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.

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Neil Godfrey

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3 thoughts on “Narrative problems with the proposed endings of Mark”

  1. Perhaps Mk originally ended at 15:39, with 15:40-16:8 being a later polemic against certain positions in Th.

    A reason for thinking that Mk originally ended at 15:39 is that there is an inclusio between Mk 1:1-11 and Mk 15:32-39 is that they have these common elements in the same sequential order:
    1. Jesus is called Christ. Mk 1:a, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Mk 15:32a, “Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now.”
    2. There is the crying out of a voice. Mk 1:3a “A voice crying out (phwne bowntos) in the wilderness.” Mk 15:34b “Jesus cried out in a great voice (eboesen…phwne).
    3. There is a reference to Elijah. Mk 1:6a, “And John had been clothed in camel-hairs and a leather belt around his waist (Here, John is implicitly identified as being Elijah come again—compare II (IV) Kings 1:8, “And they said to him (i.e., Ochozias, the King of Israel), ‘He was a hairy man, and fit with a leather girdle about his loins.’ And he said, ‘This is Elijah, the Thesbite’”). Mk 15:35b, “Look! He calls for Elijah!”
    4. There is the rending of the heavens, which is explicit in Mk 1:10b, “He saw the heavens being rent (schisomenous)” and implicit in Mk 15:38, “And the temple curtain was rent (eschisthe) in two from top to bottom (This curtain apparently had a representation of the heavens on it–see the Jesus Seminar, the Acts of Jesus, p. 158)
    5. Jesus is declared to be God’s Son. Mk 1:11a, “And there was a voice out of the heavens, “You are my Son.” Mk 15:39b, “Truly, this man was Son of God!”

    Since the first part of this inclusio is the beginning of Mk, its last part must be the original end of Mk. Therefore, it appears, Mk originally ended at Mk 15:39b with the triumphant cry, “Truly, this man was Son of God.”

    Let us look at the very end of Mk and Th, i.e., Mk 16:6-8 (But he (i.e., the young man) says to them (i.e., Mary the Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome), “Do not be amazed. You seek Jesus the Nazarene, the one having been crucified. He was raised (egerthe). He is not here. Look, the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He goes before you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” And, having gone out, they fled from the tomb—for trembling and ecstasy seized them. And they told no one nothing—for they were afraid!) and Th 114.1-3 (Simon Peter said to them, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of life.” Jesus said, “I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven.”).

    There are at least five major contrasts between these two rather short passages, suggesting that Mk 16:6-8 is a response to Th 114:
    (1) While Peter’s contention that women are not worthy of the life is condemned in Th 114, it is affirmed in Mk 16:6-8–where the women show their unworthiness by being fraidy cats who tell no one nothing.
    (2) While Peter loses face in Th 114 when his position is criticised by Jesus, he gains face in Mk 16:6-8–for the phrase, “tell his disciples and Peter”, is based on the premise that, with Jesus now dead, Peter has been promoted from the status of disciple to the status of being the legitimate successor to Jesus as the earthly head of his movement.
    (3) In Th 114, Jesus will lead Mary, a woman but, in Mk 16:6-8, Jesus will go before his disciples and Peter, all men
    (4) While Mary, in Th 114, will become a living spirit, the implication in Mk 16:16-8 is that Jesus has become a living body–for the young man declares that he is risen and his body is no longer present in the tomb.
    (5) While the Kingdom is something to be entered in the here and now in Th 114, it is a future reality in Mk 16:6-8–for the young man’s declaration regards how Jesus will be returning to Galilee to inaguerate the Kingdom (see Mark Traditions in Conflict (p. 110), where Theodore J. Weeden, Jr. states, “The announcement ‘He is not here. See the place where they laid him’ states unequivocally that Jesus is no longer present on this earthly plane of existence. At this point one of Hamilton’s insights is right on target: ‘In the place of the presence of the risen Jesus, Mark simply and strikingly affirmed his absence.’ The importance of the angel’s words for our evangelist could not have been more sharply perceived. Jesus is absent! He is absent not just from the grave. He has completely left the human scene and will not return until the parousia! He has been translated (egerthe) to his Father. There he must await the time when the kingdom dawns in power (9:1) and he is re-united with his community (13:26-27).”

    That there appear to be five major contrasts between Mk 16:6-8 and Th 114.1-3 is quite remarkable. Further, since each passage is only three verses long and occurs at the very end of the gospel in which it appears, it is difficult to maintain that this is mere coincidence. Rather, I suggest, Mk 16:6-8 is designed to be a refutation of Thomasine viewpoints found in Th 114. Seen as such, it is a satisfactory end to Mk as far as the Markan group was concerned, for it (in their eyes) demolishes what they perceived to be some erroneous beliefs held by the Thomasine group.

    Frank McCoy
    2036 E Magnolia Ave
    St. Paul, MN 55119
    BA History

  2. Hi Frank–at some point however it becomes unhelpful to call things the “original ending of Mark”–I think that the multiple “endings” of Mark are the result of a long process of redaction. Untangling these sources does help us uncover layers of proto-Mark, though I would argue this is a different process (because it involves a much more comprehensive job on the part of the Markan redactor) from analyzing the appended endings present in canonical Mark. If Mk 15:39 was the original ending of anything it was probably not Mark-as-we-know-it (whereas Mk without 16:9-20 would still be recognizable as “The Gospel of Mark”.) This is kind of a subtle distinction, but I think it’s a necessary one to help avoid confusion–and it’s also a useful one, in that it helps explain how gMark was put together.

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