By the Rev. Christopher L. Webber
If you take the Bible in the rack in front of you and turn to the Gospel according to Mark and turn to chapter 16, you will find that it ends with verse 20. The Bible I brought with me ends with verse 8. My Bible offers three alternative endings for Mark and no one knows which one is right.
So what’s going on? Well, the fact is that no one really knows where Mark himself stopped writing. If you look at verse 8, you have to admit that’s a strange way to end a gospel:
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.
In other words, they came to the tomb and found it empty so they ran away because they were scared to death. What kind of way is that to end the story? Don’t you want them to see the risen Jesus and go tell people about it? That’s what Matthew and Luke and John did.
But it’s even more complicated than that because if you read it in Greek – which is what Mark wrote in – you find the last words are “ephebunto gar” – “for they were afraid.”
But in Greek it’s even less complete than that. “For they were afraid” is at least a complete English sentence but “ephebunto gar” is not a complete sentence in Greek. It’s like ending: “they feared for . . .” For what? There has to be at least one more word, but there isn’t. In the earliest manuscripts that have come down to us that’s where Mark ends.
So it’s no wonder other people added shorter and longer endings. They got to the end of Mark as it is and they said, “Wait a minute! You can’t stop there. We know what happened next so we’d better put it down. So they did. They looked at what Luke said and what Matthew said and they wrote little summaries and pasted them on at the end of Mark and people were naturally grateful to have a more complete gospel and all the later manuscripts included them.
But they kept some of the older, incomplete manuscripts – you know, stored them in the attic in case anyone wanted them some day – after all, they were pretty old and you don’t like to throw away old things. But years went by and you come to our day and age when people question everything and some people went snooping around in the attic and found these old manuscripts and said, “Wait a minute -if the oldest manuscripts don’t have the same ending how can we be sure what Mark wrote? Maybe at least we should indicate that we aren’t sure.” So that’s why modern translations are different. They give us options: three possibilities. You choose.
But there’s another way of looking at it. Suppose you were Mark and you sat down to write a gospel. You would be doing something unprecedented. No one ever write a gospel before so there are no rules about what gospels should be like because there were no gospels.
Mark didn’t know you should include stories about Jesus being born – shepherds and angels and magi and all that because nobody told him it was going to be hard to celebrate Christmas if he didn’t tell some stories about Jesus’ birth. And certainly no one told him where to stop. So ikt may be that he didn;t know he should include more stories about the resurrection. Maybe he thought what he wrote was enough. I mean, imagine poor old Mark sitting there with his quill pen and parchment and thinking to himself :
“You know, I set out to tell the story of Jesus’ life but where should I stop? If I go on to tell about the resurrection, where would I stop? After all, there are lots of resurrection stories. Jesus appeared to Peter and John and lots of other disciples and Thomas and Paul on the road to Damascus, but if I get into that I’m going to run out of ink because there isn’t any logical place to stop. The gospel doesn’t really ever stop; it goes on, there’s always more good news and Jesus is still with us so maybe if I just stop right here, people will get the point. The gospel is an incomplete story and there just isn’t any neat way to round it off. And besides, I never promised I was going to write a whole history of the Christian church in fact I said right up front that I wasn’t going to.”
So now go back and look at chapter one, verse one, and see what it says. It couldn’t be much clearer: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God . . .” Mark never promised an ending, just a beginning. And you can imagine him looking down as Claudius and Alexander and whoever else added on to his text to round it off and tearing his hair with frustration and saying, “Leave it alone. It’s good the way it is.”
And it is – because here’s the important point – if Mark gives us the beginning it implies pretty clearly that the story goes on and of course it does it goes on through persecution and years of unprecedented growth and expansion and patches of down times when nothing seems to work but it goes on and right at the moment we’re adding our bit right here and now. And we ought to know exactly how those women at the tomb felt that morning because if you have a dead body, the story is over and you can go home and back to work and it’s a disappointment, of course, but also a relief. “You know, this Jesus business was using up a lot of our time and we’ve got shopping to do and bills to pay so now we can get on with it. But if the tomb is empty, nothing is certain, not even death and taxes – will, yes, taxes – but not death, and that’s a story to tell and that changes everything and it is scary – but it’s also wonderful.
I think Mark was a genius and he stopped at exactly the right place – but I also think he gave us a job to do and we need to get on with it.
© 2015 by Christopher L. Webber. All rights reserved. Used by permission.