Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Ending of the Gospel of Mark

The final chapter of the gospel of Mark, Mark 16, represents a sore spot for Christian apologetics. The more attention it gets, the more it starts to bleed and fester, like an abrasion on a fingertip that cannot heal because of regular wear and tear.

In every bible that I have seen (which is considerable, but far from universal), the final chapter of Mark has 20 verses. And yet, Christian apologists, when the topic presents itself (and it does), insist that verses 9 through 20 were interpolated by later scribes or copyists and therefore are not original to the gospel. The original gospel either ends at 16:8, or its original ending was lost (as some have argued).

What are the implications of either scenario? Let’s first consider the final 12 verses, the so-called “longer ending,” that are still found in today’s printed bibles.

Mark 16:9 has been criticized for its clumsiness, following vs. 8 in a very abrupt manner. It introduces Mary Magdalene as though she had not just been introduced in the first verse of the chapter, and states that the risen Jesus first appeared to her. Of course, no details are given. The verse also curiously mentions that Jesus had cast seven devils out of her. This detail does not appear anywhere else in the gospel of Mark, but it does appear in Luke 8:2, which mentions in passing that seven devils “went” out of her. It does not seem to appear in either Matthew or John. One wonders if the tradition of Mary Magdalene’s exorcism arose independently of the longer ending and was subsequently included in the interpolation, or if the interpolation later infected the writing of Luke through Luke’s dependence on an altered Mark.

Continuing with the longer ending, word gets back via Mary Magdalene to the disciples that the tomb was found empty and that a “young man… clothed in white garment” (in v. 5; in Luke 24:4 this “young man” becomes “two men… in shining garments,” and in Matthew 28:2 he becomes an angel) had given instructions to meet the risen Jesus in Galilee. In keeping with the development of literary tension, the disciples do not believe that Jesus has risen, so Jesus puts in some more appearances. Again, details are left wanting. For example, in v. 12 we read:
After that he [Jesus] appeared in another form unto two of them, as they walked, and went into the country.
So to which two did Jesus appear here? And what is meant by “in another form”? The lack of detail here and elsewhere suggests that we’re dealing with a tale rather than a historical account.

In v. 14 the disciples again do not believe the claim that Jesus has risen, so Jesus puts in an appearance before “the eleven” while they’re dining together. And there Jesus scolds them for not believing. In other words, Jesus scolds them for not uncritically accepting someone’s claim on their mere say so. It’s as though Jesus were condemning them for not being good little gullible cult members. But this was the author’s purpose all along, to make a point about the importance of believing; his purpose here was not to relate details of an actual event in journalistic form. The storyline serves a theological rather than historical purpose.

Then in v. 15 Jesus gives the disciples to “go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.” I’m reminded of a Christian who attempted to convert some lions in the Taipei Zoo to Christianity by jumping into their exhibit and preaching “Jesus will save you!” (Watch the video.) Perhaps he had this instruction in mind. I wonder if he tried to convert some cockroaches before moving on to the king of the beasts.

Following this are two famous verses (17 – 18):
And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.
Now if Christianity lacks something important, it’s any indication of the means by which one can determine whether or not a Christian’s claim to being “saved” can be tested and verified. But these verses certainly do offer food for thought. If a believer is having a hard time convincing you that Jesus is real and that he’s been saved by Jesus’ supernatural powers, he could give you a demonstration: ask him to down a bottle of bleach or gasoline and see how he does. According to this passage which we find in our bibles, if he’s truly saved (as believing works magic!), it should not harm him. And if you have the flu or stomach poisoning yourself, he should be able to “lay hands” on you and you’ll be all better.

These constitute testable methods which could go a long ways in confirming or disconfirming either the truth of Christianity, or at least the authenticity of believers’ claim to salvation. But that would spoil all the fun, you see. Consequently, many evangelists have adopted the view that the final 12 verses of Mark 16 are not original to the gospel.

But this raises another problem: If Mark 16 stops at v. 8, then we have no post-resurrection appearances of Jesus in what is in all likelihood the earliest of the gospel narratives. In fact, assuming that the longer ending is a later interpolation, Mark 16 as a whole shows how the Jesus legend grew over time within a single chapter.

In a post concerning this matter, Steve Hays of Triablogue rejects the suggestion, made by some scholars, that the original ending was lost and indicates that he does not think “there’s any compelling reason to believe the ending we have (16:1-8) is not the original ending.” He also holds the view that it is “misleading” to compare Mark to either Matthew or Luke, which do feature post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, given that Mark is “much briefer to begin with.” Of course, I’m aware of no compelling reason why Mark’s gospel needed to be “briefer to begin with,” nor do I find this to be a very compelling reason for the author to have failed to include post-resurrection appearances of Jesus if he knew of any.

Hays speaks to this latter point, writing:
More to the point, the ending may be briefer simply because Mark had less information than Matthew, Luke, and John. He may not have seen the risen Christ, unlike Matthew and John. Likewise, he may not have interviewed as many people as Luke. He just wrote what he knew, based on personal observation, without conducting the kind of extensive investigations that Luke did.
But this raises the question: Who wrote the gospel of Mark?

Traditionally (and for Christianity, that’s going back to the second century in many cases), it has been held that the author of Mark was a companion of the apostle Peter (many take the reference “Marcus my son” in I Peter 5:13 to refer to the author of the gospel of Mark; I have already raised some damning concerns about the authorship of I Peter here), and that Peter either dictated or supervised the gospel’s writing, or at any rate played a major role in supplying the author with knowledge of its content. Thus, if Peter actually saw what the other gospels say he saw, it utterly defies logic to suppose that Mark would have failed to include post-resurrection appearances of Jesus in his gospel. However, I strongly suspect that the motivation to associate the author of Mark with Peter is to bolster his gospel’s claim to authority by positioning him as close to an eyewitness to the events recorded in the gospel rather than being a complete outsider.

(Of course, such motivations always struck me as rather counterproductive – even at odds with the faith they are intended to protect: if the documents of the New Testament – including the gospel accounts – were “divinely inspired,” what need would there be for fallible eyewitnesses and investigators? Which is more reliable according to the Christian worldview itself? However, by having both the claim to divine inspiration and the claim to having eyewitnesses behind the stories in the NT, theologians widen the net, as it were, enlarging Christianity’s ability to attract newcomers to the faith and thus catch more “fish”: those who are more mystically minded as well as those who are insecure believing something without evidence. When you have a faith to protect, the more the merrier.)

So even though the gospel of Mark itself nowhere identifies its author or claims that its author had been tutored in all things Jesus by one of his disciples, the tradition that the gospel’s author was a fellow named John Mark and that he was the Mark mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles (cf. chap. 12 and 15) has a long pedigree, albeit outside the bible itself. According to what has been attributed to Papias, bishop of Hieropolis and whose writings, save for some quoted excerpts in others’ writings, have been lost, the author of the gospel of Mark was a companion of the apostle Peter and in fact his “interpreter.” The idea here is that John Mark penned the gospel with Peter looking over his shoulder and feeding him firsthand information to include in it.

Many evangelicals still hold to the tradition that Mark was written by someone who knew the Peter of the gospels personally and who thus had access to eyewitness testimony - see for example these statements by Drs. Darrel Bock and Michael Kruger. Or consider the words of Tim Henderson, who – according to his bio page – holds a Ph.D. in Judaism and Christianity in Antiquity from Marquette University. He writes (Was the Apostle Peter a Source for Mark’s Gospel? (Part 3)):
All of the internal and external evidence points in the direction of Peter being behind this gospel.
And even though this view has been roundly abandoned by many scholars today, Dr. Kruger states (in the source linked above) that the only evidence going for the view that the gospels are anonymous is that they are “formally anonymous” – i.e., no statements within the texts themselves state who the authors were.

But in fact, there are additional reasons to question their authorship. In the case of Mark, for example, consider the following (from Paul Tobin’s Markan Authorship):
– He made mistakes about Palestinian that no native of Palestine would make. 
– He did not seem to know some Palestinian customs which would be impossible for a native of that region not to be aware of. 
– These mistakes also rule out the idea that he could have obtained information from Peter. 
Internal evidence shows that Mark's sources were isolated, self contained community anecdotes about Jesus which he strung together like beads into the gospel.
Moreover, G.A. Wells points out that (Cutting Jesus Down to Size, p. 24):
Mark wrote when gentiles could become Christians without having to obey the Jewish law. Hence what Paul had to battle hard for had, by that time, become accepted without question.
All these factors suggest remoteness in terms of both local familiarity as well as the time of its writing. Thus in response to Henderson et al., Wells concludes (p. 28):
Mark’s faulty representation of Jewish customs, and his erroneous ideas of Palestinian geography, make it hard to believe he was briefed by the Palestinian Peter.
But in spite of these and likely even more reasons, many Christians prefer to go with some statement chased down in some church father’s letter to seal in their minds who the authors of the gospels really were.

The alternatives here are not very promising for believers. It seems we’re down to two potentials: either Mark is anonymous, or it was written by John Mark, a companion of Peter. That the first alternative is problematic for the Christian faith should be obvious: if we don’t even know who wrote the gospel of Mark, then how can one know that its portrait of Jesus has any legitimate basis? It gets worse: since the gospels of Matthew and Luke incorporate so much material from Mark, thus making them dependent on Mark, they inherit any problems that Mark has by implication.

But why is this second alternative problematic? There may be many problems (e.g., how could Mark get his information from Peter and yet be so wrong on Palestinian geography and customs?), but the one I have in mind here is the ending of the gospel in chapter 16. This chapter poses a notorious problem of its own for bible-believers: it features no post-resurrection appearances of the risen Jesus. If the author of Mark were a companion of Peter, the suggestion that “Mark had less information” simply doesn’t cut it.

Hays floats another explanation for giving “the Resurrection somewhat short-shrift”:
But assuming, for the sake of argument, that the ending is less than we'd expect, here's another possibility: what if Mark saw that he was running out of room on his scroll, and had to present an abbreviated account of the Resurrection?
Here I’m reminded of Monty Python’s “he must have died while carving it.” Indeed, the suggestion that the author chose to sacrifice the resurrection in his version of the gospel narrative seems most ironic! Or, we have divinely inspired text penned on a not-so-divinely inspired choice of scroll.

I’m so glad these aren’t my problems!

by Dawson Bethrick

1 comment:

David Barwick said...

Very nice. This one had a couple of genuine laugh-out-loud moments. I am definitely going to have to try that bleach bottle trick the next time my local Jehovah's Witnesses come knocking on my door.

"Now if Christianity lack something important, it's any indication of the means by which one can determine whether or not a Christian's claim to being "saved" can be tested and verified."

This brought to mind my comment on the previous entry. Of all of the unverifiable claims of Christianity, one would think that this one, at least, would bear some objective reference. Sadly, no such reference exists.