The Awkward Ending of the Gospel of Mark
[This informal article is actually just a modification of a response I wrote to an email inquiry about the Gospel of Mark.]
"The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God"
by Dennis O'Donnell
In an effort to keep this writing as brief as I feel it should be, let me simply state the subject matter bluntly:
According to the majority of scholars, the Gospel of Mark actually ends at Chapter 16, verse 8, which reads (in context):
16:1 "When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might come and anoint Him. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, they *came to the tomb when the sun had risen. 3 They were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” 4 Looking up, they *saw that the stone had been rolled away, [b]although it was extremely large. 5 Entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting at the right, wearing a white robe; and they were amazed. 6 And he *said to them, “Do not be amazed; you are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who has been crucified. He has risen; He is not here; behold, here is the place where they laid Him. 7 But go, tell His disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see Him, just as He told you.’” 8 They went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid."
This ending - awkward, stunted and abrupt; it's no wonder that over the centuries, other endings - including the current verses 10 through 20 - have been attached to Mark's text. I suppose most would admit that Mark's ending is hardly what we would... well... expect.
Fortunately for the reader, I have no inclination to discuss the variety of other endings that have been appended to Mark's text in times past. They are not material to my (soon-to-be-stated) assertion.
Nor do I wish to take even a moment to try to demonstrate or prove that Mark's gospel originally had some other ending that was lost, or either accidentally or intentionally destroyed, or that Mark simply never finished his writing perhaps due to an untimely death. One need only to search the internet for "ending of the Gospel of Mark" to find (seemingly) countless writings on the "lost ending" theories.
And especially, I do not wish to spend even a millisecond to refute scholars who assert that the gospel ends abruptly, with (specifically) with no record of "sightings" or "interactions" with the resurrected Jesus, and therefore (according to some such scholars, such as Dr. James D. Tabor) that Mark's gospel actually proves that early Christians did not believe in a physical resurrection, but rather (as Tabor puts it) they believed in a "resurrection of faith" (which, I can only presume, is something rather symbolic or metaphoric) - and, furthermore - that the sightings or interactions with the risen Jesus recorded in the other gospels were purely embellishments to the story; literary artifices of later writers. (In other words, "they made it up"). Again, I would encourage readers to simply search the internet for a full helping of such theories (and there are many), which should rightfully be added to the readers collection of conspiracy theories regarding UFO's, the Kennedy Assassination, and vapor trails.
For my purposes, I'm going to simply concede that Mark's gospel does indeed end at Chapter 16, Verse 8, as the vast majority of scholars believe. If, in the future, evidence is found that proves that to be wrong, it will not change my assertion in the slightest.
And, at last - I am happy to get to my assertion, having done my very best to both acknowledge - and avoid - all the noise, confusion and rhetoric of a myriad of many of our highly-educated scholars and theologians from over the centuries:
My Assertion: If one wants to know the reason Mark's gospel ends as it does (ch16, v8), one need only read the first line of the writing.
It's right there. First line. You can't miss it. It's as plain as the nose on your face.
Mark 1:1 Beginning of the good message of Jesus Christ son of God
[ note: literal Greek translation ]
That's it. It's not even a complete sentence. It's a literary fragment, like the title of a magazine article. It's a statement of the topic, like the Subject Line of an email; a brief thematic summary, or - dare I say it? - perhaps even Mark's title for his work.
Mark is telling the reader right there, in that very first line, exactly what the whole of his writing is about: the BEGINNING of the good MESSAGE of Jesus Christ.
Simply put, Mark very much appears to be answering the question (perhaps posed by many): "How did all this 'Jesus stuff' get started? What got the ball rolling?"
As such, he begins with the John's baptism of Jesus. Why? He begins where the MESSAGE - the ministry - of Jesus Christ begins. He's not telling "the life and times of Jesus Christ". He's not trying to write the entire biography of Jesus. He skips the story of the birth of Jesus, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and any other facts or stories of Jesus' early years because he is intent on trying to communicate exactly what he said in his opening line: The BEGINNING - the ORIGIN - the STARTING POINT - of the GOOD MESSAGE. He is NOT writing of "the beginning of Jesus himself" (aka, Jesus' birthday). He is writing about the message, and how that message began. Period.
Thus, Mark's gospel ends where it ends, for exactly and precisely the same reason: When the women leave the tomb, that was the "end of the beginning". The "good message of Jesus Christ" had been completed. Anything and everything else that followed was beyond the scope of what Mark was writing, just as anything and everything else before the baptism of Jesus by John was equally outside the scope of his topic.
[ As an aside - I would note that the women were told to "...tell the disciples and Peter...", and that they told no one else. The first declaration of "the completed 'good message of Jesus Christ' was not to be a rumor in the street, but firmly made pronouncement at Pentecost. ]
I fully realize that I am making a determination as to Mark's intent - but, I am not making it without reason: Mark himself indicates clearly what he intends to write about in his opening line, and the reason I can only conclude that "the beginning of the good message" is precisely what Mark intends to write about is that not only does he SAY that's what he's writing about, but also, because explaining the origin - the "beginning" of the "message of Jesus" - is exactly what he does indeed write about, and nothing more. There is no "great mystery" here, unless one simply wishes to completely ignore the first line of Mark's text. Leave it to a PhD to presume Mark meant to write something else, or to presume that because he didn't write something else, it therefore has great and profound implications.
And, I think I shall leave it to the truly great biblical scholars and historians to argue "oh, no - Mark didn't mean to use 'the beginning of the good message of Jesus' as a statement of the subject of his work. He was only kidding when he wrote that". I shall only truly be surprised if such scholars and historians can keep their individual refutations confined to one volume of no more than 500 pages.
For myself, I wish only to provide the service to my readers of offering them the opportunity to avoid wasting precious time by poring through the vague obfuscations of those scholars, historians and theologians who take all but Mark's first line in grave seriousness. Hopefully, providing this service will at least render my own time as having been spent in a manner that is not entirely without some redeeming value.
Copyright (c) 2015 Dennis R. O'Donnell, all rights reserved
© 2015 Dennis R ODonnell