17 July 2007

There are quite a few New Testament questions that still baffle me. One of them came up in House Group the other night: the ending of Mark. Your Bible probably gives you 20 verses of chapter 16. But in most versions, verses 9-20 are printed in a different style or with a disclaimer before verse 9. My old King James Bible is one version that doesn't. That's because when the old King was doing his stuff, most of the ancient texts that were available included 9-20. We've found a lot more texts since then and learned a lot more about how to read even the ones that we had. These days, most everyone agrees that 9-20 is not by the author of Mark's gospel on the basis of vocabulary and style, that it doesn't really fit into the narrative flow and that the content has probably been pieced together from other parts of the New Testament.

The best texts that we have end at verse 8. But that is in many ways an undesirable place to end a book. It's an unsatisfying ending from a narrative perspective; it's an odd way to end grammatically; and theologically it seems even less satisfactory than narratively. Probably that's why 9-20 was added on by someone.

There's a much shorter alternative as well. Some manuscripts, instead of 9-20, have this two sentences:

And they promptly reported all these instructions to Peter and his companions. And after that, Jesus HImself sent out through them from east to west the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.

This doesn't seem any more likely than the longer ending.

Did Mark mean to end at verse 8 -- is it his developed sense of irony, or some kind of device to make clear that the story is unfinished until you respond to it? Many people I respect think it's meant to end there.

But there could have been a longer ending that got lost. The Christian documents were under siege early in the going. Mark's gospel would have been written not as a codex-style book but on a scroll. It would have been a fixed length before Mark started writing. Did he run out of room and put the ending on an add-on sheet which got lost? Or did the end of his scroll literally break off, as they apparently often did?

That's the question that vexes me. I'm sure that we have to reject both 9-20 and the shorter one. But I don't know whether Mark meant it to end at verse 8 or whether there's a lost ending.

Does it matter? In terms of doctrine and application, certainly not. But for someone with a high view of Scripture, the implications make the ground shake. Yet I cannot decide -- I've gone back and forth at various points in my career; always with pretty good reasons. But right now, I can't even decide which one I want to be true!
This blog is closed now. I've moved to http://gempf.com