Reprinted from Mark for Everyone with permission of SPCK.
Mark's ending is missing. I am convinced of it. Two of our best manuscripts, both from the fourth century, end where this text breaks off. The alternative endings in several other manuscripts seem clearly to be later writings, added by copyists who, agreeing with me that Mark couldn't have meant to stop there, were determined to fill in the gap.
Of course, there are many who think that Mark did after all intend to close the book with the women in fear and silence [read chapter 16
], but I disagree. I have become quite sure that there was more. I think a very, very early copy of Mark was mutilated. As with many other scrolls and books in the ancient world (and sometimes even in the modern), the last page, or the last column of the scroll, was torn off, presumably by accident.
But let's deal, first of all, with what is there, rather than with what isn't. The three women whom Mark listed as having watched the crucifixion, two of whom also saw where the tomb was (this variation in detail may well be a sign of historical memory), buy spices as soon as the sabbath is over, that is, on Saturday evening after sunset. They go to the tomb at first light on the Sunday (the first day of their working week), expecting to have difficulty with the massive stone, but hoping no doubt that someone stronger will be around to help.
We may note, already, what they are not saying to themselves (as they might be if this story were a later pious fiction). They were not going in order to witness Jesus' resurrection. They had no idea that any such thing was even thinkable. They were going to complete the primary burial. This was a sad task, but a necessary one, both for reverence's sake, and to lessen the smell of decomposition as other bodies, in due course, would be buried in the same tomb over the coming year or so, prior to Jesus' bones being collected and put into an ossuary (the secondary burial).
They got the shock of their lives. The stone was already rolled away. A young man in white sat where Jesus' body had been, and calmly explained to them that Jesus had been raised from the dead and would see them again in Galilee. They were to go with a message to the disciples; the specific mention of Peter is presumably not to give him a place of primacy, but to ensure that, after his catastrophic denials, he was not regarded as beyond redemption. They, quite naturally, rushed off home, scared out of their wits. They must have passed several people on the way, but they didn't say a word. They were in shock.
Laborious attempts have been made in modern scholarship not just to suggest that Mark really did mean to stop there, but, as it were, to wallow in the dark uncertainty that results. Mark, we are told, is a book of mysteries. People in Mark are always being told to stay silent; now the women do just that. Instead of a cheap happy ending, they say, Mark has given us something far more powerful, a strange brooding puzzle which leaves every reader turning the matter over, wondering what on earth might have happened, and what it all might mean.
These suggestions have an air of sophistication and literary imagination, but I am not convinced.
Mark has told us, over and over again, that Jesus tried to teach the disciples that he would suffer, be killed, and rise again from the dead. They didn't understand; presumably they thought he was talking in riddles. He wasn't, and Mark wants us to understand that he wasn't; he was speaking the truth. He told the disciples, after the transfiguration, that they were to tell no one about it `until the son of man has been raised from the dead' (9.9). They were puzzled by this at the time, but Mark does not intend his readers to go on for ever being puzzled `as to what this rising from the dead should mean' (9.10).
Mark has, in fact, presented Jesus throughout as a true prophet, and has now spent a good deal of time showing us how the first part of Jesus' prediction about his fate in Jerusalem came true. I find it incredible that he would break off just at the point where he was about to tell us how the second part came true as well.
It might just be possible to think that Mark did stop there - but that he intended anyone reading the book out loud, as they would, to call on one of the eye-witnesses present to tell the story of what they had seen, either that first Easter day or shortly afterwards. But I think it far more likely that he wrote a conclusion, in which the women spoke to the disciples, the disciples went to the tomb, and eventually (presumably in Galilee from what Mark has already said in 14.
28 and 16.7), they met Jesus again. I suspect that the book concluded with Jesus not only confirming to them that he was indeed alive again in a new, though certainly bodily, way, but also commissioning them for the work that now awaited them (13.10; 14.9). The ending may not have been very long, but it will have been important as the intended conclusion to the book, drawing the themes to their proper destination.
But we can make a theological virtue out of necessity. Perhaps, in the strange providence of God, the way Mark's book now finishes encourages us all the more to explore not only the faith of the early church, that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead, but our own faith. There is a blank at the end of the story, and we are invited to fill it ourselves. Do we take Easter for granted, or have we found ourselves awestruck at the strange new work of God? What do we know of the risen Lord? Where is he now going ahead of us? What tasks has he for us to undertake today, to take `the gospel of the kingdom' to the ends of the earth?