The unusual endings of the Gospel of Mark.
Easter celebrates the catastrophe of the Gospel story. “Catastrophe” in literary theory wraps up the plot, because it was originally applied to tragedies. But the Gospel story is not a tragedy. Easter changes everything, but it is not the end of the story. The Gospel of Mark, probably the first Gospel written, ends with only the empty tomb, feeling incomplete.
Mark’s ending in our earliest manuscripts is abrupt and strange. “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). In the Greek it ends with “because.”
There are many theories about this ending. Was Mark a clever, somewhat postmodern writer, who left his ending open? Did something happen to the writer so that he could not finish? Was the ending lost from the outside of the scroll? Matthew and Luke, who likely used Mark as a source, differ in their endings.
Mark was ended differently by later copiers. A few manuscripts have a short ending. “But all that they had been told they reported briefly to those with Peter. But after these things, even Jesus himself sent out by means of them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation. Amen.” This vocabulary indicates it is a later addition. These manuscripts and later ones have a longer ending translated in the Latin Vulgate, King James and bracketed in the NIV, ESV and NRSV (verses 9-20).
This ending is not in the earliest manuscripts nor known by the earliest Church Fathers. It might have originated about a hundred years after the Gospel was written. William (Grandpa) Hendriksen concludes in his commentary on Mark, “. . . it is instructive, for it shows us an early church view . . . of these matters. Since it would be very difficult – perhaps impossible – to defend the thesis that every word of this ending is without flaw, no sermon, doctrine or practice should be based solely upon its contents.”
“Denouement” ties up the loose ends of a story after the catastrophe. In fairy tales is it the “happily ever after.” Movies sometimes tell you the characters’ future in text at the end. Denouement closes off the story and sets up future episodes.
The Easter story changes all stories, beginning new episodes. Those who added the ending to Mark seem to have gathered from the other Gospels’ denouements. Mary Magdalene’s story reflects John 20:11-1, 8 plus Luke 8:2’s mention of her deliverance. Jesus’ appearance to two walkers is a short form of the Emmaus disciples in Luke 24:13-25. Jesus’ appearance to the Eleven while they were eating is a summary of Luke 24:36-49. The commission of the disciples is like Matthew 28:18-20. The Book of Acts is reflected in the signs of driving out demons and healings (Acts 8, 9:17, 19:11-12), speaking a new tongue (Acts 2), and the Ascension (Acts 1).
The added endings to Mark do what we need to do: tell the new stories in the light of Easter. How do we go forth from Easter? These endings, even the short one, emphasize two things: believe the witness and be the witness; trust and obey. Mark’s whole Gospel is a challenge to believe that Jesus is the Messiah (Mark 1:1, 8:29) and to enter the way of the cross, suffering service (Mark 8:31-38).
“He rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen” (Mark 16:14, NIV).
“Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it” (Mark 16:20, NIV).