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Friday, 14 October 2011 22:08

The Ending of the Gospel of Mark

Written by  Gospel-Mysteries.Net
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Was the original ending of this gospel accidentally lost? Was a new ending added later? Ancient copies of the Gospel of Mark can have several different endings. The shortest ending is found in the oldest manuscripts, all of which stop at verse 16:8. Most later manuscripts contain some additional verses, not always the same, which were apparently added to the gospel at later points in time. Excluding minor variations, these later additions created three new endings. The authors of these new endings didn't identify themselves.

Ancient copies of the Gospel of Mark can have several different endings. The shortest ending is found in the oldest manuscripts, all of which stop at verse 16:8. Most later manuscripts contain some additional verses, not always the same, which were apparently added to the gospel at later points in time. Excluding minor variations, these later additions created three new endings. The authors of these new endings didn't identify themselves.

Several theories have been put forward to explain the different endings:

  • Theory 1. The original ending (beyond verse 16:8) was accidentally lost. Later readers noticed the abrupt cutoff in the story, and several of them tried to finish it by inventing new endings.
  • Theory 2. The original ending was intentionally removed by cutting the manuscript at verse 16:8. Several later readers, unaware of what had happened, created new endings.
  • Theory 3. The original author was interrupted or died before he could finish the gospel, and had reached verse 16:8 at the time of the interruption.
  • Theory 4. The original author actually did intend to stop at verse 16:8, even though the story seems unfinished to most people.

The possible loss of the original ending is especially unfortunate because many biblical scholars consider Mark to be the earliest and most reliable gospel. It's also unfortunate that the apparent cutoff of the original text occurs at a critical point in the story, early on the first Easter Sunday just after Mary Magdalene and two other women discover that the tomb is empty. These women had just been told that Jesus was alive and on his way to Galilee, and that the disciples would see him there. But any account of what happened next, if it ever existed, is now lost.

One popular theory is that the original ending (beyond verse 16:8) was lost when part of a scroll accidentally broke off. In fact some scholars think that a portion of verse 16:8 itself is missing, with the extant text stopping in the middle of a sentence. If true, this would provide strong support for the theory of an accidental break off.

But there is another way to interpret verse 16:8 in which the final sentence does come to a proper end. If this interpretation is correct, it would mean that the cutoff occurred between sentences, which goes against the theory of an accidental severing of the manuscript. Another argument against the accidental-loss theory is that an ancient scroll was normally rolled up with the ending on the inside where it would be unlikely to break off.

Another theory is that someone intentionally destroyed the original ending because it was inconsistent with some basic Christian beliefs. Of course this is merely speculation, since there is no direct evidence to support such an idea. Also, if someone had decided to destroy the ending for this reason, he or she probably wouldn't have chosen verse 16:8 as the cutoff point, because that still leaves inconsistencies. For example, verse 16:7 indicates that the disciples will have to go to Galilee to see the risen Jesus, whereas the other gospels say that he was first seen in Jerusalem. And verse 16:8 says that the women didn't tell anyone about finding the tomb empty, but the other gospels say that they immediately went and told some of the male disciples.

If the original ending really was lost or destroyed, it probably happened within a few years after the gospel was written. Otherwise the authors of Matthew and Luke, who most likely used copies of Mark as a source, would have included versions of his original ending in their gospels. Also, a longer time period would have allowed many copies of the gospel to be made, and this would increase the chance that the original ending would survive.

Some scholars think that the author of Mark stopped at verse 16:8 on purpose, despite the abrupt cutoff in the story. This is certainly possible. But it would mean that the original version of the gospel didn't describe any post-resurrection appearances of Jesus.

Another possibility is that the author was interrupted or died before he could finish writing the gospel. However, if this had happened, other people would have probably known about it, and someone likely would have mentioned it in other early writings. Still, this possibility can't be ruled out, even though it is basically speculation.

The ending chosen for most modern bibles is known as the Longer Ending (or Apocryphal Addition). It consists of twelve additional verses (Mark 16:9-20) which are attached after verse 16:8. Because these twelve verses aren't in the oldest manuscripts, and are written in a different style, they almost certainly weren't part of the original gospel. But many people don't know this and therefore accept them as authentic.

In one of these added verses (Mark 16:18), the resurrected Jesus says that believers "will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all." Although Jesus probably never said this, many Christians believe that he did, and a few congregations even include the handling of poisonous snakes in their church services.

The Secret Gospel of Mark

Some important new information about Mark's gospel may have been discovered in 1958 at the Mar Saba monastery near Jerusalem. The discovery is a possible copy of an ancient letter written by Clement of Alexandria, in which he quotes two passages from a previously unknown version of Mark. Although questions have been raised about the authenticity of this letter, most scholars believe that it is genuine.

According to the letter, this other version of Mark was called the "Secret Gospel of Mark", and only a small number of people had seen it. Because it contained extra passages, it was apparently a longer version of the gospel. In fact some scholars think that it was actually the original version. If so, the New Testament version could be a shortened form with some passages, including the ending, intentionally removed. Thus, if a complete text of the secret version could be found, it might reveal the true original ending.

But unless new information is uncovered, questions about the gospel's ending will remain unanswered. All of the main theories involve conjectures, and all of them have deficiencies. As a result, the uncertainty about the true ending is one of the biggest unsolved problems in biblical scholarship.

Last modified on Friday, 07 October 2011 23:06

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