Amending the Ending

31 Jul 2017

Our team has a practice of starting our team meetings with a meditation on Scripture, and prayer. Every week one of the team members has the opportunity and responsibility of leading us through the next assigned passage. Recently we came to the end of what has proved a years-long ramble through the gospel of Mark. It was the last day of the series and it was my turn. The passage was Mark 16:9-20, the so-called longer ending of Mark’s account.

Now I knew that this passage has problems. Not only do all the English translations in my possession have an ominous warning that it is not included in the oldest traditions, but it is the go-to passage for many Muslim apologists and others whose agenda it is to discredit the veracity of the Bible. What was I going to do with it!?

It is clear that the passage doesn’t belong. Not only do the oldest and best copies of Mark not have it, it is different in style, in vocabulary and in emphasis to everything else Mark wrote. It was probably a very early addition by the young church to replace the original ending (the fate of which is unknown). So what do we as Christian people do with it?

In the early 1980’s, John Stott, the eminent British Bible scholar, toured Australia and I, as a university student, went to one of his lectures on the authority of Scripture. I don’t really remember much of the content of the lecture (and although I wouldn’t have admitted it at the time, to be honest it was a bit above me), but I do remember the question time afterwards. The question I have just posed was put to Dr Stott – How are we as Christians to regard the longer ending of Mark’s gospel? The essence of the reply was that the passage is interesting and informative but we should not treat it as authoritative and base any doctrine on this text alone.

So what can be said about these verses?

  1. Firstly, we notice that there is not anything of substance here that it that is not found elsewhere. The post resurrection appearances are in all the other gospels and elsewhere. The encounter with Jesus on the road is similar to Luke’s story of Jesus on the Emmaus road. The commissioning of the disciples echoes what is found in the other gospels and Acts, as does the story of Jesus’ ascension. So we have not lost anything by not treating it as authoritative as the rest of Scripture.
  2. Although Mark is generally regarded as the oldest gospel, we do have an older account of the resurrection. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians was written before Mark and in chapter 15 of that book he references numerous eyewitnesses to the resurrection. We have therefore not lost our earliest resurrection account by not treating Mark 16:9-20 as authoritative as the rest of Scripture.
  3. I am given more confidence in the authenticity of the rest of the Bible by being honest and up-front about these verses about which there is some doubt. If Scripture is tested to this level of integrity (by both Christian and secular scholarship), and if we are not afraid to declare the results as has been done so openly in this case, then we can be very confident in the rest of the Bible which we can then rely on to be authoritative. This is an effective answer to the attacks from Muslim critics and others.
  4. We mustn’t get so caught up in the arguments around this section of the text that we forget the important truth stated in the immediately preceding verses – that Jesus is risen! He is living even now and, as Matthew records, he has authority, he has commissioned us to go, make disciples, teach and baptise all in the assurance of his authoritative presence.

Praise of our loving, living, sending, authoritative Lord was a very good way to end this part of our team meeting.

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