The End to Mark's Gospel
9 [[Now when he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. 10 She went and told those who had been with him, as they mourned and wept. 11 But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.
12 After these things he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. 13 And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.
14 Afterward he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at table, and he rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. 15 And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
19 So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. 20 And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs.]]
The Gospel of Mark was written to prove that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God. This Jesus lived an extraordinary life, but it was his extraordinary death that Mark argues was the most convincing proof of his divine identity. Of course, not everyone is persuaded by this Gospel, so Jesus remains a controversial historical person today, just as he was during his brief time on earth.
Last week we examined Mark’s account of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. This is probably the most controversial aspect today concerning the life of Jesus. If Jesus truly did die by Roman crucifixion, and then truly did walk out of a Palestinian tomb, this has massive implications for all of us. One could hardly believe that Jesus rose from the dead and still refuse to be a Christian. So when Mark, along with the other Gospels, relates to us that Jesus indeed did rise from the dead on Easter morning, the next thing we expect him to give us is proof of such a miraculous event. Who saw the resurrected Jesus? And what happened to Jesus after his resurrection? What is the end of the story in the Gospel of Mark?
POSSIBLE ENDINGS TO MARK’S GOSPEL
The short answer is we do not know. As every modern English version indicates, the authenticity of verses 9-20 in Mark 16 is debated. There are two proposed endings that follow verse 8, the “shorter” ending and the “longer” ending.
The Shorter Ending
In one Latin manuscript, the Gospel of Mark ends with these words which follow verse 8.
But they reported briefly to Peter and those with him all that they had been told. And after this, Jesus himself sent out by means of them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.
Other manuscripts include this shorter ending along with the longer ending, but it isn’t hard to see that this ending was not written by Mark. Of the 34 Greek words, 9 of them (about 26%) are not found anywhere else in the book. So it does not sound like Mark when we read it. It sounds very much like a later addition, written to summarize what occurred after Jesus’ resurrection. But it most surely was not the original ending to Mark’s Gospel.
The Longer Ending
The so-called “longer” ending of Mark is what we find in verses 9-20. Why is this ending deemed to be inauthentic?
First of all, this longer ending is found in the vast majority of Greek manuscripts. However, it is not found in the very oldest manuscripts, and two early church fathers (Clement of Alexandria and Origen) do not appear to be aware of any text beyond verse 8. A number of the later manuscripts that include the longer ending note that its authenticity to Mark is doubtful. In other words, the evidence from witnesses outside of the words found in these verses seems to suggest that this longer ending was also added later than the original composition of the Gospel of Mark.
The same criticism can be made from the internal evidence. When we read verses 9-20 we are again struck by some non-Markan elements. There are 18 new words introduced in these 12 verses. In verse 19, Jesus is referred to as “the Lord Jesus,” a name he is not called anywhere else in any of the other Gospels. Furthermore, in verse 9, Mary Magdalene is introduced as a newcomer to our story although she is mentioned three times in the previous 15 verses. (15:40, 47; 16:1). This makes it sound like verses 9-20 comes from material outside of Mark rather than as his original conclusion to his story.
Establishing the text of Scripture
Thus it is the consensus of most New Testament scholars that Mark 16:8 is the end to Mark’s Gospel as we have it. So what are we to do with verses 9-20? I believe the evidence is conclusive that these verses are not original to Mark’s Gospel, and so we cannot accept them as the authoritative word of God but rather as a later insertion. That is why we did not include them this morning for our Scripture reading.
We take the Word of God very seriously here, so we dare not come to conclusions like that lightly. And this is not the only time we find a passage where the text of Scripture is less than certain. How are we to make good judgments in such places as to whether or not a reading should be received as the Word of God?
THE SCIENCE OF RECOVERING THE BIBLICAL TEXT
We cannot examine any of the original biblical documents (called the autographs) because all of them have either been worn out or lost. So we have to reconstruct the original text through the science of textual criticism, the study of the copies of Scripture for the purpose of determining the exact wording of the original. This is a highly specialized field and may sound to some of you about as interesting as watching paint dry.
My intention is not to bore you with the details of textual criticism, but I do want us all to have an introduction to this important work. And here’s why. The results of textual criticism are no longer relegated to the messy offices of a few scholars. In this information age the results of this scholarly work are now being fed to the general public, and in some cases in ways that are troubling the church. For instance, a 2005 New York Times bestseller entitled Misquoting Jesus argues that since we have so many differences in the manuscripts, it is hopeless for us to posit any confidence in the Bible as a divinely perfect book. Just two years ago another book was published by Oklahoma City University professor Robin Meyers entitled Saving Jesus from the Church. In it Meyers furthers suspicion of the authenticity of the Bible by citing the complaint that “there are now more known differences among our manuscripts than there are words in the New Testament.”
And this is technically true. There are now over 400,000 known variant readings in the Greek New Testament, which consists of only 138,162 words. And no two handwritten copies of the New Testament agree completely. So how can we trust the Bible in the face of such data? And how shall we respond to such criticisms as these?
Isolate or insulate?
One way we might respond is by isolating ourselves from the results of textual criticism. We don’t worry in the church about what is going on in academia. And we discourage people from reading books that challenge our established beliefs. This is often the motivation behind loyalty to a particular translation of the Bible. For example, tomorrow marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible. This English translation has had a profound impact on the English language and on western culture, but many people believe that whatever the King James Version says, that is what the original must have also said. And yet the translators of the King James Version based their work on a Greek text which used only about 14 manuscripts. In the 400 years since the publication of the King James Version, many more manuscripts of the Bible have been discovered and studied. We simply have more evidence today for how the original autographs must have read.
Not that the evidence completely contradicts the wording of the King James Bible. The truth is that the manuscript evidence should only increase our confidence in the fact that God has indeed preserved his Word down through the centuries. We have no need to fear the results of serious text-critical study of the Bible. So it is far better to insulate the church from the attacks of biblical critics by responding to their objections with reasonable answers.
The evidence from the manuscripts
Here’s what we find when we study the manuscript evidence. First of all, the New Testament is by far the best-attested document of the ancient world in terms of shortest distance in time between the earliest copies and the originals and the number of existing copies available to us, which now numbers well over 5,000 manuscripts in Greek alone. Homer’s Iliad is the next best-attested ancient document, and its manuscript evidence totals only about 650.
The great number of biblical manuscripts also accounts for the 400,000 differences in the manuscripts. We get to that number only when we count every slight difference in the readings of all the manuscripts of a particular text. Thus the number of legitimate variants drops drastically when we consider that
- about 80% are spelling variants;
- 15% make no difference in translation; and
- 4% are not viable readings for some other reason.
In other words, only about 1% of the 400,000 variants are both viable and affect the meaning of the text in question. One of the foremost text critics, the late Bruce Metzger, noted that out of 20,000 lines that make up the New Testament, there are only 40 that are in any kind of serious doubt.
And even then, there is no major doctrine of the Christian faith that is disturbed by any viable variant reading in the New Testament. Not a single one.
THE FINAL CHAPTER: RESPONSE TO RESURRECTION
So let’s return to the ending of the Gospel of Mark. I’ve concluded that verse 8 is the end to this book as we have it. Both the “shorter” ending of Mark and the “longer” ending were most certainly not part of the original manuscript. That leaves us then with two options for how the Gospel of Mark truly ends.
“They said nothing to anyone”
It is possible that the Gospel of Mark intentionally ends with verse 8 which tells us that the women who went to the tomb of Jesus on Sunday morning later fled from the tomb in fear and said nothing to anyone about what they had experienced there.
The major difficulty with this view is that it leaves us no eyewitness evidence of the resurrection of Jesus. There are no sightings of Jesus; the women don’t even obey the angelic charge to tell his disciples about the empty tomb. The book does not end on the celebratory note of resurrection but on the fearful response of a few women. This is a markedly different ending than what we find in the other Gospels. Why would Mark end his book that way?
This kind of ending does fit with the tenor of much of the rest of the book, where astonishment and fear are frequent after encounters with Jesus (see Mark 1:22; 4:41; 5:33; 7:37). Perhaps Mark wants to end his book with that theme.
The account of the empty tomb is soul-shaking, and to convey this impression Mark describes in the most meaningful language the utter amazement and overwhelming feeling of the women. With his closing comment he wished to say that “the gospel of Jesus the Messiah” (Ch. 1:1) is an event beyond human comprehension and therefore awesome and frightening.
If this is Mark’s deliberate ending he may be pointing us to the fact that following Jesus is a serious and fearful business and not one seeped in mindless enthusiasm.
That seems to be a point that can be made from all the resurrection accounts in the Bible. Though Jesus had predicted his resurrection, it caught even his closest disciples totally off guard. And it was such an enormous event it spun them into fear and confusion before they could come to terms with it more fully.
The lost ending of Mark
So perhaps Mark deliberately ended his book with verse 8. But there is another possibility. Grammatically the book ends rather awkwardly with a conjunction (only 3 other ancient Greek books have been found to end in this way). Did Mark intend to write more? A growing number of scholars believe this, and argue the intended ending has either been lost or was never completed (perhaps Mark died before he could complete his work).
Of course we will most likely never know this for sure, but one piece of evidence for the so-called “lost” ending of Mark is interesting. Matthew’s Gospel follows Mark closely in many places, especially in verses 6-8 (see Matt 28:5-8). So perhaps Mark’s Gospel ends in a similar way, with Jesus appearing to the remaining disciples in Galilee and giving them the charge to make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:16-20).
Believe the Gospel
However Mark’s Gospel ended, whether with verse 8, verse 20, or some other way, it most certainly ended on the same note: with a charge to respond to the resurrection. This is what the longer ending of Mark is all about, and it is worth our consideration this morning for two reasons. First, though certainly not original to Mark’s Gospel, verses 9-20 do express an ancient Christian tradition since these verses were known to the church fathers at least by the end of the second century. The majority of the Greek manuscripts contain it, so these verses have been important to the Church for most of the modern era. Second, as we shall see they are a legitimate summary of what transpired in the days following the resurrection of Jesus as the events they describe harmonize with what can be found in other places of Scripture.
In verses 9-11 we read that Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene who then went and told the other disciples. This is not a contradiction to verse 8 where Mark says that the women who first went to the tomb (which included Mary Magdalene) “said nothing to anyone.” Obviously they eventually said something to someone or Mark would not have been able to retell their story in Chapter 16. In Mark 1:44, we find similar words. After healing a leper, Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest.” In that case the meaning is clear: the healed leper was to go directly to the priest without stopping along the way to tell anyone else what had happened to him. Evidently the women who went to the tomb fled from the tomb and went back to tell the disciples what they had seen. But John tells us that Mary actually saw the resurrected Jesus and then went back and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:11-18). But according to our text, “they would not believe it.”
In verses 12-13 we read a summary of the appearance of Jesus to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, the fuller account of which is in Luke 24:13-35. But once again the disciples respond with doubt: “they did not believe them” (Mark 16:13).
Finally, in verse 14 we read that Jesus appeared to the remaining disciples. And what was the first thing he did? “He rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.” For Jesus it was extremely important that his disciples believe the witness of those who were announcing his resurrection.
And the reason this is so important is found in verses 15-16. The disciples are now being sent “into all the world” to “proclaim the gospel to the whole creation.” In context “the gospel” must be an emphasis on the resurrection of Jesus. Disciples of Jesus are sent out with a mission to proclaim that this Jesus who was crucified is no longer dead. His tomb in which his corpse once laid is empty. And now we must deal with the implications. “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” Those who accept the good news of Jesus’ resurrection will demonstrate their faith in Christian baptism and be saved. Those who reject the gospel will be condemned. The dividing line between heaven and hell is how we respond to the gospel.
This is the heart of the Christian message and it is what true disciples of Jesus have always proclaimed. The accompanying signs described in the following verses are a summary of the history of the early church, much of which can be found in the book of Acts.
So what’s important today is not that we know all the ins and outs of the science of textual criticism. It’s not even that we know decisively how Mark’s Gospel ends. What’s important is that we believe the testimony of the first Christians who proclaimed the truth that rocked their world. Jesus of Nazareth has risen from the dead. If you will believe this gospel, this news will rock your world, too. Believe it, and be saved!
 Robin R. Meyers, Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshiping Christ and Start Following Jesus (New York: HarperOne, 2009), 62.
 William L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. F.F. Bruce (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974), 592.