- Main text: Mark 16:1-8
- Accompanying text: Psalm 118:21-27
What this passage means to us
In the arguments that surround where Mark 16 should end, sometimes it’s easy to forget the dramatic descriptions of the resurrection events. The resurrection changed the course of human history. “With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 4:33). Peter, with whom Mark’s gospel is so closely associated, declared that Christians receive “new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith…And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. (I Corinthians 15:14,17).
It would have been with fear and trepidation that the women approached the area of the tombs in the twilight hours of Sunday morning. It would have been a scary place at the best of times, full of shadows and of memories. They had watched Jesus die in agony on the cross, and they had seen where he had been laid. Joseph of Arimathea had been afraid, but he had taken courage and asked Pilate for Christ’s broken body. Now, having gathered together the embalming spices, they, also courageously, approached the tomb. As well as being filled with emotion, a question was on their mind. How would they shift the huge stone that had been placed in front of it? Would they be strong enough to do so? Mark’s brief account is so simple in its wording. They looked down as they walked, perhaps afraid to look to the side in these eerie surroundings, “But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away” (Mark 16:4). What would you have done next? Did they look around them to see if anyone else was there? Was someone else in the tomb? Was this a trap? Should they go in, or run away? They made a brave move. They decided to go inside. “As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed” (Mark 16:5). That seems like an understatement! Of course, they were alarmed! Who wouldn’t be? The young man did not look like Jesus. Was he someone else’s ghost? We have the benefit of hindsight and we know it was an angel, but the women didn’t know. To make matters worse, this mysterious figure turns to them, looks directly at them and says, “Don’t be alarmed…You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him” (Mark 16:6). What does he mean, “don’t be alarmed”? They look to see where the body was, and it’s gone! “But go,” the stranger continued, “tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you’” (Mark 16:7). They were commissioned with a message, just as we are, to proclaim the resurrection! Who would believe them? They were just a bunch of women who were returning from a graveyard. Would people think they had lost their minds? And now they had to find the disciples, report what they had seen, and remind them that Jesus had told them so, that he would rise again from the dead. “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). So, they run away, full of fear. Did they even take in all that the young man had said to them? Who can blame them?
Some translators suggest that Mark 16:8 is better rendered, “because they were afraid of…”. In other words, it breaks off in mid-sentence and there’s an element of suspense and uncertainty. Assuming that Mark 16:8 is the conclusion of Mark’s gospel account, it means it ends abruptly and with an element of fear. Mark does not continue by referring to the various resurrections stories we find in the other Gospels. Why would this be? Various explanations have been suggested by scholars. Perhaps, in a book that stresses the Son of Man and details so much of humanity’s frailties, it is fitting that it ends with a very human reaction to what would have been an event that might have sent tingles down the spine? It could have been that the women were afraid “because empty tombs and explanatory angels are enough to scare anyone. Afraid, too, because they had secretly been to the tomb to anoint the body of a condemned would-be Messiah, and they would rather this was not widely known” .
“Despite its abruptness, Mark 16:8 is arguably an appropriate ending for the Gospel, since one of its motifs is the fear caused by God’s powerful work in and through Jesus (see, e.g., 5:15, 33; 9:6). The women’s fear suggests that God performed one more climactic, powerful work, confirming the testimony of the empty tomb and the angelic announcement that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead, just as he had promised (8:31; 9:9,31; 10:34)” .
Storyline and Context
Nonetheless Mark 16 presents a problem to us in that there is a substantial argument to suggest that it should end with verse 8, meaning that the rest of the chapter is spurious and should not be in the canon of Scripture.
“The problem is well known…the earliest manuscripts of the gospel, the great fourth-century codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, conclude with 16:8…none of the earlier papyrus fragments of the New Testament material contains Mark 16…But the great fifth century manuscripts, led by Alexandrinus, include the ‘longer ending’…a good many of the manuscripts that do contain the longer ending, however, have marks in the margin (asterisks or obeli) to indicate that the passage is regarded as of doubtful authenticity” .
How do we account for such an unexpected ending? One idea is that, given the way in which Mark’s gospel was written, it does make sense, as referred to above. Another is that the original “ending has been lost in some way. Either the manuscript was mutilated by persecutors, or it is even just possible that Peter tore the end off!” Perhaps, bearing in mind his close involvement, “Peter wanted it removed because he thought it was so precious, so intimate and so personal that he did not want it to be published” .
Yet another possibility is that we should take Mark’s personal context into account. It’s possible that “Mark was prevented from finishing – i.e. something interrupted his writing. He may have been suddenly arrested or taken off, or perhaps he dropped dead, and the manuscript was never completed” . Mark was probably written against a backdrop of intense persecution. “The notorious fire of Rome in AD 64 – probably set by Nero himself but blamed on Christians – resulted in widespread persecution and martyrdom. Some interpreters, assuming a Roman audience for Mark’s Gospel and a historical setting during Nero’s persecution, believe that Mark was written to encourage Christians to persevere in the face of persecution”6. “Some church fathers (e.g. Irenaeus) asserted that Mark wrote after the death of Peter, which would place his Gospel at about AD 67” , and there is also the idea that Mark wrote it while with Peter in Rome. Whatever the situation of Mark’s writing, it was in difficult times, and he could have been interrupted by something that happened in his own or in Peter’s life.
Of course, we don’t know the whole story in regard to how Mark ends his Gospel account. What we do know is that after “his suffering, he (Jesus) presented himself to them (the apostles) and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive” (Acts 1:3). Paul tells Christians, “I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10).
• I Corinthians 15:1-19
• 1 Peter 1:1-9
Other GCI resources:
Footnotes and References
- N T Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (London, UK: SPCK, 2003). 630.
- Archaeological Study Bible (Michigan, USA: Zondervan, 2005). 1661.
- N T Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (London, UK: SPCK, 2003). 617-618.
- David Pawson, Unlocking the Bible (London, UK: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2015). 798.
- Archaeological Study Bible (Michigan, USA: Zondervan, 2005). 1620.