Narrative problems with the proposed endings of Mark

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by Neil Godfrey

Some narrative inconsistencies with Mark 16:9-20

Quite apart from the difficulties with both the internal and the external evidence for Mark 16:9-20 being original to the gospel, questions would be raised about its authenticity purely on narrative grounds.

In verse 8 all the women, apparently led by Mary Magdalene (16:1), fled in such fear that they could say nothing to anyone about their experience.

Then in verse 9 the narrative awkwardly doubles back to pick up the time setting (we are told a second time both the time of the day and the day of the week) from the beginning of the chapter to continue a narrative that immediately contradicts the previous verse. Suddenly, without explanation, Mary Magdalene is mysteriously separated from her companions (did the three women helter skelter screaming blindly in 3 different directions in verse 8?), sees Jesus, and rushes off to tell the disciples after all.

Silly excursis:
At this point I keep imagining a Monty Python ending if
Life of Brian had another ten minutes to run — Mary and/or Mary cattily scold a look-alike they mistake for a resurrected Jesus/Brian for having them go and waste all that money on buying spices for his corpse when he goes and pulls a thoughtless stunt like that on them, . . . . . yeh, well, with the Monty Python crew it could have had potential.

Why didn’t the author simply say in verse 8 that Mary (the mother of James or Joseph or both) and Salome ran off never to be heard from again while Mary Magdalene etc etc . . . ? That would be a much more natural narrative flow. As it stands it sounds as if the author took a very long spell before adding these verses and came back to finish it having forgotten the details of what he had composed long before.

Then there is the unexplained reference to “the eleven” in verse 14. Why only eleven? It is clear in Matthew and Luke who used Mark why there would be only eleven disciples at this juncture — Matthew had Judas hang himself and Luke had Satan possess him — but in Mark’s gospel there is little to narrative reason to put such a huge gulf between Peter and Judas, or between Judas and the rest of the disciples. Peter’s last appearance was suffering anguish over having denied his Lord before men, and therefore presumably knowing his fate was thence to have the Son of Man being ashamed of him at his coming (8:38). (Other early gospel “traditions”, as known from Justin Martyr and the Gospel of Peter among others, iirc, did not appear to know of any of the twelve missing after the resurrection.)

Verses 9-20 only make narrative sense if read through what we know of the other synoptic gospels. They can scarcely be indigenous to the first gospel.

Inconsistencies with the “shorter ending”

The shorter ending (see the Wikipedia article) suffers the same narrative incongruities as the longer ending.

And they reported all the instructions briefly to Peter’s companions. Afterwards Jesus himself, through them, sent forth from east to west the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation. Amen.

Here Peter looks as lost from view as Judas in Matthew and Luke. This would seem to flow against the earlier narrative point that the women were told specifically to tell Peter. It also, of course, flies against the previous verse that announces the women did the exact opposite — kept quiet and said nothing to anyone. (Maybe the author was self-consciously writing what he planned to be known as “the shorter ending”, hence omitting Peter and noting the women spoke “briefly”.)

And narrative inadequacies with the John 21 ending

John 21 (Luke 5), which is another proposed original ending, also runs into narrative anomalies if tagged on to Mark 16. If we had been reading a conclusion to Mark where Jesus appeared to his disciples again on the shore of the “sea” of Galilee, we would forever be wondering what on earth happened to the poor women.

Would not this ending condemn the gospel as the most sexist of all with salvation for men only, with women condemned forever to keep silence in the churches as hopeless witnesses. Not that modern values has anything to do with the question of authenticity, but the point remains that any happy ending would surely be expected to toss in some lifeline to redeem the women, too.

Another point that a John 21 ending fails to reconcile is the young man’s message to the women — at least as I understand it in the English translation.

But go and tell his disciples — and Peter — that he is going before you into Galilee, there you will see him as he said to you.

Is the young man saying here that Jesus is to appear to an inclusive “you” — inclusive of the disciples and the women?

If so, it would seem none of the proposed endings resolve this statement.

The chaos that settled with the conversion of Mark

If any of the above endings were original to the gospel of Mark we would be left with an additional perplexity — Why would any of the above have been detached from the original in the first place? None of them appears to be in violation of proto-orthodoxy. But if the gospel did indeed originally conclude with 16:8 then we do have a gospel that is arguably in opposition to the emerging orthodoxy.

Such a gospel would demand the fabrication of a catholicizing conclusion.

If Matthew and Luke represent branches of that emerging orthodoxy, it is surely a significant point that they both do not simply tag a narrative on to where Mark left off. They both change his last line, that presumably offensive or embarrassing verse 8. Both Matthew and Luke insist the women ran off to tell the disciples. They both change — not simply add to —  the Marcan narrative-ending that we do have.

If Mark 1:1-16:8 declares a non-orthodox Jesus and a tragic tale of failed discipleship, it appears that there were a number of early attempts to re-write this gospel. The re-writing touched on the character of Jesus, his teachings, his miraculous performances, and the status of the disciples. By the time the dust had settled it appears that two of the variant endings were stitched in part from Luke and Matthew, and another may have been cast out like an orphan till it found a home, with a few redactions, in the back room of the Gospel of John.