“And they fled from the tomb, for fear and trembling had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid…”
The above quote would seem like a strange ending for a book. It certainly does not present any kind of closure. However, this is how the Gospel of Mark ends. If you open up your bible to the ending of Mark, you might question that statement. Look closer. Most bibles will have a small footnote mentioning that Mark 16:9-20 is omitted in earlier manuscripts. Many modern translations will bracket the text and maybe even include two possible endings (a longer and shorter version). The Revised Standard Version (RSV) takes 16:9-20 completely out of the main body of the text and puts it in a footnote.
There are many reasons that Mark 16:9-20 is questioned. One should be obvious to the reader. Try this exercise. Read through Mark in one sitting. On a long reading, you will become acquainted with Mark’s overall style. Then, you are jarred out of that style at the end. Even in translation, the difference in style and vocabulary is evident in 16:9-20. The theory that these last verses are not original to the text is bolstered by the fact that they are not contained in our earliest manuscripts. All of this internal and external evidence points to the conclusion that the Gospel of Mark (as we have it) ends on 16:8. This has been the conclusion of most scholars of every stripe and inclination.
This post ballooned into a 2600-word behemoth. The following is a somewhat technical discussion of textual criticism and the theological implications of the mystery of the ending of Mark. If you want to skip the technical part and go to the ending conclusions concerning what to do with a Gospel that ends on 16:8, then click here.
Textual Criticism and Discernment
Determining the ending to Mark is an exercise in textual criticism. The evidence that Mark 16:9-20 is not original to the Gospel is significant. Most importantly, the verses are missing from the two oldest Greek Manuscripts that we have (Codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus). These two manuscripts date from the 4th century. No earlier fragments contain the verses. Furthermore, the early Church witnesses largely agree that the verses are not original. Both Eusebius (4th century) and Jerome (4th – 5th century) note that the verses are missing from almost all of the Greek copies they had available to them. Scribes copying the manuscript marked 16:9-20 with asterisks and other signs to indicate their skepticism concerning the passage. The general principle at work here is scribes copying these manuscripts would be extremely unlikely to subtract anything from them. You do not hand copy manuscripts unless you revere them deeply. It is even more incredulous to think that a scribe would omit resurrection appearances from a Gospel. It is much more likely that a scribe would be disturbed by the lack of resurrection appearances in Mark and feel compelled to supplement the Gospel. Scribes are much more likely to add, whether intentionally or unintentionally, material to manuscripts. Therefore, the addition that only shows up in later manuscripts is not likely to be original.
Contrary to all this, there are at least two early Church witnesses to Mark 16:9-20. Irenaeus (writing in the 2nd century) appears to be aware of the verses. Also, the Diatessaron, a 2nd century harmony of the Gospels by Tatian, also includes the verses. However, these two witnesses are not actual manuscripts of Mark. They do show that Mark 16:9-20 is undeniably ancient and was connected with the Gospel of Mark at an early date. It is possible that Mark 16:9-20 was not created specifically for the ending of Mark but was a separate source altogether. This shorter source could have been appended to Mark to as a supplement.
All of the above is called external evidence dealing with the manuscripts themselves. There is also internal evidence within the text itself to consider. It is mentioned above that even the difference in style and vocabulary is evident in translation. Metzger mentions a number of non-Markan words and expressions such as ἀπιστέω, βλάπτω, βεβαιόω, επακολουθέω, θεάομαι, μετα ταῦτα, πορεύομαι, συνεργέω, and ὕστερον. These words and phrases do not appear anywhere else in the Gospel of Mark. Internal evidence is always a little shaky. Mark could have finished his Gospel at a later time and used slightly different vocabulary. My writing looks different now than five years ago. Vocabulary can change. However, when coupled with the external evidence, the case is strong that Mark 16:9-20 is not original to the Gospel.
The Question of Consensus
This leaves the reader to decide whether Mark intended to finish his Gospel at 16:8 or the Gospel is unfinished as we have it. Mark might have been unable to finish the Gospel. Or the manuscript could have lost its ending — due to damage, neglect, etc. — before extensive copying took place. In my cursory survey of materials immediately available to me, it is difficult to tell where the scholarly consensus comes down on this issue. Kümmel (1966) believes the consensus is that Mark did intend to end his Gospel on 16:8. Powell (1998) agrees with him. Köstenberger, Kellum, and Quarles (2009) are somewhat noncommittal, but note that “there seems to be no compelling reason not to accept Mark 16:8 as the original ending intended by Mark.” However, Metzger (1994) believes that it is most probable that the manuscript lost its original ending before being copied. R.H. Stein (2009) believes that the original ending has been lost and he cites a number of recent commentaries that agree with him. If Stein is correct, it appears that the consensus of scholarship has shifted in the early 21st century to a position that the original ending of Mark has been lost.
The consensus may be shifting, but there are still a number of scholars that argue Mark intended to end his gospel on 16:8. Though R.H. Stein disagrees, he provides a helpful and fair summary of the solutions of those who believe the Gospel ends at 16:8. There is no point to listing out all of the options here, but the best options are those in which the reader is brought into the story. The reader is invited by the abrupt ending to finish the story. Stein notes that most of the conclusions of those who argue that Mark intended his Gospel to end at 16:8 envision readers that are more like “highly-educated 20th and 21st century existentialists than like 1st century Christians, the great majority of whom could not read or write.”
Original Ending Lost
Stein makes a good point about the original readers of Mark. The abrupt ending is great for modern readers. Indicative of this is a quote from Julius Wellhausen included by Stein. “It would be a shame if something came after [16:8].” However, we must be careful not to turn Mark into a postmodern master that envisioned a narrative style 2000 years before its inception. Mark’s original readers were probably not satisfied by the abrupt ending at 16:8. This is illustrated by the fact that Mark 16:9-20 was attached to the Gospel at a very early date to supplement it. Obviously, many readers felt the Gospel was lacking a proper ending. It is also telling that neither Matthew, Luke, or John followed Mark in his abruptness. They all ended their Gospels with resurrection appearances.
Stein’s argument that Mark did not intend to end his Gospel on 16:8 has two primary components. The first is that ending on 16:8 would leave the prophetic statements in Mark 14:28 and 16:7 unfulfilled. These would be the only unfulfilled prophecies in the Gospel. This is also awkward because every Christian reader would know that Jesus made resurrection appearances. Why would Mark include predictions of these appearances and yet not include them?
Stein’s second main assertion is that Mark’s Gospel up until 16:8 has kept its focus on Jesus. It is highly Christological. The various explanations for why the Gospel would end on 16:8 shift that focus to something else. They highlight the reader, the disciples, the women, etc. Thus, they betray Mark’s laser focus on Jesus throughout the Gospel, which makes it unlikely that Mark intended his Gospel on 16:8.
N.T. Wright agrees with Stein that Mark did not intend to end the Gospel on 16:8. Wright makes further structural arguments as to why he believes Mark’s intention was to continue his account past 16:8. He makes an intriguing argument using the structure of Mark’s Gospel. Wright feels that Mark’s first half is brought to a conclusion with Peter’s confession of Jesus as Christ, which is confirmed by the remarkable event of the transfiguration. After the transfiguration, Jesus tells them of his impending death and resurrection. Wright argues that Mark would repeat that pattern at the end of his second act. Jesus’s confession at his trial and the proclamation of the centurion would be confirmed by an even more remarkable event. Mark would want to make this remarkable event of Jesus’s resurrection more concrete than scared women at an empty tomb. Ending on 16:8 makes all of Mark’s emphasis on Jesus’s predictions of his death and resurrection feel incomplete.
What should the 21st century reader do with the ending of the Gospel of Mark? Stein makes another helpful distinction that provides a stepping stone forward to a solution. Stein’s primary concern is whether Mark intended to end his Gospel on 16:8. This is a historical question. What we do as readers with the ending of Mark is a hermeneutical question. I am inclined to agree with Stein and Wright that Mark did not intend to end his account on 16:8. However, we do not possess Mark’s original ending. Even though I agree with Wright and Stein, that answer to the historical question of Mark’s intentions does not help us greatly as readers now. We are still left with an account that ends at 16:8 followed by material added at a later time and composed by a different author. How do we navigate that hermeneutical maze?
The first option would be to accept the material as canonical. Representative of this approach is F.F. Bruce. Bruce agreed with the majority consensus that Mark 16:9-20 were not original to Mark’s account. However, he further argues that human authorship has little to do with divine inspiration. Regarding Mark 16:9-20, Bruce states, “if we find that the Holy Spirit by His testimonium internum thus authenticates these verses as His, we accept them without further question as part of God’s Word written. But that is quite apart from the question of their human authorship.” Bruce believes that Mark 16:9-20 does have this inner testimony of the Spirit and concludes, “while we cannot regard them as an integral part of the Gospel to which they are now attached, no Christian need have any hesitation in reading them as Holy Scripture.” Bruce compares the situation to John 7:53-8:11 (the account of the woman caught in adultery). This passage is similar in that the vast majority of scholars agree that it is not original to the Gospel, but it is still undeniably ancient. Personally, I have no problems reading John 7:53-8:11 as Christian Scripture. It is a visceral account that reinforces teachings found in the Sermon on the Mount among other places. Compare “Let the sinless ones among you throw the first stone” (John 8:7) with “Judge not, in order that you may not be judged” (Matthew 7:1) and “First take the log out of your own eye…” (Matthew 7:5). To me, these teachings cohere and I have no problem reading and learning from the passage in John 7:53-8:11.
The “inner testimony” of Mark 16:9-20 is not as clear to me. It does not feel right. Any judgment on the testimony of the Spirit regarding possibly spurious verses is necessarily subjective. This post has taken longer for me to write because Bruce’s argument bothered me. It bothered me because I feel that his general point is correct. Human authorship has nothing to do with divine inspiration. Otherwise, we should stop reading Hebrews. However, I had to ask myself why I do not consider Mark 16:9-20 Christian Scripture?
My thought is more clouded than when I started writing this post, but I still take the second option that stops reading Mark at 16:8. In the end, I am still very bothered by the emphasis on signs and miracles in Mark 16:9-20. To be sure, Mark has been a Gospel full of miracles, but I feel there is a key difference. In Mark 1-16:8, the miracles and signs are only corroborating evidence that Jesus is indeed the Messiah. However, Mark 16:20 reads, “And they went out preaching everywhere, and the Lord worked together with them confirming the message with accompanying signs.” In this passage, the further signs by human preachers confirm the message. It is my conviction that the resurrection is the vindication of the Christian message and we need no further signs. In Matthew 28:18-20, we are not encouraged to perform further miracles (the same is true of the other Gospels). Paul facilitated a few miracles in Acts, but he does not emphasize them in his letters. The resurrection is the vindication and foundation of hope in the Christian message (see 1 Corinthians 15, 1 Timothy 3:16, among many others). We do not need nor should we look for anything further. Mark 16:9-20 betrays this very important point with an emphasis on accompanying signs. Therefore, in my judgment, they lack the testimonium internum that Bruce argued for and I will not read them as genuine Scripture.
Literary Value to ending at 16:8
This abrupt ending does not hamper the reader. I believe that it does invite the reader into the story. There are good reasons to speculate that Mark’s original ending also invited readers into the story. Look at Matthew 28:18-20. I believe that this Great Commission is addressed to all Christians everywhere. It is an invitation into the story and a call to continue it. It is not as abrupt as Mark 16:8, but it is still “open.” N.T. Wright argues that Matthew has followed Mark closely and that it is reasonable to assume that Mark’s ending looked similar to what we have in Matthew. This assumes that Matthew had a copy of Mark that included the original ending. If so, it is reasonable to think that Mark’s original ending was “open” in a similar way as Matthew 28:18-20. Inviting the reader to continue the story is not foreign to the Gospel tradition.
Wright also flirts with the idea that Mark left his Gospel unfinished so that an actual eyewitness to the resurrection in the congregation can finish the story — possibly one of the 500 mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15:6. That is pure speculation, but it helps envision how Mark’s ending should be read now. If you have found salvation in Christ, then you are living in a resurrection experience. Your life in Christ provides the needed “ending” to the Gospel with your own resurrection experience. I disagree with Stein when he argues that this betrays the Gospel’s Christological focus. It enhances it because it brings into focus the reader’s life in Christ. I believe this can apply to an individual or a congregation. Were I to preach through Mark, I would stop at 16:8 and invite testimonies from the congregation about their resurrection experience. Read this way, ending Mark on 16:8 has a powerful rhetorical effect for the faithful audience. It may not be the ending that Mark intended, but it is the ending that providence has given us. I like it so much that I am inclined to agree with Wellhausen. It would be a shame if something came after.
 The following is largely a summary of Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary of the Greek New Testament, 2nd ed. (Stuttgart: United Bible Societies, 1994), 102-106.
 Metzger, 104.
 Paul Feine, Johannes Behm, and Werner Georg Kümmel, Introduction to the New Testament, 14th rev. ed. (Nashville: Abigdon Press, 1966), 71-72.
 Mark Allan Powell, Fortress Introduction to the Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998), 39.
 Andreas Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, The Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament (Nashville, B&H Academic, 2009), 239.
 Metzger, 105 n7.
 Robert H. Stein, “The Ending of the Gospel of Mark,” Bulletin of Biblical Research 18.1 (2009), 98.
 Stein, 88.
 Julius Wellhausen, Das Evangelium Marci (Berlin: Reimer, 1903), 137. Cited in Stein, 85. The original German quote is, “Es wäre schade, wenn noch etwas hinterher käme.”
 One might note that Acts 28 has an ending almost as abrupt as Mark 16:8.
 N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, vol 3 of Christian Origins and the Question of God (Minneapolis: Fortress 2003), 620-621.
 Stein, 92.
 F.F. Bruce, “The End of the Second Gospel,” The Evangelical Quarterly 17 (1945): 177-178.
 Bruce, 181.
 Metzger, 187-189.
 There is an important lesson here about possible bias and subjectivity. I am a 5th generation hillbilly from the Southern Appalachian foothills and I love that region like no other. Mark 16:18 has been abused by some in my home region who have taken to “snake-handling.” It has become an object of ridicule from outside observers. Therefore, I am eager to argue that these verses are not genuine.
 After writing this I discovered that Karl Barth argues along similar lines in Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.2 (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2010), 448. This seems appropriate as Barth has shaped my thought more than most.
 Wright, 624.
 Wright, 623.