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Irony in the End: A Textual and Literary Analysis of Mark 16:8

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Editor’s Note: Kelly Iverson was one of my interns for the 2000-2001 school year at Dallas Theological Seminary. This paper was read at the southwestern regional conference of the Evangelical Theological Society in April 2001. Kelly’s Th.M. thesis expanded on this theme as well.
Daniel B. Wallace


The Synoptic Gospels devote considerable attention to the passion narrative. All recount Jesus’ anointing at Bethany, preparation for the Passover, the Last Supper, the Passover meal, the prediction of Peter’s denial, the events at Gethsemane, Jesus’ arrest, Peter’s denial, the crucifixion, Jesus’ death and burial, and the events at the empty tomb.

Matthew continues with the women’s encounter of the resurrected Christ (28:9-10) and the giving of the Great Commission in Galilee (28:16-20). Luke concludes with post-resurrection appearances along the road to Emmaus (24:13-31), with the disciples (24:36-49),1 and in the ascension (24:50-53).

But in the Gospel of Mark, just when Jesus’ cameo appearance is expected one stumbles into a significant textual problem. Far from being banished to an obscure nook of the Nestle-Aland apparatus even most English Bibles note that “some of the oldest manuscripts do not contain vv. 9-20.”2

So where does the Gospel of Mark end? How does Mark’s message of “good news”3 (1:1) conclude? Does it end with what appears to be “bad news” (i.e., the women fleeing from the tomb without saying a word) or does the curtain of Mark’s Gospel close in a manner similar to the other Synoptics?

The consensus among New Testament scholars is that 16:8 represents the concluding verse of Mark’s Gospel, however, this theory has not gone unscrutinized. Since his publication of The Last Twelve Verses of Mark in 1974,4 William Farmer has been the leading advocate5 for the minority, yet historically predominant position that vv 9-20 represent the original reading.6 The primary objective of this paper is not to contend with the contemporary consensus but to evaluate (1) William Farmer’s argument for the longer ending, (2) possible explanations for the abrupt ending, and (3) several literary proposals for Mark’s conclusion.

An Evaluation of William Farmer’s Text-Critical Argument

Textual criticism is governed by one overriding principle (i.e., choose the reading which best explains the rise ozf the others) and two sub-canons (i.e., the more difficult and shorter reading is preferred).7

Farmer concludes that the longer ending is original by suggesting that vv 9-20, especially the reference to handling snakes and drinking deadly poison (16:18) presents a more difficult reading.8 He says, Mark 16:9-20 “contains promises of Jesus to which the church has never succeeded in accommodating itself, except by unconscious repression. Most Christians do not know what these verses teach. They are seldom if ever expounded from the pulpit and almost never appealed to in didactic circumstances. Christians have long since learned to live with these promises by paying them no attention and to regard all efforts to take them seriously as bizarre acts of unfaith on the part of ignorant or misguided sectarians.”9

Sometime during the early second century, Farmer argues, a conscious decision was made by Alexandrian scribes to excise these unusual verses.10 The texts produced by this scriptorium set the standard for the Alexandrian text-type and gave rise to the great uncials omitting vv 9-20 (a B) and became, at least for a time, the text used by Origen. His widespread travel throughout the Mediterranean and influence upon the early church likely promoted the Alexandrian text-type omitting vv 9-20.11

While this reconstruction is intriguing one is forced to ask why the Alexandrian scribes would have omitted the last twelve verses of Mark. If, as Farmer suggests, the truly objectionable portion of the pericope was the reference to handling snakes and drinking poison (v. 18), it seems extremely odd that the entire resurrection account was excised. Farmer anticipates this objection and cites the apparent difficulties in v 9 as further rationale for the deletion. In Mark, Mary Magdalene is the first to meet the resurrected Christ but in 1 Cor 15:5 Peter is the first to see the risen Lord. Likewise, in Matthew Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene and Mary (the mother of James)12 but in Mark only Mary Magdalene is privy to the resurrection.13 These factors, in Farmer’s mind, proved to be the stimulus behind the scribal omission of vv 9-20.

Farmer’s proposal has several flaws. First, he attempts to substantiate the expurgation of Mark 16:9-20 based upon alleged parallels with Homeric text-critical practices in Alexandria.14 He argues that the often unsubstantiated use of obeli to highlight inauthentic texts inevitably led to their omission in future transmissions.15 However, this runs contrary to the practices of the Alexandrian scribes who were noted for their scrupulous care of the text generally marking spurious additions rather than deleting them.16

Second, even if v 9 contradicts other know Scriptures and v 18 represents a bizarre promise, why would the scribes have excised all twelve verses? Why not simply omit or alter the two verses in question? Is it really reasonable to assume that two verses posed such a theological quandary as to necessitate the truncation of Mark’s entire post-resurrection account?

Third, Murray Harris points out that there are “numerous inconsistencies” in the resurrection narratives that are obvious “to anyone who has examined the texts.”17 Surely the scribes recognized these difficulties. Then why was Mark the only Gospel to be altered? Why was Mark singled out as opposed to Matthew, Luke, or Paul?

Fourth, one must seriously question Farmer’s appeal to the longer ending being the most difficult reading. Despite the complexity of harmonizing the longer ending’s resurrection account with the Synoptics and Paul and the strange teaching in v 18, the ending of Mark’s Gospel would be much more difficult if 16:8 was the concluding verse. There is no doubt that Mark’s abrupt ending would have sparked serious consideration. For not only do both Matthew and Luke provide resurrection accounts, but Paul argues that the resurrection is the linch pin of the Christian faith (1 Cor 15:17).

In the final analysis, Farmer’s hypothesis raises more questions than it answers. Simply put it seems that the consensus is correct. Due to the difficulty of the original reading vv 9-20 were probably manufactured at a very early period in church history to provide what seemed like a more appropriate conclusion to an extremely odd ending.

Possible Explanations for the Abrupt Ending

Having argued that the last twelve verses appear to be a later scribal addition, we are left with yet another question. Did Mark intend to end his Gospel at v 8? Three options seem plausible, either (1) Mark was unable to finish the Gospel due to death, martyrdom, imprisonment, etc., (2) the original ending was lost at a very early date prior to the multiplication of the manuscript, or (3) Mark purposely ended his account at v 8.18

Option (1) though possible is purely conjecture and lacks any concrete evidence.19 Option (2) makes several questionable assumptions. First, if the book was not in widespread circulation, Mark or someone familiar with the autograph could have easily corrected a lost ending.20 If the ending was in circulation then it seems highly improbable that the entire textual tradition vanished.21 The only legitimate means of arguing this view is to suppose that the conclusion was lost during an extremely narrow window of time subsequent to Mark’s death (and for that matter anyone else familiar with the text) and prior to widespread circulation.22

Second, the hypothesis that the ending was lost assumes that the Gospel originally circulated in the form of a codex.23 If this were the case then the mutilation and/or misplacement of the last leaf (i.e., the ending) would be readily understandable given its somewhat precarious position in the book. Considerable evidence has been marshaled to suggest the early and widespread use of the codex in early Christian literature. BUT there is little evidence to date the birth of the codex prior to the 2nd century.24 In fact, three New Testament books that post-date the second evangelist independently suggest that Mark’s Gospel was written on a scroll.

There is compelling evidence to think that Luke-Acts, Hebrews, and Revelation were all written on scrolls.25 This being the case, although the employment of the codex may have come during the infancy of the church, its penetration and adoption in the 1st century seems to have been limited. It seems unlikely then that Mark’s Gospel, which scholars acknowledge pre-dates these other books, was written on a codex. If this is correct, as seems to be the case, then a lost, hypothetical ending is difficult to substantiate. For unlike the codex where the beginning and end of the document were most susceptible to damage, the end of the scroll was the most secure piece of the document.26

Generally the beginning of the scroll was located on the outside of the document. One hand was used to unwind the scroll and the other was used to roll up the previously read portion.27 When the document had been read in its entirety, the text was then re-rolled to allow the next reader to start from the beginning.28 The end of a document was almost always on the inside of the scroll where it was sheltered from damage. In other words, if any portion of Mark’s Gospel were preserved it would likely be the conclusion.

Option (3), which is the theory presented in this paper, is that Mark intentionally ended his Gospel at v 8. Though this view has gained support, several objections have been raised against it. First, many have suggested that a book can not end with γάρ. In 1926 R. R. Ottley published an article in which he cited several examples of sentences ending with γάρ (Homer Od. Iv 612, Aesch. Agam. 1564, Eurip. Med. 1272, 1276, Eurip. Orestes 251, Eurip. Iph. Aul. 1355, and in the LXX [Gen 14:3; Isa 16:10; 29:11]) the most notable of which came from Genesis 18:15 where Sarah, barren in her old age, laughed at the angelic messenger’s announcement that she would conceive and give birth to a child.29 When confronted by Abraham, Sarah denied it, ἐφοβήθη γάρ—a similar expression used by Mark in 16:8.30

Despite the emergence of other literary parallels,31 many scholars continued to insist that a paragraph ending with γάρ was not the same as a book ending with γάρ.32 Then in 1972 P. W. van der Horst published a landmark article.33 In the 32nd treatise of Plotinus (a philosophical work) it was demonstrated that a book could end with γάρ.34 Van der Horst concluded his article by suggesting that “the proof was really not necessary for common sense alone could argue that, if a sentence or paragraph can end with γάρ, a book can too.”35

The second major argument leveled against the abrupt ending is that an open ending is a literary technique absent from ancient literature.36 Conclusions in ancient literature, it is asserted, were like bow ties that wrapped together the various strands of the story leaving the reader with little to wonder about. Therefore, “to suppose that Mark originally intended to end his Gospel in this way implies both that he was totally indifferent to the canons of popular story-telling, and that by a pure accident he happened to hit on a conclusion which suits the technique of a highly sophisticated type of modern literature.”37

There is no question that the abrupt statement, “for they were afraid,” is an unusual ending. However, J. L. Magness’ review of Hebrew, Greek, and Roman literature has demonstrated that open, abrupt conclusions were accepted and understood by ancient writers and readers.38 Actually, several biblical texts illustrate Magness’ conclusion. Shockingly, the book of Jonah ends with God’s unanswered question posed to a pouting prophet, the parable of the prodigal son leaves the response of the disgruntled brother in question (Luke 15:11-32), and in Mark 6:45-52, the pericope highlighting Jesus jaunt across the water ends uneventfully with the statement, “for they had not gained any insight from the incident of the loaves, but their heart was hardened” (6:52). Though the statement provides some analysis of the preceding narrative, it hardly answers all the reader’s questions. What should the disciples have learned from the incident of the loaves? And how had their hearts become hardened? Similar abrupt endings are littered throughout Mark’s Gospel (e.g. 9:30-32; 12:13-17).39

Furthermore, to assume that Mark’s conclusion must meet the standards of ancient literary patterns depicts a fundamental misunderstanding of the Gospel genre. Though the Gospels possess characteristics similar to Greco-Roman biography and narrative “they stand too far removed to be associated with other literary tradition meaningfully or helpfully.”40 Because the Gospels represent a unique blend of history and theology, Mark’s ending need not fit a stereotypical mold.

Did Mark fail to finish his Gospel? Was the last leaf of the Gospel lost? Or did Mark intentionally end his account with the abrupt statement, ἐφοβοῦντο γάρ? Although certainty is impossible, the evidence seems to indicate that Mark 16:8 is the most plausible option. Stonehouse correctly observes, while “some of these suppositions must be admitted to possess a degree of plausibility, they should be envisioned as serious possibilities only if, after Mark 16:1-8 is studied in connection with the evident aim and method of this evangelist.”41

Mark 16:8 From a Literary Perspective

Since the shift in scholarly consensus during the middle of the 20th century, literary critics have been anything but shy in attempting to explain Mark’s unusual ending. Although scores of possibilities and permutations exist, the brevity of this paper allows only an examination of the most popular proposals.42

(1) The women’s response was a positive reaction to the angelic messenger.43 Those advocating this position argue that throughout Mark’s Gospel fear44 is a normal response to divine revelation or a miraculous event. A similar reaction occurs in the transfiguration (9:2-8), where Peter dumbfounded by the glorified presence of Christ, Elijah, and Moses foolishly offers to build three tabernacles. His request is quickly rebuked by the heavenly voice but his brash proposal is explained by the fact that he was afraid (ἔκφοβοι γάρ ἐγένοντο [9:6]). Lane concludes from this and other similar texts45 that, “those who are confronted with God’s direct intervention in the historical process do not know how to react. Diving revelation lies beyond normal human experience, and there are no categories available to men which enable them to understand and respond appropriately.”46 Therefore, the women’s response in 16:8 should be understood as a wholly appropriate response to the incomprehensibility of the resurrection.

While there is no doubt that fear is a typical response to an epiphany or divine revelation one must seriously question whether this can be deemed an entirely positive reaction.47 In Mark 4:14, the disciples’ fearful response to the stilling of the storm clearly has negative overtones as it is juxtaposed with Jesus’ stern rebuke for their unbelief. In Mark 5:15, the people respond in fear after Jesus healed the demoniac, but rather than embracing Christ they plead with him to leave the region (5:17). In the sandwiched accounts of 5:21-43, Mark highlights the faith based fear of the hemorrhaging women (5:33-34) as opposed to the unbelieving fear of the synagogue official (5:36). Although Herod’s fear of John the Baptist was positive in some respects (i.e., he kept him safe)(6:20) it was certainly not strong enough to avert his execution. In Mark 6:50, fear is again cast with negative overtones when the disciples are enjoined “not to be afraid” when they see the ghost walking across the water. After Jesus’ second seminar on the passion, the disciples’ misunderstanding and confusion results in their fearful refusal to ask any questions (9:30-32). Again in 10:32 fear and confusion are linked as Jesus’ followers maintain bewilderment about the “first and the last” (10:23-31) and the journey to Jerusalem (10:33-34). In 11:18, the religious leaders’ fear must be understood in view of their plot to kill Jesus. Similarly, in 11:32 and 12:12 it is the convictionless fear of the people that stymies the religious leaders’ plans.

In summary, fear is a normal response but of the twelve occurrences of φοβέομαι in the second Gospel only one can be considered positive, one is somewhat vague (6:20), and the other ten have negative associations. For Mark φοβέομαι has a negative connotation often used as a pejorative denoting unbelief or confusion. Given this background the burden of proof lies with those who argue that the women’s response in 16:8 is a positive event. Even despite the abundant evidence, this interpretation seems contrary to the natural reading of the text. The fact that the women were “amazed” to see the angelic messenger is normal (16:5) but the women’s response to the messenger’s instruction is nothing short of disobedience. Instead of remaining calm (16:6) and informing the disciples (16:7) the women fled in fear with out saying anything to anyone (16:8)!48

(2) The women’s response was a total failure signifying Mark’s polemic against his adversaries.49 Most scholars recognize Mark’s unusually harsh portrayal of the disciples. But promoters of this view argue that the women’s failure sealed the fate of the Twelve. The angelic command at the tomb was met with complete disobedience by the women. Jesus was left jilted in Galilee, the twelve were never informed of the resurrection, never restored to service, and never received apostolic commissioning. Obviously, proponents of this view recognize that the other Synoptic accounts do record these events. However, they insist that “Mark 16:8b must be read at full face value with all its sundry ramifications!”50 The purpose of this radical redaction was part of the evangelist’s rhetorical strategy in which the disciples were used as representatives of Mark’s theological opponents. Mark concluded with the complete failure of the disciples with the intent of communicating the ultimate fate of his opponents. Mark’s Gospel then is a polemic against the community’s theological adversaries and depicts their final condemnation. Thus it is argued that the women’s response in 16:8 is a tragic, disastrous conclusion to Mark’s Gospel. 

The primary objection to this view, similar to that of the first, is that it fails to teeter 16:7 with 16:8. In 16:7 the young man informs the women that the previously planned rendezvous (14:27-28) with the disciples will proceed as planned. In 16:8 the women flee from the tomb in fear. The difficulty with this position is that it emphasizes the failure of the women in v 8 at the expense of the promise in v 7. This is problematic because throughout Mark’s Gospel Jesus’ promises find fulfillment. For example, Jesus accurately predicts: that the disciples would find a colt (11:2), the location for the Passover meal (14:13-15), his betrayal by Judas (9:31; 10:33; 14:18-21), the falling away of the disciples (14:27), Peter’s denial (14:30), his death (8:31; 9:31; 10:34; 12:8), and his resurrection (8:31; 9:9, 31; 10:34).51 When the young man informs the women that Jesus will meet the disciples in Galilee “just as he told” them (14:27-28), the reader has every expectation that the promise will be fulfilled.

(3) The women’s response is ironic, evoking the reader’s reflection and projection.52 Proponents of this view recognize, as do all literary critics, the inherent tension in Mark’s final two verses. “The juxtaposition of the expectation introduced in 16:7 with the terminal frustration of it in 16:8 requires the reader to review what he has read in order to comprehend this apparent incongruity and its meaning for the narrator’s message. The text ends, but the readerly work . . . goes on.”53 Mark’s ending rather than posing an irreconcilable problem, forces the reader to reflect back upon the narrative. Either the reader must interpret 16:8 through the grid of the preceding narrative or the preceding narrative through 16:8. However, throughout the second Gospel Mark proves himself to be a competent narrator. Consistently, the reader finds the predictions recorded by Mark reaching their fulfillment.54 The narrator has established his credibility and the expectation that Jesus will be reunited with the disciples in Galilee. Thus the promise in 16:7 must be fulfilled, branding a strictly literal reading of 16:8 “suspect” in favor of an “ironic substitute.”55 V 8 does not stunt Jesus previous promise to meet the disciples in Galilee (14:28), rather it is a rhetorical statement that spurs the reader backwards to reflect upon the preceding narrative in order to project the forthcoming events in Galilee.

There is no doubt that the ending of Mark’s Gospel is ironic. But how is it ironic? Does the irony diminish a plain reading of 16:8? Unfortunately this view suffers from several logical flaws. First, the basis for this interpretation is predicated on the demonstrated reliability of the narrator. But it is precisely this reliability that is immediately jettisoned. Indeed, if the narrator has secured the reader’s confidence via sixteen plus chapters, does he not deserve the same deference in the last verse? Given Mark’s track record, is it likely that he sacrificed his credulity in the concluding verse of the book? Given Mark’s faithfulness, the failure of the women in 16:8 should not be side stepped. Second, to argue that the “certainty of the disciples’ restoration sets aside the possibility of the women’s silence” is a false choice.56 One need not resort to this interpretation just because he finds difficulty reconciling the promise of Jesus with the failure of the women. Other literary options do exist and should be explored. A satisfying proposal must affirm and balance both 16:7 and 16:8.              

(4) The women’s failure challenges the reader to pick up where the disciples failed.57 This view treats the ending as open and unfulfilled. “For those of us so used to stories with a resolution, it is tempting to dull the shock of this ending by adding what we know from the other Gospels or the history of the Christian movement.”58 But the disciples’ flight (14:50) and the women’s blunder leave the story unresolved begging for some form of closure. Who then will proclaim the good news? The “crisis of interpretation invites the implied reader, and, indeed, the real reader to take up the actions required for closure: becoming that disciple of Jesus who will proclaim the Gospel message.”59 Since everyone else has abandoned Jesus, the reader is invited to become the faithful follower of Christ and witness to the world. Thus rhetorically, Mark’s unusual ending functions as an implicit apostolic commission similar to the other Gospels (Matt 28:18-20; Luke 24:46-49; John 21:15-23)

Although homiletically attractive, this view fails to deal with the specifics of 16:7. The messenger’s command was to “go and tell Peter and the disciples.” Obviously, the reader is in no position to do this. Even if he were, why would he be instructed to share the gospel with those that had already believed? Are we to presume that the statement is a soteriological indictment against Peter and the disciples? Who then are Peter and the disciples? Furthermore, it is doubtful that the command in 16:7 can be considered a generalized call to gospel proclamation. Instead the women are instructed to tell the disciples about a previously discussed, though future meeting in Galilee. Therefore “given the specifics of Mark 16:7, the reader is logically not in a position to succeed where the women failed.”60

(5) Mark’s ending holds out promise despite the disciple’s proclivity for failure.61 According to this view, neither 16:7 nor 16:8 is allowed to trump the other verse. The Gospel ends with an affirmation of both promise and failure - promise for a future restoration of the disciples but immediate failure for the women. The angelic words in 16:7 are a promise that failure is not the end for the disciples. As predicted, the messenger points to a time in the near future when the disciples will be reconciled to Christ. But this does not negate or diminish the disobedience of the women’s fear and subsequent silence. Although the failure follows the promise the reader intuitively knows that the end is not really the end. The fact that Jesus’ words “will not pass away” (13:31) coupled with the consist cycle of prediction and fulfillment in Mark’s Gospel gives the reader confidence that the description of the disciples’ post resurrection activities (Mark 13) is not contingent on the women’s obedience. The very fact that Mark’s Gospel was written indicates the promise was ultimately fulfilled and word got out. “In this light the juxtaposition of 16:7 and 16:8 provides a paradigm for Christian existence according to Mark—the word of promise and the failure of the disciples, and yet the word of promise prevailing despite human failure.”62 

By far, this option best explains the unusual nature of Mark’s ending. However, given Mark’s introductory remarks concerning the “good news of Jesus Christ” (1:1) in what way is the conclusion congruent with this statement? After all, the book ends in seeming disaster. One of the dominant themes in Mark’s Gospel is the issue of discipleship. Although unanimity is generally an anomaly, all would agree that the disciples are cast unfavorably in the second Gospel.63 Even a cursory reading of Mark is likely to leave one depressed rather than impressed with the nature of discipleship. One gets the distinct impression that the disciples are blundering idiots. They are unperceptive, hard hearted, self-seeking, cowardly, and faithless.64 And yet it is precisely this tendency for failure juxtaposed with promise that can actually be called “good news.” Mark paints the disciples with warts and all. But these blemishes viewed within the context of the purity and promises of Christ generate hope rather than despair for the disciple.65 As Joel Williams has said, “Mark presents true followers who fail, but he also offers hope, because he shows that Jesus does not give up on them. Jesus is able to restore his disciples, or any of his own who stumble, and to make fishers of men. Mark ends his Gospel with a fitting message to the fallible followers of Jesus who read his story. There is hope for those who fail, but the path is never easy and the dangers are real.”66

As satisfying as this option is it fails to account for Mark’s messianic secret.67 Throughout Mark’s Gospel Jesus consistently instructs people (and demons) to refrain from telling others about His activities (cf. 1:34; 3:12; 5:43; 7:36; 8:26; 8:30; 9:9). Despite these injunctions Jesus’ words are often disobeyed (1:45; 7:36). Towards the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry He informs the three that this communication embargo will be lifted after the resurrection (9:9). It is precisely this expectation which casts irony over the women’s actions in 16:8. Prior to the resurrection, Jesus’ followers had been instructed to remain silent, but didn’t; after the resurrection the women were instructed to go and tell, but don’t! Even the wording of the text in 16:8 (οὐδενὶ οὐδὲν εἴπαν) hints at this irony by providing an echo of the first explicit secrecy command in 1:44 (μηδενὶ μηδὲν εἴπῃς).68 It may very well be that Mark has intertwined promise, failure, and the messianic secret into the ending. The prevalence of the theme throughout the Gospel and the irony of the women’s silence deserve further investigation.


This paper has attempted to demonstrate three things. First, Farmer’s argument that vv 9-20 represent the original reading raises too many questions to be considered a plausible option. Second, although certainty is impossible the evidence suggests that Mark intentionally concluded his account with the abrupt statement ἐφοβοῦντο γάρ. There is ample evidence that Mark’s original ending was not mysteriously lost, that γάρ can end a sentence, and that an open ending was occasionally used in ancient literature. And third, Mark’s ending makes sense of the preceding narrative. The juxtaposition of promise and failure “provide a paradigm for the interplay between divine promise and human failure in Christian existence.”69

1 This includes the eleven disciples and “others” (Luke 24:33).

2 For example, the NASB, NKJV, NRSV, and NIV all note the textual problem in vv 9-20.

3 BDAG (403) defines εὐαγγέλιον in 1:1 as “details relating to the life and ministry of Jesus, good news of Jesus.”

4 William Farmer, The Last Twelve Verses of Mark (Cambridge: University Press, 1974). Farmer was working on a revision of this book during the composition of this paper but passed away in December of 2000. It remains to be seen whether or not his revision will be published. 

5 More recently Clayton Croy (“The World according to Gar: The Debate over Mark’s Ending at 16:8,” A paper read at the Society of Biblical Literature annual conference in Nashville, November 2000.) has advocated that vv 9-20 are not original but that the autograph continued past 16:8.

6 The longer ending (vv 9-20) is clearly the most attested reading. It is validated by almost all of the extant Greek manuscripts, a significant number of minuscules, numerous versions, and scores of church Fathers. Geographically it is represented by the Byzantine, Alexandrian, and Western text types. However, one should be careful not to reduce textual criticism into an exercise of manuscript counting. Though the longer ending is widely attested, the vast bulk of manuscripts are from the generally inferior, Byzantine text type dating from the 8th to the 13th centuries (except Codex A which is a 5th century document). Due to the solidarity of the Byzantine text type we may assume that this represents at least a fourth century reading (Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, 3rd ed. [New York: Oxford University, 1992], 293).

The abrupt ending (1) is found in the two oldest Greek manuscripts. These Alexandrian uncials a B, both 4th century manuscripts, are supported by the Sinaitic Syriac manuscripts, approximately one hundred Armenian texts and two Georgian manuscripts from the 9th and 10th centuries, and several church Fathers including Clement of Alexandria and Origen. That this reading was more prominent is supported by Eusebius and Jerome who claimed that vv 9-20 were absent from almost all known manuscripts (ibid., 226). It is also significant that Codex Bobiensis (k) omits the longer ending as this is deemed the “most important witness to the Old African Latin” Bible (ibid., 73). The genealogical solidarity of the two primary Alexandrian witnesses suggest that this reading can be dated to the 2nd century (Metzger, Text of the New Testament, 215-216).

To say the least, the evidence is conflicting. One should be careful not to make a firm decision one way or the other regarding Mark’s ending based on the external data alone. Though the majority of New Testament scholars believe that vv 9-20 are not original, virtually none come to this conclusion based purely on the external evidence. Even Farmer must confess that, “while a study of the external evidence is rewarding in itself and can be very illuminating in many ways . . . it does not produce the evidential grounds for a definitive solution to the problem. A study of the history of the text, by itself, has not proven sufficient, since the evidence is divided” (Farmer, Last Twelve Verses of Mark, 74).

Most text-critics appeal to the internal evidence in order to demonstrate that vv 9-20 are non-Marcan. One is immediately struck with the awkward transition between vv 8 and 9. In v 8, the subject, “they” referring to Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome (16:1) is implicit within the third, plural verb, ἐφοβοῦντο. But in v 9 the subject changes to “He” (from the third, singular verb ἐφάνη). The transition is striking because the subject is unexpressed. Furthermore, in v 9 Mary Magdalene is introduced as though she were a new character even though her presence has already been established in the immediate context (15:47; 16:1) while Mary the mother of James and Salome disappear from the entire narrative. This awkward transition coupled with numerous words and phrases that are foreign to Mark, suggest the decidedly inauthentic nature of this ending. 

Several examples should prove the point. In 16:9 we find the only occurrence of the verb φαίνω in the New Testament with respect to the resurrection (though the same verb is used in Luke 9:8 to describe Elijah’s re-appearance). Equally as unusual is the construction παῤ ἧσ ἐκβεβλήκει, which is a grammatical hapax. In v 10, the verb πορεύομαι which is found 29 times in Matthew and 51 times in Luke is not found in Mark 1:1-16:8, but repeatedly in the longer ending (vv 10, 12, 15). In v 11, The verb θεάομαι which occurs in Matthew (6:1; 11:7; 22:11; 23:5) and Luke (7:24; 23:55) finds no parallel in Mark except for its multiple occurrence in the longer ending (16:11, 14). In v 12, the expression μετὰ ταῦτα which occurs frequently in Luke (1:24; 5:27; 10:1; 12:4; 17:8; 18:4) and John (2:12; 3:22; 5:1, 14; 6:1; 7:1; 11:7, 11; 13:7; 19:28, 38; 21:1)  has no precedence in Mark. φανερόω which neither Matthew or Luke use to describe resurrection appearances is found in vv 12 and 14 (J. K. Elliott, “The Text and Language of the endings of Mark’s Gospel,” TZ 27 [1971]: 258). The phrase ἕτερος μορφή is also unique to Marcan vocabulary. Neither ἕτερος nor μορφή occur elsewhere in Mark and μορφή only appears in Paul’s description of the kenosis (Phil 2:6, 7). In v 14, ὕστερος, although used by the other evangelists, is a decidedly non-Marcan term having no precedence in 1:1-16:8. Mark seems to prefer ἔσχατος over ὕστερος as evidenced by several parallel passages in which Mark opts for the former over the later term found in Matthew (cf. Matt 21:37–Mark 12:6; Matt 22:27–Mark 12:22). In v 18, aside from other lexical and syntactical phenomenon one is struck by the unusual exegetical hapax. No other text in Scripture provides a promise for the handling of snakes and imbibing deadly poison without adverse repercussions. In v 19, though Mark sparingly uses the conjunction οὖν, the phrase μὲν οὖν is not found in 1:1-16:8. The longer ending concludes in v 20 with a litany of non-Marcan vocabulary: συνεργέω is not found in Mark or the Gospels and appears to be a Pauline term (Rom 8:28; 1 Cor 16:16; 2 Cor 6:1) but it is never used with Jesus as the subject, and βεβαιόω along with ἐπακολουθεω are also foreign to the Synoptic Gospels.

As is somewhat evident, the internal evidence raises significant problems with Mark 16:9-20. The awkward transition between vv 8 and 9 and the non-Marcan vocabulary has led the vast majority of New Testament scholars to conclude that the longer ending is inauthentic. In fact, even Farmer (Last Twelve Verses of Mark, 103), the leading proponent for the authenticity of the last twelve verses, must confess that some of the evidence warrants this conclusion.

7 Michael W. Holmes, “New Testament Textual Criticism,” In Introducing New Testament Interpretation, ed. Scot McKnight (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989), 56.

8 Farmer, Last Twelve Verses of Mark, 109.

9 Ibid., 65.

10 Ibid., 70-71.

11 For a general critique of Farmer’s entire thesis, see J. N. Birdsall, Review of Last Twelve Verses of Mark, by William R. Farmer, JTS 26 (1975): 151-60.

12 Matt 28:9 says, “Jesus met them.” Them (αὐταῖς) is a third person feminine plural pronoun whose antecedent is Mary Magdelene and the other Mary introduced in 28:1.

13 Farmer, Last Twelve Verses of Mark, 65.

14 Ibid., 72.

15 Ibid., 15-17.

16 Metzger, Text of the New Testament, 296.  Even Farmer admits, “we lack positive confirmation that Alexandrian editorial practice actually led to the omission of our ending of the Odyssey” (Farmer, Last Twelve Verses of Mark, 17).

17 Murray J. Harris, Raised Immortal: Resurrection and Immortality in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 67.

18 Metzger, Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 105.

19 Lightfoot argues, had this been the case, the early church would certainly have attempted to complete the incomplete ending, yet source criticism suggests that neither Matthew nor Luke possessed copies of Mark extending beyond 16:8 (R. H. Lightfoot, The Gospel Message of St. Mark [Oxford: University Press, 1952], 83).

20 Ned Bernard Stonehouse, The Witness of Matthew and Mark to Christ (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Guardian, 1944), 99. See also J. M. Creed, “The Conclusion of the Gospel according to Saint Mark,” JTS 31(1930): 176.

21 Lightfoot, Gospel Message of St. Mark, 82.

22 Though logically challenging, this view has been supported by numerous well-respected scholars. For example Bruce Metzger, Text of the New Testament, 226-29 and Robert H. Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 1009-12 are proponents of this view. Gundry cites twelve reasons why v 8 must begin a new pericope (with the obvious implication that vv. 9-20 were lost) yet fails to deal with the historical plausibility of this view.

23 This is the view taken by Roberts and Skeat (Colin H. Roberts and T. C. Skeat, The Birth of the Codex [London: Oxford University Press, 1983], 55).

24 Of the 172 extant biblical manuscripts dating between the 2nd—4th centuries, 92% (158 out of 172) are codices. This is in sharp contrast to the meager 9% (178 out of 2047) of extant secular literature written on codex. Roberts and Skeat reject the notion that the impetus for Christian usage of the codex was due to economy, compactness, comprehensiveness, convenience, ease of reference, the medieval experience, or conservatism (contra Peter Katz, “The Early Christians’ Use of Codices Instead of Rolls,” JTS 44 [1945]: 63-65, who suggests that the rise of the codex was a reaction to Judaic tradition). Instead, they tentatively conclude that the rise of the codex was likely in conjunction with the origin of the nomina sacra and “its introduction must date well before A. D. 100” (ibid., 37, 39-41, 45-53, 63). This last statement may be an overstatement given the fact that no manuscript evidence supports this position.

25 First, that Luke-Acts was originally composed as two separate scrolls coincides with the nature and practices of early scribes. In antiquity, papyrus rolls could be purchased up to thirty-five feet in length (for an excellent discussion of the manufacture and specifications of the scroll see Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995], 44-48). Although a manuscript could be assembled piece by piece, most writers planned their text to accommodate the manuscript they purchased (A. Q. Morton and G. H. C. MacGregor, The Structure of Luke and Acts [New York: Harper & Row, 1964], 12-13). Interestingly, the Gospel of Luke contains approximately 19,000 words and Acts approximately 18,000, each of which would have filled an average size papyrus scroll (seven to ten meters). Rolls exceeding this length, though possible to manufacture were too awkward for handling (Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church, 47). This striking symmetry, coupled with the recapitulation of the ascension supports the theory that Luke-Acts was constructed on two separate scrolls.

Second, the authorship of the book of Hebrews presents a challenging problem for exegetes. Did the author intend to make this an anonymous work? Or did the address become detached from the rest of the document? If one assumes that the original autograph was composed on a scroll then the absence of an address has a rather straightforward explanation. It was relatively common to inscribe the name of the author and the title of the work on the verso (i.e., the back of the document) of the roll’s first sheet (C. H. Roberts, “The Ancient Book and the Ending of St. Mark,” JTS 40 [1939]: 254. Sosylus papyrus and P. Ryl. I 19 provide examples of this type of inscription; Jack Finegan, Encountering New Testament Manuscripts: A Working Introduction to Textual Criticism [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974], 31). This way, when the scroll was properly rolled both the author and the title were visible without having to unroll the scroll. It may be, that soon after the book of Hebrews was completed the author’s name was smeared or worn beyond recognition by a scribe or carrier handling the scroll. It is also possible that the address may have been written on the recto side of a blank sheet attached to the roll (an example of this is in the Berlin Hierocles [Roberts, “Ancient Book and the Ending of St. Mark,” 254]). If this were the case, then it may have been that this sheet was dismembered as the most susceptible portion of the roll was the outer sheet. 

Third, the book of Revelation which is generally dated around A.D. 95 during the reign of Domitian also seems to have been written on a scroll (G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, ed. I. Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999], 4). John is instructed in 1:11 to record his revelation in a βιβλίον which could refer to either a book (i.e., a codex) or scroll (BDAG, 176). However, the βιβλίον opened by the Lamb in Rev. 5:1 is clearly a roll. The fact that the numerous σφραγῖδας (“seals”)(5:1, 2, 5, 9; 6:1, 3, 5, 7, 9; 8:1) must be broken seems strange if the document were a codex. Some have argued that the reading of the scroll would have necessitated breaking all seven seals. However, there is evidence to suggest that individual parts of the document could be read as individual seals were broken. This might have been more apparent if the book had been “unrolled” (ὰνειλω), rather than “opened” (ὰνοιξαι)(Rev. 5:2, 3, 4, 5, 9; 6:1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 12; 8:1), but the use of ὰνοιξαι with relation to a scroll is not without precedent (cf. LXX Isa 37:14)(Beale, The Book of Revelation, 342-343). Similarly, John’s βιβλίον also appears to be a roll as he is instructed not to σφραγίσῃς (“seal up”) the words of the revelation 22:10.  

26 Generally speaking, it was customary for the author/scribe to affix a clean sheet to the beginning and end of the scroll for even greater protection (Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church, 47).

27 Roberts and Skeat, Birth of the Codex, 49.

28 Inevitably, some scrolls were not re-rolled (similar to our modern problem with VHS and audio tapes), however the sheet attached at the end of the document would have provided protection from this neglect (Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church, 47).

29 R. R. Ottley, “εφοβουντο γαρ Mark xvi 8,” JTS 27 (1926): 408.

30 In Gen 18:15 ἐφοβήθη is 3rd singular, aorist passive, while in Mark 16:8 ἐφοβοῦντο is 3rd plural, imperfect middle. 

31 Kraeling cited examples from Pap. Oxy. no. 1223 (a 4th century business document) and  John 13:13 in the Peshitta (Carl H. Kraeling, “Brief Communications: A Philological Note on Mark 16:8,” JBL 44 [1925]: 357-58).  See also Morton S. Enslin, “εφοβουντο γαr Mark 16:8,” JBL 46 (1927): 62-68 and Henry J. Cadbury, “Brief Communications: Mark 16:8,” JBL 46 (1927): 344-45. The publication of Menander’s classic Greek comedy Dyscolos again reinforced the “correctness of the construction with terminating γάρ” (Frederick W. Danker, “Menander and the New Testament,” NTS 10 [1964]: 365-66).

32 Moule called the continued discussion “rash” (C. F. D. Moule, “St Mark xvi. 8 Once More,” NTS 2 [1955]: 58).

33 P. W. van der Horst, “Can a Book End with a gar? A Note on Mark XVI.8,” JTS 23 (1972): 123.

34 Ibid., 123-24. P. W. van der Horst was quick to note that according to the respected Plotinus scholar, Richard Harder, treatises 30, 31, 32, and 33 were part of a larger composite work that was fractured into smaller units by Plotinus’ pupil and editor, Porphyry. However, Porphyry obviously did not consider it a literary gaffe to end the treaty with ga,r. As Harder suggested, Porphyry’s editorial decision was likely not an autonomous one, but was triggered by Plotinus’ own markings as the other treatises “all begin with a recapitulation, which indicates at least a large breathing-space between them.” 

35 Ibid., 124. More recently, technological advances such as the development of search engines like Thesaurus Linguae Graecae (TLG) and Accordance have made the identification of lexical and semantic constructions exponentially easier. For example, a simple search on TLG reveals that from the 800 B.C. through A.D. 300 there are 624 sentences that end in ga,r. Although the data can not prove that Mark ended his Gospel at v 8, it certainly makes it a possibility. See also BDAG, 189.

36 Wilfred Lawrence Knox, “The Ending of St. Mark’s Gospel,” HTR 35 (1942): 17-23.

37 Ibid., 22-23.

38 James Lee Magness, “Sense and Absence: Structure and Suspension in the Ending of the Gospel of Mark,” (Ph.D. diss., Emory University, 1984).

39 Thomas E. Boomershine and Gilbert L. Bartholomew, “The Narrative Technique of Mark 16:8,” JBL 100 (1981): 213-23.

40 Robert H. Gundry, “Recent Investigation into the Literary Genre ‘Gospel,’” In New Dimensions in New Testament Study, ed. Richard N. Longenecker and Merrill C. Tenney, 97-114 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1974), 114. Gundry objects to the use of Gospel genre as it “implies a literary tradition of that kind prior to our Gospels” (114). Though this may be so, the term is simply being used here as nomenclature to describe the literary qualities of Gospel literature. See also L. W. Hurtado, “Gospel (Genre),” In Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, ed. Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall, 276-82 (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1992), 278-79.

41 Stonehouse, Witness of Matthew and Mark to Christ, 99.

42 Joel Williams’ article (“Literary Approaches to the End of Mark’s Gospel,” JETS 42 [1999]: 21-35) provides a helpful summary of the major proposals which will be used in this paper.

43 Scholars holding this view include William L. Lane, The Gospel according to Mark, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed. F.F. Bruce (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 591-92; Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, “Fallible Followers: Women and Men in the Gospel of Mark,” Semeia 28 (1983): 44; Timothy Dwyer, “The Motif of Wonder in the Gospel of Mark,” JSNT 57 (1995): 57-8; Stonehouse, Witness of Matthew and Mark to Christ, 108; David Catchpole, “The Fearful Silence of the Women at the Tomb: A Study in Markan Theology” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 18 (1977): 3-10; Morna D. Hooker, The Gospel according to Saint Mark, Black’s New Testament Commentaries, ed. Henry Chadwick (London: A & C Black, 1991; reprint Peabody: Hendrickson, 1999), 387. 

44 Catchpole (“Fearful Silence of the Women,” 7) notes that Mark uses four “fear” words: ἐκθαμβέομαι, ἔκστασις, τρόμος, and φοβέομαι.

45 Cf. 4:41; 5:15, 33, 36; 6:50; 9:6, 32.

46 Lane, 590.

47 See Andrew T. Lincoln, “The Promise and The Failure: Mark 16:7, 8,” JBL 108 (1989): 286-287 and Thomas E. Boomershine, “Mark 16:8 and the Apostolic Commission,” JBL 100 (1981): 228-229.

48 Furthermore, Mark’s use of φεύγω in 16:8 conjures up images of the disciples flight in 14:50, which although was predicted (14:27) should be understood, at least in part, in terms of the flight of the anonymous young man in 14:51-52. Hester concludes that the naked young man “serves to emphasize the flight of the disciples . . . the disaster of such a response is emphasized by the cultural code of nudity, a sin of shame and vulnerability” (J. David Hester, “Dramatic Inconclusion: Irony and the Narrative Rhetoric of the Ending of Mark,” JSNT 57 [1995]: 74-5). 

49 Representatives of this view include: Theodore J. Weeden, Mark – Traditions in Conflict (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971), 44-51, 101-17; Werner H. Kebler, Mark’s Story of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979), 83-7; John Dominic Crossan, “Empty Tomb and Absent Lord (Mark 16:1-8),” in The Passion in Mark: Studies on Mark 14-16, ed. Werner H. Kelber (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1976), 135-52; idem, “Mark and the Relatives of Jesus,” NovT 15 (1973): 81-113.

50 Weeden, Mark – Traditions in Conflict, 50.

51 Williams, “Literary Approaches to the End of Mark’s Gospel,” 29.

52 See Jack Dean Kingsbury, Conflict in Mark: Jesus, Authorities, Disciples (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 112-15; Norman R. Peterson, “When is the End not the End? Literary Reflections on the Ending of Mark’s Narrative,” Interpretation 34 (1980): 151-66; idem, “The Reader in the Gospel,” Neot 18 (1984): 49.

53 Peterson, “When is the End not the End?,” 153.

54 See option (2) for examples of promise/fulfillment texts in Mark.

55 Peterson, “When is the End not the End?,” 156.

56 Williams, “Literary Approaches to the End of Mark’s Gospel,” 32.

57 Advocates of this view include Boomershine, “Apostolic Commission,” 225-239; David Rhoads, Joanna Dewey, and Donald Michie, Mark as Story: An Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel, 2ed (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999), 143; Hester, “Dramatic Inconclusion,” 83-5; Paul Danove, “The Characterization and Narrative Function of the Women at the Tomb (Mark 15,40-41.47; 16,1-8),” Bib 77 (1996): 395-97; Mary Ann Tolbert, Sowing the Gospel: Mark’s World in Literary-Historical Perspective (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989), 288-99.

58 Rhoads, Dewey, and Michie, Mark as Story, 143.

59 Danove, “Characterization and Narrative Function of the Women,” 397.

60 Williams, “Literary Approaches to the End of Mark’s Gospel,” 33

61 See Lincoln, “Promise and Failure,” 283-300; Williams, “Literary Approaches to the End of Mark’s Gospel,” 21-35; Donald H. Juel, A Master of Surprise: Mark Interpreted (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), 116.

62 Lincoln, “Promise and Failure,” 292.

63 See for example Mark Allen Powell, “Toward a Narrative-Critical Understanding of Mark,” Int 47 (1993): 343-44; Frank Matera, “The Incomprehension of the Disciples and Peter’s Confession (Mark 6,14-8,30),” Bib 70 (1989): 153-72; Malbon, “Fallible Followers,” 29-48.

64 Cf. 4:10-13, 35-41; 6:45-52; 8:14-21, 32-33; 9:33-34; 10:35-41; 14:32-41, 50, 66-72.

65 There is much discussion regarding the νεανίσκος in 16:5.  Is this a “young man” or an “angel?” Lincoln (“Promise and Failure,” 292-3) astutely observes that Mark may have been intentionally vague to sandwich the flight of the other νεανίσκος in 14:51 and further emphasize the promise/failure motif. “The figure in 14:51 and that in 16:5 are both described in the same threefold way—a young man (νεανίσκος), wearing (περιβεβλημένος), and the description of the garment worn. But a transformation has taken place in regard to this last item. As we saw, in 14:51 the young man was dressed for death – in a shroud. In 16:5 he is dressed as befits the new occasion of resurrection – in a white robe (cf. Rev 7:9, 13, 14). The figure who failed abysmally in the face of death is now restored as the messenger of resurrection and restoration . . . so perhaps the very presence of the angelic young man is also a veiled promise that failure will not be the end” (ibid., 293). Lincoln may very well be correct given Mark’s tendency to sandwich blocks of material (see James R. Edwards, “Markan Sandwiches: The Significance of Interpolation in Markan Sandwiches,” NT 31 [1989]: 193-216).

66 Williams, “Literary Approaches to the End of Mark’s Gospel,” 35.

67 Ibid. Williams completely neglects this issue. Lincoln’s article (“Promise and Failure,” 290-1) makes the best attempt to account for the secrecy motif but lacks a full discussion on the theme. The term was originally coined by William Wrede (The Messianic Secret, translated by J. C. G. Greig [Greenwood, S.C.: Attic, 1971]). Wrede contended that the secrecy motif was a redaction by the early church to compensate for the fact that Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah. For a historical sketch of the Messianic secret see, James L. Blevins, The Messianic Secret in Markan Research, 1901-1976 (Washington: University Press of America, 1981). Although Wrede’s work was a landmark in Marcan studies it has been sufficiently dismissed by most modern scholars. For a nice critique see J. D. G. Dunn, “The Messianic Secret in Mark,” TynBul 21 (1970): 92-117.  Dunn even argues that the use of the term “Messianic secret” is overly broad, suggesting that the healing miracles should not be grouped under the category of Messianic secret as none “of [Mark’s] miracles performed publicly led the spectators to conclude that Jesus was Messiah”(p. 94). Dunn’s comments are valid, however, rather than having an anaphoric reference to Wrede, the term “Messianic Secret” has become synonymous with the secrecy motif in much of the current literature.  

68 Frederick W. Danker, “Postscript to the Markan Secrecy Motif,” CTM 38 (1967): 25.

69 Lincoln, “Promise and Failure,” 293.

Related Topics: Text & Translation, Textual Criticism

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