The Lost End of Mark

The Lost End of Mark April 9, 2013

The classic study of The Four Gospels by B. H. Streeter is available online. I am linking to the chapter on the end of Mark’s Gospel because of my longstanding interest in that subject. Streeter drew the conclusion that John 21 was the lost ending of Mark. I think that putting it that way is problematic, but I do think that John 21 reflects knowledge of a lost ending of the Gospel of Mark, knowledge of which is also reflected in the Gospel of Peter.

I’ve blogged about this before, as well as discussing it in an article for The Bible and Interpretation and in my book The Burial of Jesus: What Does History Have to Do with Faith?.

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  • Jerome

    So the original story would have been close to ‘Jesus gets executed and buried, the disciples are crushed, go back home to Galilee, start their everyday business again and there ‘meet’ the ‘risen Christ’ for the first time?

    • Something like that, yes.

      • Jerome

        So why would all these other ‘appearances’ in Jerusalem have been invented then by the other Gospel authors? Because either ‘the risen Christ’ appeared first to them in Jerusalem or in Galilee. Can’t be both, logically speaking … And speaking of Galilee: why do you think that some of the Apostles doubted what they saw on that mountain (Mt 28)? Why would you worship something yet doubt it? Wasn’t the appearance that convincing?

        • I suspect that having appearances only occur significantly later may have been felt to be troubling. And so Matthew adds an awkward appearance of Jesus right after angels have said he is going ahead of the (male) disciples into Galilee, while Luke has the disciples told to remain in Jerusalem. But it may just be that the ending of Mark was damaged very early, and so Matthew and Luke both had traditions about Jesus appearing to disciples, and simply made assumptions about where those appearances occurred.

          To worship and doubt can indeed seem strange to modern people, with our desire for certainty. Presumably the experiences that persuaded the early disciples that God had vindicated Jesus beyond death were not such as to exclude doubt – at least not for all of them, if Matthew’s Gospel is anything to go by. It is worth noting that the physical component only appears in our latest Gospels, Luke and John.

          • Jerome

            “It is worth noting that the physical component only appears in our latest Gospels, Luke and John.” > and that shouldn’t make us questions those claims of physicality and make us question what the earliest believers actually believed a ‘resurrection’ to be … ?

          • Of course.

          • Jerome

            So a ‘resurrection’ was, at least at first, not seen as something like an enhanced ‘revivification’? It was not about corpse revival but about the soul being called back from ‘the realm of the dead’ and clothed with a ‘new, spiritual, glorified body’ (different and independent from the actual corpse) in order to then live forever? Paul seems to support that view in 1 Cor and 2 Cor.

          • Oh, I think we can say with some confidence that the earliest Christian emphasis was on Jesus having been vindicated by God and having entered the life of the age to come. They did not think he had returned to his old form of life. I suspect that there would have been some diversity about the details from very early on, if not the very beginning, given the diversity of views about the afterlife that were found in Judaism in this period.

          • Jerome

            Isn’t the key question though whether the earliest followers believed that an actual corpse was needed as a starting point in order to ‘enter the life of the age to come’?
            If it was needed then the presence of the corpse would have immediately disproved your claim of resurrection.
            But if it was not needed then you could have stood right next to Jesus’ corpse and this would not have disproved your claim of resurrection at all.
            Paul seems to have subscribed to the latter view (and that would also be the reason why he didn’t mention an empty tomb, there was no need for one). According to him the souls of the dead will be immediately resurrected into those ‘new, spiritual, glorified bodies’, bypassing the corpse. Those alive at that time, and only those!, will have their current bodies changed (1 Cor 15), if not outright destroyed so that the souls could be clothed with the ‘heavenly dwelling’ as well: 2 Cor 5.

          • Jerome

            And just curious, what do you make of Acts 10:40-41 “but God raised him up on the third day and caused him to be seen, not by all the people, but by us, the witnesses God had already chosen, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.”?
            a. ’caused to be seen’ is an interesting formulation in this context, isn’t it?
            b. why would God want only the ‘chosen ones’ to see this apparently physical ‘risen Christ’? And if there happened to be a non-chosen ones stumbling on this would he have seen the chosen ones interact with empty space?

  • Thanks for sharing this…I’m always fascinated by discussions of the ending of Mark.

    I really appreciate this line from Streeter: “The evidence available quite insufficient to establish an assured result.”

  • NO HISTORY IN John 21 — It appears to simply re-produce and re-situate Luke’s “calling of the apostles” and “great catch” into a post-resurrection setting, and also reverses Peter’s denials via three affirmations.

    The Gospel of John also took Luke’s “Mary and Martha,” and Luke’s scene of Jesus’ feet being anointed (in Luke it was not by Mary), and Luke’s parable of a beggar named “Lazarus” and re-produced and re-situated all of that into the ending of Jesus’ ministry, making it one continuous tale and making Lazarus an historical figure and brother to Mary and Martha, no longer a beggar, and with Mary doing the foot-anointing of Jesus.

    • You seem to be assuming that Luke wrote before John and that John used Luke – which is possible, but far from certain. But you also seem to be ignoring the intersection between John 21, what we have remaining at the end of Mark, and what survives of the end of the Gospel of Peter. It would have been quite natural for Mark to have had a concluding bookend, in which the disciples encounter Jesus for the last time the same place that they encountered him for the first time. Luke’s calling account may have been influenced by that story, rather than vice versa.

  • Joseph

    Well let’s see, what is the evidence for a lost ending of “Mark”:

    1) No Manuscript evidence.

    2) No Scribal evidence.

    3) No Patristic evidence.

    4) Authority against.

    5) A lost ending is modern speculation.

    6) No Internal evidence such as the Aramaic

    Hmmm, now what position does that remind me of?

    • A lost ending is neither without evidence nor a modern speculation. The 2-3 ancient scribes that provided endings clearly thought that something was missing. And simply asserting that there is no evidence in a manner that shows you’ve not read the book or articles linked to in the post is never going to seem persuasive.

  • Ron Price

    The idea that the extant copies of Mark’s gospel lack its original ending, now presumed lost, surely underestimates the skill of the original author. He was, after all, the pioneer of gospel writing, laying down a pattern which others would follow. Would you not agree that there are circumstances where setting people thinking can be more effective than filling in the details?

    In any case, my posited structure of Mark applied to the text ending at 16:8, presented on my web site:

    shows strong indications of a 40-page codex, which would make the hypothesis of missing page(s) extremely unlikely.

    • Jerome

      Interesting. Also the part about Mark 14:28.

    • It is to be noted that, when it comes to the “ending” in 16:8, none of the later Gospel authors followed Mark’s example. I find the idea that Mark was a skillful author with a postmodern subversive bent two millennia ahead of his time less likely than that the ending was lost.

      • Ian

        I’ve always thought it not particularly unreasonable that GMark was intended to stop where it does.

        [caveats being: This is absolutely not something I’ve read about in detail (I wasn’t aware of the GPeter connection, for example). I was taught by Mark Goodacre (fifteen years ago now), and I don’t remember if Mark taught that as the most likely explanation, or whether he just did a very convincing job of arguing it as a reasonable explanation. And I recognize he’s a little out of the main current of interpretation of synoptic dependencies.]

        Is it unreasonable that this is the ending? He’s established Jesus has risen, the tomb is empty. Given that you’ve already said that early Christians didn’t necessarily see the resurrected Jesus as a revivified figure, doesn’t it make sense for GMark to end without an explicit appearance of Jesus? And then later scribes, who were writing in a context where the standard gospel form did have a physically raised Jesus, were concerned to add it? Is it not reading back into GMark a later gospel idea of what a raised Jesus means?

        I’m not discounting the article, or the evidence at all, or even trying to argue this as being correct. Just making the point that the null hypothesis doesn’t seem intrinsically unreasonable.

        • I’m certainly not closed to the possibility that the Gospel ended here. But it does seem to me that the ending “they said nothing to anyone because they were afraid” is profoundly unsatisfactory. How then can we be reading about this?

          Early readers presumably knew accounts of people “seeing Jesus” and so that might have lessened the awkwardness, since Christian readers already knew something of how the story continued.

          But it still seems unsatisfactory. And so I am most opposed to those who claim that the ending is “open ended” or otherwise satisfactory. It is not impossible that the author could have ended here intentionally, but if so, it is not evidence that the author was a literary genius. 🙂

          • Ian

            Yes, my first reaction was to link this with GMark’s general secrecy motif, but a moments reflection suggests this is rather stretching things.

            Well, all to the good – I have some more interesting stuff to read up on now! Thanks.

          • Ron Price

            To many modern readers of Mark’s gospel, its ending may seem unsatisfactory. But the more curious of its original readers would have been wondering why, a full forty years after the crucifixion, the story of the empty tomb was only now coming to light. Appreciating this, Mark added: “and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid”, in order to explain the late emergence of the story.

          • That certainly is one possibility. But even if that is the aim, the narrative execution leaves something to be desired, since a reader who has never heard the story before will be all the more curious how the author of the text knows something that was not said to anyone.

  • James Snapp, Jr.

    Hmm. I had some similar thoughts about John 21 a while ago, in the course of some work on the ending of Mark — not that the author of Jn. 21 was aware of a lost ending, but of a never-written ending. See the paragraph at

    that begins with “There may be more to the story.”

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.

  • the_Siliconopolitan

    Shouldn’t it be fairly easy to test this idea with a stylistics analysis? Don’t the grammars and vocabularies of Mark and John differ significantly?

    • I think that the presence of typical Johannine ways of putting things in chapter 21 is pretty decisive evidence against that chapter simply being the ending of Mark shifted to another place. That’s one reason I think it is a more likely scenario if one posits that the author of John 21 knew either the lost ending of the Gospel of Mark, or the story that the author and early readers knew about what supposedly transpired next.