One for the scholars and scripture explorers!
An Explanation for the Abrupt Ending of Mark’s Gospel
by Peter E. Lewis
(See author bio at the end of this article. Comments are welcome. Click on “Leave a reply” above.)
The gospel attributed to Mark is the shortest of the canonical gospels and there are features which suggest that part of it is missing. Although it is generally considered to be the earliest gospel the date of its writing is disputed by scholars. For the purposes of the argument presented here it will be assumed that it was the first gospel and that it was written at an early date in Rome. Rome is the most likely provenance given the strength of the early tradition and the fact that in the pericope about the widow’s offering (Mark 12.41–44) the author explains to the readers that her two small coins were worth a quadrans, which was a coin that circulated only in Italy. Moreover, the fact that Jewish customs are explained in Mark 7.3 indicates that the author expected that at least some of the readers would be gentiles.
The literature concerning the ending of Mark’s gospel is vast, and to engage in conversation with modern scholars in all aspects of the problem would inordinately expand the scope of this article, the purpose of which is to concisely present a new explanation for the abrupt ending of Mark’s gospel. It will be argued that Mark had written about the parentage and birth of Jesus but this information was on the first page which was removed when someone pulled off the outer leaf of the codex, thus removing the first and last pages of the gospel. Moreover it will be explained how the original ending of the gospel seamlessly followed on from Mark 16.8. The original ending is reconstructed and shown to be an appropriate ending to the gospel.
Mark’s gospel ends at 16.8 in two ancient manuscripts, Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus (both from the 4th century), and Eusebius (4) and Jerome (5) both state that there was nothing more in most of the manuscripts available to them. The 4th-century Sinaitic Syriac version also ends at 16.8 as does the 12th century manuscript 304. In the other extant manuscripts, however, there is either an additional short ending (6) or long ending (7) or both (8). In those manuscripts with both endings the shorter ending always precedes the longer ending.
Some modern scholars believe that the longer ending is what Mark originally wrote (9). They point to the patristic citations of the longer ending as early as the second century (10). Scholars who find an ending at 16.8 incredible have suggested that the last page of the gospel is missing. Bruce Metzger considered it most probable that ‘the Gospel accidentally lost its last leaf before it was multiplied by transcription’ (11). James A Kelhoffer argued that the longer ending was added in the second century (12). Nicholas Lunn points to sectarians who were opposed to physical resurrection and considers that ‘their deliberate removal of the resurrection narratives from copies of Mark circulating in Egypt would seem to be the most probable cause of the textual problem’ (13). N. Clayton Croy considered that the beginning and end of the gospel were lost because of accidental mutilation (14). J. Keith Elliott considered that Mark’s original gospel was accidentally shortened within the first fifty years of its composition and the later additions to the end and the beginning could have been made in the second century. He speculated that Mark’s original composition was ‘a genealogy or a birth narrative of Jesus and even of John’ (15). In a more recent article he is convinced by Kelhoffer’s argument that the longer ending is a second-century apocryphal text, and states, ‘[W]e must make it clear that it was inappropriately cobbled on as a conclusion that can scarcely be said to develop or belong to vv. 1-8’ (16).
Although Mark might have originally written his gospel on a roll or scroll it would soon have been produced as a book (codex). Graham M. Stanton states that ‘use of the codex in the middle of the first century is perfectly possible’ (17). L. D. Reynolds and N. G. Wilson state that parchment notebooks (membranae) were in use in the first century BCE (18), but the notebooks would also have been of papyrus. Although no surviving manuscript of the New Testament is earlier than the second century, they are almost all in codex form (19). According to Harry Y. Gamble, ‘Most early papyrus codices are constructed on the single quire method’ (20). An example he mentions is P75 from the third century which had the gospels of John and Luke in a single quire of 144 pages. As Mark’s gospel is the shortest gospel it could have been written on only one quire. Therefore, if the last page is missing, the first page would be missing too.
The beginning of Mark’s gospel as it is preserved in the most ancient manuscripts has several problems associated with it, which indicates that it might not be the original beginning. These problems include the following:
1. The first sentence is ‘The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God’, and (as Moule explained) if the first page of the gospel was missing then a statement like this would be necessary at the top of the new first page. If the outer leaf of the codex had been deliberately removed for some reason, this sentence would mean ‘This is the beginning of the gospel, and not any other text.’
3. In Mark 1.1 the word ‘Christ’ as part of the name ‘Jesus Christ’ does not occur elsewhere in Mark’s gospel. The word does occur but it is not used in this way. Because the name ‘Jesus Christ’ is common in later writings it suggests a later hand in this instance.
4. The title ‘Son of God’ is absent from Codex Sinaiticus and some other manuscripts (23) but it was probably originally in Mark 1.1, which was written after the removal of the outer leaf of the codex. If the leaf was removed because Mark had described Jesus’ birth as natural, which the gentile Christians in Rome could not accept, ‘Son of God’ in 1.1 indicates the purpose of their action. Unlike the unclean spirits in 1.24 who acknowledged Jesus in a spiritual sense, the gentile Christians in Rome were referring to impregnation by a god, as was the Roman centurion in 15.39, because of the absence of the article.
6. Mark 1.2 is a mistake. The prophet Isaiah did not write the prophecy in this verse. It was written by Malachi, and is Malachi 3.1. It is unlikely that a writer would begin an account with such a blatant error. It can, however, be explained if the first page had been removed by someone and Malachi 3.1 had been at the end of the page and connected grammatically by ‘just as’ to the following quotation from Isaiah. That person then added Malachi 3.1 to the beginning of the new first page. This suggests that the person was not knowledgeable about the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) and was probably a gentile. Copyists of this mutilated and roughly corrected gospel began to realize that this was an unacceptable error and a number of ancient manuscripts such as Codex Alexandrinus, as well as all the Byzantine manuscripts, have ‘in the prophets’ instead of ‘in the prophet Isaiah’. Various other explanations have been proposed by modern scholars for the insertion of Malachi 3.1 at the beginning of Mark’s gospel. For example, William Lane states that ‘it is commonly regarded as a very ancient gloss, interpolated into the text at so early a stage that it has left its mark on the entire manuscript tradition’. (24)
7. Who is this ‘Jesus’ who is suddenly introduced in Mark 1.9? Such an abrupt introduction might have been because Mark assumed that his readers knew who Jesus was, but ‘Jesus’ was a common Jewish name at the time. Although the later gospels of Matthew and Luke, which were largely copied from Mark, have long passages (often conflicting) about the parentage and birth of Jesus, there is nothing of that in Mark. Where someone was born and who his parents were would have been of considerable interest to ancient readers. Mary, the mother of Jesus, is mentioned by name only once in Mark’s gospel (Mark 6.3) and Joseph is not mentioned at all. It is the thesis of this paper that Mark had written about the parentage and birth of Jesus but this information was on the first page of his gospel, and when the outer leaf of the codex was pulled off the first and last pages were removed. It is unlikely that the outer leaf just fell off accidentally or was lost through wear and tear, as some scholars have suggested.