New Testament scholar Donald Juel tells the story of a young seminary student who developed such a deep passion for Mark’s gospel that the student decided to develop a dramatic monologue where he would recite the entire narrative account. The young man labored to develop a captivating performance that would immerse an audience into the world of Mark and his faith community. The problem came, however, when he reached the ending. Deciding to take the traditional ending of 16:8, the young man found it awkward to conclude with the women cowering in fear. However, he pressed on and recited the final words with great intensity. Then the moment came. What to say next? Juel records that the student shuffled his feet for a moment, finally announcing, “Amen!” The audience paused for a moment and offered a thunderous applause. Yet, when the young man critiqued his performance, he thought that he had cheated the ending. When he was asked to perform the monologue again, the young man delivered it with the same pristine ability as before. However, when he came to the ending, he simply recited the text of 16:1-8, and walked off the stage. There was little applause following this performance. Yet, as the audience left the sanctuary, a conversation regarding the meaning of this awkward ending buzzed among those who were present.
To be honest, the ending of Mark is nothing short of a head-scratcher. I have been studying Mark’s gospel for a number of years, preaching and writing on it whenever I can. However there is something about this ending that always leaves me incomplete. If we accept the long-standing tradition that the gospel ends at v. 8 (and I think that we should), we find a group of women hiding in an undisclosed room somewhere terrified about what they have seen and heard, unsure of what to do next. They have been to the tomb. They have heard the proclamation that Jesus is not there. They have been given a message. And. . .they huddle together in fear. Wait. . .that’s the ending?
Some have offered some alternatives. Some have suggested that the original ending has been lost to us, arguing that v. 9-20 was added on to make up for the awkwardness of v. 8. Some have suggested that Mark was unable to finish his gospel account. Perhaps he had been called away on a pastoral visit and the letter was mailed off by his secretary without his approval. Perhaps he had been arrested and executed by the Romans. The reason for these explanations is because the literal reading of v. 8 goes something like this: “They went out and fled from the tomb; terror and amazement had overtaken them; they said nothing to anyone for. . .” Now there are some grammatical differences between Greek and English, however it still sounds like a poor way to end a sentence. Isn’t there more? What is missing?
Well, perhaps nothing is missing. Perhaps Mark has left us the message that he purposefully intended to give us. Notice the scene with the young man. Here is a young man, dressed in white sitting at the right hand of Jesus’ tomb, who proclaims that Jesus has risen from the dead. In essence, he becomes the first true Christian missionary! “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you” (Mark 16:6-7). Yet the women do not go. They do not share the message. They hide in fear of what might happen. However, what if Mark is speaking more to his audience than simply telling a story? After all, where just the gospel narrative begin? It begins in Galilee (Mark 1:14-15)! Mark encourages us to not simply dismiss this as a poor ending but to go back to the beginning and re-read the story. We now know the ending of the story; therefore we will be more alert for Jesus’ signals of his identity. And we will be ready to proclaim with the Roman soldier, “Truly this man was God’s Son” (Mark 15:39)! “That’s the Son of God, hanging there on the cross. I know the end of the story. Death will not contain him. And I choose to follow him!” You know what, I think I like this ending after all.
Donald H. Juel, The Gospel of Mark, Interpreting Biblical Texts (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), 172.
John R. Donahue and Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Mark, Sacra Pagina 2 (Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazer Books/Liturgical Press, 2002), 460.
Thomas G. Long, “The Word: Dangling Gospel,” Christian Century 123 (4 April 2006): 19.