Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Ending of St Mark's Gospel - a Suggestion
One of the puzzles of Gospel study is the way St Mark's Gospel ends. The earliest manuscripts do not include the "longer ending" of Mk. 16:9-20, which does seem to be an addition to give the Gospel a proper ending. The shorter ending at 16:8 leaves the Gospel with a quite abrupt ending, without an account of the Resurrection appearances of Jesus.
A number of proposals have been made, such as:
  • that it is supposed to end this way for dramatic effect, with the women struck with awe at the news of the angel (16:8);
  • that the last page of the document (the back cover) was lost early on.
  • that the real ending of this Gospel has been relocated or attached to the Gospel of John (as Jn 21) - a suitable ending for Mark.
I have another suggested reason for the ending. Two distinctives about St Mark lead me to my proposal.
1. The church leader Papias of Hierapolis in the early second century claimed that according to John the Elder, Mark was the recorder of Peter. This view is not without reasonableness, since the Gospel does seem to have a Petrine perspective.
2. B.Ward Powers, in his "The Progressive Publication of Matthew's Gospel",  argues that St Mark is  a special-purpose Gospel, which draws on Matthew and Luke, as well as what he had learned from Peter. His account is very much action stories focussed on te identity of Jesus. Powers proposes that Mark's Gospel is an evangelistic tool. It was to lead people to the question of Jesus, leaving the evangelists to complete the story with the climactic witness of the Resurrection of Jesus.
I think it is possible that the original use of Mark was in conjunction with the preaching of Peter as eye-witness of the events, especially the Resurrection. The penultimate verse of the Gospel is " Go and tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you." (16:7).
It would be natural for a reading of the Gospel to be followed by the witness preaching of one of the original eye-witnesses, perhaps originally Peter himself. It has been long noticed that Peter's call is close to the opening of the Gospel (1:16-20). This ending - the meeting with Peter and the other disciples in Galilee - would frame the testimony of the Kingdom in Jesus Messiah.
This then is my proposal to account for the short, original ending of St Mark: it was designed to be used as an evangelistic tool, a presentation that was designed to be complemented with a personal testimony by St Peter or one of the other witnesses of the Resurrection. When St Peter and the other eye-witnesses were passing away, their witness had to be put in written form (the Longer ending, or John 21, which became detached from the original edition).
Richard Baukham's book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (2008) has reminded us about the importance of those early witnesses to Jesus - also testified by Papias himself in the early decades of the second century.
 I can't recall finding this proposal in other writers, but I suspect it has been proposed by others - so I make no claim to originality!

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