Mark Week 10

The End That Is Not The End: Mark 16:1–20

By Laura C.S. Holmes
Seattle Pacific University Assistant Professor of New Testament

Read this week’s Scripture: Mark 16:1–20


Painted by Ruiz Anglada, Religioso (1982). Wikimedia Commons.
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Telling an Old Story in a New Way

In the 1980s and 1990s, a new kind of young-adult fiction rose in popularity. One series was called Choose Your Own Adventure. The reader of these books would take an active role in determining the outcome of the story. After a certain period of time, the author would ask the reader to make a choice, and the reader would turn to a different page and continue the story, depending on the choice made. Many choices led to unsatisfactory endings, while relatively few choices led to happy endings.

Readers who use modern translations of the Gospel of Mark and find that Mark 16 is separated into three parts, two of which are subtitled “The Shorter Ending of the Gospel of Mark” and “The Longer Ending of the Gospel of Mark,” may think that they have stumbled into a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Does the gospel end at 16:8? Are verses 9–20 part of the gospel or not?

Of course, this is not how the ending of Mark works. Thanks both to the way Mark tells the gospel story and to the history of the Gospel of Mark itself, Mark is able to tell the oldest Christian story — the resurrection of Jesus — in a new way. In order to see this, however, the Gospel of Mark needs to take us on an adventure, for Mark’s ending is one of the most mysterious components of his gospel.

“He Is Risen; He Is Not Here”

Mark begins his narrative early on Sunday morning, the day after the Sabbath. Mark tells us that the small group of women who had witnessed Jesus’ burial (15:40–47) were now coming to the tomb in order to anoint his body. This is a common custom in the first century: a proper burial includes not only entombment, but also wrapping with spices to ward off the odor of decay [see Author’s Note 1]. Observant readers of Mark see a resemblance to the first passage in the passion narrative, as they remember that Jesus has already been anointed by a woman who prepared him for burial before he died (14:3–9).

Nevertheless, both instances of anointing point to the devotion of these women, even as it highlights the pairing of faithfulness and ignorance among Jesus’ followers. The women have been faithful, in that they have not deserted Jesus at his death, unlike the male disciples (14:50). At the same time, none of the disciples understood Jesus’ predictions of his death or resurrection. Devotion and true understanding are not the same.

The women have risen early to go to the tomb, but God has been active even earlier. Even if the reader has forgotten Jesus’ passion and resurrection predictions, too (8:31; 9:31; 10:33–34), the rising of the sun is the first sign that something good has happened. The darkness at the cross symbolizes not only evil, but also the darkness before creation in Genesis 1:2.

When God says “let there be light,” and later creates the sun, the moon, and the stars, a new creation dawns. Similarly, when the sun rises on Sunday morning (16:2), a new creation is dawning (compare 2 Corinthians 5:17). Furthermore, God has been explicitly active: the stone in front of the mouth of the tomb has been rolled away, Jesus has been raised from the dead, and a young man who appears to be a lot like an angel is sitting in Jesus’ tomb with a divine message for them.

The Three Maries at the Sepulchre (c. 1800-1803) painted by William Blake. Pencil, pen and ink, and water color on India paper.
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Mark emphasizes the fact that these women have seen various events since Jesus’ death, but they, like the disciples and even Jesus’ enemies, do not perceive or observe the greater significance. The women have seen Jesus’ death on the cross (15:40) and Jesus’ burial in the tomb (15:47); they see the stone rolled away (16:4) and they see the young man sitting there instead of Jesus’ body (16:5).

Understandably, however, when the young man asks the women to “see the place where they laid [Jesus]” (16:6), the women see it, but they do not appear to comprehend its significance. Mark again shows the importance of both sight and perception.

The young man at the tomb clearly startles the women, and, like an angel, he tells the women not to be afraid (see examples in Judges 13:6; Luke 1:13, 30; 2:9–10). The last time we saw a young man like this one, he was the last of Jesus’ followers to flee at the time of Jesus’ arrest (14:51–52; in Mark the Greek word for “young man” occurs only in these two passages).

Now he is the first person restored to Jesus’ company. Like the sun, he marks the dawn of the new creation. His message to the women is the gospel, the good news, in abbreviated form. He begins by telling the women that they are looking for Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus has not been described this way since he was introduced in Mark’s gospel (1:9). The man describes Jesus further by calling him “the Crucified One.” Jesus’ crucifixion, of course, is the conclusion of the gospel’s story so far.

Furthermore, Jesus remains “the Crucified One” even though he is now risen. The scars of the crucifixion do not disappear even in a resurrected body (see Luke 24:39; John 20:20, 25, 27). Restating Jesus’ identity from baptism to death is just the beginning of the man’s proclamation, however. The central phrase of this good news is, “He has been raised; he is not here” (16:6).

Even after his death and his resurrection, Jesus continues to defy his followers’ expectations. Mark concludes mysteriously: Jesus is not in the tomb, but he is also not “here.” As he said he would (14:28), “he is going ahead of [them] to Galilee; there [they] will see him” (16:7). Reminding the women as well as Mark’s readers of the words Jesus said before he was arrested, Mark again shows that Jesus’ words are consistently fulfilled.

Significantly, Peter is singled out again, redeemed, forgiven, and restored to discipleship after his denial and desertion, just as all the disciples will be. Yet, despite the young man’s exhortations not to be afraid, the women run away from the tomb, “and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (16:8). They have, as others have before them, chosen fear over faith (e.g., 4:41; 5:15, 36; 6:50–52; 9:32; 12:12) [see Author’s Note 2].

The Problem of Mark’s Ending

The real problem with the women running in fear and silence is that it appears to be the end of the gospel story. The textual history is complex, but our best manuscripts generally end at 16:8. Alternatively, some ancient manuscripts recognize that 16:8 is an odd place to finish and mark it as such, but they do not continue on through 16:9–20. After all, if Mark really ended at 16:8, would that mean that the message given to the women never reaches the disciples? Of course, this makes no logical sense, as Mark’s audience is reading about the women’s experience.

Some scholars conclude that Mark never did end at 16:8, and, instead, the original ending was lost. A few have claimed that Mark died before he could finish his manuscript. There is no evidence for either of these suggestions. Furthermore, there are other texts, even within the Bible, that end in unusual ways (see Jonah 4:11). All the same, the ending at 16:8 is unquestionably odd and unsatisfying. If readers could choose an ending to the gospel, this would not be a high contender.

But there are ways to consider Mark 16:8 an appropriate ending to the gospel, even if it is not a satisfying ending. First, it is important to note that the young man’s message is focused on the fact that Jesus’ prediction — that he would go ahead of his disciples to Galilee after he had been raised (14:28) — has come true. This is where Jesus is going now that he has been raised. Therefore, the final chapters of Mark have reiterated this theme: what Jesus says comes to pass.

However, until the women flee, Jesus’ prediction of the disciples’ flight has not fully come to pass, as they have remained faithful. Once they flee, all have truly deserted him, and Jesus’ previous prediction has come true (14:27). All the same, God is in the process of restoring the scattered disciples already, and, since all that Jesus has said has come true, there is confidence that they will go to Galilee and see Jesus there.

Furthermore, Mark has been consistent about the fact that humans have been unable to grasp the depth and breadth of Jesus’ identity and mission. This does not change after his resurrection. The fact that a church is indeed established and a future is promised for the community of believers (13:5–37) is due to God’s grace, not to the skills and perception of the people involved. In other words, the women flee at the end of Mark in order to emphasize that it is by God’s grace through the work of the Spirit that a person is transformed from a fearful, doubting follower to a faithful witness (13:9–13).

This apparently original ending to the Gospel of Mark places the reader’s trust in Jesus’ words at the center of the gospel proclamation. Jesus has said that he would be raised, and now a young man witnesses that Jesus spoke the truth, with the empty tomb for corroboration.

While cataloguing resurrection appearances was important to Paul in his letter to the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 15:3–8), Mark appears to claim that if Jesus said it, it will come to pass. Mark’s audience either trusts that what this young man says is true — that Jesus is true to his word and is going ahead of his disciples to meet them in Galilee — or they are trusting another person’s account of a resurrection appearance.

Mark puts the most evidence on Jesus’ words, and not on another report (until 16:9–20). Regardless, it is a matter of faith in either instance (see John 20:29). The women’s response of fear and silence emphasizes how close they are to the mysteries of God and yet how far they are from faith.

Mary Magdalene: Apostle to the Apostles

Even some of the earliest readers of Mark had problems with ending the gospel at 16:8. Particularly when compared to the endings of Matthew, Luke, and John, Mark’s ending seems either too unsatisfactory or too strange. Whether the original ending was 16:8, or there was another ending that has now been lost, Mark 16:9–20 was read as the gospel’s ending as early as A.D. 155–180. By the end of the fourth century, Mark 16:9–20, often accompanied by the transitional “shorter ending,” is the ending of the gospel that most Christians know.

Mark 16:9–20 serves as a compilation of resurrection and commissioning accounts from the other canonical gospels, but it also draws out several themes from the Gospel of Mark. The first encounter in Mark 16:9–11 is between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, recorded in more detail in John 20:11–18.

Here, while we do not hear of a dialogue between Jesus and Mary, we do hear that Mary, in this ending, does not stay silent, but, without further commissioning, tells “those who had been with him” (16:10). These others are still in the process of mourning, and they do not believe Mary’s good news that joy has come with this morning (16:11; Psalm 30:5).

Strength of Unbelief; Commissioning

In fact, the disciples’ lack of faith is one of the primary themes of Mark 16:9–20 that resonates with the gospel as a whole. Unfortunately, the disciples show no more faith after the resurrection than they did during Jesus’ ministry. Mary’s testimony is not the only one that is rejected. Jesus meets two disciples in the country, and “they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them” (16:12–13; compare Luke 24:13–35). Afterwards, Jesus’ first interaction with his disciples is to rebuke them for their lack of faith in the witnesses who came to them.

Then, in another surprising turn, Jesus’ next step is to commission them to preach the gospel “to the whole creation” (16:15; compare Matthew 28:18–20). God is the God of all creation (13:19); therefore, the gospel must reach every corner of it (13:10). The disciples — those who did not believe the witnesses — are given authority over baptism and proclamation (16:16; compare John 20:23).

In other words, Jesus does not wait for his disciples to be transformed into perfect followers. He has already said that the Spirit will equip believers when they are under trial (13:9–10) and gives the authority for their ministry much in the way that he gave them authority to preach, exorcise demons, and heal illnesses earlier in the gospel (6:7–12, 30–32).

These signs are ways in which Jesus invites his followers to share in the power of his resurrection (5:41–42; 9:27; compare Ephesians 1:17–23). It is not the merit of the disciples, but, rather, the grace of God, that grants them authority and exhorts their obedience to the way of the cross (8:34–38).

Finally, the gospel concludes with Jesus’ ascension to heaven (16:19–20). Mark’s narrative of this ascension emphasizes the same point on which Matthew’s gospel so famously concludes: Jesus has physically left, but he is still present (see Matthew 28:20). Mark describes this presence by mentioning that “the Lord worked with [Jesus’ followers]” (16:20). In the language of the young man at the empty tomb: Jesus is risen; he is not here, yet he is here, working among the fallible, Spirit-empowered believers.

The End That is Not the End

The Gospel of Mark is not a Choose Your Own Adventure book. In the early centuries of the church, either 16:8 or a lost ending was the ending to the gospel. Later, 16:9–20 became the accepted ending of the gospel for centuries. Now, striving to learn from both endings, we sense that Mark and the author of 16:9–20 want their audiences to realize the consequences of fear and the grip unbelief can hold on the lives of Jesus’ followers.

Yet these authors are unequivocally optimistic about God’s work of redemption continuing because of, and despite, Jesus’ followers. The continued presence of the Lord (16:20), the fact that God is free to surprise and astonish all creation (15:38; 16:15), and the reality that Jesus did not stay behind a closed stone door in the tomb but set out for Galilee (16:7) willing to restore his doubting disciples (16:14) all give great hope for the kingdom that has drawn near in Jesus (1:14–15) and is drawing near in his followers (16:16–20). This bigger, mysterious, surprising story has yet to end its own adventure.

Questions for Further Reflection

  1. The Lectio writer suggests one possible rationale for ending the gospel at Mark 16:8. Can you think of others? What message would ending the gospel at Mark 16:8 communicate to Mark’s readers?
  2. Do you think Mark 16:9–20 is “Scripture,” or canonical? Why or why not? What do these terms mean to you?
  3. How do you think the church should interpret “signs that accompany belief” (16:17–18, 20)? Only the signs of exorcism and healing have precedence in Mark’s gospel. Why do you think this list is included here?

Author’s Notes

Author’s Note 1

During the first century, the spices would help alleviate the smell of decay when a family member returned, often a year or two later, to collect the bones of the deceased and place them in ossuaries (bone boxes). A family tomb would have space for many ossuaries.


Author’s Note 2

Actually, the fact that the women run in fear and say nothing to anyone may serve as a confirmation of Jesus’ prediction that “all will fall away” (14:27). All the male disciples have fallen away, and are beginning to be restored. The female disciples have not yet fallen away (15:40–16:7) but do so now (16:8).  The idea, of course, is that their restoration, just as certainly as the restoration of the male disciples, is in the future.


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Discussion and Comments

3 Comments to “The End That Is Not The End: Mark 16:1–20”

  1. Dave Martin says:

    The book of Mark has led us up to this wonderful, but short ending. Like reading any book we wish to know how it will end, and in this case a short or long ending has the same result…Jesus is risen, he is not here in the tomb. What a joy to have that assurance, which was realized later by the disciples. I am often reassured by this lack of faith, when seen in people who actually walked with Jesus, and then they come back to know Jesus. That we can know Jesus without seeing his body, but have faith anyway, as weak as we are and often just doubters. I think it is also interesting that it was women who held onto their relationship to Jesus longer and apparently more dedicated than the men.

    Thank you for your comments on endings. Mark has been a great read.

  2. James Snapp, Jr. says:

    Dear Dr. Sweat:

    To precisely which manuscripts were you referring when you stated that “Some ancient manuscripts recognize that 16:8 is an odd place to finish and mark it as such, but they do not continue on through 16:9-20?

    I know of only two Greek manuscripts in which the text of Mark stops at 16:8 — Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus. (The medieval MS 304 is probably just a damaged manuscript; it does not have 16:9-20 but it does not have the closing-title after 16:8, either; according to Dr. Maurice Robinson, who has seen a microfilm of MS 304, the text of Mark is interspersed with a commentary, and the commentary likewise does not reach anything that looks like a conclusion.)

    Also, what is your evidence for the statement that by the end of the fourth century, Mark 16:9–20 was often accompanied by the Shorter Ending? And why do you describe the Shorter Ending as “transitional”?

    Please send me an e-mail — james [dot] snapp {at) gmail (dot] com — and I would be glad to send you some additional information about some evidence pertaining to Mark 16:9-20. I’ve studied this subject.

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.
    Minister, Curtisville Christian Church

  3. Heidi Klammer says:

    I believe this Lectio was written by Laura C.S. Holmes rather than Dr. Sweat, but I would love to hear her response to James Snapp, Jr. here, if such a reply arrives. I am not a Bible scholar though I have gone to Bible school and other Bible courses and I continue to be intrigued by exegetical questions as well as how our current translations came to us. In this study, the theme of fear versus faith is the message that inspires more meditation for me. These are not just characters in a drama, but real people just like me. Also I am attracted to Mark’s gospel as it seems that he is telling it rather than composing it for a text to be published. Perhaps a better writer felt they needed to later add a PS?