The Three Manuscript Endings
There are three endings of Mark exhibited in the collection of manuscripts which remain. These can be classified as (1) Abrupt ending (ending with Mark 16:8), (2) Short Ending with a single additional verse, and (3) Long Ending with Mark 16:9-20.
(1) Abrupt Ending with Mark 16:8
Mark 16:1-8 ESV
1 When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” 4 And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back—it was very large. 5 And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. 6 And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” 8 And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
The abrupt ending is supported by the earliest Greek manuscripts that remain. Most scholars regard Mark 16:8 as the original ending to Mark. However, the abrupt ending poses several problems, the biggest being that there are no resurrection appearances of Jesus and no account of Peter and the other disciples having seen the risen Lord. Moreover, there are no instructions given by the risen Lord. It is not characteristic of Mark, which tends to embellish accounts in Luke to lack a complete ending detailing the resurrection appearances and communications of Christ with the Disciples.
When looking at the earliest Greek texts, the abrupt truncation is most obvious because the text ends in mid-sentence with the conjunction gar, translated “for.” This is most suspicious, as Bruce Metzger comments:
“From a stylistic point of view, to terminate a Greek sentence with the word gar is most unusually and exceedingly rare—only a relatively few examples have been found through all the vast range of Greek literary works, and no instance has been found where gar stands at the end of a book. (Metzger, Bruce M., The Text of the New Testament, Third Edition, Oxford University Press, 1992, p. 228)
The lack of important details making Mark peculiar compared to the other gospels and the suspicious ending has caused some to speculate that Mark was never finished and that the author was interrupted in the process of composing the Gospel. Others have theorized that the original ending was removed in an effort to eliminate a major contradiction between the original ending of Mark and other Gospels. Many scholars believe the original ending is missing on account of Mark not having been finished, the original ending being lost, or the original ending being deliberately removed to meet Church aims.
(2) Short Ending with a single verse added
Several later transcripts add one additional verse that provides a brief but more conclusive ending to the Gospel. this ending was a concise way of providing a more satisfactory closure to Mark to including the essential note that the women reported to Peter, and that Jesus himself sent them out to preach the gospel.
Mark Short Ending
“But they reported briefly to Peter and those with him all that they had been told. And after this, Jesus himself sent out by means of them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.”
However, since these are not the earliest manuscripts, it can be understood as a temporary placeholder for the more satisfactory long ending that was later developed by another redactor.
(3) Long Ending with Mark 16:9-20 added
Mark 16:9-20 ESV (Long Ending)
9 [[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. 10 She went and told those who had been with him, as they mourned and wept. 11 But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.
12 After these things he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. 13 And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.
14 Afterward he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at table, and he rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. 15 And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. 16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. 17 And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”
19 So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. 20 And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs.]]
Most modern translations, including the ESV, note that some of the earliest manuscripts do not include Mark 16:9-20. They put these verses in double brackets to indicate that the longer ending is not likely original. Indeed, the additional text of Mark 16:9-20, which reports several resurrection appearances, only appears in later manuscripts, and is widely accepted to be an addition by the church to provide a satisfactory closure to the story.
In search for the lost ending of Mark
The abrupt ending is not a satisfactory ending to Mark and the longer endings were clearly not original. Accordingly, Scholars have questioned if the ending to Mark had been lost or deliberately removed.
Evan Powell, in chapters 2-3 of his book The Unfinished Gospel, provides compelling evidence that portions of John chapter 21 are actually adapted from Mark’s original ending. The original ending was most likely removed from Mark in the process of adapting it into John 21, which is widely understood to be an appendix that was added later to John. Analysis of Mark and John 21 suggests that the ideal literary fulfillment of the Gospel of Mark is found in the text of John 21:1-19, without the editorial changes made during the process. The rationale for this position is based on several factors that Powell summarizes as follows:
1. The Gospel of John contains hostile anti-Petrine rhetoric, which is negated by John 21. The appendix appears to have been added by pro-Petrine editors for this purpose.
2. John 21 contains a mix of Johannine and Markan traditions and styles; it appears to have been edited for appending to John.
3. John 21 was originally composed as a first resurrection appearance of Jesus in Galilee. Mark anticipates such an appearance.
4. John 21 show that Peter is forgiven and restored after his denials. Mark anticipates this reconciliation. In particular, John 21:15-17 is a precise literary fulfillment of Mark 14:27-30
5. The premise of the disciples’ return to their fishing boats in John 21 is coherent with the indication in Mark that the women did not tell the disciples about the empty tomb.
6. When the story of John 21:1-19 is appended to Mark 16:8, the Gospel of Mark appears as a complete and unified literary work. The entire ministry of Jesus is framed between the grand theme, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” Such framing is consistent with Mark’s technical use of bracketing for interpretive purposes, and it is in complete harmony with the message of the gospel.
It is extremely remote that so many literary elements between the Gospel of Mark and John 21 could have fallen into place randomly and without any literary design. The cumulative weight of evidence points to the conclusion that John 21:1-19 was originally composed by the author of Mark and that subsequent editions removed it from Mark, added Johannine elements, and appended it to the Gospel of John.
(Evan Powell, The Unfinished Gospel, Symposium Books (1994), pp. 121-122)
The reason for appending John 21 to John
The Gospel of John contains rhetoric hostile to Peter and is clearly anti-Petrine, written with a political motive to discredit Peter as the legitimate leader of the Jesus movement. The author of the Fourth Gospel highlights Peter’s three denials as a major failure, in addition to many other negative inferences, including the conflation of Judas with Peter. Peter is mentioned in just about every context Judas is mentioned, and the author of John repeatedly mentions three times that Judas was the son of Simon Iscariot (John 6:71, John 13:2, John 13:26) who obviously shares Peter’s original name. In Simon Peter’s place, the author of John promotes the “Beloved Disciple” as the rightful leader. John 21, being a later addition (appendix) to John, serves to rehabilitate the image of Peter.
Within the context of the Fourth Gospel is a struggle for leadership between the Beloved Disciple and Peter and appears to be one of the primary reasons for the gospel’s existence. The author of John sensed a competitive threat from Peter and composed the gospel in large part to answer the threat. The evidence within John suggests that the Johannine community was embroiled in confrontation with Peter and the originators of the pro-Petrine Gospels (especially Mark and Matthew). The composition of the Gospel of John was likely motivated by the aim to draw Peter’s followers away from him and to join their community.
The pro-Peter faction was vigilant to defend the integrity of Peter and to discredit the implications of John to discredit them. Pro-Petrine forces eventually gained ascendancy over the Johannine community. Although the traces of conflict remain embedded in the Fourth Gospel, a truce and reconciliation must at some time have been forged between the Johannine and Petrine believers. This ascendancy of pro-Peter factions is substantiated by the existence of John 21 which was later appended to John. John 21 not only legitimizes Peter for the Johannine believers, but legitimizes the Gospel of John for the Petrine believers. The version of John that prevailed is the one modified by pro-Petrine editors.
For a detailed analysis of how the Gospel of John is anti-Petrine and promotes the “Beloved Disciple” over Peter, see chapter 2 of Evan Powell’s The Unfinished Gospel.
The reasons for removing the ending from Mark
The original versions of Mark and John appear to have reported conflicting stories regarding the resurrection.
According to John, Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene at the tomb. Afterward, she quickly brought news to the disciples in Jerusalem. Then, according to the Fourth Gospel, Jesus appeared to the disciples twice in Jerusalem, with John ending with chapter 20.
According to Mark, Jesus did not appear to the women at the tomb, and the women did not announce the resurrection to anyone. It is also the case that Jesus did not appear to the disciples in Jerusalem. If John 21 contains the missing ending of Mark, Jesus instead appears for the first time to the disciples in Galilee.
The historicity of the resurrection, which is central to the Christian faith, may have been perceived as compromised if what remained in circulation were two irreconcilable traditions. The solution was to eliminate the serious conflict by eliminating the original ending of Mark, and grafting it is as a later appearance of Jesus for the purposes of rehabilitating Peter’s image in John. In the place where the ending of Mark is added to John 21, what originally was a first resurrection appearance was edited to be the third appearance of Jesus to the disciples. This, again, resolved the problem of a critical disagreement between the gospels.
The deletion of the end of Mark accomplished two important things. Not only did it remove the historical conflict in the resurrection tradition, but it made Mark and John appear much less like a political rivalry. Much of the long ending of Mark 16:9-16 was likely added to bring Mark into even further harmony with John. Just as John 21 appears to have been added to John to support reconciliation between contending sects, so the deletion and later replacement of the end of Mark likely had a similar motivation.
The reconstruction of the ending of Mark from John 21
John 21, in its present form, has the signs that after the ending was detached from Mark and as it was being integrated with the appendix to John, the editors rewrote the text to include Johannine-specific references. This was to make the appendix appear authentic to John and resulted in the blend of Johannine and Markan style and vocabulary in the same test. However, there are several unusual elements in John 21 that can be explained as the work of editors rewriting an original Markan text.
Some changes that are the apparent result of an editorial rewrite of John 21 are:
- John 21:1-2 is an odd list of names. In Mark, it would have opened with Peter, James, and John fishing by the sea. Editors faced with the problem of adding such an original test to John would have felt it necessary to change the names to erase a clearly Markan formula. These names would be overwritten with uniquely Johannine names to accomplish this. However, only the first three names were changed but the reference to “sons of Zebedee,” is unknown to the Gospel. The sons of Zebedee are along with Peter, the most prominent disciples in Mark. The inclusion in John 21:1 is a clear indication of a Markan origin.
- The original Markan text would have named the place of this event as the Sea of Galilee. References to the sea of Galilee are prolific in Mark, but it is termed Sea of Tiberias in the one earlier reference of John 6:1. To further conceal the ending originating with Mark, the editors change Sea of Galilee to Sea of Tiberias.
- Some Greek words such as those pertaining to fish that were characteristic of Mark ware changed, sometimes in error, to match Johannine terminology of fish.
- John 21:14 was added to characterize the event as the third resurrection appearance of Jesus. There are several clues that indicate the story was written as a first appearance, then edited to represent it as a third appearance. Notable scholars such as Raymond Brown, C.K. Barrett and Rudolf Bultmann concur that the story of John 21:1-19 more properly pertains to a first appearance. Bultman noted “the editorial v. 14 shows that the story was set only subsequently in the place that it now occupies. (Evan Powell, The Unfinished Gospel (1994), pp. 107-110; Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (1971) p. 701)
Accounting for and reversing the likely editorial changes that the editor of the 21 chapter of John made when grafting in the ending from Mark, the original ending of Mark can be reconstructed. Below is the reconstruction with changes to verse 1, 2, 7 and 14 of John 21 as well as Johannine terminology referring to Peter as Simon Peter. The redacted text can be seen as what was used to reframe the story in a new Johannine context when it was adapted to the appendix of John.
John 21:1-19, Redacted as Mark’s ending
1 After this Jesus revealed himself
again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias Galilee, and he revealed himself in this way. 2 Simon Peter, Thomas (called the Twin), Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together. 3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.
4 Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.” 6 He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. 7
That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. 8 The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off.
9 When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11 So
Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and so with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus was revealed to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.
15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to
Simon Peter, “ Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 He said to him a second time, “ Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “ Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” 19 (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”
John 21:1-19 redacted, is an ideal conclusion to Mark
An ideal ending to Mark would embody the symbolism and motifs of the Gospel of Mark. This is facilitated in several ways by the ending reconstructed from John 21:1-19
- The first resurrection appearance would ideally be in Galilee. Mark establishes Galilee as the symbolic alternative to Jerusalem. In Mark, Jesus had established the kingdom of God on the periphery of Jewish society, in the region of Galilee, to overthrow the authority of the temple cult in Jerusalem. (Sean Freyne, Galilee, Jesus, and the Gospels: Literary Approaches and Historical Investigations, Fortress Press, 1998, Evan Powell, The Unfinished Gospel, Symposium Books, 1994, pp. 103-105)
- Peter and Jesus would ideally be reconciled during the first appearance of Jesus. In two places the Gospel of Mark anticipates a post resurrection meeting with Peter (Mark 16:7 and Mark 14:27-30) The prediction of the Galilean appearance and the denial by Peter are placed in the same context in Mark 14:27-30. The tension created by Peter’s denials give a notion or foreshadowing of reconciliation, especially on account of how Peter is portrayed in Mark. (Evan Powell, The Unfinished Gospel, Symposium Books, 1994, pp. 105-106)
- To be consistent with Mark 16:8, the last verse in the surviving text, the ideal ending of Mark would involve the disciples not being aware of the empty tomb when Jesus appears. This is clear because Mark 16:8 says the women fled from the tomb and “said noting to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8) However, this is in conflict with the tradition of the other three gospels in which the women notify Peter.
- The ending of Mark ideally comprises a fishing motif. A fishing metaphor is used as an opening theme in the first chapter of Mark (Mark 1:16-17), where Jesus says, “Follow me and I will make you become fishers of men.” What is interesting is the “fishers of men” theme and the miraculous catch of fish appear together in a singly literary unit in Luke 5:3-10, indicating a correspondence in the most primitive tradition. The fishing theme is even more emphasized in Mark.
- The ideal ending of Mark would end with Jesus saying to Peter, “Follow me.” Jesus First words to Peter in Mark 1:16 are “Follow me.” Thus, starting and ending with Jesus telling Peter “Follow me” would be the most ideal way to bracket the entire ministry of Christ in Mark.
- The ideal ending of Mark would present Peter as the new shepherd. Mark 14:27-30 establishes the Shepherd metaphor, and it does so within the conversation which forecasts Jesus’ first resurrection appearance in Galilee, and also Peter’s denial. The idea that Peter is to be the new shepherd to tend Jesus’ sheep corresponds to Mark’s image of the shepherd struck down, and the sheep scattered.
All these elements occur in the redaction of the mysterious appendix of John 21. Because John 21 bears such an affinity with the ideal literary ending of Mark, it is reasonable to ask if most of the appendix of John 21 could have originally been composed as the final chapter of Mark.