Monday, January 28, 2013

Multiple Endings of Mark

Today is day 1 of the 4th week in our "Read the Bible Through in a Year" journey.  I hope that you've been blessed so far as much as I have.  Yesterday at church, people shared about their Bible reading experience.  One said it's my fault that he hasn't killed any deer lately, because he's been taking it in the woods and reading it while he's hunting!  I hope that when you hunt for God's truth in His Word, you'll find it today.

Our weekly schedule is:

 Week 4
  • Genesis 41-42; Mark 16;
  • Gen 43-44; Galatians 1; Psalm 24
  • Gen 45-46; Gal 2; Psalm 108
  • Gen 47-48; Gal 3; Psalm 25
  • Gen 49-50; Gal 4
Though there is much to say about Josephs's story in Genesis, we need to look at the last chapter of Mark--not so much for what is said, but for how and when it's said.  Here's the chapter in its entirety, from the English Standard Version.  I've also included the footnotes, which will become important to our discussion.


Mark 16

The Resurrection

16 When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back—it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
[Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include 16:9–20.][a]

Jesus Appears to Mary Magdalene

[[Now when he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. 10 She went and told those who had been with him, as they mourned and wept. 11 But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.

Jesus Appears to Two Disciples

12 After these things he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. 13 And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.

The Great Commission

14 Afterward he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at table, and he rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. 15 And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
19 So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. 20 And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs.]]


  1. Mark 16:9 Some manuscripts end the book with 16:8; others include verses 9–20 immediately after verse 8. At least one manuscript inserts additional material after verse 14; some manuscripts include after verse 8 the following: But they reported briefly to Peter and those with him all that they had been told. And after this, Jesus himself sent out by means of them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation. These manuscripts then continue with verses 9–20

With so much talk about the infallibility or inerrancy of the Bible, this last chapter of Mark causes trouble for some.  The fundamentalist position that the Bible is inerrant in its original manuscripts seems to lack strength here, because we see a book that has had multiple endings at various times.  What, then, do inerrantists mean when they use the phrase original manuscripts?  Do they mean the first time that the book was published, or the second, or the third?  Many are baffled by this.  (Click here for a study on possible reasons for the abrupt ending at Mark 16:8)

To me, it seems to make more sense not to say that the Holy Spirit was done with the writing of the Gospel of Mark when the writer put down his pen the first time--but that the Holy Spirit continued to be active in the subsequent perfecting of the book, by later members of the Markan community.  Rather than saying that the multiple endings make the Gospel unreliable, I'd say that our glimpse into the revision process makes it even more reliable.  As a writer, I know that the things I write become better with editing.  When I begin preparing a sermon on Monday, for example, I believe that God is active in the process of preparation.  Throughout the week, the Spirit continues to guide me.  Sometimes my vision becomes clearer, and the message changes a bit.  By the time I deliver the sermon, there have been multiple versions of that message.  What matters is the finished product.  Knowing that I've taken the time to listen to the Holy Spirit in the entire process is an encouraging thing.  It means that the message wasn't a shoot-from-the-hip , but bathed in prayer the whole way.

If the Gospel had ended with the disciples running away in fear, not saying anything to anyone, that kind of wraps the story up on a sour note.  Much better to continue the account with the briefly added ending, found in some texts: But they reported briefly to Peter and those with him all that they had been told. And after this, Jesus himself sent out by means of them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.  But better still to add verses 9-20, which give some details about the resurrection appearances and the Great Commission.  We have an evolving narrative that shows that God was speaking all along the way in the gospel-writing community.  To me, that's even better than the idea that when the original writer wrote "The End" at the end of his scroll, that all the work was done.  Don't get me wrong--I do believe that the Canon is closed today, that there can be no more changes made to it.  But in those early formative days, when these were simply written accounts and couldn't yet be called The Bible, the Holy Spirit was active not only in the writing, but also in the editing process.

In the end, what shall we say?  Don't let this bother you--that's my best advice.  All along the way, God knew what He was doing.  No matter what happened with the endings of the Gospel of Mark--with all the conjecture and uncertainty--this much is clear:  God intended for you to read the last chapter of Mark's Gospel today, and He intends to speak to you through it.  If you open your heart and mind, you will hear Him.  And you'll find that His Word is sweeter than honey from the comb (Ps 19).

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