Many academics estimate that Mark’s Gospel in its “authentic” form (however they define that slippery word) ends at the eighth verse of the sixteenth chapter. Three women enter Jesus’ tomb, find a living young man there instead of Jesus’ corpse, and promptly exhibit symptoms of clinical shock.
Well they might. They had watched the Romans spend the day-before-last torturing Jesus to death. Since then the women had been counting on performing the funeral rites of their faith. Now suddenly, they learn that that is impossible. The narrator states with emphasis that the frightened women didn’t talk about their experience in the tomb to anyone. The end.
Actually, not the end, not since the Second Century at the latest. The “earliest and best” surviving manuscripts (mainly two from the Fourth Century, link and link, whose testimony about Mark‘s ending may be mutually dependent) do end at 16:8. However, comments from early authors support awareness of additional verses after 16:8 having been part of Mark, including pieces from 16:9-20. The “third oldest” surviving high-quality manuscript includes 16:9-20, and a bit more besides, see below. Even so, two generations separate Mark‘s estimated composition date from the earliest surviving mention of what may have been composed.
This post is the first of three considering whether 16:14 is an admissible estimate for an “authentic” ending of Mark. The finding of this first post is narrow. Verses 16:9 through 16:14 differ enough from verses 16:15 through 16:20 to suggest separate authorship. Whether or not verses 16:9-14 may actually be “authentic” is left for later posts.
The two blocks in question (verses 9-14 and 15-20)
From the World English Bible (link):
… 8 [Mary Magdalene and two other women] went out, and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had come on them. They said nothing to anyone; for they were afraid.
9 Now when he had risen 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 When they heard that he was alive, and had been seen by her, they disbelieved. 12 After these things he was revealed in another form to two of them, as they walked, on their way into the country. 13 They went away and told it to the rest. They didn’t believe them, either.14 Afterward he was revealed to the eleven themselves as they sat at the table, and he rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they didn’t believe those who had seen him after he had risen.
15 He said to them, “Go into all the world, and preach the Good News to the whole creation. 16 He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who disbelieves will be condemned. 17 These signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new languages; 18 they will take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it will in no way hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” 19 So then the Lord, after he had spoken to them, was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. 20 They went out, and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word by the signs that followed. Amen.
That there are two distinct blocks
Both sections are built as a “progression of three.” First Jesus appears to one, then to two, finally to all; first Jesus commands and predicts, then he moves on to greater things, finally what he commands and predicts comes to pass. Progressions of three are found throughout Mark. They are a narrative staple from the folk-level of Goldilocks on up.
The “seam” between verses 14 and 15 is rough. Jesus turns crisply from disappointed rebuke to confident marching orders without any transition. One extant manuscript (link) caulks the seam with the “Freer Logion” after verse 14. Saint Jerome also mentioned a part of it.
They excused themselves, saying, “This age of lawlessness and unbelief is under Satan, who does not allow the truth and power of God to prevail over the spirits’ unclean things. Therefore reveal thy righteousness now,” thus they spoke to Christ. Christ replied to them, “The term of years for Satan’s power has been fulfilled, but other terrible things draw near. For those who have sinned I was delivered over to death, that they may return to the truth and sin no more; that they may inherit the spiritual and incorruptible glory of righteousness which is in heaven.”
Low-level similarities and high-level contrasts between the blocks
Both sections introduce vocabulary words found nowhere in undisputed Mark, in amounts roughly in proportion to their length. Two of the sixteen new words appear in both sections.
While Mark notoriously overuses the word kai (sometimes meaning and while other times simply marking where clauses begin), the two sections have similar and relatively restrained kai density (5% and 6% of length, compared with 9% for 16:1-8). Finally, both sections feature free-floating pronoun usage, telling us what he says and does, without first identifying who he is, which is a peculiarity of Mark’s style.
The sections differ greatly in how much Mark has prepared the reader for their contents. We are well prepared by 15:40-41 and 16:1-8 for the two points made in 16:9, that Jesus actually had risen shortly before the women visited, and that Mary Magdalene had had earlier dealings with him. Peter has been shown crying before, at 14:72. We’ve already seen Jesus in “another form” in the transfiguration. Jesus correcting his disciples is nothing new, either. The theme of belief and disbelief runs throughout the Gospel. In particular, the notion that “seeing is believing” has been addressed as recently as 15:32. The disciples’ failure to grasp, much less believe in, the concept of Jesus rising from the dead has hung over the second half of the gospel, since verse 9:9. As with everything in the undisputed Gospel, all the action in 16:9-14 takes place on Earth and involves some interaction among earth-dwellers. Even “alone” in the wilderness, Jesus is with the wild animals.
In contrast, while we’re ready for the Good News to be preached to all in 16:15 (most recently mentioned as a possibility at 14:9), many particulars of the preaching in 16:16-18 are unexpected. Mandatory baptism is new, as is outright damnation for disbelief. Nobody except John baptizes anybody in undisputed Mark. We’ve also come a long way from that promised reward for even trivial assistance to the mission (like a cup of water) and “whoever isn’t against us is for us” (9:40-41). Back then, demon management was explicitly not a reliable sign of being one of the faithful. Animal taming, immunity to liquid poisons and language proficiency are all new. A sudden change of scene to heaven also has no precedent in Mark.
Nothing earlier in Mark prepares the reader for a scene where Jesus confers teaching authority and responsibility exclusively on his disciples, especially as regards Gentiles. Mark‘s Jesus has already specifically commissioned a preacher in the heavily Gentile Decapolis region, a preacher who evidently enjoys some effectiveness (5:19-20). Earlier Mark also shows much awareness of Paul, a non-disciple with his own claims to helping spread the Word, especially among Gentiles, independently of the disciples’ commission.
Later Gospels are also relevant to the ending–of-Mark problem. A familiar academic summation of the longer ending as a supposed unit is that most of its contents are related to incidents and concerns that appear in later Gospels.
However, much of undisputed Mark is also echoed in later Gospels, sometimes verbatim. Many academics argue that all the canonical writers drew upon a pre-existing storehouse of Jesus traditions, which would fully explain non-verbatim intersections with material like that found in 16:9ff. The availability of traditional lore might even lead us to expect to see more primitive versions of such stories early on (like in Mark) and more articulated versions later (the richly rendered reunion of Mary Magdalene and Jesus in John 20, the two disciples’ extended meeting with Jesus on the road in Luke 24, and Jesus dealing with some disciples’ doubts or misunderstanding in all three later canonical Gospels).
Regardless, from a perspective that includes later Gospels, what distinguishes 16:9-14 from 16:15-20 is that the first part consists entirely of discrete events that both develop from what is introduced earlier in Mark and also appear in later Gospels. In contrast, the second part offers miracle categories (e.g. preternatural language skills) without mention of a specific example (compare Acts 2:6). Some categories lack foundation in Mark (like language mastery). Poison beverage tolerance comes from nowhere, and no incident of that kind appears in the canonical New Testament.
Acts seems to be well-represented in 16:15-20 (a facility with vipers, plural, recalls Paul’s accidental encounter with one in Acts 23:5). If so, then there is context-mangling to enhance the disciples’ stature relative to early church leaders who weren’t disciples (what the end of verse 16:20 says glowingly of Jesus’ students closely resembles what Acts 14:3 says of Paul and Barnabas).
Maybe the author of 16:9-14 did mine later Gospels for specific incidents whose outlines would fit well into the overall design of Mark. If so, then that would tell against authenticity. Nevertheless, the author of 16:15-20 plainly didn’t proceed that way, thus furnishing a basis to question whether the same author wrote both parts. That is, a further basis beyond the lack of affirmative evidence that one single author wrote both.
The image depicts Mark 16:10-11, Mary Magdalene meeting with the eleven remaining male apostles. It is an anonymous illumination on parchment from the 12th Century, St. Albans Psalter, Church of St Godehard, Hildesheim.