Ending on a Cliff-hanger

As I discussed in my last post, Marks Gospel ends in a strange way, with the women fleeing the empty tomb in bewilderment and fear. What happens next? It’s the ultimate cliff-hanger ending.

Mark 16:8 is the last verse of the in the oldest manuscripts. Our Bibles have some follow up verses, but they’re very different in tone to the rest of the book. While there’s nothing ‘wrong’ about those verses, I have no problem in suggesting they are not original.

So how did Mark intend it to end?

It’s been suggested that there’s a ‘page’ missing – that a scroll was cut short, that the last few paragraphs were lost. Those of us who have a high view of scripture might have a problem with that – thinking that some Spirit-filled sentences were written but never available to us raises some questions about divine sovereignty. Imagining that there were lost words that we were never supposed to have is troublesome in terms of how human/divine authorship works. I think I prefer to think that this was exactly how Mark intended his Gospel to end and that the extra add-on is a bonus.

So why does it end in such a strange way? Unlike Luke, Mark has no sequel to ‘sell’. If he intended it to end in this way, he meant us to finish reading with a bunch of questions. There’s no follow-on book to explain what the apostles did after, or even what the resurrected Jesus said, did or looked like.

Yet there’s more that we can be sure of. Jesus really was alive. The women who fled in fear and the disciples who had deserted Jesus in Gethsemane when he was arrested, even Peter who denied Jesus during his trial came to understand what had happened. The story spread, the community of Jesus grew – all the way to you, reading the story where ever you are right now.

By ending the Gospel in such an impossible way, Mark shows us that the story isn’t over, that there is more to come. That resurrection is an ongoing thing. It isn’t done on that Sunday morning by the garden tomb. The story of Jesus isn’t contained to the pages of scripture, it keeps leaping out and coming to life in those who tell it.

N.T. Wright often talks about a ‘five act drama’ – a play that has four written acts but a fifth that must be finished by the actors who perform it. Like an unfinished symphony, those who intimately understand the earlier parts and have worked through studying and performing them must write and act out their own take on what comes next.

I think this is how we must read Mark’s Gospel – it’s a story that is deliberately left incomplete so we have something to work out, something to play our part in. The full details of resurrection are not spelled out because we must see them in action in our own lives, in the life of our communities, in the life of the church that has lived two thousand years in the reality of that resurrection.