew nothing about the historical Jesus. Now we have a viable third option, a McGrathian Conspiracy: Paul wrote about Jesus but it has mysteriously disappeared!
If McGrath is right, and the original, real ending “must have” once existed, what happened to it?
Manuscripts were fragile, and it is certainly possible that the ending was lost by accident rather than by willful mutilation. Even if one posits a conspiracy, we cannot be certain what was in the lost ending, and so the cover up (if there was one) was successful. (Kindle Locations 1449-1450, bold emphasis mine)
Magic bullets, grassy knolls, and “official” versions
So although it “must have” been lost, it might have been an accident. However, if it was a conspiracy the subsequent cover-up succeeded thoroughly. Apparently, these first-century Scripture Ninjas were ruthlessly efficient. But why, you may ask, would anyone do such a thing? And how?
It is certainly not impossible that someone removed the ending of Mark’s Gospel because it contradicted the “official” version of the story. Nevertheless, the Gospel of Mark’s promise of resurrection sightings anticipates its fulfillment. And so, even though it might make sense to suggest that Mark’s original ending was significantly different from the narratives included or alluded to elsewhere in the New Testament, it does not make sense to suggest that sightings of Jesus were altogether lacking. At the very least, it seems clear that the author knew stories about Jesus appearing, irrespective whether he wrote them in his Gospel in its original form. (Kindle Locations 1485-1490, bold emphasis mine)
I set those two sentences in bold for a specific reason. McGrath finds this sequence of events completely plausible:
- Some person or persons saw the “real ending” of Mark’s gospel and didn’t like it.
- They destroyed it, and put nothing in its place, leaving it dangle at 16:8.
- Nobody who had read Mark’s gospel in its original form remembered the “real ending.”
- When Matthew and Luke incorporated Mark, the “real ending” was already gone, so they wrote their own endings, which diverged wildly.
- Later, unsatisfied scribes invented other endings to fill Mark’s void.
We have absolutely no tangible evidence that the first three steps above happened. Not a shred of evidence supports the existence of an original, “real ending.” On the other hand, we have plenty of hard evidence that the earliest versions of Mark contained no resurrection appearances. (See my three-part review of McGrath’s paper.)
NT scholars’ special tools
Yet McGrath calls the Scripture Ninja Conspiracy Theory plausible, while rejecting the more mundane explanation. Why? It’s the argument from incredulity. In normal historical studies, the argument from incredulity or “lack of imagination” is considered a fallacy. However, in NT studies, it has become a criterion in its own right. Read through any of today’s HJ apologists and note how many times they say “it is hard to imagine” or “it is difficult to believe.” One man’s fallacy is another man’s proof.
McGrath then incorporates his dreadful paper’s thesis into the The Burial of Jesus, proposing that the echoes of Mark’s missing ending can be found in the Gospels of Peter and John. He finds it “plausible.”
Recently, in a blog post on his Exploding Cakemix (“The Danger of Backfiring Skepticism,” in which he once again blithely lumps Jesus mythicists together with Holocaust-deniers) McGrath lamented the fact that people reject conclusions that have been “subjected to rigorous investigation and debate by those with the most relevant qualifications and experience.”
Where incompetency rules, skepticism is necessary
If you’ve been following my work you will no doubt have noticed an emerging theme. I have set out carefully and deliberately to demonstrate that modern NT scholarship is riddled with incompetency. The remaining competent scholars have either lost interest in the game, or they’ve been cowed into submission. Critical Scholarship of the past is largely forgotten, except when it’s misquoted, misused, and misunderstood.
In short, today’s NT scholarship is seriously broken — which is why we are all perfectly within our rights to question any and all of its conclusions.
I do not doubt anthropogenic global warming. I understand the science to a reasonable degree, and I trust the competency of the scientists engaged in the study of climate change. I don’t doubt for one second that we landed on the moon. I know the Holocaust really happened (and was much worse, if we remember the Gypsies and other “unwanted” people who also lost their lives in the camps). I’ve seen the evidence and I trust the historians engaged in the study. I accept evolution by natural selection as a scientific fact. Again, I’m familiar with the evidence and I trust the expert biologists.
On the other hand, if a modern NT scholar tells me the sky is blue, I will accept it provisionally, but I’ll certainly follow up with a little prudent verification. Note to self: Nod and smile, but at the earliest opportunity take a peek out the window to be sure.
McGrath continues in his blog post:
If you are someone from outside a given field, and you are thoroughly convinced that you have seen matters more clearly than the thousands of academics who work in that field for a living, you might just possibly be a unique genius. But if you do not realize that the far more likely explanation for this state of affairs is that your skepticism has backfired, then you simply aren’t thinking skeptically about the matter.
I’m not a genius, and I’m not unique. However, even with my limited experience and abilities, I can tell that something is wrong. The problem is not that I possess some unusual powers to see and understand things that nobody else can; the problem is that I am a very ordinary person who, simply by reading an awful lot, has discovered that many of today’s NT scholars are either incompetent, lazy, or both.
[Editorial Note: There was a really funny and brilliant ending to this post, but it was destroyed by ninjas.]