Unfinished Gospel? Mark's Enigmatic Ending

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So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.--Mark 16:8

AT THE END of the Gospel of Mark, three women come to Jesus' grave, where they encounter a young man sitting in the empty tomb who tells them that the crucified Jesus has risen and left for Galilee. Mary Magdalene; Mary, the mother of James; and Salome run from the tomb. And though the young man instructs them to tell the disciples and Peter to meet Jesus in Galilee, the women say nothing to anyone.

That's the end. The earliest Gospel never mentions--at least not in the best ancient manuscripts--the risen Jesus' reunions with his followers as described in Matthew, Luke and John. Accounts of the appearance of the risen Jesus were added to the end of Mark by later scribal hands. The NRSV labels these as "shorter" and "longer" endings, and relegates to footnotes a discussion of how these endings were fashioned.

A few New Testament specialists maintain that the original ending to Mark was lost. But most scholars of Mark today accept the likelihood that the original first-century author meant to end the narrative exactly--and abruptly--at chapter 16, verse 8.

One of those was Donald H. Juel, a Lutheran minister and longtime professor at Luther and Princeton seminaries, who died three years ago. In honor of Juel's work on the ending of Mark, Princeton professors Beverly Roberts Gaventa and Patrick D. Miller edited essays by colleagues for a book published last year as The Ending of Mark and the Ends of God (Westminster John Knox).

The essay by Juel that opens the book says that "the history of the Markan ending in manuscript and commentary betrays an unwillingness or inability to take the disappointment seriously." Juel differed with scholars who turn the women at the tomb into heroic figures or who try to transform the trio's trembling and astonished response into "positive emotions."

Nor did Juel adopt two increasingly popular ways of understanding Mark's disturbing ending. One is the belief that Mark implies that the women would have eventually overcome their fear and told Peter and the disciples of the resurrection, reminding them of Jesus' earlier prediction: "After I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee" (14:28). But the three women, Mark emphasizes, tell no one. Juel observes that like Peter, the women "come closer to genuine greatness than the other disciples, only to fall further. Even in the face of an empty tomb and testimony to Jesus' resurrection, the women cannot believe in such a way as to perform the most basic task of disciples: testimony." Juel continues: "They tell no one the good news. They flee, and we are left to imagine what became of them, and we are left to imagine the fate of Judas, and the young man, and Peter, and the Twelve."

Another favored solution, based on what some call "reader response" analysis, is to say that this pioneering Gospel writer sought with the sudden ending to challenge Jesus' followers to overcome their own lapses of understanding, courage and loyalty. The audience circa AD 70 presumably would say something like: "If the closest male and female followers failed Jesus and still became admired figures and leaders in the churches, surely we too can be forgiven and serve God."

Juel insists on the enigmatic nature of the ending. "If the unresolved ending offers promise, it surely is not because we are encouraged to believe we can do better than the disciples or the women," he writes. "We do not 'have' Jesus even at the end of the story, and there is no guarantee that we can wrest a promise from him or lock him safely away by hermeneutical tricks."

Juel chose an open-ended stance, one that defies containment of Jesus and God when reading or hearing Mark. "Jesus is out of the tomb; God is no longer safely behind the curtain (torn asunder in the Temple as Jesus breathed his last)," he writes. …