McGrath’s “Missing Ending”: What Was Mark’s Story? — Part 1

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by Tim Widowfield

The Two Marys at the Tomb
“The Two [or Three] Marys at the Tomb” by Bartolomeo Schedoni (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Stopping short

In his paper, “Mark’s Missing Ending: Clues from the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Peter,” Dr. James F. McGrath asks some interesting questions about the last chapter of Mark and what “story” the author may have understood to lie beyond it. This sort of question reminds me of the difference between the larger story arc of a character’s life in a play or film and the limited, internal story within the work itself. We have the backstory of the characters leading up to the opening scene, and we often also wonder what will happen after the curtain falls.

Mark’s Gospel, like many stage plays, covers a focused narrative that depends on our familiarity with a rich backstory (the entire OT?).  And similar to many plays based on well-known myths or historical events, we know (or we think we know) what will occur afterward. So the question at hand is, “What did Mark think happened next?” Surely such a question is legitimate, since the story of the early Christian church presumably begins somewhere in the murky shadows beyond the grave in Jerusalem. How did the early church emerge from two silent, terrified women?

McGrath’s paper addresses four major questions.

  1. Why do we perceive the short ending of Mark to be problematic?
  2. Why might Mark’s original audience not have thought it was problematic?
  3. Can we find clues to the ending of Mark’s Gospel (beyond the written ending, that is) in the Gospels of Peter and John?
  4. Does the ambiguity of the empty tomb story in Mark point to a greater reliance on religious experiences in Galilee that gave rise to the belief in the resurrection?

He must have died while carving it . . .


Just to be clear here, McGrath is not talking about a written ending that somehow got lost or was mysteriously suppressed. Nor does he posit that Mark died in the middle of chapter 16 — “. . . for they were very afraid — Aaaaagh!” Most modern scholars now believe Mark’s Gospel ended at 16:8 (often referred to as the Short Ending or “SE”). McGrath is asking what the author of Mark and his community believed happened after the disciples had scattered. That is, what happened once the curtain fell on the final scene with the women too afraid to tell anyone what had happened?

McGrath reminds us that at one time a majority of scholars held that the “real ending” of Mark was lost. To his point, let me remind you that in 1963, Bruce Metzger wrote in The Text of the New Testament:

But did Mark intend to conclude his Gospel with the melancholy statement that the women were afraid (ἐφοβοῦντο γάρ)? Despite the arguments which several modern scholars have urged in support of such a view, the present writer cannot believe that the note of fear would have been regarded as an appropriate conclusion to an account of the Evangel or Good News. (p. 228)

A sea change in NT scholarship occurred in the last quarter of the 20th century that swung the consensus around the other way. McGrath writes, “It was the shift of focus onto narrative approaches to the Gospels that led to the change in the consensus about Mark’s ending.” I cannot disagree with this assessment; however, I must point out that McGrath has neglected to mention a significant group of critical scholars in the early part of the last century who presented fascinating arguments in favor of the Short Ending, explaining why it fits with the overall message of Mark’s Gospel.

Airbrushed out of history

A novice could read McGrath’s paper and come away thinking that the SE was a complete mystery until the narrative critics came along and explained 16:8 as an “open-ended invitation to the reader.” But that just isn’t so. R H Lightfoot, Willi Marxsen, Norman Perrin, and Theodore Weeden had already offered a simple, persuasive idea: That the young man at the tomb was inviting the reader to come to Galilee to see the parousia, not to witness some random resurrection events with Jesus performing parlor tricks.

Yes, it was indeed narrative criticism and reader-response studies such as Robert M. Fowler’s Let the Reader Understand that gave conservative scholars a fig leaf, a sophisticated way to explain an ending that makes them very uncomfortable. But it’s quite telling that certain major-league scholars are ignored today because their conclusions are too troubling — not cited and refuted, just ignored. Where Metzger had relegated them to the footnotes, today’s scholars simply airbrush them out of the photograph. I’ll have more to say about this subject later on.

Why is the Short Ending “problematic”?

Even with the fig leaf of sophisticated narrative criticism, we’re still left with unanswered questions about the seemingly abrupt ending. Rather than leaving Mark’s Gospel “open-ended,” McGrath says:

In fact, it is possible to reach the opposite conclusion: these words bring about an abrupt and awkward closure to the narrative, not least because, if they are true, then there is no way we could possibly be reading that particular part of the story. [emphasis mine] To quote Robert Fowler, “The story in Mark’s Gospel seems to preclude the telling of Mark’s Gospel.” (Let the Reader Understand, p. 250)

I find this argument a bit odd from both McGrath and Fowler. If I’m following their reasoning correctly, they’re saying that the fact the women never told anyone should mean that no one ever heard the story of the empty tomb. Yet Fowler himself describes in detail the narrative “stance” of the author of Mark. He is, if not omniscient, at least “unlimited or unrestricted” (see p. 64). He knows things that we would expect no mere mortal could know.

Not even Jesus knows as much as our narrator; we may wonder whether God knows more. (p. 65)

A godlike narrator such as Mark could surely know what the young man told the women at the tomb, whether they ever told anyone or not.

So does the dissatisfaction with the SE stem from our concern over how, when, or if the disciples got the message to return to Galilee? No, says McGrath, since the order to return is a reminder of what they were already told in 14:28:

“But after I have been raised, I will go ahead of you to Galilee.” (NASB)

At this point, McGrath addresses the issues surrounding 14:28. Critics have long known that verse 28 was awkwardly wedged in by a redactor. Given that the oldest versions of Mark contain this redaction, the likely explanation is that the evangelist himself is the redactor, inserting the prediction into his traditional material at 14:28, and echoing that very prediction in 16:7:

“But go, tell His disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He told you.'” (NASB)

The Fayyum Fragment comes into play here, since verse 28 appears to be missing from the text, although the papyrus is badly damaged and it could be an abridged version of Mark. McGrath rightly points out that Matthew copies Mark here, indicating that his version of Mark’s Gospel (presumably with the ink still wet) already contained the words in 14:28.

As Willi Marxsen explained in his landmark book on redaction criticism, Mark the Evangelist, the insertion of “Galilee” and the reminder “as he told you” come from the author himself. Mark added it to his source material. In fact, we should see the two verses as a doublet, each pointing to the other. They “stem from one saying whose original form would be better preserved in 14:28.” (p. 88) A New Testament scholar of McGrath’s caliber can hardly be unaware of the late German scholar’s work, so we might wonder why he chose not to cite Marxsen.

Yet even with the somewhat comforting realization that Jesus had already told the disciples he would see them in Galilee, it’s difficult to reach the end at 16:8 and not feel a sense of incompleteness. (Perhaps “somewhat comforting” is an overstatement; after all these are the same disciples who misunderstood nearly everything they were told.) Even if we take the young man’s command as an open invitation to us, the reader, it still feels like an abrupt ending in Jerusalem, not a fresh beginning in Galilee.

McGrath’s thought experiment

At this point, Dr. McGrath asks us to imagine the ending of Matthew with Mark 16:8 tacked on.

“. . . And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” But they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Would that be an open-ended gospel? McGrath writes:

On the contrary, in the context of Matthew’s Gospel, this would represent an abrupt closure, one that undermines the very story being told. For unless someone went and told, how can we now be reading about what happened, much less be invited to participate ourselves?

The effect is not the same, of course, since in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus never appears in the story after he is laid to rest by Joseph of Arimathea, and the disciples never appear again once Peter denies Jesus for the last time. So I would argue that in Matthew’s Gospel it is a confusing non sequitur, while in Mark’s Gospel it is one final indictment against a group of followers who failed Jesus at every turn. In one last ironic twist, Jesus, who had been telling people to be silent throughout the narrative only to be disobeyed, now asks the women to deliver the good news to the disciples.  But they disobey and remain silent.

McGrath is not so pessimistic as I am. He finds solace in the fact that the disciples had already been told that they will meet him in Galilee back at 14:28. Perhaps they will stumble home without even thinking too much about it.

The problem, McGrath asserts, isn’t that we worry nobody will ever get the message; the problem is rather the “the abrupt character of the ending.” In a nutshell, we find it abrupt and unexpectedly dissatisfying, because he says, quoting Donald Juel, “As readers, we have been led to expect something other than verse 8 [of chapter 16].

Great expectations?

However, none of us who are familiar with the Gospels can say for certain that Mark’s Gospel leads us to expect something more than the ending at verse 8. For one thing, in my childhood I never even knew that it should end at verse 8. I read Mark in the King James Version, never suspecting it was incorrect. Furthermore, I knew the other three gospels ended with resurrection appearances, followed by (at least in Luke and Acts) the ascension.

Now each time I read the Gospel of Mark I try to imagine what it was like in the first or second century to hear it for the first time — with no preconceptions of what a gospel is supposed to be. I try, but I can’t do it. I know how Matthew, Luke, and John end, and I can’t help but think something is missing.

But this is exactly what Juel and at least to some extent McGrath appear to be missing. The first hearers of Mark’s Gospel probably understood it in a way that we will never quite be able to capture. On the other hand, we are always going to find it strange, because we’re all too familiar with the long ending of Mark and the resurrection stories in the other gospels.

In the next post (part 2) we’ll see how McGrath compounds the error of judging the story of Mark by using the expectations and criteria derived from other gospels when he looks for clues in the Gospels of Peter and John to find out what happened after Mark laid down his pen.

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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32 thoughts on “McGrath’s “Missing Ending”: What Was Mark’s Story? — Part 1”

  1. I found Turton’s explanation that 16.8 ends in the middle of a chiasm evidence that there were two or three verses missing. Though a resurrection appearance wouldn’t be able to fit in two or three verses, it probably ended in the same way that the (fragmented) gospel of Peter ended, with a short note on the disciples back in Galilee fishing – doing what they were doing at their introduction in the gospel.

    1. Maybe.

      On the other hand, the gospel of Mark is entirely about breaking expectations. The disciples are morons. No one listens to Jesus. And the only person who recognizes him as divine is a roman soldier.

      In that context, ending abruptly in the middle of a chiasm would be the height of stylistic emphasis. Not only do the women continue the trend of no one doing what they’re told, as Tim points out, but the very expectations *of the reader as a reader* are broken by the hanging stylistic device that is never completed. I don’t know, maybe that’s a bit post-modern for 1st-2nd century Christianity, and yet… at least to me it feels like the author rubbing the reader’s nose in just how wrong everything went.

      1. Squirrelloid: “. . . like the author rubbing the reader’s nose in just how wrong everything went.”

        Exactly. Not to tip my hand, but I think it’s correct to try to understand Mark in his own terms with the existing text we have in our hands before we resort to mining Peter and John for resurrection stories that make us feel better. The first question to ask is what Mark thought happened on Easter morning: Where was Jesus?

        1. “The first question to ask is what Mark thought happened on Easter morning: Where was Jesus?’

          I can answer that. In a library that I shall not name I found an ancient manuscript paperclipped to the back of a 1962 copy of Playboy. This was the missing part of Mark, and it tells that Jesus woke up in the tomb and said “Well, that was a bad idea, wasn’t it?” He then gave up the religion racket, went off to Kashmir, married a very nice Kashmiri girl, and lived a long and blameless life as a greengrocer.

          I sneaked the manuscript out of the library to study it further, but I can’t show it you know because I can’t find it. I think my wife has put it away somewhere.

    1. I agree that Mark 14:28 is an intrusion into the story. However, I agree with redaction scholars like Marxsen who say it has to be Mark who inserted it into the existing tradition (his source material, if you will). It is Mark himself who is adding the new doctrine of Galilee as the place to witness the parousia.

      Matthew copies Mark’s addition. Luke excises it.

  2. I find arguments like McGrath’s puzzling. “This isn’t the actual ending because it’s not a very good ending,” is what it amounts to. Maybe Mark was having trouble writing a good ending: it’s a common problem for writers! Besides there are plenty of reasons he might have wanted to end it like this, with Jesus rising in obscurity.

    This kind of ending explains why the reader has never heard of these would-be historical events before. It also continues with the secret-messiah theme. It’s just not that mysterious or hard to explain! In any case the mere fact there are dozens of possible explanations shows the weakness of what amounts to an ‘argument from incredulity’ on the part of McGrath: “I can’t imagine why Mark would end his Gospel like this, so he didn’t!”

    1. To be fair, I think McGrath believes the SE is real, but looks longingly at the other gospel endings. “Sigh. They’re so nice. Why can’t you have an ending like that?”

      So in a sense he wants both the SE to conform to the conclusions of textual criticism and an imaginary LE to satisfy his curiosity about what Mark’s continuing narrative might have been. Of course, that’s dangerously close to fan fiction, isn’t it?

      What I find objectionable is the presumption that Mark’s continuing story should necessarily harmonize with John, Paul, Peter, or any other ancient Christian author. Conjecture is fine, but blithely ignoring the implications of Mark’s polemic against the Twelve in favor of a sweet li’l fishin’ trip on Lake Tiberias just won’t cut it.

      1. What I find objectionable is the presumption that Mark’s continuing story should necessarily harmonize with John, Paul, Peter, or any other ancient Christian author.
        It’s almost as if McGrath assumes there is some historical events underlying the narrative! 🙂

  3. Willi Marxsen tells us that Mark is not writing history, he is imaging the Christ of faith not the man Jesus. This is all part of his secrecy motif to denegrate the disciplles – they just didn’t get it: Jesus was the divine Son who died to save mankind from its sins. The disciples, founders of the Jerusalem Jesus movement, saw Jesus’ significance in his sayings, to stand as our most certaiin apostolic witness to the real Jesus. Our source for this understanding is the Sermon on the Mount. Betz points to “the extraordinarly intimate, more precisely advsarial, relationship of the Epistle to the Galatians and the Sermon on the Mount”, dating the SM to mid 1st century..See a reconstruction of origins Ed Jones Daloigue – Veidar..

  4. I used to post often on the ending of Mark and hope to compile a list collating those and Tim’s posts for easy reference. One theme I liked to stress was reading the SE in the context of the literature of the day. Abrupt endings are by no means uncommon. Modern readers don’t like Mark’s endings, but they would not like the endings of other significant ancient works, either. It’s not only Mark’s ending that is “problematic” (to those unfamiliar with the nature of classical endings — about which books, or at least one major book, have been written) but don’t forget Acts, And then look at the strange (by modern standards) ending of Herodotus’ Histories. Note, too, the same questions about Mark’s ending are raised in relation to the ending of Virgil’s Aeneid. And some of the Greek plays. It’s harder to say the ending of the Aeneid was lost so the untimely death theory dominates. And just as with Mark, several less sophisticated ancient authors attempted to reconstruct appropriate endings for the Aeneid, too.

  5. Ive read in some books that there is an astrological theme behind the ordering and each of the main scenes in Mark. Most of hte organisation into chapters that appear in todays Bible divide the book into these same parts. Im not sure of what people and scholars think about this presumption, but if one accepts this might be a source of the inspiration , perhaps the simple answer Mark had no more story to tell because he had run thru all the signs and had finished the saviour god interpretation.

  6. I never would’ve imagined that conservative scholars would draw comfort from Fowler’s “Let the Reader Understand.” It makes pretty clear that Mark was not attempting to write an historical account. Moreover, Fowler’s theory that some verses presented as quotes of Jesus in modern translations were actually intended as statements by the narrator (they didn’t use quotes back then) undermines the argument for earlier dates for the Gospel based on Jesus’ supposed predictions of the parousia.

  7. It seems pretty simple to me. The women didn’t tell anyone of the empty tomb for the same reason that Mark has the Jesus character implore his followers to keep everything a secret — to provide an explanation for why no one who is reading (or hearing) this story had ever previously heard of these events.

    1. But there is a bonafide reason Masters (like mine) tell disciples not to divulge metaphysical occurrences to others. It is to avoid crowds of curiosity seekers from crowding out the serious seekers.

    2. This makes sense for the ending, but I’m not sure it explains the “messianic secret”. For, even though Jesus keeps telling people not to say a word about his miracles people keep telling anyway.

      BTW, Tim will you continue your posts on Wrede? I’ve enjoyed them very much.

      1. Thanks, Nikos. I will return to Wrede after this short series.

        I think one of the reasons Mark 16:8 is so powerful is that finally people are supposed to deliver the news and not keep the secret. But the women disobey. It’s a great ironic reversal.

  8. Mark was written after Matthew and Luke, taking some text from each as a compromise. Mark served as the script for an initiation ritual for new members of the religion.

    A unique element of Mark is the young man with Jesus in the Garden of Gesthemene. The young man is wearing only a light cloth, which is torn off during the arrest, and so the young man was able to run away naked. The young man had been going through a similar initiation ritual with Jesus himself, and the young man escaped with the initiation ritual’s secrets, which now are passed on to the new members in this initiation ritual for which Mark serves as the script,

    Mark’s short ending was separated from Mark’s longer main text, because the ending was the ultimate, secret conclusion of the initiation rite. The genre of secret initiation rites always was composed of 1) a main text that was not so secret and 2) the concluding revelation, which was kept specially separate as the cult’s ultimate secret. Thus, Mark was written in accordance with this genre’s normal format.

    1. You did not elaborate on what was involved in the ritual ? It seems many commentators almost never talk about the sexual aspect of Judaism, and im not talking about circumcision. I am talking about naked man and love and romps with priestesses.


      He stripped off his robes and also prophesied in Samuel’s presence. He lay that way all that day and night. This is why people say, “Is Saul also among the prophets?”

      We all know that jewish males must be circumcized, but who or when is this checked in later life ?

      Then we have the strange from our modern perspective laws about male members. How exactly does God know if a man has been castrated or lost a testicle when he walks into the temple ?

      Lev 21:20
      21:20 Or crookbackt, or a dwarf, or that hath a blemish in his eye, or be scurvy, or scabbed, or hath his stones broken;

      Was Jesus single or gay or checking man bits ?

      1. “…..How exactly does God know if a man has been castrated or lost a testicle (or circumcised) when he walks into the Temple?”

        I strongly suspect that Temple goers had to go through a miqvah and change into ritually acceptable clothing before entering the inner courtyards of the temple complex,
        Men and women were segregated. Women could not closely approach the inner courtyard: they were restricted to the “courtyard of women”, Women probably were separated right after entering the outer court, or had their own gate, so there was no threat of a pious Judean bumping into a unclean lust inducing woman, or heaven forbid, the occurrence of mixed bathing.
        One of Ermet Pierotti’s cross section plans of the Temple mount strongly suggest that there was a pool situated between the tunnel entrance to the outer court yard and the steps surrounding the sanctuary. If this was the case the crowds of male worshipers would have had ample opportunity to check each other out while bathing and changing. Maybe there were even convenient baskets of stones scattered about the Temple so that transgressors could be promptly subjected to mass judgement and punishment.
        The Oxyrhynchus gospel fragment seems to indicate ritual washing and changing clothes was a prerequisite for temple entry.

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