Mark: Why the Gospel is good news
Week 12: Resurrection Light. Mark 16:1-20
Sermon: Sun 27th March 2016
Mark’s account of Jesus’ resurrection divides into two sections: 16.1-8, the end of Mark’s Gospel; and 16.9-20, a later ending from another hand. In some Bibles (eg., NRSV) there is yet another ending inserted between 16.8 and 16.9 which is not printed in the NIV; and if you go into textual issues you will find yet more endings in various, later, manuscripts. Clearly, later readers were extremely uncomfortable with Mark’s own ending and tried to bring his narrative to what they regarded as an acceptable conclusion.
Before we come to examine Mark’s own account in detail, three questions need to be pursued: first, why were early readers unhappy with Mark’s own ending; second, what do 16.9-20 add to Mark’s narrative; and third, how should we evaluate the later endings?
Reasons for unhappiness with Mark’s own ending
For convenience I’ll put today’s notes into point form:
The Greek text of Mark ends with the conjunction, gar, which means “because” or “for”. This is hidden in English translations which smooth Mark’s Greek into an ordinary English clause, for they were afraid. Many readers felt that Mark, for whatever reason, had broken off his narrative before he had really finished, as it is unusual (though not impossible) to end a sentence in Greek with a conjunction. Opinions vary as to whether the ending we have is the ending Mark intended, or whether he would have ended it differently had he been able to, or whether he did actually end it differently but his ending was lost.
Many readers were unhappy with the content of 16.1-8. Especially, they felt that a Gospel shouldn’t end on what seems a negative note, for they were afraid – this doesn’t seem to speak of “good news”. It seemed entirely implausible, furthermore, that what should have been an event to build faith and discipleship, namely the resurrection, seems to have created terror and amazement, with everyone running away.
Many, as the church came more and more under the influence of cultural patriarchalism, were reluctant to accept that all Jesus’ disciples had fled [14.50-52], leaving only women to watch him being crucified [15.40-41], and that there was no role for the disciples in receiving the good news of Jesus’ resurrection.
What 16.9-20 add to Mark’s account
They add a happy ending that is obviously “good news”; the terror and amazement of the women are not the final word, and neither is the behaviour of the disciples at the end.
They restore the eleven male disciples to leadership of the church’s mission [vv.14-18] in the commission they receive from Jesus. Note how similar it is to the ending of Matthew’s Gospel [Matt 28.16-20].
The Eleven are given power to perform wonderful miracles [vv.17-18], and so to continue the ministry of Jesus.
They add an Ascension (see Luke 24.50-53] and a final concluding assurance that already the disciples are proclaiming the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it [v.19].
Evaluation of 16.9-20
These verses are not in the earliest and most reliable manuscripts. All Bibles separate them from the main body of Mark; and almost all commentators exclude them, therefore, from their commentaries, and if they do comment on them they describe them as later additions. Therefore, in a judgement accepted very widely, these verses are not Mark’s and have at best a lesser value than his own ending.
Before we get to vv.9-20, I should mention that in some Bibles, the NRSV, for instance, there is a shorter additional ending not printed in the NIV. It reads as follows (the verse is not numbered but is inserted between vv.8 and 9): And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter. And afterward Jesus himself sent out through, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation. This flatly contradicts what Mark tells us in verse 8 (where we are told that they said nothing to anyone…). In addition, Peter is no longer an outsider as Mark suggests he is in …go tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead…[v.7]. This shorter additional ending comes from a time after Peter has been restored.
The most serious argument against verses 9-20, however, is that in spirit and content they are obviously and radically incompatible with Mark’s narrative as a whole: they just don’t fit and so they interfere with a true understanding of Mark’s Gospel itself.
On first reading verses 9-12 appear to fit quite comfortably with stories told in Luke 24.13-43 and John 20.19-23. However, they begin the process of shifting the mood and meaning of Mark’s own ending in a quite noticeable way, by presenting a different character who is happy, without question, to tell the disciples while they were mourning and weeping that Jesus had risen. Immediately the atmosphere of uncertainty and confusion, with attendant speechlessness, which is so strong in Mark’s own ending, is obscured.
The real problems come in verses 14-19 which are radically odds with Mark. First, there is the promise that they will speak in new tongues, a practice with no attestation in Jesus’ own life and ministry in any Gospel. This practice comes out of the world of the Acts of the Apostles where it is prominent. Second, there is the promise of ‘flashy’ miracles in they will pick up snakes in their hands. Now, apart from the sheer pointlessness of doing such a thing (why not just keep your distance), it contradicts Jesus’ own practice which was never to perform miracles for show, or to attract disciples, but only for the good of others [8.10-12]. Recall that two of the temptations in Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of the temptation in the desert were precisely that Jesus should use his divine power to attract crowds by performing flashy miracles [Matt 4.3-6; Luke 4.3-4, 9-12].
The emphasis on the good news as easy triumph in the power of the Spirit over whatever gets in your way, be it snakes, demons, or drinking any deadly thing completely obscures the mood and message of Mark’s Gospel where, throughout, God’s kingdom is hard-won, even by Jesus. In a central comment Jesus asserts that he has invaded Satan’s kingdom (which is this world) and has to bind Satan for the kingdom of God to flourish [3.22-27]. Mark’s is the only Gospel in which, on one occasion, Jesus is unable to perform a miracle because of the lack of faith [6.5-6]; his message to the disciples is that they are called to follow him to death, especially the death of self (from 8.31 onwards, especially); the secrets of the kingdom are so difficult to be seen in the world that they can only be told in parables which are designed to hide their meaning [4.10-12]; from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Mark draws attention to the hostility Jesus arouses in different quarters – even when he heals the Gerasene demoniac the townspeople want to expel him in preference to giving thanks to him [5.17]. His own family finds itself marginalized by Jesus’ commitment to the work his Father has given him [3.31-35]; his final words on the cross are not the peaceful ones of Luke’s Gospel [23.32-34], nor the triumphant shout of John’s Gospel [19.30], but an agonized lament prayer [15.39], and so on and so on. The triumphalism of verses 9-20 comes from a different thought-world from Mark’s, and jars when compared with Mark’s more honest and searching narration about the demands of Jesus’ life and message on believers.
I’ve already provided possible reasons for this tacked-on ending, but haven’t accounted for my argument (not original to me but widely-discussed in books and journals on Mark) that it is such an inappropriate ending. Why is it done in this way? I can only surmise here obviously, but to begin with I should note that endings are often really difficult to get right, and readers often feel unhappy about them. Even authors fiddle with their own endings, sometimes providing more than one [Dickens, for example]. Second, a later writer(s) imported the concerns of a later period into Mark’s narrative – for example the recovery of male leadership in a church which had forgotten the special, counter-cultural role Jesus gave to women. Once the church had settled into a comfortable relationship with its surrounding patriarchal culture (which seems to have happened quite quickly) it became important to put women in their place under men.
The text itself: Mark 16.1-8
If all I have said is convincing it is impossible to treat verses 9-20 as having equal importance with verses 1-8, so I shall examine only verses 1-8 in detail. In doing this, I will attempt to show why 16.1-8 is such an appropriate and powerful ending, requiring no improvement. Moreover, I will assert that if we read 9-20 as Mark’s ending we will obscure Mark’s message and so be less likely to hear God’s Word to us.
Let’s begin by going through what’s in verses 1-8.
In common with the other Gospels, in Mark it is women alone who go to the tomb. As Witherington says, “apart from Jesus’ women followers, Jesus has basically died amidst a host of detractors and enemies. The women provide the continuity between the story of Jesus’ death and burial and the story of Easter morning” (2001:413]. They take spices with them to anoint the body which tells us that they believe Jesus to be dead. They are not fully prepared as they wonder how they will roll away the stone that covers the tomb, but they find it has been rolled back (which doesn’t appear to surprise them).
At this point things change as they see a vision of a young man dressed in a white robe… They are fearful, as anyone would be in the presence of the Divine (technically, this is an angelophany), but are reassured by the angelic visitor who links the crucified to the risen Jesus at v.6. Clearly, Mark is intent on emphasizing the reality of the empty tomb: He has been raised; (that is why) he is not here. (In case you doubt the evidence of your eyes) Look, there is the place they laid him.
Then he commissions the women at v.7 with the promise that if they follow the risen Christ to Galilee there you will see him, just as he told you. Note that in John’s account the risen Christ appears to the disciples in Jerusalem [20.19], not in Galilee, as in Matthew. In Luke [24.13-43] Jesus appears to his disciples on the road to Emmaus which is close to Jerusalem. In Mark’s account Galilee is more prominent than in Matthew’s, coming as a climax to the story. Readers have pondered the significance of Galilee here: Witherington believes it is a symbol of restoration and renewal for the disciples” [ibid, p.415], though he is attracted to the suggestion of John Painter that it fits with Jesus’ critique of the Jerusalem Temple that he locates the beginning of his new mission away from Jerusalem to the place where he began and where his mission found at least some fertile ground.
Surprisingly perhaps, the women react to this instruction by fleeing in terror and amazement. Mark’s Gospel, however, has been full of surprises that are arguably as surprising as this. For instance, for most of the Gospel, as we’ve seen in previous studies, those closest to Jesus have little understanding of who he is or what he is about. Morna Hooker (Endings: Invitations to Discipleship, p.28) makes the important point that Mark’s ending, apparently in human failure, ends on a note of challenge rather than of achievement. The challenge is realistic, not only because we do commonly fail but because the instruction in v.7 implies the forgiveness of God which will empower the future, a forgiveness which has already in the Gospel itself been the core of Jesus’ own spirituality.
In addition, as Mary Ann Tolbert notes, “In contrast to the rejection and alienation emphasized by the mocking and by Jesus’ cry from the cross, the introduction of a faithful group of followers comes like the glow of dawn after a dark night”[1996:291]. Mark, in other words, has his own way of letting hope emerge from the darkness of struggle, suffering, and failure. That this small group of faithful followers is female also highlights the fragility of the kingdom’s presence in the world: women were thought to be of no account in that world at that time, but here they are the ones who embody the hope of the Gospel. This fits the new position Jesus gave women in the Gospel accounts. By any standards, Mark shows his genius just in this single touch, let alone in the multitude of others in the story he tells.
You can see, therefore, that if we take the longer ending as the proper ending, Mark ends on a happy, triumphant note. This obscures his intention to highlight the considerable challenges of following Jesus, to be honest about human failure while at the same time pointing to human faithfulness and God’s forgiveness as overriding our failure and opening the future to the work of the kingdom of God.
Questions for Discussion
Share what struck you in the sermon you listened to on Sunday
Imagine and discuss the feelings of the three women as they approach the tomb in vv.1-4
Examine what the young man dressed in a white robe tells them: what does he stress in the information and instruction he gives them?
Do you feel 16.1-8 is an appropriate ending to Mark’s Gospel? What feelings does it evoke in you, and what does it tell you?
Engage with my critique of 16.9-20? Do you think vv.9-20 are better left unread? If you think they have value, what is their value, do you think?