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.

  • James Snapp

    Dear Jon,

    I encourage you not to just set aside verses 9-20 like that.  While the text of Mark ends at 16:8 in two manuscripts from the 300’s, the passage is attested by all other Greek copies (over 1,500), and it also has patristic support that is significantly earlier than the earliest manuscript of Mark 16:  in the 100’s, Justin Martyr, and the anonymous author of Epistula Apostolorum, and Tatian, and Irenaeus all used the passage in one way or another.  (Arouns 184, Irenaeus, in Against Heresies Book 3, specifically quoted 16:19 and atttributed it to Mark.  Irenaeus had visited the church in Rome and if it had not had these verses I think he would have known that.) 

    It looks to me like Mark was suddenly interrupted by an emergency, and the book was finished via the attachment of an already-existing summary of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances.  It also looks like Mark did not intend to stop at 16:8, inasmuch as he forecasts, quite clearly, at least one post-resurrection scene in 14:28 and 16:7. 

    As an alternative to the idea that Mark set a puzzling trap for his readers/listeners, I would suggest that his intent was to continue Peter’s remembrances of Christ, including His post-resurrection appearances.  And as an alternative to the view that 99% of the Greek manuscripts, 99% of the Latin manuscripts, 99% of the Syriac manuscripts, and over 40 patristic writers from the era of the Roman Empire all used copies of Mark that contained 12 verses that God did not inspire or desire the church to use, I suggest considering that we are looking here at an instance of redaction that occurred while the text of the Gospel of Mark was still in its production-stage; this would mean that verses 9-20 should be granted the same status as the many other passages in the Bible (such as Jeremiah 52, or Proverbs 30 and 31, and many Psalms) which were not written by the main human author of a book but were nevertheless in its text by the end of its production-stage.

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.

  • Jon Rogers

    Thanks for your long and we’ll thought through comment.. I agree completely that it’s a reactive addittion and I hope I didn’t give the impression that it’s uninspired or not something that the church should use. I do think it’s fascinating to think about a reason why it might have been deliberate – and I’m sure you agree that Marks intent was that we would live the resurrection life of Jesus as our response to his telling of the Gospel story.