A World of Terror Needs the Original Ending of Mark’s Gospel

Have you ever noticed that your Bibles have a note in them that tells you that the Gospel of Mark originally ended after verse 8 in chapter 16, even though it continues on for a few paragraphs?

Among people who read and study the Bible, the original ending of Mark’s Gospel is famous for it’s unusual and unsatisfying nature. There are no appearances of the resurrected Jesus. There are no moments of rejoicing. There is no reconciliation between Jesus and the disciples. There is no conclusion to the heartbreaking relationship of betrayal between Jesus and Peter.

There is only fear. Only confusion. And only vague instructions.

Why are there extra verses in our Bibles after the original ending? Somewhere along the way, a reader of Mark’s Gospel decided to try and give Mark an ending that wrapped the book up like a nicely decorated present with a bow on top. Mark’s Gospel got an upgrade and from then on it looked much more like the other three Gospels. The longer ending gives it a much happier, confident, and triumphant conclusion. The disciples finally understand and are given detailed instructions for the future.

What if Mark ended his Gospel the way he did on purpose? What if faith, the active attempt to follow Jesus in our world, often looks more like the ending of Mark’s Gospel than the ending of the other three Gospels?

The recent terrorist attacks in Paris, and elsewhere, have once again left the world reeling with fear and confusion. As a Christian, I find myself with the same emotions. We often assume, or are told, that being a Christian means we should always have a feeling of confidence, an unending supply of easy answers, and an obvious plan for the future.
But I have none of that. All I have are a few basic instructions that dangle in front of me like a compass meant to guide one through a fog:
Pray.
Love (even your enemies).
Support the suffering.

I’m actually thankful for Mark’s short and confusing ending. The life of a Christian is not always similar to the disciples at the end of Matthew or Luke – with an easy faith, with clear proofs in front of them, with the future mapped out. Instead, life sometimes surrounds us with fear and confusion and we barely know the next step to take.

A world reeling from the recent terror attacks needs the original ending of Mark’s Gospel.

A church reeling from the recent terror attacks needs to know that it is okay to be afraid and confused. But – we have an option. An invitation.

Go following the living Christ. Take the next step. Sometimes, we only know the first step to take. Take it. Trust that the living Christ will meet you there and take you forward. Trust that despite the horrendous evil and suffering in the world and in our own lives – Jesus is alive, on the move, and continuing to bring God’s Kingdom to earth as it is in heaven.

Atonement in Mark’s Gospel (William C. Placher)

“The Gospel narrative is thus one in which Jesus takes on our sins. We are characters in this story, and Jesus is. Neither the Father nor the devil is. Thus the two classic theories of the atonement both go beyond what Mark offers us. In contrast to Anselm, Mark does not present a “Father” who accepts the death of his Son as recompense for human sin. If anything, Mark’s story would imply, as Barth says, ‘primarily it is God the Father who suffers in the offering and sending of His Son, in His abasement.’ At the same time, there is no devil in this story by whom we are entrapped and who has any legitimate rights over us.”

– William C. Placher, Mark (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible), 233.

Observations On ‘Hearing’ Mark

gospel-of-mark

Two days ago I was able to attend a live reading of the Gospel of Mark.* The goal was to experience the Gospel in a way similar to an early Christian community – orally. As Michael Bird correctly notes,

“Our earliest Christian literature is the textual product of the oral activities of the early church, including proclamation, apologetics, exhortations, prayers, debates, hymns, creeds, and storytelling… Several scholars have drawn attention to the Gospel of Mark as a text designed to be orally performed and to be aurally penetrating.”

Some observations after hearing Mark performed:

1: I’m irreversibly textual.

I’m not sure it’s possible to “go back in time” and make-believe that we are an illiterate community. While listening to Mark, it was obviously clear to me that I am a textual person. Part of this is my personality (I learn better that way … I’m not an “oral learner”) but I believe that in a large way all of the developed world is irreversibly textual. In other words: I think textually… I process information textually… I organize material textually. I found myself consistently fighting the temptation to “see the words” in my mind or to place the story to a chapter or verse (chapters and verses are a separate problem: “Have We Ruined the Bible?”).

2: Mark is a genuinely good story.

Bird, and other New Testament scholars, are correct to identify Mark as a legitimately engaging oral narrative. It keeps one’s attention with its pace, it has more than enough humor, and it contains a good amount of dramatic tension. Many of the “themes of Mark” that I knew intellectually, such as the Messianic Secret, had even more of an impact when I heard the entire text at once.

3: The cumulative effect of a story is greater than the sum of its parts.

There’s something wise about keeping a story together instead of breaking it into pieces. A narrative seems to have a “cumulative meaning” – a powerful impression left on the mind when it is told all at once. There are many confusing events in Mark that make me want to stop and ask questions, but with the story continuing on one is forced to accept these elements as they are and keep following the narrative. In fact, having these questions unanswered and lingering in the back on one’s mind actually brings out the overall meaning of the story.

4: I’m often as confused as the disciples, but I want to follow Jesus.

Jesus is an attractive, mysterious, and powerful figure. I want to know him, I want to be like him, and I want to follow him. I’m often afraid. At times I have denied him. But I’ve never been able to shake this haunting feeling that he has risen and I am called to follow him into the future.


* Our church hosted the event and Mark was read by my good friend (and one of our Elders) Jake Milwee. While planning the event, we found out that we were definitely not the first to do so: see Mark’s Gospel Live, Performances of Mark’s Gospel, and Mark’s Gospel (performed by Max McClean).