The Resurrection and the Ending of Mark’s Gospel

At this time of year, we occasionally see documentaries on TV about the resurrection. This usually includes brief snippets of interviews with various scholars, often with a cross-section of those who believe and disbelieve the gospel accounts of the ressurection of Jesus.

And one point that is often made by the skeptics is usually presented along the following lines: “Mark’s gospel, which is the earliest, doesn’t actually report the resurrection. The church added that bit on much later.” The implication is that honest Mark tells it like it is – Jesus died and that was that, but Luke and Matthew wanted a happy ending for their story, so they fabricated the story of the resurrection, and someone much later “fixed” Mark by adding a resurrection to that too.

To someone not familiar with the gospels this sounds like a major embarrassment for Christians – a coverup of epic proportions. But in fact, this accusation is at best a half-truth. Here are a few brief points in response, should you encounter this line of argument this Easter.

1. Gospel of Mark is not the earliest resurrection account anyway

Mark may indeed be the earliest gospel. It commonly gets dated by scholars around AD60-70, although there is no logical reason why it could not have been written much earlier. If however that date is correct, then 1 Cor 15:3-6 is in fact the earliest recorded account of the resurrection, dated in the mid 50s. And it is quite clear from reading the chapter that Paul is recounting an already well established tradition concerning Jesus’ resurrection appearances. If someone made up the resurrection stories, they must have done so long before Mark’s gospel was written.

2. Gospel of Mark is climaxing towards resurrection

Any suggestion that Mark didn’t know about the resurrection is quite frankly preposterous. The structure of the gospel is in fact built around a series of predictions Jesus makes about his impending death and resurrection:

And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. (Mark 8:31 ESV)

and then…

They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” (Mark 9:30-31 ESV)

and in the next chapter:

saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.” (Mark 10:33-34)

From these verses alone it should be obvious that Mark intends us to expect a resurrection at the end of his gospel. In the very first verse, Mark 1:1, he makes it clear that he thinks that Jesus is not merely a great man, but the “Christ” (Messiah) and the “son of God”. He calls his story a “gospel” – a message of good news, not a tragedy. So he is not going to end it with a defeated, discredited hero. Also, Mark has clearly not planned for a surprise ending. He lets us know up front to expect a resurrection. And in fact, that is precisely what we get…

3. The Gospel of Mark does report the resurrection

Even though the original ending (presuming there was one) does not report the resurrection appearances of Jesus to his disciples, it is not missing the resurrection itself. In fact, by the time the early manuscripts abruptly end at Mark 16:8, we have seen that the stone has been rolled away from the tomb (v4), the body is gone (v6), an angel announces that Jesus has risen from the dead (v6), and predicts that he will appear to his disciples in Galilee (v7).

And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back–it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” (Mark 16:4-7 ESV)

So I find the suggestion that Mark’s gospel does not report the resurrection to be extremely disingenous when it comes from scholars who know full well that this section was part of the original gospel.

4. The original ending of Mark almost certainly included resurrection appearances

I recognise that there is scholarly debate as to whether Mark’s original gospel did in fact end so abruptly at 16:8. It may be that there was some reason it couldn’t be finished. I do not find that idea that it was a deliberate “cliff-hanger” ending to be convincing (there is some good material on this in James Edward’s Pillar Commentary on Mark, and R T France takes a similar stance in his New International Greek Testament commentary).

So if there was an original lost ending, possibly due to the final page coming loose from a codex, it almost certainly included the resurrection appearances in Galilee, as prophesied by the angel.

Summary

Whether or not you are a believer in the resurrection, you have to accept that Mark was, and that he wanted to bear witness to it in his gospel account. I may post another time on what we are to make of the ending of the gospel of Mark that we do have, as it raises other interesting questions, but I will leave it there as this post is long enough already. Have a happy Easter.

8 thoughts on “The Resurrection and the Ending of Mark’s Gospel

  1. Dear Mark,

    Not only do the Easter-special skeptics misrepresent and downplay Mark’s awareness of Christ’s resurrection, and his narrative buildup to the resurrection, but they also tend to minimize the evidence for Mark 16:9-20. Unfortunately quite a lot of Christians fully co-operate with that approach, because they believe claims about the evidence that are simply untrue, or that don’t mean what they think they mean.

    I agree 100% that the idea that the abrupt stop at 16:8 was a deliberate cliffhanger is not convincing; to me, the idea that Mark would intentionally stop there, when so many other options were available, is preposterous. It’s not an ending; it is a stoppage.

    Since you expressed an interest in posting in the future about Mark 16:9-20, I welcome you to write to me for a copy of my research-book on the subject.

    Yours in Christ,
    James Snapp, Jr.
    Minister, Curtisville Christian Church
    Indiana
    http://www.curtisvillechristianchurch.org

  2. The first three points are too often ignored, and I wonder sometimes if it’s deliberate. I’m certainly open to there being an ending that’s been lost. If so, I would guess it’s much like Matthew’s (moreso than the endings of the other gospels, anyway). But I’m not as down on the prospect of v.8 as an ending to the book, and I wouldn’t see that as a cliffhanger. There’s very little on the resurrection itself in any of the gospels or in Acts. The only extended treatment in the epistles is in I Corinthians 15, and that’s a theological reflection, not a recounting of details. The passion narratives contain much more than the resurrection narratives, but even those say very little about the crucifixion itself. They instead dwell on Jesus’ predictions of those events, how they fulfilled scripture, how Jesus carried himself, the guilt of those responsible, and what it all achieved. Why should we be surprised if the resurrection is treated similarly, especially if the important details are all present throughout the gospel (see your point 3), leading up to a climax that reports it briefly and simply. So I’m sanguine enough on either of those two views. (I don’t think there’s very strong evidence for taking vv.9ff. as part of the original gospel, contra the previous comment.)

  3. Pingback: Resurrection in the Gospel of Mark » Evangel | A First Things Blog

  4. thanks for the comment Jeremy. I am open to the original ending being at verse 8, although none of the commentaries I have read argue for that position.

  5. This is a good post that raises several important points about the Resurrection accounts.

    I would only add that the abrupt ending of Mark makes good literary sense. I think it’s prejudicial to describe this ending as a “cliffhanger,” however (literary studies have never been our strong suit in the Evangelical community). As everyone knows, Mark is a Gospel of action and the coming of the Kingdom of God. It also emphasizes the need to proclaim the coming Kingdom. Another related, major theme is how people in Mark are constantly afraid and not sharing their faith, which fits with it being written in Nero’s persecution. In this context, the ending is better characterized as an evangelistic prompt and call to faithfulness.

    In the West, we prefer certain “endings” due to our cultural preferences for writing, enhanced as they are by the printing press and modern technology. We have to remember how the Gospel of Mark would have been presented in an oral culture, and the impact the ending at Mark 16:8 would have in such a milieu. People would not have read Mark like they do today, generally alone and in silence, coming at it with Western expectations of how texts should operate. It would have been a community affair, presented orally, and probably with some degree of emotion. The end effect would be clear, and powerful; as an evangelistic tool, the presenter/reciter of the Gospel would have in his hands an ending that asked a profound question to his audience–despite the suffering it will entail, will you now proclaim the coming kingdom of God?

  6. A very interesting small book “The Birth of the Synoptics”, by the late Dead Sea Scrolls scholar Fr. Jean Carmignac, sheds more interesting light on these gospels. He translated Mark into Hebrew & found it had a greater fluency in Hebrew then the Greek versions. He did the same with Matthew, and parts of Luke, with the same results. It was his opinion the Matthew & Mark were originally written in Hebrew, for Hebrew, and was later translated into more modern Greek.

    Matthew’s original Hebrew was noted by early church writers. Papias noted that Matthew was written in Hebrew. Mark, is believed to have written for the converts in Rome, & also probably in Hebrew.

    The other item of interest is he dates the gospels earlier then most. Again John, traditionally the last, notes Jerusalem was still intact when he wrote it. Again siding with J. A. T. Rovinson.

  7. Most scholars today don’t think the evidence of an original Hebrew or Aramaic Matthew gospel is very strong. Most of it could be explained by an original Aramaic spoken language of what Jesus said, which all scholars already accept. The fact that a lot of Matthew’s quotations of scripture are his own translations of Hebrew doesn’t add much, because he also quite frequently uses the LXX. Plus the LXX was standardly used in Palestine to begin with and may well have been what Jesus regularly used. It shows that Matthew (or some sources he used, I suppose) knew Hebrew well, because I think those are better translations than the LXX in every case. But it doesn’t show that the entire gospel was originally written in Hebrew, and any Hebraicisms in his language would be explained by the fact that he spoke a Hebraic language as his native language.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>