Yesterday’s sermon at my church focused on the ending (or lack thereof) of Mark’s Gospel. The pastor compared Mark to a “choose your own adventure” story, particularly when it comes to the ending.
In my Sunday school class, we discussed this as well as another possibility, namely that the original ending of Mark’s Gospel could have been lost. Papyrus manuscripts are easily damaged, and most of our ancient manuscripts from this period are significantly damaged. Although we have a great many relatively early manuscripts of the New Testament writings, including some on more durable types of “paper”, it is not impossible that the earliest Gospel could have been damaged in some way.
The likelihood that the original ending was lost is increased when we consider that two different scribal traditions, as well as Matthew and Luke who used Mark as a source, felt it necessary to “improve” Mark’s ending.
If one considers the different geographical locations for the resurrection appearance stories in Matthew and Luke, it seems impossible to argue for “inerrancy” in any meaningful sense of the term. But if one is asking not about inerrancy but about historicity, then a historian’s approach can help us make sense of why Matthew and Luke diverge, with one having the disciples told to go to Galilee while the other has them told to remain in Jerusalem.
In 1 Corinthians 15 we find an example of the sort of tradition about resurrection appearances circulating a decade or more before the Gospel of Mark is thought to have been written. I pointed out that no geographical setting is provided. And thus a plausible explanation for the divergence between Matthew and Luke is that neither had information on the setting of such appearances, and each independently turned the tradition into a narrative, locating it where it seemed to fit, with the resulting tensions when one has copies of both these Gospels.
Towards the end of the class, the pastor brought up the question of whether a rationalistic, post-Enlightenment reading of the text is not alien to the worldview in which these writings were penned. I replied that, on the one hand, he appreciates what reason and science have given to us. On the other hand, the attempt to require the text to provide certainty, or reject it if it fails to do so, is indeed at odds with these stories. Matthew’s Gospel has the apostles doubting even after their “encounter” with Jesus. And so the desire for certainty is the desire for something that even the earliest Christians may not have had.
Let me just conclude by emphasizing the difference between uncertainty and what Christians sometimes refer to as “unbelief”. The latter represents a refusal to believe something or someone no matter what evidence is presented, and I think it is safe to say that Christians are no less guilty of such an attitude than non-Christians. Uncertainty, on the other hand, is what often happens when you abandon unbelief, when you stop stubbornly assuming that you are always right, and open your views to be challenged (and hopefully in the process improved) by wise advice, by evidence, by reality. The sad part is that unbelief passes for faith in some Christian circles.