The final chapter of John’s gospel reports the risen Christ meeting his disciples at the Sea of Galilee. I suggested that this might in fact have been the oldest version of the Resurrection story, predating the more famous encounter of Jesus and Mary Magdalene in the Jerusalem garden. Some scholars have also raised the possibility that this scene, or something like it, might originally have been the culmination of another of the canonical gospels.

The Gospel of Mark, at least as we have it, ends on a bizarre note. All ancient manuscripts end with a story that currently comprises Mark 16.1-8. After the crucifixion, the women go to the tomb to anoint Jesus’s body. They find the stone rolled away, as a young man in a white robe proclaims the Resurrection:

But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

And that’s the end. The women are filled with tromos kai ekstasis (terror and amazement) and there is no Resurrection appearance. Do note the stark double affirmation of “and they said nothing to anyone,” kai oudei ouden eipan, literally “to no-one nothing they told.” This prevents us assuming that another later scene might have the women encountering the risen Jesus. Seemingly, that also means they disobeyed the instruction to tell the disciples about the Galilee appearance. Contrary to what we assume from reading the other three gospels, the (male) apostles had no inkling of these epochal events, any hint that the tomb was empty. The Resurrection, when they realized it, would be a total and astonishing surprise to Peter and his companions.

Incidentally, the final Greek sentence ends with the word gar, technically an enclitic. In ancient Greek, it was very bad form to end a story on an enclitic, and no book ever ended thus: to use a modern English parallel, it was almost like ending in mid-sentence.

It’s obvious to assume that Mark, a skilled and thoughtful writer, did not mean to end the book thus, and that an original ending has been lost. But that is where the story gets puzzling. If we assume the standard theory of the composition of the gospels, then Mark wrote about 70. Perhaps a quarter century afterwards, his book was used by both Matthew and Luke, who incorporated virtually his whole text, and it is clear that neither author knew any other or fuller ending. If an ending was lost, it vanished very early indeed, if it was ever written. At least by the second century, various editors added their own conclusions to satisfy what they felt to be the gaping hole at the end of Mark, and one survives in the KJV as Mark 16.8-20.

Today, a large number of fine scholars believe that the apparent ending of Mark at 16:8 represents the author’s original intended conclusion. Mark, in this view, deliberately intended to end on a note that demanded a leap of faith, that offered no easy answers: he was superbly post-modernist! I do not accept this for multiple reasons, partly linguistic and stylistic; but above all, I simply do not credit that Mark meant to leave the reader with such a pessimistic text. As it stands, the reader is left with the words “ephobounta gar” – roughly, “they were afraid, okay?” We would also be left with a desperately hostile and hopeless picture of Peter, whom early tradition links closely to Mark himself.

If it really was meant to end at 16:8, Mark may be the greatest anti-Christian, anti-Jesus movement, tract ever written. It could scarcely have been so highly regarded as it was, still less accepted as the basis of other traditions.

The obvious suggestion is that the gospel as it stands was meant to be followed by some kind of resurrection appearance specifically involving Peter and, based on the text, one that occurred in Galilee rather than Jerusalem. Incidentally, that final component need not have taken written form: it might have been a verbal presentation.

One early text supplies exactly what we would expect at that point. The second century Gospel of Peter was popular in the early church, although it later dropped out of use, and today it survives only in incomplete form. (It was rediscovered only in the 1880s). Not a wholly independent work, it mainly relies on the canonical gospels, but also draws on the Jewish-Christian gospel tradition. Its ending demands attention, as its tomb scene is precisely Mark’s, with the women at the tomb receiving news of the Resurrection, then fleeing in fear. They do not see Jesus directly. “Peter” then reports that

Then the women fled frightened. Now it was the final day of the Unleavened Bread; and many went out returning to their home since the feast was over. But we twelve disciples of the Lord were weeping and sorrowful; and each one, sorrowful because of what had come to pass, departed to his home. But I, Simon Peter, and my brother Andrew, having taken our nets, went off to the sea. And there was with us Levi of Alphaeus whom the Lord … (Raymond Brown’s translation)

It’s very likely indeed that the next scene would have been something very much like John 21, with a Resurrection appearance (a) to Peter (b) in Galilee. If the ending of Mark’s gospel actually did exist and then was lost, this is presumably just what it would have looked like. (Rudolf Bultmann was one famous scholar who argued this).

The problem then, of course, is just how that ending was lost. Was it perhaps lost from one manuscript, but survived in another copy used by “Peter”? Did that ending survive only in note form, or oral memory, after Mark’s sudden death?

I don’t have any great resolution for these questions. But the more I look at the scene by the Sea of Galilee, the more significant I think it was for the earliest church.






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  • mjk

    Is it possible that the Gospel of Mark ended as it did as a rhetorical ploy? There seems to be something to the theory that one theme in Mark had to do with his encouraging the Roman church to shy away from “gospelizing” due to persecution.

    Hence, could it be that the intended response in the reader, upon reading the final words, would be something to the effect of, “NO! With news this big, you CAN’T NOT TELL PEOPLE!! Oh… I can’t let my fear inhibit my participation in the Gospel.”

  • philipjenkins

    I’m just not aware of any other pre-modern text that tries anything vaguely like that.

  • Greg Gentile

    Mr. Jenkins, I do not have the knowledge for this discussion and have only started seriously looking at this a few years ago(I guess what I’m trying to say is that my point maybe very stupid). Wouldn’t it make sense for Mark to end this way based on a couple of ideas. First, if Mark is writing early enough that the Apostles, or followers of Apostles were still around, they would be able to dispute a “general” story of the Resurrection,as in Paul’s case Jesus’ “appearance” was different for probably everyone (except for the 500 at one time). However, Luke and Matthew written just that much later, and potentially to groups outside of Galilee combined with the chaotic state Rome had left the area at the time, could get away with a nice tidy story. Nobody’s around to dispute it. Perhaps that is why early Jewish Christians seemed to have different versions of the Gospels(Ebionites without Jesus’ birth story because they knew his real birth story, perhaps even knew some of his brothers). Secondly, if we assume that Mark is writing when there were still people close enough to the time around, then the Resurrection becomes more powerful this way. How could Peter have known that Jesus was risen if the women didn’t tell anybody? If the women run back and tell Peter what they saw then how easy is it for the Apostles in the eyes of the Pagans to say you knew his body was moved so you made up this story. Whereas now Apostles can say essentially “look we didn’t even know his body was no longer in the tomb, why would I make up that when as far as I knew he was still dead. Plus I don’t even fall under the suspicion of having made up seeing him first and being considered the de facto leader when once again I was ignorant of his empty tomb.” I realize these are probably ridiculous ideas but was curious if these are even possible.

  • philipjenkins

    I don’t see any ridiculous ideas! I see a lot of suggestions that very well informed people have made through the centuries. What I’m trying to do in this and some previous posts is to raise these questions and get them out for open discussion. The idea of a certain messiness in the stories does not bother me. After all, these were human beings dealing with what they believed to be world-shattering events. Of course they were confused. We just have to approach the stories as historians, and make our best decisions as to understanding them.

  • Brian s

    We have the true ending of Mark. Verses 9-20.

  • philipjenkins

    Not according to any number of early manuscripts, I fear.

  • John Turner


    In the context of Mark’s possibly missing ending, it’s rather maddening to be pointed to an even less complete text (The Gospel of Peter). If only we had what comes after “Levi of Alphaeus whom the Lord”… I suppose we have to content ourselves with seeing through a glass darkly.

  • philipjenkins

    Right, but at least (I think) that preserves the original transition.

  • Andrew Dowling

    “it’s obvious to assume that Mark, a skilled and thoughtful writer, did
    not mean to end the book thus, and that an original ending has been

    While Mark is certainly a thoughtful writer, his Greek was probably the worst of the NT writers and he was not un-prone to grammatical errors

    “Today, a large number of fine scholars believe that the apparent ending
    of Mark at 16:8 represents the author’s original intended conclusion.
    Mark, in this view, deliberately intended to end on a note that demanded
    a leap of faith, that offered no easy answers: he was superbly

    I don’t view the original ending as simply being some esoteric and vague. Not only does the ending continue the theme of the Apostles not being unable to fully understand Jesus’s mission (which could’ve alluded to any number of conflicts between Mark’s Gentile Christian community and the Jewish-Christian Churches in Judea), but in my opinion, it screams out to the reader that Jesus’s return is imminent . . Mark 13 tells me that the evangelist believed the fall of Jerusalem represented the beginning of the parousia, and his hearers (this would’ve been read out loud to believer communities) were to be prepared and follow the angel’s prescriptions as the women had not . . to declare the coming of the Lord.

    That said, I do agree with you that John’s sea of Galilee appearance story is likely one of the oldest appearance stories in the tradition, and was also likely in the Gospel of Peter. I just don’t see it being in Mark. I have a hard time believing Mark wrote a complete Gospel but that not only Matthew or Luke . . but no other early Christian writer could get their hands on a complete copy.

  • philipjenkins

    Not to discount your other arguments, I would rather see Mark’s apparent simplicity as a rhetorical technique.