The longer ending of GMark, II: Mark’s many boffo curtains

Joseph tomb JerusalemThis is the second post which searches out an “authentic” ending of Mark. Twice in chapter 15, Mark could have finished his Gospel to hearty applause, but he didn’t. What we read both times is what we see for the third time at 16:7-8. No sooner has Mark reached a fine place to send the audience home than he immediately brings up some new issue that justifies the show continuing.

We’ll call that abrupt new development a “Markan hand grenade.” Think not of a loud BOOM, but hear instead the tinny ping of a pulled pin hitting the floor and then something solid rattling around down there. However satisfied the audience was just a moment before, now they want to hear what happens next.

The finding of this post is narrow: just as acceptably real Mark doesn’t end some place in chapter 15, it probably didn’t end at verse 16:8, either. That’s weaker than finding that real Mark continued on to 16:14 specifically, but there is good reason to estimate that if true Mark made it as far as 16:8, then it also continued on to somewhere. The case for that somewhere being 16:14 will be for a future post.

The centurion’s tale

After Jesus dies and the veil of the Temple is torn, a Roman centurion proclaims that Jesus is indeed the son of a god. And immediately, we learn for the first time that women followers of Jesus have been watching the whole time. From the World English Bible, verses 15:39-41 (link)

39 When the centurion, who stood by opposite him, saw that he cried out like this and breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”

40 There were also women watching from afar, among whom were both Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the less and of Joses, and Salome; 41 who, when he was in Galilee, followed him and served him; and many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem.

John Dominic Crossan, famous as a New Testament scholar, conjectured that there was an early version of Mark that actually did end at verse 39 (The Historical Jesus, Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, chapter 15). It is interesting to ask which, then, would be the “authentic” Mark? The original shorter one, or one of the ancient longer ones? Regardless, the strength of 15:39 as a candidate final curtain has not gone unrecognized.

As a curtain, it would highlight the largest “build of three” in the Gospel, the backbone of equally spaced declarations of Jesus’ divine sonship (at the end of the baptism, then end of the transfiguration, and here, the end of the crucifixion). Paul’s 1 Corinthians 15:4ff already existed and narrates the Christian origins story from there. Mark can be viewed as a possible backstory for Paul. Ending Mark at verse 15:39 would be consistent with that; mission accomplished.

Some arguments against setting the curtain here are familiar. There would be no post-resurrection appearance. Jesus’ disciples haven’t been redeemed yet. Jesus’ disciples haven’t been put in charge of everybody else. Well, there’s no post-resurrection appearance before the consensus 16:8 ending, and the disciples are just as unredeemed there. These “missing” pieces can’t be that much of a problem here if they aren’t big problems for a later ending.

But no, this is not the final curtain. An entirely different plot point is suddenly introduced, without delay. It turns out that women have been watching Jesus die. In fact, these women have been with Jesus since Galilee. The audience is not entirely unprepared for their existence. Back in verse 10:32, we learned that there was an oddly described group following Jesus on the road towards Jerusalem. Some were amazed, while some were afraid. This group was bigger than just the favorite twelve, since Jesus took his twelve aside from the group for a final briefing. Now, at 15:41, we learn that some of that group following Jesus were women, these women. Ah, now we see.

Why this sudden shift to them? Precisely. The show isn’t over, is it? With the entire Gospel in hand, we can see that introducing the women launches yet another instance of a well-worn Markan device, the sandwich (or inclusio, for those who prefer their sandwiches with a Latin flair). One story begins, then a second story interrupts it; when that second (“inner”) story finishes, the first (“outer”) story is taken up again.

This is where the empty tomb story starts. Of course, the first audience doesn’t know that yet, and Mark is going to play with their expectations for a while, as great storytellers often do.

The filling in the sandwich

The women are then dropped as crisply as they were introduced, in favor of another Markan hand grenade. A new character, Joseph of Arimathea, appears from nowhere to request Jesus’ corpse. Hand grenades are not only curtain killers for Mark. His biggest one is verse 5:35, the blunt announcement that Jairus’ little daughter has died. The “inner story” of a woman who’d been bleeding has just finished up when the “outer story” of the sandwich resumes with that shocking jolt.

Here in chapter 15, it’s an “inner story” that suddenly kicks off. Joseph’s request is no small matter. Pilate feels he must consult with the centurion, but eventually agrees when he is assured that Jesus really is dead. Joseph is allowed to entomb Jesus, setting up a natural curtain at 15:46

He bought a linen cloth, and taking him down, wound him in the linen cloth, and laid him in a tomb which had been cut out of a rock. He rolled a stone against the door of the tomb.

This is where Thomas Jefferson concluded his edited version of the Gospels, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (at the closely corresponding verse in Matthew, 27:60). A final curtain here has many of the same merits as at 15:39, plus the imagery of 15:46 contrasts with verse 6:39. Back then, John the Baptist was entombed by his own disciples, but a stranger entombs Jesus. If the story ended here, then the glimpse of the women who did stay with Jesus would read as a further contrast.

It will not do to object that ending here would be too harsh on the disciples. If the ending at 16:8 is acceptable, then this stark two-part dramatic underscoring of their abandonment of Jesus will still stand nine verses later. The indictment will have been made, the prosecution will have rested, but the defense won’t have answered.

Of course, the story doesn’t end here, and Mark crisply signals the audience, “It’s another sandwich after all,”

47 Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of Joses, saw where he was laid.

And we’re off again.

Verse 16:8 is a grenade, not a curtain

At last, we reach the consensus ending, 16:8. Not quite, since the natural curtain is the preceding verse,

But go, tell his disciples and Peter, He goes before you into Galilee. There you will see him, as he said to you.

Let us set aside the difficulty of who’s speaking, an unidentified young man who’s been found hanging around in somebody else’s tomb early one morning, in party dress. Not every lawyer’s dream witness.

Apart from that, however, verse 16:7 is a fair ending: we have the promise that the post-resurrection appearance and disciple-redemption issues will eventually be addressed. The direct reference to verses 14:27-28 reminds us that Jesus has long known how his male disciples would behave. Jesus accepted them then, he will again. A curtain here would complete a “build of three” of natural stopping points, two false curtains climaxing in the real one. Regardless of who’s speaking, it is a rousing speech, and it would end Mark’s show on a high note.

But the consensus ending isn’t here, rather it’s the next verse, 16:8. The build of three that 16:8 completes is the succession of three curtain-killing Markan grenades. Immediately, the women flee, succumb to the physical symptoms of clinical shock, and according to the emphatic omniscient narrator, tell nobody about this.

They went out, and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had come on them. They said nothing to anyone; for they were afraid.

Which makes perfect sense. Tell whom what? Even if the young man were credible, he says that Jesus has already told the disciples what to do. What would telling the disciples about this bizarre meeting add to Jesus’ authority? On what basis would any rational real-life person, whether a woman telling the story or a disciple hearing it, conclude that the weird young man was a legitimate information source?

“Perfect sense” is just the thing for a continuation of the story, one where the women receive a reason to speak up. From the audience’s moment-to-moment perspective, however, the tidy wrap-up of 16:7 has been unwrapped in the very next line. This is the third time they’ve seen that device in the span of 16 verses. Their expectations as audience members have been manipulated yet again – and that’s fine. What does happen next?

Verse 16:8 is an unsatisfactory final curtain not because Christians hanker to see the risen Jesus (Godspell does big box-office in modern times without any such appearance), and not because early “apostolic succession” partisans wanted Jesus to commission the original disciples without mentioning Paul. Verse 16:8 is an unsatisfactory final curtain because 16:7 would have sufficed, and 16:8 adds nothing to the resolutions that 16:7 has just achieved. On the contrary, 16:8 introduces brand new concerns that deserve resolution in their own right.

Illustration: Watercolor on pencil drawing: “Tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. Jerusalem” by William Simpson (1823 – 1899)



Filed under Knowable historical Jesus

2 responses to “The longer ending of GMark, II: Mark’s many boffo curtains

  1. busterggi

    Problem is there may not even have been an original ending, for all we know this was a draft that was never finished but passed along anyway because it was all that was available at the time.

    • Could be. It seems to me that “original” is a different issue than “authentic.” A later version might be “authentic” instead of the “original,” or both the “original” and something later may be “authentic.” As I said in part I, “authentic” is a slippery word, even for works whose version history we know much better than we know the version history of GMark.

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