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A Fake Resurrection in Mark’s Gospel?

Skeptics will say Mark's Gospel doesn't even have the Resurrection in it. Seems crazy, but is it true?

You sometimes hear skeptics casting doubt on the Christian message by saying that Mark—the earliest of the Gospels—doesn’t even have the resurrection of Jesus in it.

What are they talking about? Mark 16:9 reads, “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.” That’s certainly a mention of the Resurrection, isn’t it?

The issue is that most scholars have concluded that the final twelve verses of Mark (16:9-20) were not part of the original Gospel.

The reasons for thinking this include the following:

(a) The evidence for the Longer Ending weakens the farther back you go in the history of manuscripts.

(b) The manuscripts actually contain at least five different endings for Mark.

(c) The style of the Longer Ending seems different from the rest of Mark.

(d) The content of the Longer Ending is made up primarily of references to things we know about from elsewhere in the New Testament, making it seem to be reconstructed from other sources.

(e) Since the risen Jesus has not appeared to anyone by verse 8, it is easy to see how later Christians would want this deficit to be supplied and a new, supplemental ending composed that contained post-Resurrection appearances.

I agree that the evidence suggests that the Longer Ending was not in the original, but this doesn’t really do anything to cast doubt on the Resurrection. The earlier, undisputed text of Mark shows Jesus repeatedly predicting his rising from the dead (8:31, 9:30-31, 10:33-34, 14:28).

Further, immediately before the undisputed text breaks off, an angel has told the women, “Do not be alarmed. You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene who was crucified. He has been raised, he is not here! See the place where they laid him! But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee. You will see him there, just as he told you” (16:6-7).

It is thus clear that Mark firmly believed in the resurrection of Jesus, so the absence of an explicit resurrection appearance in the undisputed text of Mark does not provide evidence that the Resurrection wasn’t part of the early Christian message.

You don’t have to narrate a resurrection appearance to believe and proclaim the event. Paul’s letter 1 Thessalonians is even earlier than Mark, and in it, Paul clearly preaches Jesus raised from the dead (1:10, 4:14), but he doesn’t narrate a resurrection appearance.

The claim that the Resurrection “isn’t in” Mark thus doesn’t do the work a skeptic would want. The absence of a resurrection appearance in the undisputed text of Mark is more of a historical curiosity than anything else.

But why would this be? There are two basic possibilities:

(1) Mark stopped writing at verse 8 (“And [the women] went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid”), and

(2) the original ending was lost at a very early stage.

On the first proposal, there is further scholarly division. Some think that Mark deliberately stopped writing there to end his Gospel on an unexpected, challenging note.

Jesus has already predicted his Resurrection many times, and the women have discovered the empty tomb and been told of the Resurrection, but they haven’t seen it. They are therefore faced with the choice of whether or not to believe. Will they overcome their fear and amazement at the idea of the Resurrection and go on to proclaim Jesus to others?

In the same way, Mark knows that his audience has been told of the resurrection of Jesus, but they haven’t seen it. Will they overcome their trepidation and amazement at the idea and go on to proclaim Jesus to others? We can infer that the women did, and Mark implies that his audience should as well.

On the other hand, some who think that the original version of Mark stopped at verse 8 hold that he did not intend anything so dramatic or avant-garde. He was simply prevented from finishing his planned ending for some reason, and copies of the manuscript got made in its unfinished condition. Advocates of this view may appeal to the fact that Mark’s Gospel seems unpolished (particularly in Greek), as if it were a first draft.

Another possibility is that Mark stopped writing because he never intended his work to be a finished, polished Gospel. Instead, he meant it to be a collection of notes.

The ancients sometimes drew a distinction between two kinds of works. The first was an unpolished collection of material that didn’t have literary pretensions and was meant to serve basic informational needs. In Greek, these works were called collections of hypomnêmata, and in Latin they were called comentarii. Both of these terms meant, roughly, “notes,” “memoranda,” “things to be remembered.”

Sometimes authors would publish books of this nature as reference works or textbooks, as the physician Galen did with some of his medical texts. Other times they would be published in this form for reasons of expediency and timeliness. Thus, Julius Caesar published his Gallic Wars in the form of commentarii.

Authors might prepare works like this as a prelude to more polished literary productions on the same subject. Sometimes one author would prepare hympomnêmata for use by another author. He might even sell his product to the second author as the basis for the latter’s literary work. This is similar to how major authors today may use research assistants to prepare the material on which they will base their novels or nonfiction works.

When the time came to produce the literary work, an author would take the initial, unpolished one, put the material in proper literary order, supplement or trim it, and polish its style before publishing it as a new work. This is exactly what Luke and Matthew did, working with Mark as a base text.

On the other hand, scholars who hold the view that the original ending was lost need to explain how this happened. There are two questions here:

(1) How, physically, did it happen?

(2) When did it happen?

Regarding the first question, if Mark was originally written on a scroll, then the loss of the ending would be unlikely, since the end of a one-sided scroll tended to be the centermost portion of the roll, around which the rest of the roll was wound. It would thus be the part of the scroll most protected from accidental damage.

On the other hand, if it was a double-sided scroll (what was known as an opisthograph), then, if the ending was lost, the beginning should be lost as well, for they likely would have been on opposite sides of the same page. We see this phenomenon with many ancient manuscripts: if the end is lost, the beginning is, too.

If Mark was originally bound as a codex (a book with a spine), it would be easier to see how the last page of the book could be lost, but in Mark’s time, codices were not yet common.

Regarding the second question, the destruction of the original ending must have happened very early. There would seem to be three possibilities: it was destroyed

(1) at the time between when Mark finished writing and when the first copy was made,

(2) after the first copy was made but before others, or

(3) when only a few copies were in existence.

Here we encounter a paradox. If the ending was destroyed late—after multiple copies were in existence (i.e., option 3)—then the original one should have survived in the manuscript tradition, but it does not appear to have done so. On the other hand, if the ending was destroyed early—when only a draft or the first new copy existed (i.e., options 1 or 2)—then why didn’t Mark just replicate the original ending?

What is one to say about all this from a Catholic perspective? Is the current, longer ending divinely inspired?

The fact that it appears to have been written by someone other than Mark does not matter. Several books of Scripture have more than one author (e.g., some of Paul’s letters cite additional authors as having input, like Sylvanus and Timothy; see Phil. 1:1, 1 Thess. 1:1, 2 Thess. 1:1). More of an issue is that the Longer Ending seems to have been composed in the second century, possibly placing it after the end of the apostolic age, when the writing of inspired Scripture ceased.

The Council of Trent infallibly defined that the books of the Catholic canon are “sacred and canonical, these same books entire with all their parts” (Decree Concerning the Canonical Scriptures). This affirmation is most clearly directed against the views of Protestants who wanted to consider the deuterocanonical portions of Daniel and Esther to be non-inspired.

However, there was apparently some discussion of the Longer Ending of Mark during the council, though it is not mentioned in the final decree.

A footnote on Mark 16:9–20 in the New American Bible: Revised Edition states that the Longer Ending “has traditionally been accepted as a canonical part of the Gospel and was defined as such by the Council of Trent.”

However, Benedict XVI seems to have had a different perspective, writing, “The authentic text of the Gospel as it has come down to us ends with the fear and trembling of the women” (Jesus of Nazareth, 2:261).

Regardless of how one answers the question of whether Trent intended to define the Longer Ending as canonical, it is still very early, and it witnesses traditions about Jesus circulating in the early Church. Indeed, it is almost entirely composed of material paralleling traditions found in Matthew, Luke, John, and Acts.

Further, the undisputed text of the Gospel of Mark witnesses belief in the Resurrection multiple times, meaning that the Longer Ending does not give us any reason to doubt the early proclamation of the Resurrection.

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