How Mark’s Gospel Originally Ended

How Mark’s Gospel Originally Ended November 2, 2007

I have posted before (twice, in fact) on the question of how Mark’s Gospel originally ended, but without really discussing in depth what I think or why I think it. I am persuaded that the original Gospel of Mark did not end abruptly in 16:8 (as our earliest evidence would suggest). The ending is awkward, and no amount of postmodern literary criticism will make it seem better. It promises that the disciples will see Jesus but the women at the tomb must tell them where to go. Unfortunately, they say nothing to anyone, because they are afraid. Satisfactory ending? Not at all. It might just work as an ending to the Jefferson Gospel, perhaps, but unless one argues that the Gospel of Mark was written by an early Christian author who thought that no one saw Jesus after the crucifixion, then the best explanation is that the original ending has been lost. Clearly this is what many of the earliest Christians thought, since at least two different scribes improved the ending by adding additional material, and Matthew and Luke did so too (and some might even add John here, if they think the author of the Fourth Gospel knew Mark’s).

The ending may well have been lost before Matthew or Luke used Mark as a source, since Matthew and Luke diverge significantly both from Mark and from each other at this point. Matthew adds joy to the fear the women feel, and ensures they do in fact deliver the message by having Jesus himself appear in Jerusalem (which fits awkwardly after a promise that he’ll be seen in Galilee). Luke moves the appearances to Jerusalem.

But what was in that missing ending? I think I know. The answer is to be found, interestingly enough, by looking at two significantly later Gospels, one from outside the canon, the Gospel of Peter, the other the Gospel of John.

The Gospel of Peter is likewise missing its ending (as well as most of its beginning, presumably), but we have enough to have a sense of how it continued past the parallel passage in Mark 16:8. It went from the women’s fear to the disciples in Galilee fishing by the sea. This is a natural progression in terms of the flow of Mark’s Gospel. The women do not deliver the message, yet the disciples saw Jesus (as was widely circulated already in Paul’s time – see 1 Corinthians 15). Presumably the Twelve and many other disciples returned to their earlier lives, but Jesus graciously encountered them there. It is hard to explain why the Gospel of Peter, which is clearly influenced by details from Matthew’s Gospel (although not necessarily through knowledge of that Gospel in written form), does not ‘improve’ the ending as Matthew did. Presumably the author of the Gospel of Peter knew a story like that originally found in Mark, and this version was sufficiently well established that later developments could not unseat that tradition.

The final chapter of the Gospel of John, chapter 21, is often thought to be an epilogue added later. Regardless whether that is the case, it certainly does strike some readers as more like an account of a first encounter of the disciples with Jesus after the resurrection than a later one. For them to be commissioned in Jerusalem only to be then found fishing in the next chapter seems awkward. Thus this part of the Gospel of John most likely reflects the story that was in Mark’s original ending (although I doubt the author was actually using a copy of Mark, truncated or untruncated, as a source). The male disciples know nothing of an empty tomb. They return to their earlier lives in Galilee, and it is there that they have the experiences that change the direction of their lives, and of the world, forever.

A final meeting with Jesus by the seashore while fishing would naturally form an inclusio with the first encounter between Jesus and his most prominent disciples in Mark. (Indeed, Luke may have known details from the story about the post-Easter encounter and, not knowing where else they might belong, have placed them in his account of the first meeting of Jesus with Peter and the others).

All of this evidence hangs together plausibly enough that I feel confident that these other Gospels give us a clear idea of how Mark’s story continued. The challenge now is to address the historical questions in light of this evidence. How does this affect our understanding of the origins and development of the early post-Easter Christian movement? How does this potentially change our view of the reinterpretations of and additions to the resurrection story found in later sources? This line of reasoning based on the available evidence is hinted at by B. H. Streeter in a famous volume on Mark’s Gospel decades ago, but rarely discussed in our time. I am persuaded that it is time for it to be reconsidered.

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