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.
The first and last pages of Mark’s gospel could well have been deliberately removed, but how could this have been done when the last page was about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which is vital to the Christian proclamation?
Whatever was on the last page of Mark’s gospel, and it could well have been much like the longer ending as found in most ancient manuscripts, the person who removed the whole outer leaf might not have considered it as significant as what was on the first page. His real purpose might have been to remove the first page, but why would he want to do this?
As previously suggested, he was probably a Roman gentile, someone who was a fervent new Christian but who was imbued with Greco-Roman culture and religion. He could not accept what Mark wrote on the first page of his gospel. We do not, of course, know what was written there, but the likelihood is that it described Jesus’ birth as natural. For Mark Jesus is declared to be the Son of God at his baptism (Mark 1.11). For Luke this occurs at his conception (Luke 1.35) and for John he is with God in the beginning. This chronology requires Jesus’ birth to be natural for Mark.
In the original beginning there might even have been some additional information, stated or implied, indicating that Jesus was illegitimate. In what remains of Mark’s gospel there are clues that this might have been the case. For example, in Mark 6.3 the people of Nazareth refer to Jesus as ‘the son of Mary’. According to John Shelby Spong, ‘to designate Jesus “son of Mary”, as this Markan text did, was quite unusual. Mark never mentioned Joseph. This could be an allusion to the possibility, or even the probability, that Jesus was known in Nazareth to be an illegitimate child’. (30) Although Mark never mentioned Joseph he is mentioned fifteen times in the other gospels. In John’s gospel (John 8.41b) and the Gospel of Thomas (Saying 105) there are more clues that Jesus might have been illegitimate. According to Jane Schaberg who was Professor of Religious Studies at Detroit University, ‘The Jewish tradition of Jesus’ illegitimacy is a strong on’ (31).
In the understanding of the person who removed the outer leaf of Mark’s gospel, anybody of such significance as Jesus of Nazareth would have had a divine parent. Examples abounded in Greco-Roman religion where a god conceived a child with a mortal woman. The heroes conceived in this way were very popular. Heracles, the son of Zeus and a mortal woman, was particularly popular and his image appears on many ancient coins. Heracles (Hercules to the Romans) appears on all the silver coins issued in the name of Alexander the Great during his lifetime and for many years afterwards, and he appears on all the silver coins of Tyre from 126 BCE to 66 CE. Even the Roman emperors claimed to be the sons of divine fathers, and these claims appeared on their coins. The Jews had been expelled from Rome probably in 49 CE (32), and for the gentile Christians there Jesus could not be relegated to a lesser status. In later accounts of Jesus’ birth, this ‘defect’ was corrected and Mary is impregnated by the Holy Spirit, not by a mortal man. It made Jesus literally and biologically the Son of God.
If the outer leaf of Mark’s gospel was lost because of repeated use a lot of copies would have been made, but it seems that relatively few copies of Mark’s gospel circulated in the first few centuries. Of all the papyrus fragments dated to before the fifth century there is only one of Mark. If the outer leaf was deliberately removed it must have been done at an early stage before many copies could be made. The person responsible probably did not act alone but belonged to a group of like-minded gentile Christians. The matter must have been so important to them that any codices of Mark’s gospel that they had access to were similarly dealt with. This group were so thorough in their work that no manuscript with Mark’s original beginning exists.
If the last page was lost through wear and tear one would expect the copies to have various endings, and these variant readings to be reflected in the most ancient extant manuscripts, but they all have an ending precisely at ‘for’. Where there is additional text it is often indicated by asterisks or other symbols. The autograph might well have disintegrated from overuse but that is irrelevant. Many documents from antiquity are damaged in some way, but Mark’s autograph and the earliest copies did not survive and hence did not have to struggle against the ravages of time in order to exist for almost two thousand years. The argument for wear and tear is weakened by the fact that there are no textual problems with the beginnings and endings of the other gospels.
Peter’s followers might have inserted verse 34 into the last chapter of Luke’s gospel so that the first appearance is to Peter, and the disciples’ response to the report of the two men is the opposite of that in Mark 16.13b. In the last chapters of the gospels of Matthew and John the work of the pro-Peter group is also evident. They probably wrote the second sentence in the shorter ending of Mark’s gospel because it gives the credit to ‘those around Peter’ in the first sentence and an ending at 16.8 reflects badly on Mary Magdalene. Members of Peter’s faction in Rome would have been happy to remove the whole outer leaf of the codex. Moreover this group would not have recommended that people read Mark’s gospel because of its anti-Peter bias, and this might account for it being ‘neglected’ by the early church.
Instead of someone actually re-inserting a loose page into a mutilated codex, another explanation might be that at least one copy of the original manuscript escaped mutilation and this was the source of the ending that scribes later added to the ‘received’ texts that ended with ‘for’ and ‘eternal salvation’. The copy of the original manuscript might have been a scroll with only the beginning missing, but this scenario is unlikely because one would expect the scribes to just copy the original ending, which did not contain the second part of the shorter ending and did contain the reconstructed sentence, ‘but they did not believe that Jesus had risen’, but there is no evidence that such a copy was ever made. It is more likely that instead of someone physically re-inserting a loose page into a codex, the scribes wrote at the end of the codices that they were producing, what was on the separate page. This separate page began with ‘having risen’ because the other pages beginning with ‘but to those around Peter’ and ‘but they did not believe’ had been destroyed by the pro-Peter group.
Another problem is the phrase, ‘out of whom he had driven seven demons’, in verse 9. Mary Magdalene had been named in verse 1 but it seems that she is being introduced in verse 9. It might simply mean that although she was a woman her testimony should have been accepted because she had been ‘cleansed’ by Jesus. In the Gospel of Mary (10.9) Levi rebukes Peter, saying, ‘For if the Savior made her worthy, who are you then for your part to reject her?’ (37) It is unlikely that the phrase was a gloss from Luke 8.2 in view of Luke’s general dependence on Mark. Although the phrase seems awkward at this point in Mark’s account, if it was not in the original ending why would it have been inserted here? Luke probably copied the phrase from Mark and derived the gist of his Emmaus story (Luke 24.13–35) from verse 12. In verse 15 Jesus tells the disciples to preach the good news, which is what he proclaimed at the beginning in Mark 1.14, and in Mark 16.20 the disciples do go out and preach. Thus verse 20 provides a fitting conclusion to Mark’s account of Jesus’s mission, a more appropriate ending than ‘they were afraid’. Just as Jesus’ initial statement (Mark 1.15) is brief, so is his final statement (Mark 16.15).
A persisting problem is that the young man’s advice for the disciples to go into Galilee in 16.7 is not followed. But, as the missing sentence makes clear, the disciples did not believe what the women told them even though they concisely reported everything that the young man said. So, obviously, they did not go to Galilee. They stayed in Jerusalem and the conclusion of Mark’s gospel takes place there. At the end of Luke’s gospel (Luke 24.49) Jesus tells the disciples to stay in the city. If going to Galilee (Mark 16.7) was a metaphor for going into all the world (Mark 16.15) then the disciples do eventually follow the young man’s advice. According to Norman Perrin and Dennis C. Duling, ‘[T]here is evidence that in Jewish thinking “Galilee”, itself a district of marked ethnic mixing, could be and was a symbol for the work of God in the whole world’. 
In the longer ending of Mark’s gospel verses 16, 17 and 18 are probably a later insertion because the requirement of baptism would have come from the later Church, and deliberately handling snakes and drinking poison are mentioned nowhere else in the Bible. In any case they are not signs but examples of testing the Lord, which was forbidden (Deut 6.16). In commenting on Mark 16.17,18 Ched Myers wrote, ‘Such “theological proof” is of course exactly what Mark’s Jesus repudiates in his debate with the Pharisees in 8:11f.’ (39) Moreover in Mark 6.13 the disciples healed the sick by anointing them with oil, not by placing their hands on them. Perhaps it was when the scribes were copying verses 9 to 20 back into Mark’s gospel that the list of signs was inserted because at that time the Church was consolidating and Christians were exorcizing demons, speaking in tongues and healing the sick. In the excitement some might have expected to have other miraculous powers like those of the devotees of pagan healing cults that involved snakes. Verse 19 is authentic because Jesus sitting ‘at the right hand of God’ is the fulfilment of Psalm 110.1, which Jesus quotes in Mark 12.36. Also the phrase ‘confirming the word’ in 16.20 refers back to ‘spoke the word’ in 2.2. The mention of signs in verse 20 might have prompted the insertion of the list of signs in verse 17 and 18.
If one removes the second sentence from the shorter ending, adds the missing verse that naturally follows, and deletes verses 16, 17 and 18, it becomes apparent that the original ending is a brief but carefully crafted conclusion to the gospel. The final two verses contain the Ascension (‘he was taken up into heaven’) and the Coming of the Holy Spirit (‘the Lord worked with them’) in a compact form, which was later separated and expanded by Luke. The original ending, however, was consistent with the unflattering portrait of Peter and the disciples that is evident in the rest of his gospel, for example in Mark 8.33; 14.37; 14.66–72, and removing the last page would not have made much difference in that regard. The author of John 21 does make a significant difference by reinstating Peter three times. Moreover, he solves the problem of Galilee by having Jesus appear to the disciples ‘by the Sea of Tiberias’. John 21 was obviously added to the end of John’s gospel by a pro-Peter group (the ‘we’ in 21.24 who certified the gospel).
Probably the main reason for removing the outer leaf of Mark’s codex was what was written in the beginning about Jesus’ origins, that his birth was natural or that he was illegitimate. In any case the explanation for the abrupt ending of Mark’s gospel presented in this article should give scholars reason for thinking that the beginning and ending were deliberately removed and that the gospel did not end with they were afraid, but continued with but to those around Peter they reported concisely all that they had been commanded. But they did not believe that Jesus had risen. Having risen then early on the first day of the week he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had cast seven demons. She went and told those who had been with him and who were mourning and weeping. When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it. Afterwards he appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking in the country, and they went back and reported it to the rest, but they did not believe them. Later he appeared to the eleven as they were eating and he rebuked them for their lack of faith and hardness of heart because they did not believe those who had seen him after he had risen. He said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to all creation”. So then after the Lord Jesus had spoken to them he was taken up into heaven and sat at the right hand of God, but they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.
1. For example, Daniel B. Wallace, ‘Mark 16:8 as the Conclusion to the Second Gospel’, Perspectives on the Ending of Mark (ed. D. A. Black; Nashville: Broadman &
Holman, 2008), 1–39.
2. N.T. Wright considers that the opening and closing of the original are lost. He wrote. ‘I
tried for some years to believe that Mark was really a postmodernist who would deliberately
leave his gospel with a dark and puzzling ending, but I have for some time now given up the attempt. . . it could not have ended without the story of the risen, vindicated Jesus.’ (‘The
Resurrection of the Messiah’, STRev 41.2 (1998) 107–56, at 136).
3. M. J. Kok, The Gospel on the Margins: The Reception of Mark in the Second Century
(Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015) 42.
4. Eusebius, Ad Marinus, in Nova Patrum Bibliotheca 4, 255.
5. Jerome, Letter to Hedibria, in Epistola 120, Patrilogia Latina, 22.986–87.
6. Only the Old Latin MS, Codex Bobbiensis (k), has just the short ending. It has been dated to
c. 400 but according to Kurt and Barbara Aland the Greek base of its text is thought by some
to be traceable to the 2nd century (The Text of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,
1989) 187). In Codex Bobbiensis the words in Mark 16.8, ‘and they said nothing to anyone’,
are absent. J. Keith Elliot suggested that another Old Latin MS, Codex Vercellensis (a), from
the 4th century might also have originally contained only the short ending (‘The Text and
Language of the Endings to Mark’s Gospel’, TS 27 (1971) 256).
7. The long ending appears in modern English versions as Mark 16.9–20. The great majority
of MSS are in this group, which includes all the Byzantine MSS.
8. In this group are two 8th century MSS (L and ?), two 7th century MSS (099 and 0112), a
few Coptic and Ethiopic MSS, and l1602, which is a Coptic-Greek bilingual lectionary of the
8th century. Also the miniscule 579 (13th century) has both endings.
9. For example, Maurice A. Robinson, ‘The Long Ending of Mark as Canonical Verity’,
Perspectives, 40–79 ; Nicholas P. Lunn, The Original Ending of Mark: A New Case for
the Authenticity of Mark 16:9-20 (Eugene: Pickwick, 2014).
10. Irenaeus, c. 180, cites Mark 16.19 (Adv. Haer. 3.10.6). Justin Martyr, c. 160, probably cites
Mark 16.20 (Apol. 1.45). Also Tatian, c. 170, probably knew the long ending.
11. B. M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (London: United
Bible Societies, 1975) 126.
12. J. A. Kelhoffer, Miracle and Mission (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000).
13. Lunn, Original Ending, 360.
14. N. C. Croy, The Mutilation of Mark’s Gospel (Nashville: Abington, 2003).
15. J. K. Elliott, ‘Mark 1.1-3 – A Later Addition to the Gospel?’ NTS 46 (2000) 584 – 88.
16. Elliott, ‘The Last Twelve Verses of Mark: Original or Not?’ Perspectives, 98.
17. G. M. Stanton, Jesus and Gospel (Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 2004) 190.
18. L. D. Reynolds and N. G. Wilson, Scribes and Scholars; A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991) 34.
19. According to Larry W. Hurtado a few are in the form of an episthograph, i.e. written on the back of a role to re-use writing material (The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006) 57).
20. H. Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church (New Haven: Yale UP, 1995)
21. C.F.D. Moule, The Birth of the New Testament (London: Continuum, 1981) 131 n.1.
22. R. P. Martin, ‘Gospel’, The New International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ed. G.W. Bromley; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), vol. 2, 529.
23. ?, 28 (corrected), some early versions and Church Fathers including Origen.
24. W. L. Lane, The Gospel of Mark (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974) 46.
25. Eight words do not occur elsewhere in Mark’s gospel. The word ‘west’ occurs nowhere
else in the NT, and Henry Barclay Swete suggested that it pointed to Roman origin (The
Gospel according to St Mark (London: Macmillan, 1913) cviii).
26. Hurtado, Artifacts, 169.
27. J.D.G. Dunn, Baptism in the Holy Spirit (London: SCM, 1970) 29, n. 22.
28. R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 2002) 78.
29. R. H. Gundry, Mark: A Commentary on his Apology for the Cross (Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 1993) 49.
30. J. S. Spong, Born of a Woman: A Bishop Rethinks the Birth of Jesus (New York:
HarperCollins, 1992) 164.
31. J. Schaberg, The Illegitimacy of Jesus: A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the
Infancy Narratives (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1995) 77.
32. According to Acts 18.2 Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome. See also Suetonius, Life of
Claudius 25.4. According to Orosius this occurred in 49 CE (History 7.6.15–16).
33. Swete, Gospel, 399.
34. H. Hendrickx. The Resurrection Narratives of the Synoptic Gospels (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1984) 105.
35. Hurtado, Artifacts, 171.
36. K. L. King, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle (Santa
Rosa: Polebridge Press, 2003) 184.
37. Translation of Papyrus Berolinensis 8502 in King, Gospel of Mary, 17.
38. N. Perrin and D. C. Duling, The New Testament: An Introduction (New York:
Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1982) 243.
39. C. Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1988) 403.
Dr Peter E. Lewis, BD FRCS FRACS, is a retired surgeon. Having a strong Christian faith he volunteered to work in Bangladesh in the 70s. He was the supervisor of the A & E Centre in a large Sydney hospital and then the surgeon for the Solomon Islands. On returning to Australia he took an interest in palliative care and for 20 years was the Vice-President of Hopewell Hospice on the Gold Coast where he was a lay director in the Anglican Cursillo Movement. Always interested in the academic side of religion, he obtained a divinity degree from London University by correspondence and a postgraduate diploma in theology by part-time studies at the Brisbane College of Theology. Peter was for some years a tutor at Trinity College assisting Prof James Haire in his NT course and lecturing in Textual Criticism. He has been fascinated by the problem of the ending of Mark’s gospel and is convinced that he has solved it.