“Markan priority” is the high-falutin’ term for the fact that the Gospel of Mark was the first of the four New Testament gospels to be written. We don’t have to get into all the reasons why we’re confident that’s true, but the main clues are pretty obvious. One such clue is the fact that both Matthew and Luke copy huge chunks of Mark in their own gospels — sometimes verbatim, sometimes with small changes, and sometimes with big changes.
Another clue is that Mark kind of reads like a first draft. It’s rougher, rawer, blunter and generally sketchier than the other Gospels. Matthew, Luke and John all read like their authors had some larger plan or outline in mind. Mark reads like somebody racing to get everything down on paper as quickly as possible.
So, then, if Mark came first chronologically, why didn’t we put it first in the New Testament? Well, again, because it’s kind of a rough draft and the guys back in Nicea or wherever apparently wanted to start the canon with one of the more polished, more carefully constructed gospels. Plus, Mark is a lot shorter than the others and, because of that, it leaves out a lot of the story. There’s no Nativity story in Mark — no Christmas. You gotta have Christmas. And there’s only the first hint of Easter in Mark. The first Gospel arrives at Easter morning, Mary finds an abandoned tomb, and then it just stops.
That abrupt ending was so frustrating for some later Christians that they felt compelled to give the book a proper conclusion. Several conclusions, actually, and now the Gospel of Mark has more endings to it than Peter Jackson’s Return of the King.
First there’s the original ending. According to our oldest and most reliable manuscripts, Mark’s Gospel concludes with Chapter 16, verse 8:
So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
Then there’s the long ending, composed much later and appended to the Gospel. This is included in the King James Version, the Catholic Vulgate, and in many popular English translations today as “Mark” 16:9-20.
There’s also an even-longer ending, which adds those 11 verses, plus this, tucked in the middle of it:
And they excused themselves, saying, “This age of lawlessness and unbelief is under Satan, who does not allow the truth and power of God to prevail over the unclean things of the spirits. Therefore reveal your righteousness now” — thus they spoke to Christ. And Christ replied to them, “The term of years of Satan’s power has been fulfilled, but other terrible things draw near. And for those who have sinned I was handed over to death, that they may return to the truth and sin no more, that they may inherit the spiritual and imperishable glory of righteousness that is in heaven.”
And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter. And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.
It’s important to remember here that Mark is the earliest “Gospel,” but not the earliest account of this story. Sometimes people ignore that, arguing that the clipped ending of Mark — with no mention of any of the other witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection — must be the most authentic version of the story, and that the other gospels’ longer description of Easter and the days that followed must therefore be later inventions.
That won’t do. Mark may be the earliest Gospel, but it was likely written decades after Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, where Paul offers a longer ending to the story than Mark includes. After Jesus’ death and burial, Paul writes, he “appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.”
Paul was probably writing around 20 years after Jesus’ death, but he had met these witnesses in person. The key point, though, is that he wasn’t telling the Christians of Corinth anything they hadn’t already heard. This was already what Christians believed (they would say “knew“) decades before Mark sat down to write his first draft of a Gospel. So we can’t infer that Mark didn’t include the Easter stories that the other gospels include because they hadn’t been invented yet.
The more intriguing — and kind of fun — speculation about the abrupt non-ending of Mark’s Gospel is the theory that it may have originally included a longer ending, but that we simply lost the rest of the book. If you know anything about the precarious nature of first-century written documents, this is all too plausible. Given that three-fourths of Mark is reproduced in Matthew and Luke, and that most of the rest is copied in either one or the other, that could well mean that the “lost ending” to Mark — if there is one — was retained in Matthew and/or Luke. Could be. That’s probably my best guess.
But there’s another line of thinking about the ending of Mark — one that’s far less plausible but weirdly fun. That line of thinking, surprisingly, links fans of The Da Vinci Code with KJV-only fundamentalists and other proponents of “biblical inerrancy.” And that’s what we’ll turn to next, in part 2.