Easter Sunday School

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.

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  • http://patmccullough.com/ patmccullough.com

    That’s an interesting distinction in your final paragraph re: unbelief and uncertainty. Reading your first sentence, I thought of a different direction for the distinction. I also think that many Christians are so allergic to uncertainty that they label uncertainty (or “doubt”) as flat “unbelief” (and therefore unfaithfulness). The flip side of the same coin, I think.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05484259391366235795 John Anderson

    Another potential support for Mark’s original ending being lost could be how it ends in the Greek . . . quite abrupt, and unparalleled.I don’t know that I take this view, though. It seems to me Mark, as the earliest gospel, would at least make sense with such an ending (along with the ‘messianic secret’ theme that seems to pervade Mark). I am by no means a Markan specialist–Matthew is more my cup of tea–but the ending of the gospel is one of the most potent and fascinating issues in NT study, and I think it should resist any easy answer.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11983601793874190779 Steven Carr

    ‘And so the desire for certainty is the desire for something that even the earliest Christians may not have had.’As Paul said, For it is written in the Law of Moses: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he?’Paul was sure what the meaning of the Old Testament passage was.And he was wrong.The search for certainty is mistaken, as the earliest Christians could not even intepret the Old Testament correctly.

  • steph

    I don’t think Mark necessarily had access to Paul’s sources because I think Mark was just as early (based on arguments that Mark takes for granted that Jesus fully observed biblical law and that Mark could only make such an assumption at a time when Christianity was largely law observant and the suggestion that there are for Mark 13 plausible settings other than the Jewish war (when the Temple was in any case burned not destroyed stone by stone) etc etc ) – but that is beside the point. As scholars have already said, the ending of Mark is unparallelled and it is quite likely the end has been lost. Mark has Jesus predict his resurrection and tell his disciples to go to Galilee where he will see them. Therefore, regardless of historicity, I think Mark would have described disciples seeing Jesus in Galilee otherwise it would have been more sensible to leave Jesus’ instruction out. I think it likely, that some disciples did “see” Jesus – those disciples who do continue in Christian history. The others, who ‘disappear’ from history so to speak, doubted, or didn’t “see” and possibly carried on as good Jews, transmitting the teaching of Jesus, calling Jews back to God and waiting for the kingdom of God. Personally I think it plausible that these disciples – Peter, Jacob, and John, had visions, like those attested in contemporary culture especially had by people grieving. However I am not trying to disprove resurrection – that is beyond the bounds of any historical enquiry. I do think that Mark would have described these “visions” or the “resurrection”. So I kinda doubt a resurrection because I think visions are more plausible but of course and I think it extremely likely that we have lost the ending of Mark but I have absolutely no certainty of any of the above at all and am quite convinced I’m agnostic.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09493891380752272603 James E. Snapp, Jr.

    Greetings.It worries me when preachers offer the endings of Mark as if the text is a buffet. If the Greek MSS and lectionaries are any indication of what the church has accepted as its written authority — and if the writings of influential Christian leaders whose work shaped the canon mean anything — then Mark 16:9-20 should be accepted as the ending of the Gospel of Mark. The question of whether or not Mark wrote those 12 verses is secondary, like a question about who wrote down the report of Moses’ death. Co-authorship is a non-factor as far as a text’s canonicity is concerned. Let me briefly review two alternatives to accepting Mark 16:9-20: (a) Mark intentionally ended at the end of 16:8! This was regarded as a ridiculous idea by almost all textual critics in the 1800’s and early 1900’s, but as scholars continued to squint at the Abrupt Ending, a picture of irony and reader-responsive challenge developed. Imho this theory is past its expiration date, having been dismantled by Gundry, Witherington, and more recently Robert Stein. (b) Mark wrote more, but the original ending has been lost. As you said, Dr. McGrath, this is not impossible. But the logistics for such a thing would have to be perfectly aligned for that to occur; the Gospel of Mark would need to be treasured even in damaged form, and yet not treasured enough to be copied so that a copy would be available from which the mutilated text could be restored. JM: … “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.”Are you claiming that Matthew and Luke both used the Gospel of Mark, or some form of Proto-Mark? What about the Minor Agreements, and Luke’s big omission?I don’t grant that Mark 16:9-20 originated in any “scribal tradition” other than the Christian community at Rome in the mid-60’s, who took an already-existing text that summarized Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances — without explicitly naming the geographical locations, like I Cor. 15:4ff. — and added it to Mark’s otherwise unfinished account, before disseminating it to the church.JM: “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 . . . .”This raises a question: if Matthew and Luke knew Mark 14:28 and Mk. 16:7, why would they not think that Jesus appeared to the disciples in Galilee? The answer seems clear: they also had Mk. 16:8, which gives the impression that the disciples never got the angel’s message and thus did not make the rendesvous in Galilee. This seems to be Luke’s understanding of events. But Matthew understands things differently. Why? Possibly (as Gundry suggested) because Matthew’s copy of Mark — I would say, rather, Matthew’s copy of Proto-Mark — related the events in Mt. 28:9-11 and 28:16-20. In this ending, the women are dumb with fear (as in Mk. 16:8) but then Jesus appears to them personally and instructs them to go report to His brethren and tell them to go to Galilee, which they do, and the next scene = the commissioning in Galilee.This would explain Matthew. But it seems more historically plausible with Proto-Mark in the equation, than with a text of Mark which was so popular that Matthew and Luke both had copies of it, but which was also simultaneously so unpopular that no one was interested in restoring the accidentally-lost final section.Yours in Christ,James Snapp, Jr.www.curtisvillechristian.org/MarkOne.html

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09493891380752272603 James E. Snapp, Jr.

    P.S. I am curious: was the sermon you heard anything like the one here:http://sharedgrace.blogspot.com/2009/04/radical-renovation-choose-your-own.html??Yours in Christ,James Snapp, Jr.

  • steph

    James Snapp: I doubt either Matthew or Luke had the complete Mark. It’s just as plausible that at least one of their Marks was already truncated. However, as reflected in the rest of their gospels with the double tradition and minor agreements, they have used several (written) sources other than Mark and clearly (I think) had separate sources for the appearance stories, perhaps even oral sources. And people obviously were interested in ‘restoring’ the end of Mark. Perhaps I’ve misunderstood you.Personally I think Mark wrote of an appearance in Galilee and I’m less interested in the ending written by someone else, probably after the gospels of Matthew and Luke.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    The analogy was similar (inasmuch as both mentioned the CYOA books) but the points were different. But it is interesting to see preaching converge like this. Perhaps there is an analogy to be made to the Synoptic problem? :)On Mark, I’ll just say briefly that the question of whether Moses wrote about his death in Deuteronomy is not the same sort of question as the ending of Mark. We don’t have manuscripts that lack the ending of Deuteronomy in that way. We also don’t have evidence that Moses wrote the rest of the Pentateuch, but that’s another story – presumably I don’t need to go over the point that the Pentateuch was written by someone writing about Moses writing in the third person. One reason I find the suggestion that Matthew’s continuation reflects the ending of Mark in detail is Matthew’s introduction of an appearance of Jesus in Jerusalem immediately after an angel has announced that he is going to Galilee ahead of the disciples. This is not to say that it is impossible that Matthew’s Gospel reflects the continuation of Mark, but it seems less likely than other possibilities.As for truncation and preservation, the Gospel of Peter provides a nice example of a text that was truncated at its beginning and ending and then preserved by someone who valued it. There are similar cases among the Nag Hammadi texts.

  • James Snapp, Jr.

    James McG:Let me reframe my point. You’re correct that the question of whether Moses wrote about his death in Deuteronomy is not *exactly* the same sort of question as the ending of Mark. But the basic analogy is valid: single-authorship has never been on the check-list of what makes a text canonical. If we *did* have a few copies of Deut that abruptly ended at 34:4, the text-critical decision to include or exclude verses 5-12 would need to be based on comparisons of external evidence; the question of authorship of those verses would not be a factor; all that would matter was whether they were part of the text when it began to be disseminated for the use of the people of God, or not.Yours in Christ,James Snapp, Jr.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    OK, but the lack of anything after 16:8 in manuscripts that include other New Testament writings suggests that Mark’s Gospel was circulated for Christian use in copies that lacked either of the supplemental endings.