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.


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.

Book Review – The Pillar New Testament Commentary on Mark (James R. Edwards)

The Pillar commentary series sits in between the devotional and academic styles of commentary. It is evangelical, and designed primarily for preachers and serious students of the Bible. This volume is the third gospel to be covered in this slowly growing series, under the editorship of Don Carson. It weighs in at over 500 pages of commentary (not counting indexes), which translates to a few paragraphs on each verse or group of verses, with room for a few excursuses and brief introductions to each pericope or section. Despite this reasonably generous size, there are a number of typical commentary features not found in this volume.

The biblical text is not included, and Edwards rarely interacts directly with other commentators (when he does, it is normally in a footnote). He only occasionally provides refutations to scholars who doubt the historicity of some of the accounts. Also, he does not often attempt to harmonise with parallel passages in the other gospels, prefering to simply note how the other accounts differ. This is no doubt in part due to his acceptance of the theory that Mark was the first gospel to be written, probably around AD65, and most likely by John-Mark, with the Christians in Rome in mind as the original intended readership. Finally, don’t expect exhaustive details of the Greek grammar and translation issues here. Where the Greek is discussed, it is usually to explain the meaning of one word, and is transliterated.

So what does Edwards fill the space with? His commentary emphasises the historical setting, the literary devices and the theological purposes of Mark. There are also a number of useful excursuses on key themes in Mark (for example, the Messiah and the transfiguration). An appendix rejects the “secret gospel of Mark” as a forgery. As with other Pillar volumes, key words are highlighted in bold at the start of a paragraph that defines them.

The historical aspect is served by Edward’s regular appeals to ancient literature, which he uses to help give a good picture of the historical context and meaning of the verses in question. The key word definitions are very useful for explaining terms, customs and places in a succinct way, but without intruding into the flow of the commentary. In addition, Edwards seeks to keep us alert to some of the literary techniques Mark uses, such as the “sandwich technique” (whereby Mark interleaves two mutually interpretive passages), as well as the irony and the insider / outsider motif. He gathers evidence for the theory that Peter was John-Mark’s primary source as he moves through the book.

On the theological side, Edward’s brings a number of Mark’s themes to light, particularly those of what true faith and discipleship is, of who the Christ is and the command to silence. But its not just about “Mark’s theology”, as he often makes brief yet profound statements of the theological and practical implications for believers.

Whilst Edwards rarely brings a highly controversial or obscure interpretation to a passage in Mark, he is not simply restating other people’s conclusions, and regularly brings fresh insights. Jesus’ prophetic teaching in Mark 13 is understood as referring alternately to the destruction of Jerusalem and the parousia, with the phrases “these things” and “those days” serving as delimiters between the near and far focuses. He argues that the women of chapter 16 are used by Mark as negative examples (in contrast the the normally positive role of women in the gospel) of fear rather than faith in contrast to Joseph’s boldness in approaching Pilate to ask for Jesus’ body. He sees the climax of the gospel as the centurion’s declaration at the cross in Mark 15:39.

Although unsurprisingly Edwards does not consider Mark 16:9-20 to be part of the original gospel, he does provide commentary on it in a chapter devoted to questions of the ending. While he notes that an ending at Mark 16:8 may “work” for some people, he strongly doubts that Mark did in fact stop so abruptly, again drawing on his thorough knowledge of ancient literature to argue that this type of literary technique was virtually unknown. He believes that the writer of Matthew had access to Mark’s original ending, as the end of Matthew provides the types of things required to conclude the themes Mark has been developing.

In conclusion, I highly recommend this as an excellent commentary on the book of Mark. I have been reading it over the last 18 months as I have been studying my way through Mark. It does not address every issue that could possibly be raised, but this prevents the commentary from becoming bloated and allows Edwards to give space to his areas of expertise. Those who read this will see Mark’s gospel come alive when viewed through the historical, literary and theological perspective that Edwards has brought in his commentary.