Resurrecting (the) Text: The Ending(s) of the Gospel of Mark and the Choices We Have to Make
16 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” 4 When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. 6 But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” 8 So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
The Shorter Ending of Mark
[[And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter. And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation. Amen.]]
The Long Ending of Mark
[[9 Now after 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 out and told those who had been with him, while they were mourning and weeping. 11 But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it. 12 After this 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. 14 Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table, and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, 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 good news to the whole creation. 16 The one who believes and is baptized will be saved, but the one who does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up snakes, and if they drink any deadly thing, 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 proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.]]Gospel of Mark, Chapter 16:1-20 (NRSV)
Introduction: Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Novels?
The 1990s was a good decade to grow up in. The fashion, the TV sitcoms, the video games–it was a good time to be alive.
There is something about this golden age of humanity that also birthed the greatest literary innovation since ink was set to paper. The choose-your-own-adventure novel.
Sure, the high Middle Ages had the Divine Comedy. European modernity had Proust, and Russia its Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. But none can compare to the literary genius of a novel where the reader actually gets to choose how the story is going to unfold. For instance:
You are camping in Connecticut, and as you hike through the woods, you stumble upon a magic orb. Do you (a) turn to page 5 and pick up the orb (causing you to be sucked through a portal into a world with mythical creatures? Do you (b) turn to page 10, leave the orb alone, and continue walking, all to find that you are captured by a dark lord who is looking for the orb? Or, do you (c) turn to page 25 and smash the orb, which, if you choose that course of action, causes the alternative dimension you would have been sucked into in Option (a) to apocalyptically appear around you in your dimension.
As the story goes on, choice after choice, by the end of the novel, you might end up (a) defeating the dark lord, becoming the hero of the universe, (b) joining the dark lord as his apprentice and enslaving the universe, or (c) stumbling upon another magic orb that resets everything back to what it was before, and you find yourself back walking along in the woods as if nothing happened.
If that isn’t literary brilliance, I don’t know what is!
Well, when it comes to today’s passage, let’s just say I have had a few adventures with it, but not the chosen kind.
I remember sitting there reading the Bible during youth group bible study when I was in high school. We were doing a study of the Gospels, and it was coming to an end. We were looking at the passages about the resurrection. Doing this, I could not help but notice that in the Gospel of Mark, there was a strange set of subtitles, marking the “Short ending” and the “longer ending” as well as a further footnote that marked, “Some manuscripts also include this in verse 14.”
I remember turning to my youth leader at the time and asking, “What is going on with these endings? Are there parts of the Gospel that aren’t original to it?”
The youth leader looked at it, seemed puzzled (as if he had never noticed this before), and said, “Maybe Mark wrote two endings and couldn’t decide which one he liked best, so he put both in.”
“Really?” I asked, also puzzled. The leader wrote it off with a joke, “Ha! It is kinda like the end of the Gospel of Mark is a choose your own adventure novel!”
I admit that answer did not satisfy me. But like most awkward and somewhat traumatic instances of my childhood faith, they do end up, at the very least, serving as good sermon illustrations.
Likening the ending of the Gospel of Mark to a choose-your-own-adventure novel–despite my undying love for that under-appreciated genre–did not make sense of the multiple endings.
But there is a quintessential insight from the genre that is true about the life of faith and about our responsibility in reading the text: Faith is often about the choices you make. This text very pointedly compels you to make decisions.
Admittedly, some texts are fairly easy to interpret. We know and love these passages. Other passages are less so. There are biblical texts I have come across that, when we encounter them, we don’t know what to do with them. They do not fit our paradigm. In fact, we get a whiff intuitively that if they mean what we suspect they mean, that possibility is scary and potentially costly.
What do you do? Do you (a) feel overwhelmed and so you turn the page, don’t think about it, try to forget about it, and go on to something more familiar, (b) go online to your favourite website that has all the answers neatly packaged and quickly find the pat answer that solves the problem (or least makes it feel solved for you), or (c) say to yourself, there is something here and “I care enough about God’s Word and the pursuit of truth to think about it and do the hard, boring, and risky work. And who knows? Maybe I may feel called to go on and do my MA at Acadia; I don’t know.”
That last part was a shameless plug, but the question is will we do the difficult work of questioning our assumptions when we are confronted by difficult texts?
And if I am going to be honest here, I chose path (a) for the longest time. You get busy with things. You only have so much time, and so you find yourself gravitating to the things you can handle, thinking about the topics that are manageable. And yet, certain watershed moments are inescapable. Eventually, you will have to make a choice.
“How am I going to preach this?”
Several years ago, I was serving as the pastor of First Baptist Church of Sudbury, but I was also the chaplain and a professor at Thorneloe University. I was asked to supervise a course in the undergrad on the Gospel of Mark that was in the academic calendar. So, I set out to read up on the subject, and I got a stack of commentaries out from the library. Seeing that life was quite busy, I thought the best thing to do was to double up on my teaching with my preaching schedule. So, from New Year’s to Easter, the winter semester, I taught that course, and I also preached the Gospel of Mark.
I admit I would never have preached on the Gospel of Mark. Like many throughout church history, I preferred Matthew and Luke because they were longer and fuller. If I can name it: There is something about the simplicity of Mark that always bothered me. It just wasn’t enough.
In the preaching schedule, I had the crucifixion and resurrection passages for Good Friday and Easter, obviously, but I figured I would deal with these final verses the week after. I remember thinking about these verses, unsure how I would tackle them, but figuring I would work it out like all the other weeks as I go.
Well, teaching and pastoring, as you can imagine, was very busy. Good Friday and Easter came, and then, I remember coming into my office, still exhausted from the weekend, sitting down at my desk, looking at this text with a stack of commentaries next to me, and asking myself, “How am I going to preach this?”
Do I (a) skip it and just start the next preaching series one week early? That transition from Easter to a new series makes sense. Do you think anyone would notice?
Do I (b) preach on just the definite ending, ending at verse 8, not treat the rest, and maybe if one of the more astute and inquisitive congregants asks me about it after, then I can have a conversation with them?
Do I (c) read the whole thing but ignore the tough issues of the text or say that we just don’t have time to get into all that this morning and instead just focus on some moral application to be drawn from the story?
I did not know what to choose. I immersed myself in the commentaries, hoping an answer would emerge. Writer’s block quickly set in as I kept wrestling through the different perspectives. I remember asking myself, “How do I preach a text I haven’t made up my mind on? How do I preach a text that I am not even sure should even be a text at all? How am I having this dilemma? I’m the pastor. I have a doctorate in theology from a prestigious university. I am supposed to know the answer. Isn’t that what my job is?
What if people get upset at this? We got some folks that started coming to our church from the fundamentalist church the next town over. Would they leave over this?
What about that person that seems really fragile in their faith, that person who comes to church needing encouragement and not more questions? Will this sermon burden them? Am I being unpastoral for preaching a sermon on this stuff? If I believe that, am I admitting that it is somehow a good thing to keep what is going on in the Bible from some people? Is that what good preaching is?
Well, as some of you may have found in your pastoral ministry, Saturday night has a way of sneaking up, and I tried desperately to piece together something to say. I resolved an option (d): perhaps the best approach was not to tell the congregation what I thought was the answer (because, in truth, I was not sure myself) and just lay out the options in bare honesty and let the congregation decide for themselves.
Well, as I did that Sunday morning, I announced that it looks like there are three sets of options: There is the question of how to interpret the original ending; the question of the longer and shorter ending; and the question of what to do with them, overall.
The Original Ending: Incomplete or Cliffhanger?
All agree that the earliest manuscripts have the announcement by the angel at the empty tomb that Jesus is risen, and the women leave afraid, ending in verse 8. Then what?
Option (a): some commentators believe perhaps Mark did not finish his Gospel or the manuscript was broken, torn, or lost and, either way, it was circulated in its incomplete form.
One reason given for this is that the last line, which in most translations reads, “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid,” the last word of the last phrase there is “gar,” the Greek word for “for” or “because.” Some have suggested that it is very unlikely the Greek would end that way, implying a break in the language, literally reading something like, “They were afraid because….” and here the manuscript breaks off or Mark was not able to finish.
Well, that’s possible, but then there is Option (b): other commentators say that while it is unlikely to have the line end on gar, it is not impossible, and perhaps the Gospel of Mark intentionally ends here. After all, there is a consistent theme of people being amazed and fear-struck by Jesus’ miracles. There is also the theme of secrecy in Mark, where Jesus tells people not to tell anyone, and yet, lo and behold, in the last irony of the Gospel of Mark, the witnesses leave, commanded to tell the other disciples, and they are speechless.
In other words, Mark ends his Gospel with a kind of ironic cliffhanger ending, but the very fact that Mark is writing what he is writing to churches decades later attests to the obvious fact that the women did not remain silent, telling others the Gospel.
So, you are left with the options of either (a) the original was broken off or (b) it intentionally ends with a cliffhanger ending.
Either one leaves us with some discomfort: either the text we have is incomplete or damaged, or it is quite minimal: no actual post-resurrection appearance, only a promise to the women that when they go and tell others, they will meet the resurrected Jesus on the way.
The Added Endings: Shorter or Longer?
Well, whatever you think about how the original ending, there are more choices to make: What do we do with the added Short and Longer endings? Again, here are the options:
Option (a): Well, the shorter ending is actually the more recent ending, and the first time it pops up in the manuscripts is in the fourth century: “And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter. And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation. Amen.”
Actually, the “Amen” is not in the earliest version of this addition. Apparently, one copyist really loved his ending and couldn’t help by writing “Amen” at the end, which might have been an ancient way of hitting the like button.
Why was the shorter ending put in? Some speculate as to its theology: It mentions the importance of Peter and the Gospel reaching east to west. This sounds like a description of the emerging Christendom in Europe in the fourth century, with Rome consolidating its power around its claim to the office of Peter.
As one commentator notes, it seems like more than a coincidence that we see neater, more definitive, even triumphal, endings getting placed on the bare, bewildering, response-begging ending of the original and that this happened around the time Christians moved from a marginalized, powerless community to the community in power.
If the original does end at verse 8, is the Shorter ending an imperial rewrite trying to stabilize Christian readers with certainty where Mark wanted to destabilize in order to provoke a response? That is up to you to decide.
Let’s move on to Option (b): The longer ending is actually older. It dates to the late second century (and even then, there are different versions of that one). If you look at the more common version, it appears to be a set of summary statements gleaned from the end of the Gospel of Luke. And so, we can speculate, possibly one well-intended copyist tried to paste an abbreviated version of Luke onto the end of Mark to make sure anyone reading Mark would know there is more to the story. Perhaps they were trying to be pastoral, trying not to burden the readers with too much disruption.
Well, whatever the case, this version over the other ending becomes the dominant version used in Western Bible translations. And thus, it is assumed as the original ending in the King James Version and others during the time of the Reformation. It was not until the 1800s that manuscript comparisons made it obvious it was not original and that there were more than one ending.
Take Them Out or Leave Them In?
Well, here is the next set of choices. Knowing all that we now know, what should we do with these endings? Again, options put us between a rock and a hard place:
Do we, Option (a), take them out of the Bible?
Well, take it out, and we have the uncomfortable admission that the text we have had in hand, the text we have had and used for about 1800 years, that Christians have read, preached, and claimed to have heard God speak through, was corrupt, so much so that it is in need of fixing, on a passage of no lesser importance than the conclusion of the first Gospel. That’s kind of important.
Do we take it out? Is it our obligation to take it out? Evidently, most translations still leave it in. Many try to minimize the multiple versions and try to present the ending as smoothly as possible. Why? Probably because of marketing. Most Bible translations still cling closely to the KJV because that is the wording that so many have an attachment to.
Do we take it out? If we choose to take this out, should we do that with other passages or even books of the Bible? Should we take the story of the woman caught in adultery out? Should we take the possibly inserted line in 1 Cor. 14 about women being silent out? Should we take out the books some scholars think the Apostles did not actually write? Why stop there? Or maybe we should add back in some stuff, like the books of Enoch or the Gospel of Thomas or the Apocalypse of Peter or, or, or… Well, good luck with that.
Certainly, some of these examples are more extreme than others, but the question is, in the interest of trying to get back to just what the original authors wrote, where do you draw the line? Can you draw it in some circumstances?
And does trying to fix the text ironically send us down the same path that motivated some well-intended folk to put an extra ending on the Gospel of Mark in the first place?
Perhaps we have to confess that we are left with a text in hand that doesn’t really fit our perceived expectations of what the Bible ought to look like and perhaps was never meant to.
So, there is Option (b): leave the endings in.
If that is your choice, you are presented with some other challenges (not least of which is the question of which ending to leave in or possibly both).
How do you see inspiration working between the text and its author (or, in this case, authors)? Is only what Mark wrote inspired? Are we compelled to believe that the writers of those other endings, whoever they are, were inspired as well?
Can we say that we trust that God has indeed spoken through these words and continues to speak through them? Have believers legitimately heard the voice of the Spirit speaking through these other endings for 1800 years?
Does that commit us to the theology of these passages? Some have invoked the other ending for their practice of snake handling under the promise of divine apostolic protection (Look that up on Youtube¾as if there isn’t enough emotionally scaring material on the internet already). And if ever tempted to think this conversation does not matter or is too heady to think about, say while watching a pastor shouting these verses while twirling a cobra around, all to have that cobra bite him in the face. Let’s just say it puts things in perspective.
But that means we are left with uncomfortable options: Did human error and human fallibility adulterate the ending of Mark, or did God, for some reason, allow this to happen, superintending it? But why would God do that?
“The Medium is the Message”
Well, whatever you decide on that, you are faced with questions about the text in hand: Can a text speak beyond what has been said, how it was said, what has been done to it? Can God speak through a text that we have doubts about? Can God speak through a text that we might not even think should be the biblical text at all? What does that say about the nature of God’s word? What does that say about faith?
In high school, we had to do a unit on media. One Canadian philosopher named Marshall McLuhan said something that got repeated over and over. Let’s see if you remember his famous line: The medium is the ______ (message). Flashback to grade 12 English class.
If the medium is the message, this text, its many endings, and its evidence of additions say something about what faith is and what we have faith in.
We sang a song in Sunday School: “The B-I-B-L-E, yes that is the book for me, I stand alone on the Word of God, the B-I-B-L-E.” I love that song. Well, to be a Christian is to trust what the Bible says. But what if the Bible, whether by incident or perhaps even by design, does not, in some cases like this case, give us an easy place to stand?
If you feel like these options do not give you an obvious decision, maybe that is where God’s Word wants you to be. What if the faith that the Bible demands is much riskier? What if the Bible intends us to do something more like take a leap rather than stand still?
Because if it was perfectly black and white, seamlessly clear, unquestionable and certain, would it be faith? It certainly wouldn’t be a relationship where honesty and vulnerability are integral.
There is something about the Bible that beckon us to be responsible interpreters, free and active participants in conversation with God rather than fearful and passive recipients. Good Baptists might call this soul competency or soul liberty. And if this is the case, the options of this text remind faith–by that, your faith, my faith, yours and no one else’s, mine and no one else’s, not how we were raised, not the beliefs of our community, not what you were taught in seminary–that faith in order for it to be yours has to responsible. It must contend with open ended-ness, ambiguity, even brokenness, to choose to walk with God in and through these rather than using faith to somehow insulate us from the obvious fact that we are human, finite and frail, and there is no thought we have, whether read off the page of sacred texts, given by an ecstatic vision, decided by magisterial proclamation, or deduced with all the prowess of academic evidence and reason that escapes this permanent fallibility. And if that causes discomfort or decentres you, perhaps that is the kind of effect Mark’s ending is trying to produce (whether by the intention of the human author or divine author). Its purpose is not to harm faith but to deepen it.
Does a text like this cause us to doubt the Bible, or does it remind us in its own way where the Bible truly gets its authority from? Does it provoke worry or wonder?
The Bible is not ultimately a choose-your-own-adventure novel, at least not the kitschy ones of my own childhood. But it is a story that finds its highest truth in the choices of its true main character, God, to whom we are invited to respond to. It is the story of God’s Yes to sinful humanity in Jesus Christ. The resurrection is the story in which all other stories find themselves, including our stories of brokenness, if we choose to trust it.
It is the truth that our God is the God who transforms tragedy into opportunity; the God who turns betrayal into forgiveness; the God who turns execution into liberation; and the God who turns death into eternal life.
How do we know this reality? In one way, these endings reiterate our need to trust the resurrection all the more. The juxtaposition is perhaps providential.
As if to say there can be no knowledge of the resurrection without a risky choice. You just don’t know it just by hearing about it, reading it, or arguing about it. It can’t be just an idea in your head. You must choose to follow it, follow it to the point of giving up all you know, follow it to the point of becoming last in this world, follow it despite feelings of fear and uncertainty, follow it to the point of taking up your own cross. The text presents us with this choice:
The choice to live life in the midst of death.
The choice to live in hope in the midst of despair.
The choice to live out love and forgiveness in the midst of hate and violence.
The choice to live in honesty and mercy in a world that is content with lies and arrogance.
The choice to live in trust and humility in the midst of a world that desires power and control.
The choice to keep your life set on the light that shines in the darkness trusting the darkness will not overcome it. As the women found as they left the empty tomb, it is here on this way–if we choose to walk it–walking in Jesus’ way, we encounter what this text is truly about: the resurrection, because he is risen.
You see, if the medium is the message, we must ask: Can God continue to speak through these words? Put another way: Can God resurrect the text? I choose–I am led to believe that the same Spirit that brought breath back to the corpse of Christ breaths through these pages and is breathing on us today: Does God use imperfect believers to be members of the body of Christ? Can God resurrect a broken church? These questions are one and the same, finding their answer in the God scripture witnesses to and we witness to, with the very letters of our lives.
Now it is your turn: as you go from here, what will your choice be?
God of the resurrection and the life, we trust you. In all of life’s uncertainty, in all the doubts and questions we have, we trust you. Lead us in the life of resurrection, but remind us that this path is always through taking up our crosses. Remind us that the journey will include dark valleys. Jesus, we know that you never leave us or forsake us. Walk with us today and always. You are our hope, you and no other. Renew us, Holy Spirit, speak to us afresh and breathe life into us when we become exhausted. For your Good News, may we never be silent. For your faithfulness, may we never stop praising you. Amen.