The Easter lectionary in Year B offers two choices for the Easter Sunday Gospel reading – Mark 16:1-8, and John 20:1-18. I will focus most of my attention on the selection from John this week. However, let’s spend some time on Mark and the “odd” ending we find to that gospel.
The women who had gathered at the foot of the cross on Good Friday return to the tomb when the Sabbath had passed. Unlike in John, where Mary goes while it is still dark, the women went to the tomb early on the first day of the week, when the sun had dawned. John moves us from darkness to light in his narrative, and we should not be surprised by that use of symbolism. Mark wants us to meet a new week and a new world fully dawned. Keep that in mind as we go along.
The women have the discussion about who is going to move that big rock and discover that the work has already been done. They meet a young man dressed in bright raiment (preferable, I think, to “white robe”), and they are shocked and surprised (both emotions contained in one word). The young man says to them, “Don’t be shocked and surprised.” He explains what has happened and gives the women their call to report their experience to Jesus’ disciples and to Peter. When they return to Galilee, they can expect Jesus to be there, waiting to meet them.
So far so good. The trouble is in verse 8. “And exiting, they fled from the tomb, for they themselves were having trembling and amazement; and they said nothing to anyone, being afraid for…” (my pretty literal translation). As most of us may know, the verse appears to end mid-sentence with the Greek word “gar” which means “for,” or “because.” It is a post-positive inferential particle. It should not begin or end a sentence. And it should lead to some language that concludes a preceding thought.
But there it is, hanging out in the middle of grammatical nowhere — despite the fact that most translations turn the fragment into a finished sentence. What’s the deal?
It’s clear that this odd ending created problems early in the Christian tradition. In many English translations, such as the NRSV, you will find a “shorter ending of Mark” that gives the quick version of some Resurrection sightings and a sort of “Great Commission.” You will also find a “longer ending of Mark” that includes notes from all three of the other gospels. We have a tearful meeting with Mary Magdalene (John). We have an appearance to a pair on the road (Luke). We have a Great Commission (Matthew). And we have an Ascension as well (Luke and Acts).
The manuscript evidence is fairly conclusive that neither the shorter nor the longer endings is original to Mark’s account. Even Daniel Wallace, a cautious and conservative scholar, notes that the general scholarly consensus is against the alternate endings and that Wallace agrees with the verdict that the original text “was intentionally concluded at verse 8” (page 405, note 25). The alternate endings also demonstrate that early on the Christian tradition was uncomfortable with the “unfinished” nature of Mark’s story and sought to bring the account to a more settled conclusion.
So, the preacher can embrace a later ending to the gospel as preachers have done for centuries. The preacher can read the text quickly and focus on the Resurrection report to the exclusion of the witness reactions — happy that the NRSV at least makes it a sentence. Or the preacher can go to John’s account.
And yet, that odd ending is still there. What can it mean? Some scholars think that we see the results of damage to an early copy of Mark’s gospel. There was more, but it was lost to the ravages of time. N. T. Wright is firmly in this camp. He asserts,
“there are many who think that Mark did after all intend to close the book with the women in fear and silence, but I disagree. I have become quite sure that there was more. I think a very, very early copy of Mark was mutilated. As with many other scrolls and books in the ancient world (and sometimes even in the modern), the last page, or the last column of the scroll, was torn off, presumably by accident.” (Location 3880)
That being said, we don’t have whatever the actual ending was. Therefore, Wright chooses to deal with what we have. “There is a blank at the end of the story, and we are invited to fill it ourselves,” Wright suggests. “Do we take Easter for granted, or have we found ourselves awestruck at the strange new work of God? What do we know of the risen Lord? Where is he now going ahead of us? What tasks has he for us to undertake today, to take ‘the gospel of the kingdom’ to the ends of the earth?” (Location 3915). Bishop Wright ends up with much the same conclusion in practical terms as those who argue that this is what Mark intended all along.
The question remains. If Mark intended to leave his account with this odd ending, what do we do with it?
Hurtado suggests the “preacher punt” as the path out of this fine mess. “Whatever Mark may have intended with reference to the women who, at least initially, flee from the tomb too frightened to comply with the command,” he writes, “the reader certainly has been given the news of Jesus’ resurrection and is called to follow the risen Jesus, proclaiming the victory and forgiveness of the gospel” (page 285). Obviously, somebody talked to someone. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be having this little conversation, Hurtado reminds us.
It is not the case, Hurtado notes, that we can glean nothing from Mark’s account of the Resurrection. Jesus is proclaimed as risen from the dead. “The risen Jesus summons the same disciples who abandoned and denied him,” Hurtado notes, “to renew their discipleship and become again his followers” (pages 284-285). Mark declares that forgiveness, new life, and renewed vocation are part of this good news, for the first disciples and for all subsequent Jesus followers.
Richard Swanson urges us to stay with the tension of the “incomplete ending.” He asks, “what if Mark’s ritualizing of the incompleteness is wiser than the church’s institutionalizing smoothness? The task on Easter,” he continues, “is to tell stories about the resurrection in a world where everyone dies” (page 159). He cautions us against making Easter into some sort of happy ending which minimizes the suffering and death we have all experienced since last Easter. He suggests that such bad faith happy talk “will fail the test of truth that will be applied by the people who have found good reasons to avoid worship since last Easter” (page 159).
Swanson names the distress every pastor feels in applying Resurrection good news to the losses and tragedies still present in this life. “Any ritual enactment that does not treat resurrection as a problem,” he notes, “will offend everyone who has learned that death is an inexorable reality” (page 159). Swanson is convinced that the odd ending is the intended ending. “I think Mark’s story was shaped,” he writes, “to end in precisely this offense, exactly this provocation” (page 160).
Swanson suggests that Mark intends by this telling to train us as “God-wrestlers” (a theme throughout his commentary). “Mark tells a story that trains its audience to demand more than it will ever get,” he writes. “This marks it as a Jewish story, a story suited for the training of wrestlers” (page 162).
“How do you take a bow after performing Marks’s story?” Swanson asks. He gives no conclusive stage directions but leaves it to the performers. “However you play it,” he writes, “the end of Mark’s story must solve problems and puzzle the audience, it must complete the story and leave it hanging. Mark’s story is completely incomplete,” he concludes, “and the ending is the place to embody this” (page 163).
Serene Jones, in her book Trauma and Grace, addresses the odd ending of Mark as well – taking us from Swanson’s question to further reflection. “Mark leaves the story of the crucifixion hanging in a kind of suspended animation,” she writes, “we readers are left wondering what happens next, and we receive no clear answers” (pages 85-86). Just when it’s all going so well, Jones reminds us – when the stone is moved, the messenger speaks, and the Resurrection is announced – Mark stops mid-sentence. Jones writes,
“At the very moment when we, as readers of the Gospel, are in need of the greatest relief; at the moment in which we are supposed to witness the event of proclamation that launches Christianity into its future and hear about how the first people of faith really experienced the resurrection—Mark does not give it to us. Instead, he depicts a group of weak, irrational women who fall silent and run away. In doing so he allows the Gospel story to run away from us. Instead of pulling it together, he leaves us peering into the gaping space of an ending that never comes” page 89.
Jones puts the narrative of Mark 16 into the framework of trauma experience and response. She, like Swanson, also wonders how this text is to be performed. “The intended ending of Mark’s Gospel may not be the Greek preposition gar (for),” she writes, “Mark may very well have intended that the ending be a gesture. The ending of Mark’s Gospel takes us to the very limits of language, where we cross the threshold into silence” (page 94).
With Swanson, Jones wants to read Mark’s account in a world where trauma is terrifying, and death is real. She is not content with the “wrapped up with a bow” endings that fill in the silence of Mark’s ending. Instead, she sees Mark as indicating and calling forth something much deeper. She points to the “trauma” that Resurrection creates for a world where death is the only secure and certain reality. She quotes a sermon by Tom Troeger in this regard.
“’What if death is not a reliable absolute?’ asks Tom Troeger in a sermon on this passage. ‘Then the comfort of knowing that life is a fixed and closed system is called into question. If death is overcome, if the one indestructible certitude that marks existence is shattered, then reality is wide open!’” (page 96).
What if Mark’s intention is to shake the foundations of the world with the news that God is on the loose and death is temporary? After all, the women respond with “trembling and amazement.” What does that do to us, to our settled certainties, to the status quo of a world that relies on death to manage, manipulate, and master people? Can we live in between the trembling and amazement too?
This is where I will leave Mark’s “odd ending.” Mark announces, “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” In chapter 16, Mark wants us to meet a new week and a new world fully dawned. Perhaps he intends for us to see that this Good News will never end, and as a result nothing can ever be the same.
I like that.
References and Resources
Hurtado, Larry W. Mark (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series). Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 1989.
Jones, Serene. Trauma and Grace, 2nd Edition. Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, 2017. Kindle Edition.
Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary. Cleveland, OH.: The Pilgrim Press, 2005.
Wallace, Daniel B. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1996.
Wright, N. T. Mark for Everyone (The New Testament for Everyone). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.