How did Mark's Gospel end?

Skeptics and critics alike have found grist for their mill in the assertion that Mark presents an inconsistency, and poses a problem, in that his Gospel ends with the women at the tomb thusly: "And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid." The other Gospels, it is said, have the women going right away and saying something to the apostles, and this is an inconsistency. From here as well some critics will charge that Mark represents an original state in "evolution" of Christianity in which no one knew what happened to Jesus' body.

It is worth noting, first of all, that even scholars of a liberal or moderate bent who say Mark ended at 16:8 (and no portion thereof is lost) do not see this "problem" at all -- and I have consulted over two dozen. Here are examples which speak for the whole.

Campenhausen [Tradition and Life in the Church, 61, 71] supposes that Mark wished to show by the women's silence that the disciples themselves had nothing to do with the tomb being empty. This would then be an "anti-theft" apologetic in line with Matthew's account of the guards. He adds: "One can hardly take the text as meaning to the simple reader, and therefore to the author, anything but that the women first kept silent, so that the events which followed took place without any help from them and without any regard to the empty tomb."

Vernon Robbins, a scholar who gives Acts about the same credence as a novel, supposes that the anamolous ending is a form of missionary call: "Now it is up to you to spread the Good News of the Gospel!"

Finally, in the chauvinistic context of first-century society, having women discover the empty tomb would have been a detriment to the apologetic - indeed, it would have been counterproductive. If this were merely a late rationalization, we would have expected the tomb to be first found empty by Joseph, or by one of the Apostles, or by a lesser MALE member of the apostolic band, like Cleopas. But this is not what we have: Instead, we have the "worst" possible scenario, one so inherently "smelly" that it could not possibly work as a rationalization - it could ONLY work if it reflected what actually happened, and it has to be assumed that the women did spill the beans at some point.

But that's all within the context-assumption that 16:8 is the original ending -- and the evidence is actually strongly against that being the case. Witherington in his commentary on Mark [415-418] provides a summary of the evidence, which we will in turn report here:

Bottom line: All arguments which focus on 16:8 as the intended ending of Mark's Gospel have a great deal to reckon with before they can peddle any related theories of conspiracy or inconsistency.

Response to Objections

There are two ways in which a response might be made to this issue. One is to claim that Mark 16:9-20 as we now have it as authentic. The other is to claim that Mark 16:8 was intended to be the ending.

Let's look at the first argument, starting with a summary of why 16:9-20 is argued to be inauthentic.

External evidence. The two earliest parchment codices, Vaticanus B and Sinaiticus, plus 2 minuscules and several versions and manuscripts, do not contain verses 9-20. Two important early Christian writers testify that these verses are not found in Mark: Eusebius (Quaestiones ad Marinum I) says that they are not in "accurate" copies of Mark and are missing from "almost all" manuscripts; Jerome (Epistle CXX.3, ad Hedibiam) testifies that almost all Greek manuscripts of his time lack vss. 9-20. Many manuscripts that do have these verses "have scholia stating that older Greek copies lack them," and other textual witnesses add "conventional signs used by scribes to mark off a spurious addition to a literary text."

There are also three variant endings of Mark in circulation. Our vss. 9-20 are the most common, but there is also a "short" ending, and seven Greek manuscripts with both the long and short ending. However, this particular evidence may be too late to be of any relevance.

The above evidence is absolutely decisive by the canons of textual criticism (whether secular or Biblical). Indeed the internal evidence noted below is not so much proof as it is supplementation in light of the above. No argument for the authenticity of Mark 16:9-20 (hereafter, M16) can move without refuting each of the points above.

Internal evidence. There is a sudden change in subject from verse 8 (the women) to verse 9 (Jesus). Other alleged examples in Mark (such as with Peter's denials) fail as comparisons, for they are clearly in the form of a Markan "sandwich" that returns to a prior issue, and that is manifestly not what happens here; the original "issue" is never returned to. Mary Magdalene is introduced as one from whom Jesus had cast out seven demons, as though she had not been introduced in the Gospel before.

A singular reply on the point of Mary Magdalene has been made, that the mention of Mary mother of James in 16:1 required this Mary to be further described. This objection fails since identifying this Mary as "Magdalene" would have provided every bit of the discrimination needed.

The form, language, and style "militate against Marcan authorship." There are seventeen non-Marcan words or Marcan words used in a non-Marcan sense. There is no instance of the typical Marcan stylistic transitions or methods (such as beginning a phrase with a parataxis). Overall, the passage has the "distinct flavour of the second century" and appears to be a pastiche of material taken from other Gospels.

While one may argue that there are examples of any one of these sorts of flukes in other places (i.e., that Luke 1:1-12 has 20 words forms unique to that portion of text -- though comparing a classical historian sort like Luke to a peasant team of Mark and Peter is a little shaky), the fact that all of these faults appear together in such a short passage removes any force of finding passages that compare on single points.

Now let's consider some objections that have been made by various parties.

Authenticity is favored in that it is found in the majority of Old Latin texts as well as the Coptic Versions and other early translations.

This is not at all the case. The late Latin and Coptic texts, in the canon of textual-critical principles, do not constitute any evidence of originality in light of the above external evidence.

The legitimacy of the passage is also confirmed by many of the early Church Fathers - which would be impossible if it was a later interpolation. This is not impossible in the least. To begin, one can find no earlier witness than Ireneaus in the late second century. All other authorities are from 397 and 430, which make them of no use for determining whether M16 was added in the second century, and their testimony is stood against by other patristic testimony -- cited above -- that the passage does not belong. Second, not one of the Fathers he cites offers any defense for the authenticity of M16.

It seems that proponents of Mark 16:9-20 are all following on this account the work of one Dean Burgon -- a scholar, though not one of textual criticism -- who simply could not conceive of any other methods of textual criticism than, "the majority have it so it must be right." Some take the lack of response to Burgon as proof of his irrefutability, never once thinking that he is ignored because his responses were so misinformed that had no idea what he was talking about.

For those who adhere to Burgon, we would recommend a look at two articles from the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, one by esteemed scholar of the Greek, Daniel Wallace ("The Majority Text Theory: History, Methods and Critique" -- 37/2, 1994, 185-215) and another by Mark Heuer ("An REvaluation of John W. Burgon's Use of Patristic Evidence" -- 38/4, 514-19). Wallace notes that Burgon's methodology was governed by an assumption that God preserved an inerrant text, and both he and Heuer note his tendency to dismiss manuscript evidence he did not like with nothing but emotional diatribes. In essence, if a text didn't say what Burgon wanted, it was corrupted.

Burgon was also not afraid to resort to such contrivances as that textual evidence from early dates, for the texts he needed, was lacking not because the texts did not exist, but because his preferred texts were considered so useful that they were worn out from use and disappeared. Obviously Burgon allowed his methods to interpret the facts rather than letting the facts speak for themselves.

Finally, in terms of the NT, Wallace notes that in Burgon's time there was only one NT papyri known; today there are nearly 100, and none of these agree with what Burgon would have preferred.

Burgon is also routinely hailed for an enormous collection of patristic cites he collated, but as Heuer notes, this entire project was misguided, as Burgon did not make use of critical texts of patristic writers in his project. Indeed, many of his cites "are useless because they reflect not the Father's texts but the conformation of the texts" to the ecclesiology of the Middle Ages. Those who rely on Burgon should take his word with a critical eye.

We also now would look at another aspect of the external evidence argument, that is, alleged allusions to this passage. Of course only writers who allude to this passage earlier than the very late second century are of any relevance here.

  1. Claimed is a "probable allusion to Mark 16:18" by Papias, as recorded by Eusebius. But this is tremendously misleading, for here is what Eusebius says:

    "[Papias] also mentions another miracle relating to Justus, surnamed Barsabas, how he swallowed a deadly poison, and received no harm, on account of the grace of the Lord."

    Papias is NOT being quoted here, and if anything, Eusebius is using an allusion to Mark 16:18 of his own to describe what Papias says. There is no evidence that Papias himself alluded to Mark 16:18. In addition, as Heuer notes, Mark 16:18 does not even use the same word for "deadly thing" as Eusebius: It is thanasmos in Mark, but pharmakon in Eusebius.

  2. Claimed also is Justin Martyr, c. 165 AD, with a "probable allusion to Mark 16:20." It is claimed that Justin uses the phrases "of the word" and "went forth and preached everywhere" (my source for this criticism did not note the "everywhere" as a parallel; another opponent did) in a way reminiscent of Mark 16:20.

    But note how this works out:

    Mark 16:20 And they went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following.

    Justin, First Apology, 45 And that God the Father of all would bring Christ to heaven after He had raised Him from the dead, and would keep Him there until He has subdued His enemies the devils, and until the number of those who are foreknown by Him as good and virtuous is complete, on whose account He has still delayed the consummation--hear what was said by the prophet David. These are his words: "The Lord said unto My Lord, Sit Thou at My right hand, until I make Thine enemies Thy footstool. The Lord shall send to Thee the rod of power out of Jerusalem; and rule Thou in the midst of Thine enemies. With Thee is the government in the day of Thy power, in the beauties of Thy saints: from the womb of morning hare I begotten Thee." That which he says, "He shall send to Thee the rod of power out of Jerusalem," is predictive of the mighty, word, which His apostles, going forth from Jerusalem, preached everywhere; and though death is decreed against those who teach or at all confess the name of Christ, we everywhere both embrace and teach it. And if you also read these words in a hostile spirit, ye can do no more, as I said before, than kill us; which indeed does no harm to us, but to you and all who unjustly hate us, and do not repent, brings eternal punishment by tire.

    Not only are the phrases in the wrong order, they are used in different ways. Furthermore, "the word" is used so often in the NT (over 140 times) that any "allusion" would be unable to be specified, and harks to no particular advantage for Mark 16:20; while "went forth and preached" is also found in Mark 1:45 and 6:12 (and are also in reverse order in 1:38). Both words, however, are used so often and describe such a pertinent aspect of Christianity (preaching and missionary work, with "every where" a common statement of location, in the works of Luke) that it's as helpful to suggest an allusion in words like "the" and "God" and "Christ".

  3. Around 177 AD, it is said that "Irenaeus quotes Mark 16:19 outright". This is accurate -- though I leave open to question whether this was added by Irenaeus or one of his students -- as is a claim that Mark 16:9-20 was included in the Diatesseron of Tatian, usually dated around 175 AD (though again, this is just as well a late addition; or if Mark 16:9-20 were created around 150, as many scholars aver, it makes no difference).

Parallels in Luke 10:19 and Acts 14:3 support M16's originality.

It does no such thing; it merely suggests cites from which some of M16 was cobbled together, taken from their original context (though not always in violation of it).

Here are some scholarly proponents of the autneticity of M16:

Bruce Terry -- Shockingly for a professor of Bible and Humanities, Terry dismisses the external evidence in one sentence: "The question of authorship of verses 9 through 20 of the last chapter of Mark cannot be decided on the basis of textual evidence, since they are omitted by some good manuscripts and included by other good ones." That is all he has to say on the subject. Textual critics would be appalled at such reasoning.

Instead Terry argues that authenticity "must be determined, if possible, on the basis of style". In light of the argument by the textual specialist Yule -- whose work we have noted in our work on the Pastorals -- that at least a 10,000 word sample is required to make stylistic determinations, and that M16 falls about 9900 words short of this, Terry's arguments are far off base.

That said, what of the arguments from above Terry does address? Terry does admit that the "transition between verses 8 and 9 does seem awkward" and that an "exact parallel containing all the features of this juncture cannot be found elsewhere in Mark". However, he says that "the various features may be found in different transitions between sections in Mark."

This is an illicit move by Terry. By such means one may argue away any unique feature, by paring it down into the lowest common denominator. It is by such means that critics "find" parallels between Jesus and various "copycat" saviors.

Terry answers the point about Mary Magdalene's description by arguing that "this is not, strictly speaking, an identifying phrase; it is rather a type of flashback that gives additional information about Mary Magdalene. This same type of flashback is found at least four times elsewhere in Mark." There is a vast difference, however, between this mention and the others: by M16, Mary Magdalene had been mentioned three times. The only example Terry gives from Mark that comes close to this is Mark 3:16, where "Simon was surnamed Peter by Jesus, although Simon had been mentioned several times previously. We know this is a flashback because John 1:42 tells us it happened when Simon Peter first met Jesus."

The "several" is actually just three, and Mark 3:16 is part of a list of the apostles that gives such information about ALL of them as required (i.e., James and John being called Boanerges). There is no such categorical restriction with respect to Mary Magdalene. Terry's other two examples are both within the same Markan pericope and do not parallel the issue with respect to M16.

Terry next notes, "The fourth objection to the juncture between this last section of Mark and the previous one is that the use of anastas de ('Now rising') and the position of proton ('first') in verse 9 are ill-suited in a continuation of verses 1-8, even though they would be appropriate at the beginning of a comprehensive narrative. It is only necessary to point out that verse 9 is not a continuation of the section found in verse 1-8; it is the start of a new one."

So it is. And this points directly to a later interpolation. Terry has not answered this objection; he has just put a "spin" on it that validates our views.

Terry considers the "most serious objection with regard to juncture" to be the ending of verse 8 ends with the conjunction gar ("for"). We will not pursue this line as there are some arguments, and perhaps one actual parallel, to such an ending in classical literature; the argument is therefore indecisive.

Terry next addresses arguments based on vocabulary. He summarizes:

(1) sixteen words used in this section are not used elsewhere in the Gospel of Mark; (2) three of these words are used more than once in this section; and (3) this section does not contain some of Mark's favorite words: eutheos or euthus (both meaning "immediately") and palin ("again").
The main objection to the Markan authorship of these verses based on vocabulary is that sixteen words used in this section are not used elsewhere in the Gospel of Mark. The sixteen words are: poreuomai ("go," three times, vv. 10, 12, 15), pentheo ("mourn," v. 10), theaomai ("see," twice, vv. 11, 14), apisteo ("not believe, disbelieve," twice, vv. 11, 16), heteros ("another, different," v. 12), morphe ("form," v. 12), husteron ("afterward," v. 14), endeka ("eleven," v. 14), parakoloutheo ("follow, accompany," v. 17), ophis ("serpent, snake," v. 18), thanasimos ("deadly," v. 18), blapto ("hurt, harm," v. 18), analambano ("receive up, take up," v. 19), sunergeo ("work with," v. 20), bebaioo ("confirm," v. 20), and epakoloutheo ("follow, attend," v. 10).

A few of these words -- ophis, morphe, endeka -- are fairly words we would expect to be unique as Mark would hardly have use for them anywhere else. Terry also notes that about 6-7 of these words have words using the same roots elsewhere in Mark. This cuts down the amount by about half, which does still leave this as supporting evidence to the decisive external evidence.

Terry's reply beyond this is methodologically sound but in principle somewhat flawed. He notes that between Mark 15:40 and 16:4, one may also find 20-22 words that are used nowhere else in Mark; however, he includes in his list two proper names. Terry does well to point out that unique words may be used only because a situation warrants it. However, in his list of words from 15:40-16:4 only two or three are not for unique situations, which still, comparatively for M16, is below par.

Indeed in a chart comparing number of words used only once, M16 ties for third, behind Mark 15 -- the chapter on the unique event of the crucifixion -- and Mark 7 -- a chapter that includes a list of sins, several geographic references, and an Aramaic word. Chapter 13 is Mark's little apocalypse and ties with M16 in terms of ratio. Given the "specialty" nature of these three chapters, if anything the inauthenticity of the more mundane M16 (in terms of subject) is highlighted.

At best Terry has only made the case from this point less persuasive, but not eliminated it. Mere ratios will not tell us enough here. Indeed, one may go on (as Terry does) to divide down by any method and achieve any variety of ratios, whether dividing by chapter, sentence, or pericope, which makes the comparison system satsitically questionable.

Terry's next arguments have to do with phraseology, and none of the arguments he answers are those we specifically endorse.

Warren Gage -- actually a professor of Old Testament at Knox Seminary, Gage offers "two lines of literary analysis that offer the promise of a textual reconstruction largely freed from the textual critic's heavy dependence on the manuscript evidence" -- which is rather like speaking of "lines of cooking that offer the promise of a recipe largely freed from the chef's heavy dependence on food." In short, like Terry, Gage arbitrarily dismisses the most important evidence and does not even deal with it.

Gage's argument begins with a proposition that if M16 is included, we are able to detect several patterns of chaismus in Mark as a whole, which is broken often if M16 is excluded. Those who get too "happy" about this, however, might consider that such structures are also routinely detected in the Book of Mormon by LDS apologists. Some of Gage's contact points moreover are rather so generalized as to be questionable ("of Power", "of God" for example). A later attempt to "repair" the ending of Mark is just as apt to be based on recognition of just such a pattern by a later writer -- and this is one reason why internal evidence takes a back seat to external evidence.

Gage also argues that M16 fulfills an "Elijah" theme prominent in Mark, but even if true -- which we see no need to dispute -- the only part of M16 he finds that fits this is Jesus' ascension, which is again something that would historically be included regardless of the authenticity of M16.

You say, "Mark, if he had wanted to suggest that the command by the angel to speak was disobeyed, would have introduced their activity with an adversative as he does in other situations of disobedience (1:45, 7:36, 10:14, 10:22, 10:48, 15:23, 15:37). Butin Mark, between the command and the disregard, there is intervening material that would make the sentence awkwardly structured if the disregard of the command had been introduced with an adversative conjunction. Mark did sometimes connect a command to an act of disregard without using an adversative conjunction. Look at Mark 1:23.

Mark 1:23 Just then there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit, 24 and he cried out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God." 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!" 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him.

This example is of no relevance. The spirit did not "disregard" Jesus' command to "be silent" because he cried out with a loud voice: If the spirit was being cast out in distress, how is this "disregard"? Of course, this assumes to begin with that "to be silent" was anything but Jesus telling the thing to stop talking.

You say, "Mark's Gospel as it stands end with an unusual word, a conjunction, that does not appear as the last word in any work, with the possible exception of a work of Plotinus. Kelly Iverson of Dallas Seminary disproves the claims that no work could end in it.

Iverson gives examples of sentences, not works, that ended in gar, which doesn't address the issue.

Regarding the silence of the women: Why would the women have been expected to be silent to the general public and to communicate only to the disciples? Wasn't the resurrection the 'good news' that was to be proclaimed to the whole world?

No, it wasn't -- not yet. As of that time, no one knew that the resurrection would be part of the kerygma; it was, at this moment, a mysterious, troubling, counter-intuitive (against all Jewish expectation) surprise. We can also add that a woman speaking publicly to a man not her husband, unbidden, was a social gaffe in conservative Judaea. There was also nothing kerygamtic to go with it.

It's not likely Mark's end would have been lost from a scroll, because the end of the scroll was protected.

To what extent this may be true (it needs a survey of ancient works with a lost ending and whether they were on scrolls or not), it is more likely the end was lost, in the second century, at the end of a codex (which was more like a modern book, a loose-leaf collection of papers).