The ending of Mark’s gospel may hide a surprising pastoral strategy.
Biblical scholars have long recognized that the Gospel of Mark ends oddly. Its canonical ending (verses 16:9-20) is clearly a later add-on to Mark’s original version. In all the earliest manuscripts, Mark 16 ends with verse 8:
So they [the women who find the empty tomb] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
But what a strange way to end the gospel story! The women who visit the tomb and find it empty meet there a young man who tells them that Jesus has risen. But they do not—nor anyone else—have an encounter with the resurrected Jesus. Here Mark differs sharply from the other three gospels.
Instead the young man tells the women that they are to tell Peter and his disciples that Jesus is going ahead of them to Galilee. There they will see him. But then Mark recounts no encounter with the risen Jesus in Galilee. Matthew does. So does John. But Mark is silent.
This has led scholars to speculate that the original ending of Mark’s gospel got detached from the rest of the gospel at a very early date. The last leaf of the papyrus scroll may have been torn off.
In the original Greek, verse 8 in fact ends with the Greek word gar, which is the Greek conjunction for the word for. Many people cannot imagine Mark ending his story so abruptly, especially given the fact that the sentence describes how the women said nothing to anyone about the empty tomb or their encounter with the young man and his message because they were afraid.
So how did the original version of Mark end? That is a riddle Marcan scholars have long sought to answer.
A Speculative Answer
I don’t know the answer to that riddle. But I like to entertain the possibility that the original manuscript of Mark did end at verse 8. Is so, what was Mark up to in ending his story this way?
Well, to speculate an answer, I suggest we go back to what the young man tells the women. He says Jesus has been raised from the dead. He tells the women to tell his disciples and Peter that he Jesus is going ahead of them to Galilee. There they will see him.
But where in Galilee? That must have been the question the disciples asked, as do we. I want to propose one possible solution to question.
The disciples will meet Jesus in Galilee. But since Mark recounts no encounter with the risen Jesus in Galilee, where is the reader to find this encounter that fulfills the promise?
One must, in a sense, return to the very beginning of Mark’s gospel. There Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee abruptly. And his ministry continues in Galilee until he makes the fateful move to travel to Jerusalem and his death.
In Galilee, Jesus teaches and preaches, he heals and casts out demons, he calms storms, he feeds the hungry, he forgives sinners, he eats with outsiders, he challenges the scribes and Pharisees. These actions reveal the very inner character of Jesus, and ultimately according to Christian belief, the very character of God.
He characterizes his mission in the potent words to James and John in Mark 10:35-45. He came not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. His disciples need to learn that he who would be great must become the servant of all.
Jesus Resumes His Ministry of Service
The risen Jesus does not leave this mission of service behind, now that he can ascend to heaven and become the lord of the cosmos. The one who sits on heaven’s throne remains this very one whose life was all about service and giving his life for others. The one who sits on the throne and the one who serves the needy in Galilee are the one and the same Jesus.
So what the risen Jesus is doing when he goes ahead of his disciples into Galilee is to return to that ministry that was his from the start. And that is where his disciples will meet him. In the needy they serve, they will not only follow in his footsteps. They will see him.
What is different is that now, as a result of the resurrection, his Father has confirmed the path that Jesus has followed as God’s way. The Father has confirmed Jesus as the true Messiah, but the Messiah who brings liberation in this servant way.
So what Mark does is drive his readers right back to rereading his gospel, but now in the new perspective that the resurrection brings. Go back to Chapter 1, the gospel seems to be saying, and there you will see the risen Jesus in Galilee doing what he was always doing.
And when you come to the end of the gospel, then go back once again, over and over again, until your consciousness begins to absorb the gospel message and you recognize in Jesus’ way the work of the true Messiah. It is hard to change our consciousness, but if we keep reading the gospel over and over again, something of its power may begin to sink in and dissolve our hard-heartedness . Then one day we may awake and find that we see life and God and Jesus in a wholly new way.
So maybe in the end, in the way he ends his gospel, Mark reveals a strange and surprising pastoral strategy.