What Mark’s Abrupt Ending Tells Us About Gospel Historicity
by David Vogel
The last few hundred years have revealed mountains of additional manuscript evidence for the New Testament, as archaeologists uncover more and more ancient scrolls and codices from the earliest centuries AD. This rich collection of manuscript evidence—far more than for any other ancient work—means that modern translators can draw on a clearer composite picture of what the original New Testament manuscripts said. Yet these new discoveries have changed almost nothing of substance between older versions of the Bible, like the KJV, and newer versions which are based on an older and broader collection of manuscripts.
One of the few revisions is the view among most modern Bible scholars that the final chapter of Mark contains verses which were not Mark’s original narrative. As many recent translations note, the best evidence suggests that Mark’s gospel actually concluded at verse 16:8, which records the response of the women to the words of the angel they encountered at Jesus’ empty tomb: “And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
The remaining verses of Mark 16 were most likely added within a century after Mark wrote his gospel. They briefly describe some of the same appearances of Jesus (to Mary Magdalene, to the two on the road to Emmaus, and to all the disciples) which are recorded in other gospels.
If those verses were indeed added later, the motivation is obvious. After all, the shorter version of Mark 16 leaves the narrative hanging: the tomb is empty, an angel testifies that Jesus “has risen; he is not here,” and then… an abrupt conclusion, with frightened women who have not yet told anyone the news or seen the risen Lord. Mark left out the best part! There is no question in his gospel that Jesus had in fact risen, so why truncate the account so we never encounter the resurrected Lord?
To understand why Mark might have been comfortable with such an abrupt conclusion, we have to remember that his gospel did not exist in a vacuum…