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Perhaps, abrupt ending of Mark’s gospel was intended to raise more questions than answers
Final 12 verses in traditional rendition weren’t part of the original
If you read the King James Version of the Bible, the Gospel of Mark ends more or less the way you’d expect it to if you’re familiar with the three other gospel accounts of the Resurrection: Three women go to Jesus’ tomb and are told that Jesus had risen. They run away, frightened; the resurrected Jesus later appears to Mary Magdalene and some of Jesus’ other followers. Jesus tells them to spread the Good News before he is received into heaven, and they did so.
But look up the last chapter of Mark in most modern translations of the Bible, and you’ll find something unusual: Either Mark’s book ends with the women running away from the tomb while afraid in verse 16:8, or the 12 verses that appear after that are in brackets, italic or a footnote to indicate that they aren’t part of what Mark wrote.
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The idea that Mark 16:9-20 wasn’t part of the original Mark is not a creation of modern scholars; many ancient manuscripts used notations to suggest that the ending was spurious or otherwise not dependable. And some of the most reliable manuscripts we have don’t have anything after verse 9 at all.
Also, some manuscripts have a much shorter ending, the length of one or two verses, sometimes included in a footnote in modern translations:
They told all that had been commanded briefly to those around Peter. After that, Jesus himself sent them out, from east to west, with the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.
We are nearly certain that the traditional 12-verse ending, known as the long ending, isn’t a part of the original Mark for several reasons, the main one being that it has different writing style and vocabulary than the rest of the book. (The same is true of the shorter ending above.) And while most of Mark was copied into the synoptic gospels of Matthew and Luke, this ending isn't; Matthew has a 10-verse post-Resurrection ending with wording far different than Mark’s, while Luke includes stories about Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances.
Without either of those two endings, the Mark that we have is remarkably abrupt: Seized by fear, three women run from the tomb. And the story ends.
The ending is so abrupt that scribes long after Mark came up with their own endings to add to the book. It is also possible that the long ending was an independent account that circulated along with Mark before it was added to the book.
There are three main theories to explain the surprise ending:
The final page of Mark’s manuscript was lost.
For an unknown reason, perhaps martyrdom, Mark was unable to complete the book.
Mark intended for the book to end abruptly.
We’ll probably never know the reason for sure, but many scholars think the third possibility is the most likely. It is also the one I find most satisfying.
Losing the final page isn’t as likely as one might think. For one thing, many manuscripts weren’t made up of pages but of scrolls, so there may not have even been a page to lose. And if Mark’s book began circulating while he was alive, which is possible if he was widely seen as an authority in the early church or was connected with Paul, he himself could have rewritten the ending.
And while it is possible Mark might have been unable to complete this book, the circumstances would have had to be a matter of incredibly unlucky timing. And we have no early traditions suggesting such a thing might have happened.
Assuming the abrupt ending was intentional, the obvious question is “Why?”
Perhaps we can go to the first verse of Mark to find out:
The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Mark makes no no promise to tell us the full story of the Good News — only the beginning! So he lets us know from his first words that when he is through there will be more to the story.
By ending the story where he does, Mark is leaving it up his readers to learn or provide the rest of the story. The story becomes an invitation to ponder the significance of Jesus’ life. And since readers at the time Mark was written certainly would have been familiar with stories about the risen Jesus, the ending also invites them to ponder all they have heard, not just a single story or two, about how the Resurrection relates to the life of Jesus.
It’s easy to envision this abrupt version Gospel of Mark being read out loud during gatherings of the early Christians. The reader then says: “And now we know the beginning of the Good News. Let us provide an ending that gives honor to the Risen Jesus.”
And just maybe that is how we should see Mark’s account today, as an invitation to come up with our own ending that relates to the risen Christ.
This commentary on Mark 16 is part of our Bible for Modern-day Saints series, published to roughly coincide with the schedule of the Come, Follow Me curriculum of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Views expressed are solely those of the author. Biblical quotations are adapted from the World English Bible, which is in the public domain.
Mark’s gospel was written anonymously. According to an early tradition, it was written by John Mark, an associate of both Peter and Paul who also was known as Mark the Evangelist. However, Mark was a common name at the time, and the author could have been one of the other Marks mentioned in the New Testament or even someone else entirely.