Dr. James F. McGrath: Conspiracy Theorist

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by Tim Widowfield

McGrath’s E-book

Awhile back I bought the Kindle edition of McGrath’s e-book, The Burial of Jesus: What Does History Have to Do with Faith?, hoping to get a review post out of it. Unfortunately, the work is just a tepid rehash of what you’ll find in Bart Ehrman’s (far superior) lectures from The Great Courses (aka The Teaching Company). Dr. McGrath adds nothing especially new or interesting in his assessment of the life and death of Jesus, probably because we’re not in his target audience — Christian believers who are troubled by the Talpiot tomb story.

English: Resurrection of Christ
English: Resurrection of Christ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was about to write off the effort as a complete waste of time when I came upon the section header, “Evidence for a Conspiracy?” Now we’re getting somewhere. This could be fun. Perhaps my slogging through page after page of leaden prose wasn’t for nothing. So, what sort of conspiracy is James talking about? He writes:

There is one point at which, if one were inclined to make a case for some sort of conspiracy or cover up in connection with early Christianity, one could do so particularly plausibly. I am referring to the missing ending of Mark’s Gospel. As all recent translations of the Bible point out, our earliest manuscripts end abruptly at Mark 16:8, after the phrase “they did not say anything to anyone, for they were afraid.” (Kindle Locations 1436-1443)

Ugh. Here we go again. As regular readers know, McGrath has a special curiosity about the end of Mark’s Gospel, which drove him to write a paper, “Mark’s Missing Ending: Clues from the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Peter,” which was recently reviewed (and corrected) here in Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

Mark’s “Missing Ending” — Redux

James is much more forthcoming in his e-book than in his paper. When writing for the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) or the Bible and Interpretation web site, he didn’t come out and say he thought an unknown ending once existed but is now missing. He left himself some wiggle room, some “plausible deniability.” But now we’re going to see his true colors:

There have been attempts to treat this ending as the way the Gospel originally ended, and the way the author intended for it to conclude. However, when we consider that copyists of the Gospel of Mark independently added at least two different endings, and that Matthew and Luke both felt the need to complete the story when they used Mark’s Gospel, it seems clear that early readers of Mark’s Gospel found its sudden ending at 16:8 unsatisfactory. Once we realize that it makes little or no sense to tell a story that ends with an assertion that no one was told about the events in the story, it begins to seem far more likely that the original version of Mark’s Gospel must have once continued beyond this point. (Kindle Locations 1442-1446, bold emphasis mine)

An argument from silence

McGrath is pointing out what many readers over the years have noticed. Mark’s Jesus predicts his death and resurrection throughout the gospel. Then when we finally reach the resurrection scene, we find out it has already happened “off stage.” Worse still, instead of treating us to a set of entertaining resurrection stories, Mark informs us that the women told no one and ran away in terror. The End.

James finds this silence displeasing. No, it’s more than displeasing; for him, it’s impossible. He doesn’t simply suspect Mark’s gospel continued after 16:8, he says it “must have once continued beyond this point.” Curiously, when Paul’s silence about Jesus is the focus of our discussion, the main alternatives are (1) Paul chose not to write about the historical Jesus or (2) Paul knew nothing about the historical Jesus. Now we have a viable third option, a McGrathian Conspiracy: Paul wrote about Jesus but it has mysteriously disappeared!

If McGrath is right, and the original, real ending “must have” once existed, what happened to it?

Manuscripts were fragile, and it is certainly possible that the ending was lost by accident rather than by willful mutilation. Even if one posits a conspiracy, we cannot be certain what was in the lost ending, and so the cover up (if there was one) was successful(Kindle Locations 1449-1450, bold emphasis mine)

Magic bullets, grassy knolls, and “official” versions

So although it “must have” been lost, it might have been an accident. However, if it was a conspiracy the subsequent cover-up succeeded thoroughly. Apparently, these first-century Scripture Ninjas were ruthlessly efficient. But why, you may ask, would anyone do such a thing? And how?

It is certainly not impossible that someone removed the ending of Mark’s Gospel because it contradicted the “official” version of the story. Nevertheless, the Gospel of Mark’s promise of resurrection sightings anticipates its fulfillment. And so, even though it might make sense to suggest that Mark’s original ending was significantly different from the narratives included or alluded to elsewhere in the New Testament, it does not make sense to suggest that sightings of Jesus were altogether lacking. At the very least, it seems clear that the author knew stories about Jesus appearing, irrespective whether he wrote them in his Gospel in its original form. (Kindle Locations 1485-1490, bold emphasis mine)

I set those two sentences in bold for a specific reason. McGrath finds this sequence of events completely plausible:

  1. Some person or persons saw the “real ending” of Mark’s gospel and didn’t like it.
  2. They destroyed it, and put nothing in its place, leaving it dangle at 16:8.
  3. Nobody who had read Mark’s gospel in its original form remembered the “real ending.”
  4. When Matthew and Luke incorporated Mark, the “real ending” was already gone, so they wrote their own endings, which diverged wildly.
  5. Later, unsatisfied scribes invented other endings to fill Mark’s void.

We have absolutely no tangible evidence that the first three steps above happened. Not a shred of evidence supports the existence of an original, “real ending.” On the other hand, we have plenty of hard evidence that the earliest versions of Mark contained no resurrection appearances. (See my three-part review of McGrath’s paper.)

NT scholars’ special tools

Yet McGrath calls the Scripture Ninja Conspiracy Theory plausible, while rejecting the more mundane explanation. Why? It’s the argument from incredulity. In normal historical studies, the argument from incredulity or “lack of imagination” is considered a fallacy. However, in NT studies, it has become a criterion in its own right. Read through any of today’s HJ apologists and note how many times they say “it is hard to imagine” or “it is difficult to believe.” One man’s fallacy is another man’s proof.

McGrath then incorporates his dreadful paper’s thesis into The Burial of Jesus, proposing that the echoes of Mark’s missing ending can be found in the Gospels of Peter and John. He finds it “plausible.”

Recently, in a blog post on his Exploding Cakemix (“The Danger of Backfiring Skepticism,” in which he once again blithely lumps Jesus mythicists together with Holocaust-deniers) McGrath lamented the fact that people reject conclusions that have been “subjected to rigorous investigation and debate by those with the most relevant qualifications and experience.”

Where incompetency rules, skepticism is necessary

If you’ve been following my work you will no doubt have noticed an emerging theme. I have set out carefully and deliberately to demonstrate that modern NT scholarship is riddled with incompetency. The remaining competent scholars have either lost interest in the game, or they’ve been cowed into submission. Critical Scholarship of the past is largely forgotten, except when it’s misquoted, misused, and misunderstood.

In short, today’s NT scholarship is seriously broken — which is why we are all perfectly within our rights to question any and all of its conclusions.

I do not doubt anthropogenic global warming. I understand the science to a reasonable degree, and I trust the competency of the scientists engaged in the study of climate change. I don’t doubt for one second that we landed on the moon. I know the Holocaust really happened (and was much worse, if we remember the Gypsies and other “unwanted” people who also lost their lives in the camps). I’ve seen the evidence and I trust the historians engaged in the study. I accept evolution by natural selection as a scientific fact. Again, I’m familiar with the evidence and I trust the expert biologists.

On the other hand, if a modern NT scholar tells me the sky is blue, I will accept it provisionally, but I’ll certainly follow up with a little prudent verification. Note to self: Nod and smile, but at the earliest opportunity take a peek out the window to be sure.

McGrath continues in his blog post:

If you are someone from outside a given field, and you are thoroughly convinced that you have seen matters more clearly than the thousands of academics who work in that field for a living, you might just possibly be a unique genius. But if you do not realize that the far more likely explanation for this state of affairs is that your skepticism has backfired, then you simply aren’t thinking skeptically about the matter.

I’m not a genius, and I’m not unique. However, even with my limited experience and abilities, I can tell that something is wrong. The problem is not that I possess some unusual powers to see and understand things that nobody else can; the problem is that I am a very ordinary person who, simply by reading an awful lot, has discovered that many of today’s NT scholars are either incompetent, lazy, or both.

[Editorial Note: There was a really funny and brilliant ending to this post, but it was destroyed by ninjas.]

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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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19 thoughts on “Dr. James F. McGrath: Conspiracy Theorist”

  1. You don’t have to be a genius to spot fallacies. You don’t even have to be a genius to demonstrate them. NT commentaries are riddled with fallacies and over the years I have demonstrated scores of them in my books and website articles.

    It also doesn’t take a genius to decide on that basis that it doesn’t matter whether there are thousands of academics who work in the field for a living, or whether they all agree on something. Like Tim, you can tell that something is wrong.

  2. For the “Scripture Ninja” idea to work, don’t the “Scripture Ninjas” have to have found something so offensive about the ending of Mark that they felt the need to destroy the ending entirely rather than just interpolating their own beliefs into the text and excising the bits they didn’t care for? That somehow the ending that Mark was building to was so utterly offensive that it needed to be removed and obliterated from memory, but that the rest of the text (that was, mind you, building to this ending according to McGrath himself in the paragraph quoted by Tim above) was just fine and necessary to be preserved (maybe with a bit of tweaking here and a bit of nudging there, but just peachy otherwise)? Why not throw the whole thing out entirely and declare it an “unbook”? That was done with so many other “Lost Gospels” – why wasn’t this “unredacted Mark” shoved aside entirely?

    And even if this is plausible – why leave in Mark 16:8? Why leave in a reference that the women said nothing to anyone because they were afraid? Why not cut if off at the end of Mark 16:7, where the young man directs them to go tell the apostles? If Mark ended there – with that directive – nobody would be concerned at all with a “missing ending” today because that ending fits with “orthodox” Christian thinking very well. It’s just the bit about them “telling nobody” that makes people think that there must be more to it.

    I’m a bit more sympathetic to the idea that there was an original ending that was “lost” rather than intentionally obliterated – but only a little bit more. The argument that Tim quotes above works against that idea – if the Gospel of Mark were really understood by early Christians to be building up to the revelation of post-Resurrection Jesus appearances, then wouldn’t those then have been considered IMPORTANT by the early Christians? Wouldn’t extra effort have been made to preserve those narratives if they were the important thing that Mark was building to? There’s of course a chance that the earliest manuscripts would have lost those narratives (there’s always a chance), but it seems like a small one at the outset, and it would seem like there would need to be some extraordinary evidence presented as to the mind of the author to make it more than a very small one given that the story itself holds together quite well under analysis as is without any extra endings.

    (I’ve sometimes wondered if anyone has ever made the case that Mark 16:8 was an interpolation on the “original” story – that the original story ended with Mark 16:7 and 16:8 was tacked on later to answer objections about why nobody had ever heard this story before. Because really, that makes just as much sense as there being a missing ending that was lost/deliberately destroyed. Maybe even slightly more sense, since you don’t get into the objections of why an important piece of the story would be lost/destroyed and there is an obvious – if somewhat feeble to my mind – motive for adding the extra couple of sentences to the end of the text.)

    1. Its easier to lop off an ending and rewrite it than write your own gospel from scratch. That’s why new religions tend to base themselves on Christianity, i.e. we get new Christian denominations rather than brand new religions. People are lazy.

      1. But that’s my point – for this to work there would have been no rewriting of the ending involved at all. Why not? If McGrath’s argument is that there must be an ending where there were Resurrection appearances because the Gospel is building to Resurrection appearances, then why cut the Resurrection appearances out entirely? Why not just rewrite the ending to remove the bits that don’t conform to orthodox beliefs?

    2. So you want possible reasons the original ending could have been offensive? Explicitly spiritual resurrection rather than physical could be one ending. Jesus actually commissioning the women as apostles could be another. Thus, the whole “the women were afraid and said nothing” would NOT be a leftover of the original ending, but part of the new ending contradicting the old “Jesus made the women apostles” ending.

        1. What do you mean, that in the original ending of Mark, Jesus encountered the Locn Ness monster?

          A know you’re married to the idea that there was no original ending. However, when Eznik of Golb speaks about the gospel the Marcionites spread by word of mouth the ending of that gospels has some resemblance to the chopped off ending of Mark where it ends with the women telling nobody. In the Marcionite word-of-mouth gospel Eznik recites, none of the original apostles see or hear about Jesus’ resurrection; and then Jesus replaces them all with Paul.

          Certainly that ending would be offensive enough to be removed.

      1. No, I get that there are plenty of endings that could have been offensive. That isn’t the issue.

        The issue is that in the examples you give, why cut the ending entirely? Say there was an explicit spiritual resurrection – why not modify it so that it becomes an explicit bodily resurrection? The text is there, and we’ve seen evidence that other texts have been modified in this way, so why not Mark? Or say that Jesus appears to the women and commisions them to be apostles – why not modify the text so that instead of the women finding the empty tomb it’s Peter (or Thomas or whoever the particular sect venerates as a Founder) and leave the bulk of the text intact? It isn’t like this sort of thing wasn’t done with other books.

        To make this idea work the missing ending seems like it would need to be not only offensive, but also completely unimportant to whoever modified the text. Unimportant enough to cut the ending entirely rather than modify it for their own ends, and unimportant enough that others familiar with the text didn’t add it back in later. Both of those are possible, but don’t seem any more likely than the idea that the author of Mark just ended where he did for reasons we can’t decipher because we don’t know enough about what his beliefs about Christianity actually were.

        1. I agree, Jer.

          But besides all that, we have to imagine Mark’s ending magically disappearing so early and so completely that the authors of Matthew and Luke never saw it, no contemporary reader remembered it, and no later commentator even knew of a hint of it. This sequence of events cannot be more plausible than the simple idea that Mark’s Gospel ended at 16:8.

          These pretend historians keep saying that history depends on evidence, analysis, and probability, but by their actions they clearly demonstrate that their brand of history is nothing but a sophistic tool for the defense of their presuppositions.

  3. If you are someone from outside a given field, and you are thoroughly convinced that you have seen matters more clearly than the thousands of academics who work in that field for a living, you might just possibly be a unique genius. But if you do not realize that the far more likely explanation for this state of affairs is that your skepticism has backfired, then you simply aren’t thinking skeptically about the matter.

    This assumes that all of academia, across every field, is one monolithic entity that has all produced the same high quality work. Some fields have more low-hanging fruit then others; less low hanging fruit means less avenues of research that will yield something useful. Meaning that researchers will have to come up with more and more clever sounding techniques to make themselves seem productive even if nothing new is discovered. Some fields have been overrun by venial interests (such as publish-or-perish mentality, catering to think tanks, or kowtowing to a dominant social cause or revered figure where the “wrong” conclusion would simply be a conclusion that is unfavorable to those interest groups). Some fields fail both of those, in which one should take the conclusions of that field with an extra grain of salt.

    A girlfriend of mine had a PhD in microeconomics, and looked down on macroeconomics for these reasons.

    1. And we can’t forget that theological studies in institutes of higher learning are essentially the legacy of less enlightened eras. They take their place their throne because of their parentage and not because they earned it. Social convention keeps them there more than anything else, I suspect.

  4. Why not a horror story ending to Mark that pointed out why the women were afraid to say anything to anyone? After all, Jesus had been rejected by his people, his own family thought he was crazy, one of his own disciples had betrayed him, all of his followers had deserted him and he was turned over to the enemy to be crucified. This would fulfill Malachi 4:6 if Jesus was thought to be the Elijah to come – because John the Baptist had denied being that prophet and Jesus had failed to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children etc, therefore, God was then to smite the earth with a curse. IOW, it was over… for everybody. Except, of course, for Jesus – he alone, of all the earth, was saved. The rest of us? Well, we can all go to hell (so to speak).

  5. (Regarding Dr. McGrath’s scholarship in general? Here is the world-famous scholar Dr. Mark Goodacre, by the way, warning about the Criterion of Embarrassment, and disagreeing with Dr. McGrath’s use of it:


    Here McGrath argues that in effect, the Criterion is wrong – in that things embarrassing or contrary to Christian expectations were left in the text as he asserts, not as coventionally asserted, because they were unexpected but genuine traditions. But because perhaps these were embarrassing attacks on Christian expectatins and ideals, by critics. That had to be left in the text – and addressed.

    To that claim, Goodacre counters with the example of the crucifixion. Which is thought to be embarrassing; but which few would deny as real – and still at the core of real Christianity.

    McGrath then tacitly concedes his first assertion, that the crucifixion is not an embarrassment invented by critics of Christianity. As he simply advances another different thesis. To which Goodacre does not respond).

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