Have you ever watched a movie that has left you seriously disappointed? Maybe it ended so abruptly you were left wondering what just happened.
Well it appears the early scribes of Mark’s gospel also experienced that feeling.
The gospel of Mark is generally believed to be the earliest of the gospels, written around 70 AD (Jesus died around 30 AD). It provides many stories of Jesus’ life and death, but the original version ends very abruptly after Mary Magdalene, Mary the Mother of Jesus and James visit his tomb to find it empty. It says in Mark 16 4-8:
But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed. “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.'”
Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.
Fade to black. The end. According to Mark.
Imagine: you’ve read this amazing story of a man who performed miracles, healed the sick, challenged a corrupt authority, is interrogated and tortured, put to death and then suddenly the body disappears leaving nothing but a man with a cryptic message.
It’s the original cliff-hanger, and it must have been incredibly frustrating for those early readers and scribes.
Dust off that old Bible you have on a bookshelf somewhere. Open it up to Mark 16, verse 8 and you’ll notice it doesn’t end there. No, in fact it continues to say:
When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons. She went and told those who had been with him and who were mourning and weeping. When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it. Afterward Jesus appeared in a different form to two of theme while they were walking in the country. These returned and reported it to the rest; but they did not believe them either.
Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen. He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptised will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.” After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God. Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.
I don’t know about you, but I feel somewhat comforted by the idea that the verses “they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all” was not in the original version.
So why were these verses added to Mark 16? Well let’s pause for a moment and take a crash course in biblical history.
Who wrote the original version of Mark?
You might be forgiven for thinking that the New Testament gospels are eyewitness accounts of Jesus’ life. After all, to the regular person just reading what is in front of them, that’s how they appear. However none of the gospels were written by anyone who knew Jesus directly. (“Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew” by Bart Erhman (2003)).
The person who first wrote Mark is unknown. One idea is that it was written by someone named John Mark who was a scribe for Peter while he was in Rome. However ultimately it remains anonymous.
So where did this anonymous writer’s material come from? Well again, there are many theories but no real evidence. If it was written by John Mark the scribe of Peter, then this person would have had conversations with Peter (a disciple of Jesus) before his death around 68 AD in Rome.
It is also possible that the writer of Mark had read letters written by the apostle Paul (who never met Jesus, but was a follower of his teachings) and no doubt this writer grew up listening to stories of a man called Jesus.
Most likely there were a combination of sources used and we will never really know. Much like this article I’m writing now (which is written entirely from my personal understandings based on conversations with theologians and readings over time).
The Motive for Mark 16: 9-20
Some time after Matthew and Luke were written, the additional verses 9-20 were added to Mark 16. Actually there are a few different versions of the verses that were added to “finish off” Mark, but eventually 9-20 were chosen to feature in the Bible as we commonly know it.
Aside from the bitter disappointment caused by the abrupt ending of this epic story, what other motive existed for adding these verses?
Consider the major events of Mark’s gospel: Jesus lives (in Mark there is no virgin birth). He performs miracles. He challenges authorities. He is crucified and dies. His body disappears.
What’s missing? Well nothing serious, just the resurrection.
That’s right… in the original gospel of Mark, the earliest known gospel, there is no actual resurrection of Jesus’ body. Jesus doesn’t appear to anyone after his death.
Decades pass and no doubt this begins to cause problems. The theology of later times is grounded in the resurrection and this book provides an account of Jesus’ life that does not fit with that theology. And so the verses are added to provide closure and align with this perspective.
Why Does it matter?
I was doing a little light reading online, brainstorming for this blog, when I came across a thread asking “Did Jesus actually ever say “if you don’t believe in me you will go to hell”?”. One of the commenters directly quoted Mark 16 verse 16:
“Mark 16:16 The one who believes and is baptized will be saved, but the one who does not believe will be condemned. – Seek forgiveness [user]” https://christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/15353/did-jesus-actually-ever-say-if-you-dont-believe-in-me-you-will-go-to-hell
I have two fairly obvious issues with the use of this quote in answering the question:
- That verse was an addition to Mark and not part of the original story. It was added to fit with the agenda of the time and is naturally not very historically credible.
- Neither the original version nor the additions were written by anyone who knew Jesus. So presenting this quote as His exact words is naturally misleading, but this is a common occurrence when the authorship of the Bible is not understood.
Talk to any conservative Christian and they probably believe the Bible is the divine Word of God and an accurate portrayal of Jesus, His words and His experiences. They can wave away inconsistencies and mistranslations as minor issues that do not distort the divine nature of the Bible. They can Google a Bible verse for any occasion.
But the one thing they can’t seem to do, is accept new information and evidence about the Bible’s construction. No matter how interesting, informative and important it is.
I, personally, would prefer to seek the truth.