Questions re John 21 being the original ending of Mark

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by Neil Godfrey

Despite the obvious symmetrical neatness of the idea that John 21 is a redaction of what was originally the ending of Mark (John 21 appearing as a double ending added to John and Mark appearing to lack a coherent ending) I am stuck on several questions that this raises.

If John 21 were originally the ending of Mark (minus the johnanninisms) then must we reject the fundamental interpretations of Mark treatment of the disciples by Weeden, Kelber, Tolbert, Fowler…? In other words, would not the hypothesis that John 21 is the original ending of Mark determine how we interpret the very meaning of Mark itself? What is the role of analytic literary criticism here in the interpretation of the texts as opposed to a “naive” reading of the texts as face-value “reports”?

Is it possible to hold both to Mark being a Pauline gospel (with its anti-Petrine position) and to John 21 being the original ending (with its pro-Petrine conclusion)?

If John 21 were the ending of Mark then how did it fit, exactly? What do we do with the women who are told to speak to Peter and the disciples about what they had seen at the tomb? Does not John 21 indicate that Peter had NOT heard? If we think the original said something like “but they believed not the women”, then don’t we also have to add another hypothesis that John edited out some reference to this (“and he upbraided them for their lack of belief”). If so, then aren’t we setting out on the road to finding that ‘the John 21 being the ending of Mark hypothesis’ is going to raise more questions than it answers?

Have studies of the endings of John and Mark been made in the broader context of ancient literature? My previous entry here addresses some of the “strange” endings in classical literature discussed in “Classical Closure” edited by Roberts, Dunn and Fowler.

Has anyone raised a possibility of John 21 having in some way some sort of relationship with another missing ending that we read in the noncanonical Gospel of Peter (No, I’m not presuming GPeter preceded GJohn or anything…. completely open re where and to/from what the evidence points) — but the gospel of Peter as we have it ends with an account of the disciples breaking up and going their various ways, with Peter and 2 others taking their nets and going back to the sea. Now that just on the surface of it would seem a most natural lead in to John 21, would it not? If so, why do we default to thinking John 21 might relate to Mark and not some other gospel which we see surviving in GPeter?

Apart from the original words and phrases (markan vs johannine) used in John 21, does it not seem that John 21 is far more rich in the detail and colour of its narration than anything we find in the generally terse style of Mark? If so, has any study been done on these richer details in John to see if there is any “Markan” language in those vs Johannine? Has anyone thought through whether the story in John 21 would coherently hold together without loss of meaning if that (unmarkan) richness of detail were absent?

Has anyone compared John 21 with Mark’s and/or John’s account of the feeding of the 5000? There seems to me to be strong ties between John 21 and John’s Feeding of the 5000 that are not found in a comparison with Mark’s Feeding story. If so, would this change our perspectives on the integrity of John 21 being original to John?


  • Jesus opens the scenes with a question 21:5; 6:5 (unlike Mark’s 5000 story);
  • the stress in the stories is on none of the potential food being lost (21:11; 6:12) (unlike Mark);
  • John has Jesus command that the bread/fish be gathered and brought in (unlike Mark);
  • the number 7 is integral to John’s account more deeply than it is in Mark’s — 21:2 it is done with 7 (5 named and 2 unnamded) disciples matching(?) the 5 loaves and 2 fish in the common story of the 5000;
  • John 6:13 specifies that the miraculous fragments consisted on bread only although the initial handout had been of bread and fish, thus allowing the John 21 fish miracle to form a natural complement of the miracle of the loaves — contrast Mark 6:43 that says the fragments were of both bread and fish;
  • the culmination of the stories in John is the same: recognition of Jesus (21:7, 12; 6:14) (unlike Mark).

Has anyone raised the possibility that John 21 was an early attempt by someone who did not like the Mark 16:8 ending to compose a more happy conclusion for Mark? And that this could explain why it was not accepted widely enough to have survived as a secure ending of that gospel, and also why some did not want to lose it altogether and managed to salvage it with John? (“Classical Closure” reminds us that there were other ancient attempts to write a more satisfying (for many) conclusion to Virgil’s Aeneid, none of which finally “stuck” to the original.)

I’m not “arguing” that John 21 could not have been an original ending of Mark — who knows what redactions have been done to both gospels or what scripts we may uncover in the future. But these are the sorts of questions I’d like discussed before deciding to go too far with thinking John 21 “probably” was the Markan ending.

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Endings of Mark/John/Acts in wider literary context

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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.