Of the four canonical Gospels in the Bible, the Gospel of Mark is, in my opinion, the most overlooked. Beyond Mark’s status as my personal favorite of the Gospels, this contention is highly unfortunate as it provides one of the most striking portrayals of the character of Jesus. With the arrival of Easter, many Christians will look to the ending of the story of Jesus to find meaning and theological truth in the resurrection and ascension of Christ, the very centerpiece of Christian faith.
I must admit, this article was not originally intended to act as an Easter-related post. Rather, I was going to use the Gospel of Mark to describe various textual issues one encounters throughout the Gospel. However, instead of composing a dry rundown of the Gospel itself, interlaced with textual issues, I have decided to narrow the focus of this article in order to discuss a text-critical (if you are not familiar with that term, I will explain shortly) issue with the opening, and a larger issue with the closing of the Gospel, with my own theological spin. First, let us begin with the opening of the Gospel of Mark.
If you open your Bible to the Gospel of Mark and go to Chapter 1, verse 2, you may encounter the following: “As it is written in the prophet Isaiah…” Following “Isaiah,” your Bible may have a notation for a footnote, with the footnote indicating something to the effect that, “other ancient authorities read in the prophets.” This is what the notation means: The English versions of the Gospels (and other books in the New Testament, but that is another post), generally speaking, are actually an amalgamation of various ancient Greek manuscripts. No “original” copy of any biblical book exists, thus we must use copies from hundreds of years later. To take it a step further, instead of simply relying on one ancient copy, modern Bibles typically rely on a number of ancient versions. The problem becomes this: no two ancient manuscripts of any New Testament book are identical.
How does this apply to our quote from chapter 1? Well, some ancient manuscripts of the Gospel of Mark say, “As it is written in the prophets…,” whereas a majority of ancient manuscripts read “Isaiah” instead of “prophets.” This becomes problematic, as the quote that follows is actually a composite quote, taking passages from the books of Isaiah, Malachi, and Exodus. Ancient copiers of the text at one point read “prophets,” and noticing the first part of the quote was from Isaiah, decided to change the manuscript while copying, thus believing they were improving or correcting the text.
With that in mind, turn to the last chapter of the Gospel of Mark, chapter 16. If you are looking at a King James Bible, the Gospel of Mark ends at 16:20. In this ending, you have a commission to the Disciples, as well as the Ascension. Now, if you read this narrative in another, more modern Bible (NRSV for example), you will see notes that differentiate between a “shorter” and “longer” ending to the Gospel. The “longer” ending includes the events found in the King James Version, with the “shorter” ending of Mark ending with the two Mary’s fleeing from the empty tomb after the conversation with the young man. Why the change? Where did this ending come from?
When the King James Bible was written (1611), the authors did not possess as many manuscripts to the New Testament writings as we do today. Using one with the longer ending of the Gospel of Mark made sense, as it was available and its ending resembled the finale of the other canonical Gospels. Modern Bibles remove this longer ending because the vast majority of ancient manuscripts do not contain it; rather, they end with the “shorter” ending. Furthermore, most scholars can pin this longer ending of Mark to having been composed sometime in the late 2nd or early 3rd century. For those wondering, many scholars agree that the Gospel of Mark was originally composed sometime around the year 70 CE.
Why the change to the Gospel? Well, it seems clear to many (including this author) that a scribe in the past was not satisfied with the abrupt ending to the Gospel of Mark, thus a new ending was composed using elements from the other canonical Gospels.
If one thinks carefully about this scenario, the implications are quite strong. Essentially, this demonstrates that early Christians possessed a very different view of the New Testament writings, clearly in conflict with our notions of “holy scripture.” While the texts were viewed as sacred, they were clearly not above undergoing edits by the scribes, in an effort to make the story more accessible. The early Christian writers knew that multiple stories existed that attempted to give an account of the life of Christ, however no two versions were alike, and various written and oral traditions mixed within the communities.
Bringing the discussion back to our modern world, how should Christians of today negotiate this idea? Does the notion that ancient Christians deliberately altered the text challenge more theologically conservative ideas of the Bible as the absolute, infallible word of God? My answer is a simple, yes it does and furthermore, it should not come across as upsetting.
From a historical point of view, it only makes sense that the early Christian writers would struggle to find a cohesive narrative (if indeed they sought one, which I for one do not think they did) regarding the life and ministry of Jesus. The Gospels were not viewed as a holy scripture handed down by God, thus the opportunity to alter their text did not present a problem. In fact, the notion of being the divine word of God is not even supported by the text itself, nor does the text proclaim to be holy or divine.
With that in mind, do I want to end on a note that challenges many traditional views of the Gospel of Mark? Absolutely not. With this in mind, I want to conclude with the following meditation on the original ending of Mark, i.e. the women running from the empty tomb.
Given that Easter is upon us, Mark presents an empty tomb that only hints at a resurrection. For me, NOT seeing the resurrected Christ, but witnessing the empty tomb and a mysterious stranger provides the opportunity to fuel one’s faith. I know traditional images of Easter rely on the appearance of the resurrected Jesus himself, but something mysterious comes from not actually seeing him at the end of the story.
Taking this idea further, the disappearance of Jesus at the end of the Gospel of Mark could suggest for the believer that his resurrection has occurred, but not yet a full return. This leads to the idea that perhaps the return of Jesus is imminent, with an effort to rid the world of systematic sin and suffering coming quickly on the horizon. If one reads the Gospel of Mark and notices the urgency of the narrative, I believe this ending fits.
Does the redaction of the Gospel of Mark take away from the message of Jesus, or deny Jesus’ identity as the Son of God? For me, it does not. I would take this thought a step further and argue that the editing of the Gospels (and other New Testament writings) do not detract from the notion that they are inspired by God. Believing that the Bible is inspired by God is a fundamental element of Christianity. We just need to remember that the texts, inspired or not, were still copied by human hands and transmitted over the centuries.
Either way, thank you for taking time this Easter holiday to read my article. No matter which version you personally prefer regarding the Gospel of Mark, remember to take away the message of a 1st century Galilean Jew, with reported powers to heal and perform miracles, who brought about new ways of thinking and interacting with each other, and a whole new connection to the Divine. Prophet, Rabbi, Son of God, Messiah… no matter what designation(s) you attach, Happy Easter.
Much like the Gospel of Mark, this article was written at an urgent pace. If you found the quality of writing lacking or unclear, please sound off below. Again, thank you for reading!