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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Neil Godfrey

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3 thoughts on “Questions re John 21 being the original ending of Mark”

  1. I have a strong belief that Mark, Secret Mark, and John 21 were part of a longer Gospel of Mark. In that longer version, Jesus meets a rich [young, according to a later synoptic] man and immediately loved him. But that young man won’t follow Jesus until Jesus raises him from the dead and teaches him the mystery of the kingdom. Later, at Jesus’ arrest, the authorities try to grab the young man, who runs away naked. [In John the authorities want to arrest Lazarus because he is evidence of Jesus’ greatest sign or miracle. Finally, in canonical Mark, the young man appears in the empty tomb wearing a shroud and instructs the women on what to tell the Twelve to do. And ultimately, in Mark’s hypothetical missing ending, which John 21 may be in redacted form, Jesus promises to return within the young man’s lifetime. I suspect Mark’s ending was removed in part because of that hypothetical promise and perhaps because of the subplot of the young man’s story may have carried sexual overtones with it. Someone [a qualified scholar but I forget whom] noticed this subplot though not noticing John 21’s possible connection.

    I have never though of Mark as being anti-Peter so much as a polemic against Jesus’ whole inner circle of family and disciples. It is not their traditions and views of Jesus the reader should follow but the young man’s Hellenic tradition as portrayed in longer Mark. But certainly rehabbing Peter is still problematic and likely was not part of the hypothetical Markan ending.

    Just my view — a view that likely never will be proven right or wrong.

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