There’s a fascinating conundrum at the end of Mark’s Gospel. It is that there are at least three alternatives on offer. Most Bibles carry notice of these three, and some scholars suggest even more possibilities. But why is that? The reason that I’d like to highlight -and the reason that I used the word “fascinating”- is that the oldest ending is undoubtedly v8: “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.” Now it is easy to see, with a little study, that this is a satisfying and a rewarding ending, but it is as difficult and as challenging (and as messy) as life itself.
We see something of the same ambiguity in Matthew’s resurrection narrative in Mtt 28:17: “When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted.”If Mark offers a choice between fear and service (with the ending at v8), Matthew sees a choice between worship and doubt.
So, avoiding this conundrum, with the challenge of its existential realism, my Bible has this footnote: “Some manuscripts have the following ending between verses 8 and 9, and one manuscript has it after verse 8 (omitting verses 9-20): ‘Then they quickly reported all these instructions to those around Peter. After this, Jesus himself also sent out through them from east to west the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation. Amen.'”
This certainly softens the impact of the idea of saying nothing because you were afraid! As does the third, longer ending, to an extent. Here it is:
“When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons. 10 She went and told those who had been with him and who were mourning and weeping. 11 When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it.
12 Afterwards, Jesus appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking in the country. 13 These returned and reported it to the rest; but they did not believe them either.
14 Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen.”
15 He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all 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 drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18 they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”
19 After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God. 20 Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.”
The longer ending contains a realistic account of the totally believable struggle to believe. Mary Magdalene reports the resurrection, but they the disciples dismiss it. The Emmaus pair return and are cold-shouldered. Jesus appears and chides them for their “stubborn refusal to believe.” The last few verses collate accounts that are familiar to us from the other Gospels and from Acts. They tidy up loose ends, incorporate features of early church life, and provide the rationale for evangelism and mission.
But for Mark, I believe, it’s important to consider that “the ending is pending.” Mark leaves an ending that forces a choice that the reader (and the would-be disciple) must make: “Having heard the account, how do you choose? How do you vote? Here is my testimony of Jesus – what do you make of it?” That’s the real ending.
It is not a matter of intellectual curiosity that must be satisfied, but of existential choice that must be made.
It recalls to me the powerful words of John 7:17: “Anyone who chooses to do the will of God will find out whether my teaching comes from God or whether I speak on my own.”