The Ending of Mark’s Gospel

By Julie M. Smith 

Virtually all scholars believe that Mark 16:9–20[1] was not originally part of the Gospel for the following reasons:

  1. Some ancient manuscripts lack it and some of those that include it have a note that the text is disputed.[2]
  2. It is difficult to imagine why a copyist would omit it; it is much easier to imagine a copyist adding it.
  3. Several early Christian writers appear to know copies of the Gospel of Mark that do not include Mark 16:9-20.[3]
  4. Most scholars find the style and theology of Mark 16:9–20 to differ substantially from the rest of the Gospel.
  5. Matthew and Luke follow Mark pretty closely until they get to Mark 16:8, and then they go in very different directions, which suggests that they had copies of Mark that ended at Mark 16:8.
  6. The transition between 16:8 and 16:9 is awkward: the subject shifts and the women in 16:1–8 are forgotten. Mary Magdalene is introduced to the audience as if they were unfamiliar with her despite the fact that she was mentioned just a few verses ago. (These problems not only suggest that Mark 16:9–20 was not original to Mark, but also that it wasn’t written afresh to end the text but rather was an already-extant writing added to fill a gap.[4])
  7. There are over a dozen words included in Mark 16:9–20 that are not found elsewhere in Mark.
  8. The presence of multiple different endings strongly suggests that Mark 16:9–20 was not present originally. It implies that more than one person (or group) found Mark 16:8 to be inadequate and decided to add to the ending. 

The ancient manuscripts preserve several other endings (and combinations of endings) for the Gospel of Mark, but none of these are thought to be original. The Shorter Ending of Mark uses many words that Mark normally does not: it is only 34 words long, but uses 9 words not used elsewhere in Mark.[5] It has a much different “rhetorical tone,”[6] as the phrase “the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation” should indicate. Also, it is found alone in only one manuscript (although there are some other manuscripts that have this ending plus Mark 16:9-20 and another manuscript, now defective, may have contained it).[7] The manuscripts including it date from the seventh century or later.[8] Similarly, the evidence for the Freer Logion is very poor;[9] it is mentioned here only because the abundance of different endings for the Gospel speak to a perceived problem that multiple scribes felt compelled to solve.

Despite the high degree of consensus that neither Mark 16:9–20, the Shorter Ending, or the Freer Logion (or any combination thereof) were original, there is a deep divide over what the original ending was, with scholars splitting into two main camps: those who think the Gospel ended with Mark 16:8 and those who think that there was another ending which is now lost. The following arguments are offered as evidence for Mark 16:8 being the original ending:[10]

  1. Mark’s Gospel is a polemic against the disciples, so showcasing the failure of some disciples in Mark 16:8 is appropriate. (This reading would not be viewed sympathetically by most LDS.)
  2. Mark is modeled after a Greek tragedy, making the ending in Mark 16:8 appropriate.
  3. The ending is deliberately unfinished in the text, with the idea that the reader will finish it in her life. This is a reader-response approach that sees the text as inadequate in itself, but creatively calling on the reader to be the disciples who will go forth and tell people about Jesus’ Resurrection.
  4. Since word of Jesus’ Resurrection did in fact spread beyond the women at the tomb, we are to assume that they were successful. The failure of the disciples in the narrative—despite the success of the disciples in real life—is a commentary on the ability of fallible disciples to spread the Gospel.
  5. The ending is left open; the success of the disciples is left unresolved. There are various reasons why this might have been so.
  6. Mark wanted to create a sense of yearning in the audience[11]—a yearning to know more about Jesus, a yearning to complete what the disciples have failed to do and proclaim the “good news” themselves. (And it would have been precisely that yearning that led people to write additional material with which to end the Gospel, meaning that every ending—Mark 16:9–20, Matthew’s, Luke’s, the Shorter Ending, and the Freer Logion—functions precisely as Mark intended.)
  7. Given that the title is “the beginning of the gospel” (Mark 1:1), perhaps Mark did not intend to put the Resurrection appearances in this book; perhaps he only intended to write about “the beginning” of the gospel and considered the Resurrection not to be a part of the beginning; perhaps he intended to write a second volume that, for whatever reason (his death?), was never written.[12]
  8. The story assumes an ending without narrating one. The women said nothing to anyone (that is, to random people they might have encountered) because they were tasked with telling a specific group of people, the disciples. (Compare Mark 1:44, where the leper is to say nothing to anyone but is expected to tell the priest).
  9. While it may seem that the women’s response is negative, it isn’t; it is typical of the responses that people have to miracles in Mark’s Gospel (compare Mark 9:6) and it is presumed that the women will say something to someone once they have gotten over their shock. 

The idea that Mark 16:8 was the original ending has gained in popularity over the last half-century, yet some scholars still regard it as unlikely. They think the original ending to Mark’s Gospel is now lost, removed either accidentally (because a scroll’s end was damaged or a codex’s final page lost) or deliberately. Evidence that the original ending of Mark was lost includes the following:[13]

  1. One of Mark’s themes is the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecies, so to leave the two about a meeting with the disciples (see Mark 14:28 and Mark 16:7) unfulfilled would have been odd.
  2. From the other three Gospels, as well as many epistles, we know that the Resurrection was, obviously, supremely important to early Christians. For Mark not to have included this story (especially when his audience presumably already knew something about it) would have been odd.
  3. The first line of the Ggospel tells us that it will be “the good news” (KJV: gospel) of Jesus Christ. 16:8 does not sound like good news!
  4. Some scholars maintain that books in Greek would not end with the word “for” (Greek: gar, which is the final word if the text ends at Mark 16:8), but this is sometimes disputed.[14]
  5. Obviously, the news about the Resurrection got out, so it isn’t credible to think that the women said nothing to anyone. There must have been more to the story! Note that, on multiple occasions, Jesus tells people not to say anything, but they do anyway (see Mark 1:43-45, 7:36-37, and 10:48). These data points imply that the women did say something, and we expect that Mark would have included that story.
  6. The existence of not only one but several variant endings for the Gospel implies that early readers of Mark—including Matthew and Luke—did not consider Mark 16:8 to be a satisfactory ending. It is therefore unlikely that Mark considered 16:8 to be an appropriate ending, either. 

If there was an ending and it was present in Matthew’s and/or Luke’s copies of Mark, then the Resurrection accounts in Matthew and/or Luke may contain material from Mark’s original ending. It has also been suggested that Mark 16:8 was Mark’s original ending not because it served his rhetorical purposes but because something (persecution? death?) interrupted the writing of the Gospel.

There is no way to definitely determine what the original ending was, but there is an interesting silver lining to the cloud over Mark’s Gospel: “Since Mark was not responsible for the composition of the last 12 verses of the generally current form of his Gospel and since they undoubtedly were attached to the Gospel before the [Christian] Church recognized the fourfold Gospels as canonical, it follows that the New Testament contains not four but five canonized witnesses to the Resurrection of Christ.”[15]

[1]. Within verses 9–20, there are a few textual variants. In 16:18, some manuscripts add “with their hands” to the beginning of the verse. In verse 19, some manuscripts add “Jesus” before “Lord;” this is perhaps more likely to have been original. In verse 20, the word “amen” is not in the earlier texts, but was probably added later to reflect how the Gospel was used in the church. See Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (Stuttgart: United Bible Societies, 2001), 107.

[2]. See Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 2007), 804.

[3]. See Robert H. Stein, “The Ending of Mark,” Bulletin for Biblical Research 18, no. 1 (2008): 79–98.

[4]. See Metzger, Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 105.

[5] See Stein, “Ending of Mark,” 79–98.

[6]. See Metzger, Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 105.

[7]. See Yarbro Collins, Mark, 802.

[8]. See Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 323.

[9]. See Metzger, Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 104.

[10]. See Stein, “Ending of Mark,” 79–98.

[11]. See Nicholas Denyer, “Mark 16:8 and Plato, Protagoras 328D,” Tyndale Bulletin 57 (January 1, 2006): 149–150.

[12]. See Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2001), 48.

[13]. See Stein, “Ending of Mark,” 79–98.

[14]. See Kelly R. Iverson, “A Further Word on Final Gar (Mark 16:8).” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 68, no. 1 (2006): 79–94. See also Metzger and Ehrman, Text of the New Testament, 326; see also Denyer, “Mark 16:8 and Plato, Protagoras 328D,” 149–50.

[15]. See Metzger and Ehrman, Text of the New Testament, 327.