The ending of Mark has long been a controversial subject among scholars even though the present general consensus is that the long ending (Mark 16:9-20) is not original to the Gospel. I will not rehearse that evidence here except to say that 9-20 is absent from the earliest manuscripts, patristic evidence is scanty and confirms that most manuscripts in the fourth century did not have the long ending (both Eusebius and Jerome note that most manuscripts do not have the long ending), and the style of Mark 16:9-20 is very different from the previous narrative. [This is no threat to faith as the text of the New Testament is more certain and verifiable than any other ancient text.] Despite this, some yet advocate for the originality of 16:9-20. Whatever the case, I will assume—for the purposes of this final blog on the Gospel of Mark—that the Gospel ends at 16:8 for if we reject the authenticity of 16:9-20 we have no other choice than to read Mark 16:1-8 as the end of the Gospel. (I recognize that some believe the original ending has been lost to us, and that may very well be the case.) If the Gospel of Mark ends at 16:8, it is a rather peculiar ending. But this might be its narrative genius rather than a drawback.
Ever been to a movie where the ending left you hanging and asking “what happened next?” Those endings are often frustrating but purposeful. They invite us into the story as we “live out” the ending in our own imagination. It is possible that Mark ends on a note something like that.
It is plausible that Mark is intentionally open-ended with his final words. He does not end the story or provide some closure but rather reopens the story as if to return to the beginning of the Gospel narrative itself. He leaves us with a dramatic cliffhanger that invites us to begin the story anew. Possibly Mark restarts the ministry of Jesus in the light of his resurrection and the disciples, including Peter, are again called to follow him. It is this mission in which we also as readers are invited, and the real ending of Mark lies with us. In other words, will we follow Jesus back to Galilee and begin anew his ministry of heralding and practicing the kingdom of God? Or, will we refuse to believe and follow?
Mark 16:1-3 stands in narrative contrast with Mark 15:46-47. While Joseph bought linen and hurriedly buried Jesus in a tomb with a large stone sealing it before the Sabbath began on Friday evening, the women after the Sabbath bought spices and came to tomb on Sunday morning to complete the burial (“anoint”) despite the fact that they did not know how they would roll back the stone. The women came in love and to their surprise they found the stone already rolled back from the entrance to the tomb.
Beginning in Mark 16:5, the narrative bridge from the cross to the tomb is now complete. Jesus died in Mark 15:37 and the tomb is found open in Mark 16:4. Mark 16:5-7 is the climatic moment of Mark’s narrative.
Mark 16:5-8 is filled with linguistic and conceptual connections with Mark’s previous story (see the chart at the end of this post). The narrative intertextuality illuminates what Mark is doing in these significant and revolutionary sentences.
The first disclosure is the presence of the “young man.” The only previous appearance of a “young man” in Mark was the one who fled from the scene of Jesus’ arrest in Mark 14:51. But here, instead of fleeing, this “young man” sits “on the right” clothed (wrapped) in a white linen. “Sitting on the right” is a significant phrase in Mark. It is the position to which James and John aspired (Mark 10:37); it is the position of the Messiah next to God (Mark 12:36); and it is the position of the Son of Man in glory (Mark 14:62). Further, this “young man” is dressed in “white,” and that word only occurs elsewhere in Mark when he describes the transfiguration of Jesus into glory (Mark 9:3).
In other words, in contrast with the despair of a “young man” who flees the garden on a previous night, this “young man” sits in glory. This is a triumphant picture; it is an eschatological picture. The glory of the Son of Man radiates from the empty tomb where one of his “disciples” (that is, a “young man”) sits. The world has been remade and renewed. The tomb is empty.
The second disclosure is the word of the “young man.” His language arises out of Mark’s previous narrative. While crowds and authorities had previously “sought” Jesus, now the women seek him. But the one they seek is no mere miracle worker or Messianic pretender. On the contrary, he is the crucified but risen one! Jesus is no longer in the “place” they laid him—he is no longer alone and dead in a tomb. “Place,” in the Gospel of Mark, has always been used for solitary, wilderness and chaotic situations. Now, however, Jesus is no longer in that “place.” He is no longer subject to the powers of the wilderness and chaos; death no longer holds power over him.
“Crucified and risen” is the language of the “Son of Man” though that title is not used in chapter 16. Jesus had predicted that the Son of Man would be killed but also rise from the dead, and the “young man” announces the reality. In effect, he heralds the coming of the Son of Man; he heralds the kingdom of God.
Significantly, the “young man” not only announces the resurrection (and thus the kingdom of God), but also calls the disciples (through the word of the women) to renew the ministry of the kingdom of God. The reference to Galilee is not simply a reference to a geographical location but is symbolic of the beginning of the Gospel of Mark itself. It was in Galilee where Mark’s gospel begins. It is where the disciples were first called and where they ministered with Jesus.
Galilee does not simply represent a geographical region. It evokes a mission; it engages our wills and emotions. It is a metaphor for the ministry of Jesus. As some suggested in my Bible class last Sunday, “going to Galilee” might be like “going to Michigan” in the 19550s. In other words, “to go to Michigan” is not simply about geographical but it is finding a job in Detroit. Another example is “going to Washington.” This does not refer primarily to geography but rather the intent to participate in governing a nation. “Going to Galilee” is something similar. It means to participate in the ministry of Jesus as in the beginning of the Gospel of Mark.
Jesus is returning to Galilee and the disciples are to follow. There they (including the women!) will “see” Jesus. The term “see” (optanomai) is only used three other times in Mark. In each context it is eschatological in nature. The disciples saw Elijah and Moses (Mark 9:4), the powers will “see” the Son of Man coming in the clouds (Mark 13:26), and the Sanhedrin would “see” the coming of the Son of Man (Mark 14:62). Their “seeing” is an eschatological seeing, that is, they will experience the reality of the kingdom of God (inclusive of resurrection appearances).
The total effect of the “young man” (both presence and message) is the eschatological reality of the kingdom of God. The kingdom is present in power. The cross did not destroy the kingdom of God; it bore witness to the kingdom. The resurrection destroyed the powers; it enabled disciples to “see” the coming of the Son of Man. The kingdom has emerged triumphant.
The curious part of the text is the response of the women in Mark 16:8. They are described (including Mark 16:5) as “troubled,” astonished (estatic), afraid and trembling. The narrator piles one term on top of another. Mark’s purpose is dramatic effect—the emotional state of the women ranges from amazement to the shakes (trembling). The dramatic moment vivified the women but also “stopped them in their tracks.” They have encountered eschatological reality; they have experienced a divine encounter of sorts.
The women are afraid (that is, they “fear”) in the wake of this encounter. This has a (momentary?) paralyzing effect. They have faced eschatological Truth and “fear.” This parallels two similar instances earlier in the narrative. The disciples were “afraid” when Jesus stilled the chaotic waters (Mark 4:41) and the people of the Decapolis were “afraid” of Jesus because he cast out a demon (Mark 5:15). When one watches the kingdom of God overcome the powers, fear is a natural response. The women are “afraid” in the wake of Jesus’ victory over death. It is a fear that arises out of awe and wonder, and it can be paralyzing….for a moment.
Mark leaves us here—women paralyzed by awe-struck fear in response to the resurrection of Jesus. It is open-ended. The reader wonders what happened next (and thus several attempted to supply an answer).
But the answer does not lie in the narrative. It lies in the reader. Will we, as we presume the disciples will (and, as we know from other Gospel accounts, did), follow Jesus to Galilee? Will we renew the Galilean ministry of Jesus? Will we “see” Jesus in the power and mission of his ministry as we follow him?
What happens next depends not on the narrator but on the reader. What will we do? It is the question we must all answer as readers of the Gospel of Mark.
Narrative Links in Mark 16:5-8
Previously in Mark
|Tomb (5:2, 3; 6:29; 15:46; 16:2, 3)||Tomb (16:5, 8)|
|Sitting on the Right (10:37; 12:36; 14:62)||Sitting on the Right (16:5)|
|Young Man (14:51)||Young Man (16:5)|
|Clothed/Wrapped (14:51)||Clothed/Wrapped (16:5)|
|White (9:3)||White (16:5)|
|Amazed/Frightened/Troubled (9:15; 14:33)||Amazed/Frightened/Troubled (16:5,6)|
|Seeking Jesus (1:37; 3:32; 8:11; 11:18; 12:12; 14:1, 11, 55)||Seeking Jesus (16:6)|
|Crucified (15:20, 24, 25, 27)||Crucified (Mark 16:6)|
|Rise (12:26; 14:28)||Rise (Mark 16:6)|
|“Solitary” Place (1:35, 45; 6:31, 32, 35) and “place” of chaos (13:8; 15:22).||Place (Mark 16:6)|
|Going Before in Galilee (14:28)||Going Before in Galilee (16:7)|
|To “See” Jesus (9:4; 13:26; 14:62)||To “See” Jesus (16:7)|
|Astonished (ekstasis; 5:42)||Astonished (16:8)|
|Fear (phobeo; 4:41; 5:15)||Fear (16:8)|
|Fearing and Trembling (tremo; 5:33)||Fearing and Trembling (tromos; 16:8)|