The Shortest Ending of Mark

Last weekend, I taught the 12-13 year olds all about the longer and shorter endings of Mark.  Bible nerds out there are nodding appreciatively, but for the rest of us, here’s the concept.  Imagine that Mark 16 (the end of Mark) concludes with this verse:

And they went out quickly, and fled from the sepulchre; for they trembled and were amazed: neither said they any thing to any man; for they were afraid.

No Mary Magdalene, no snake handling, no injunction to go out into the world and preach to every creature.  Nobody sees the risen Christ.

That’s how Mark ends in the most reliable and oldest manuscripts.  And this is problematic, because Mark is the oldest and generally most reliable of our four gospels.  The rest (verses 9-20) are generally accepted to have been added a hundred or two hundred years later.  There is an alternative version (the “shorter ending of Mark”), found in the Greek, that is much more obviously not Markian:

And they reported all the instructions briefly to Peter’s companions. Afterwards Jesus himself, through them, sent forth from east to west the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation. Amen.

So what, then, do we make of the other post-resurrection accounts of Jesus?  If we take Mark to be the sort of Gospel account that the early Christians would use (a bit of a leap), does this mean that the first followers of Jesus had no text that talked about post-resurrection Jesus?

Keep in mind that I was teaching 12-13 year olds.  Throwing them into an abyss of textual aporia is not my goal.  We were looking at scriptures as a means of learning the words of the prophets.  We looked at three different ways of approaching scripture: reading, studying, and searching.  Reading implies basic consumption of the text.  When you read the scriptures, chances are you’re primarily following the narrative, the characters, the basic themes, but it’s not necessarily an intense experience.  We do scripture reading as a family, and I can tell you that it’s not always a very deep read.  Studying the scriptures is a fundamentally different activity: it implies reading but also examination, close review, and comparison to similar materials.  The gold standard would probably be torah study or quran study, which involves close reading of the text and infusion from trusted sources, coupled with vigorous discussion and explication of the text.  Lastly, searching the scriptures tends to implies seeking a specific theme, incident, author, verse or answer.  It is through searching the scriptures, for example, that we can find they testify of Christ:

Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.

So, the Markian long/short/shorter endings came up in this context, under what it means to study the scriptures.  And it occurs to me that a Mormon is extremely unlikely to encounter the various endings of Mark: it is not discussed in Sunday School or seminary.  Yet it is a major textual issue and a Bible study should involve the point.  It implies, basically, that when Mormons (and the vast majority of Christians) think about Easter, they’re probably ignoring what Mark says.

But does that matter, given the other Gospels, and (for Mormons) the blanket acceptance of the KJV as the best translation of the Bible?  I think it should matter, not to persuade us that the events in the other Gospels are somehow false, but that the text is complex and tricky and that it requires real thought and study to understand what’s going on.  In other words, it’s an example that should shock disciples of Christ into desiring to step up their game in terms of how they face the text.  That’s how I raised it with the kids.  They didn’t know what the italics mean in the KJV (“It means it’s really important”, which is both true and false as an answer), and they don’t know what the paragraph marks mean, either.  That’s OK — we can be saved without knowing such things.  But we can’t pretend to really know our scriptures.


  1. Kevin Barney says:

    What a great idea for a lesson for the 12-13 year olds! Seriously. You’re right that this is basic biblical literacy stuff, and we should be teaching this to our youth when they are young. Well done.

    Here’s something you may find interesting about John 5:39, that famous scripture mastery passage which enjoins us to “search the scriptures.” The meaning of that passage is not quite as straightforward as we usually take it in seminary class. Here’s why: The intial verb of the passage, rendered “search” in the KJV, is eraunaO, which does indeed mean “to search, to examine.” The form used in John 5:39 is ereunate, which is second person plural. Now, Greek is usually a very precise language (much more so than English). But here is a case where there is a built-in ambiguity, because in the second person plural the mood of the verb could be taken as either an imperative, the way the KJV takes it (“search the scriptures, dammit!”), or as an indicative, as most modern translations take it (“you search the scriptures”). And to me from the context it is pretty clear that this was meant to be an indicative and not an imperative.

    Here is the NET rendering: “You study the scriptures thoroughly because you think in them you possess eternal life, and it is these same scriptures that testify about me.”

    So this is not Jesus straightforwardly commanding the Pharisees to crack open their scriptures. They already do plenty of that. Instead he’s pointing out the reality that they already study their scriptures extensively, but it hasn’t done them any good, because they’ve missed the fact that the very scriptures they have so immersed themselves in actually testify of him.

    So searching the scriptures in and of itself is not necessarily a good thing if in the process you miss the point of what they are saying.

  2. I love that you did this, Steve. “Read the scriptures” is one of the Sunday School answers, but do we really know what that entails?

  3. Reading is easy! Understanding is hard.

  4. “Read the scriptures” is one of the Sunday School answers, but do we really know what that entails?

    In many cases, we truly don’t, and that’s an indictment. On another level, we do well in terms of bulk reading and generally knowing primary versions of core scripture stories.

  5. I’m trying to figure out how to take this post. First, I’m guessing you had to be there, cause if you put it like this to 13 year olds, more than half of them would have glazed over pretty quickly.

    You seem to be saying that most of us are just reading, not really studying or searching, which is ok if we just want to be saved, but not really up to your level. Most Mormons just aren’t doing it right, those poor sheeple. Aren’t we glad we know better?

    It feels like a -very- uncharitable interpretation, which is what’s got me in such a conundrum.

  6. Frank, you’re the reader of the post, so you can interpret this any way you want. But you’re quite wrong in every thing you say.

  7. Glad to hear, Steve. Is there anything you can add that could possibly help this? I’m really, really just not seeing another interpretation here, and it bothers me.

    (and the flat dismissal just makes it worse. Just sayin)

  8. I don’t know what “most of us” are doing. I’m just drawing conclusions from our correlated materials, which definitely are not rigorous forms of Bible study.

    Do you disagree with my assertion that sophisticated Bible knowledge is not necessary to be saved?

    Do you disagree with my assertion that taking the scriptures seriously probably requires us to go above and beyond what the manuals present?

    I mean, characterize those as insultingly as you want, but those are my fundamental conclusions, so start with those.

  9. In fact, I’d go even further. I’m not really even commenting on our materials.

  10. It is through searching the scriptures, for example, that we can find they testify of Christ:

    Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me.

    Jesus seems to have been saying exactly the opposite: for all their searching of the scriptures, they had missed the whole point.

    If it happened to the Pharisees of Jesus’s day, why wouldn’t we run the same risk today?

  11. Mark, there’s a big difference between keeping your scriptural eye on the ball (i.e., Jesus is salvation, not the scriptures) and not knowing the scriptures or their history, origins, meaning, context, etc.

    But you’re not really arguing against scripture study, are you?

  12. I don’t have any problem with criticism levied against me as an individual or us as a church in this regard, even though I really don’t get that from this post. Such criticism would be well deserved. We have people for at least one hour a week–usually significantly more if they are following the guidance to study the scriptures on their own–for their entire lives from when they learn to read (sometimes from the scriptures!) to when they die, and yet we as a church have not figured out how to utilize all that time in a coherent manner. 70 years of Sunday School is like 3500+ hours, which should be plenty of time to *really* learn the scriptures. Like, in the original languages if we wanted. Add in fifteen to thirty minutes six or seven times a week of personal/family study and the total number of hours gets insane. Of course there are all sorts of good reasons this thought experiment isn’t realistic, but certainly there should be room for learning the basics of biblical criticism, which is so perfectly in keeping with the church’s original approach to the scriptures. Joseph had no problem pointing out that the Bible wasn’t quite what it appeared on the surface, so why should we be afraid of that? Why do we try so hard to look like fundamentalist evangelicals when we just aren’t?

  13. Steve, thank you for the post. Great insights as always! I taught the shortest ending when I was a seminary teacher, and now that I teach Gospel Doctrine, the adults will get it this year (my poor ward!). I whole-heartedly agree that every teacher should magnify their callings by stretching beyond the correlated materials when preparing each lesson. That being said, a Home Teacher should also care and love his families and show that love at least monthly. I stretch as imperfectly as I can, and rely on grace to fill in the rest.

    A key thing to this particular example you brought up – Mark’s early shortest ending may predate the other gospels, but is not the earliest Christian writing. Many of Paul’s letters, including some which specifically address the resurrection pre-date Mark. So the Gentile Christians of Mark’s day (his audience) already had letters testifying of the resurrection. The way I left it with my seminary class is to ask them to think about why Mark might have left one of the well-attested resurrection accounts (plural) out of his gospel (or why it might have been lost at a very early date).

  14. Sean, exactly right. The Markian text has limitations and we need to be cognizant of those, but as I mentioned they’re not insurmountable and good study means gaining a more complete picture. Paul’s letters help to fill in the gaps.

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    In case anyone is interested, here is my footnote on the short ending of Mark from my New Testament Footnotes project:

    The text of Mark ends here in a number of important early mss. This was probably the original ending of the Gospel. Some mss. add a short section following v. 8, that reads something as follows: “But they reported briefly to Peter and those with him all that they had been told. And after this Jesus himself sent out by means of them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” Most of these witnesses then continue with the material from vv. 9-20. One ms. gives the longer ending in an even more expanded form. The longer endings probably arose because of the perceived abruptness of the original ending. There are three possible explanations for the original ending: (1) it may have been intentional (this is the most likely); (2) it may have never been finished; or (3) the last leaf may have been lost just before copying (assuming that the original was written on a codex and not a scroll).

  16. “Do you disagree with my assertion that sophisticated Bible knowledge is not necessary to be saved? ”
    No disagreement here.

    “Do you disagree with my assertion that taking the scriptures seriously probably requires us to go above and beyond what the manuals present?”
    Absolutely disagree here. Thanks for helping to mark out the sticking point.

    Most people do not have the time, capacity, or inclination to go as far beyond as you require. You’d paint them as “not taking the scriptures seriously”. Not everyone can or should be completely aware of the different translations for a particular translation of “God” in an obscure book buried in the Old Testament. Not everyone needs to be, just as not everyone needs to be conversant in every translation of the Temple Endowment ritual to get the full meaning, or they’re “not taking [it] seriously”.

    Learning is a good thing, and more learning is certainly more of a good thing. However, this paints others as not being to your level, not doing as much as they should be to be “serious” in their reading, studying, and searching.

  17. Kristine says:

    Really, Frank? When someone gives a talk explaining how they’ve developed more charity, and suggesting that we should all do the same, do you go up to them afterwards and tell them they shouldn’t enjoin people to come up to their level?

    That Mormon streak of anti-intellectualism is odd for people who are otherwise all about constant striving for self-improvement.

  18. Frank, that’s a ridiculous characterization of my comment. You’re 0/2 here, man. Don’t strike out.

    You’re hinging a lot on “people don’t need to” do X or Y. Well, of course they don’t. I’ve been clear about that. But again, if you don’t have the time or inclination to study the scriptures, don’t pretend like you’re serious about them. “Serious” doesn’t mean a superior level of obedience. It means that you find the text interesting and want to engage with it deeply. It has nothing to do with my level (I’m a lightweight). But it has everything to do with seeking knowledge.

    In short, you’re wrong again.

  19. Nice, Steve. Wish we could expose more of our youth, lightly, to this kind of thing. I walked our adult class through some text criticism and a counter-text to John 5:39 a few weeks ago.

  20. Perfect, Ben.

  21. Kevin Barney says:

    Ben, I thought you might like to know I used your concept of “accomodation” from your blog post in my GD class last Sunday. Thanks for the great idea.

  22. Thanks Steve.
    Kevin, whole chapter on it in the forthcoming Genesis book ;)

  23. Steve, I like your post. But I was ignorant of the short version of Mark, so I feel edified.
    Ben, I like your post even better. Something like that should be taught in seminary at least once every year.

  24. Jason K. says:

    Since I introduced the apparently incendiary idea that many Mormons do not really read the scriptures, perhaps I should clarify. What I mean is that in Sunday School lessons and talks, we very rarely spend much time probing the precise wording of scriptural texts before we move on to application of various kinds. I submit that close attention to the text produces richer, less vague applications. This need not be an elitist practice at all. In fact the New Critical emphasis on close reading emerged in part as a pragmatic response to the post-WWII democraticization of higher ed. To be fair, I see great value in bringing the sorts of contextual information that Ben S. shares in his posts to bear on the scriptures, but even that is not restricted to a highly educated elite. After all, one can glean much of it from the notes in a good study Bible, which can be had for a fraction of what most of us drop on a monthly basis for cell phone or internet service. Now, it’s true that many people may not have the inclination to engage in this kind of study, but, as Kristine and Steve pointed out above, that doesn’t necessarily have much to do with the alleged elitism of people like me who find value in it.

  25. Jason K. says:

    I should add that in my own practice as a Gospel Doctrine teacher, rather than presenting myself as an elite purveyor of specialized knowledge, I go to great pains to show class members that they, too, are quite capable of engaging in the kind of reading I strive to model.

  26. The first followers of Jesus had the testimonies of fellow Saints that Jesus was resurrected, and teachers who wanted to tell the good news and strengthen the faith of their fellow Saints.

  27. Uh, yes.

  28. Angela C says:

    I struggle to imagine how anyone could think the majority of church members are serious about their study of the scriptures. Most get nearly all of their exposure to the scriptures through the lens of Gospel Doctrine class alone which only features a handful of prooftexted verses to make a doctrinal point. That’s not engaging seriously in scripture study. I too have taken a different approach in teaching the youth, asking them the kinds of questions we used to discuss in English classes: what are people’s motivations, what is the context (backstory or history), what kind of people are we reading about, how do others interpret the same story, why was this included in the text, etc. These are the types of questions that IMO create more interest in the text. The lessons should do two things: 1) help class members want to follow Christ, and 2) engender a life-long love for the scriptures that will drive them to the text in their personal life.

    At the beginning of this year, in our adult GD class, a prominent ward member revealed her scriptural illiteracy when it was apparent she didn’t know the difference between Mary Magdalene and Mary sister of Martha. Most kids entering the MTC have never read any of the scriptures through. There’s a reason Pres. Benson encouraged members to make the Book of Mormon their lifelong study. Back then, it was evident almost nobody had actually read it. Instead we go to a class, read a few verses (same ones every year) taken out of context, and we call it good.

  29. Clark Goble says:

    So did you tell them about the Secret Gospel of Mark too? Take one part out add one part back in?

  30. Ben S, I presume that the wink and a nod means the book isn’t “just around the corner”. (Hopefully mistaken in this).

  31. Clark, nope. That’s not my scene.

  32. For most Mormons, isn’t the fact that the Book of Mormon prominently features a fully resurrected and living Christ and that it supersedes the Bible in relevance and authority in our faith make the multiple endings of Mark basically irrelevant?

    I am not saying we shouldn’t be bible savvy, scripturally literate, or aware of the multiple endings, and maybe this is what you refer to in regards to salvation not requiring this level of literacy, but I think we also sometimes silo the bible and the Book of Mormon when we shouldn’t (and yes sometimes conflate them when we shouldn’t as well)

    That said, I’d love to see Julie Smith geek out on this. The Markan Knolwedge is strong in that one.

  33. Matt, where do you get the idea that the Book of Mormon supercedes the Bible in relevance and authority? That’s a new one. It’s the ‘most correct’ book, etc., but you are taking things quite a bit further.

  34. Though yes, I agree that for Mormons, the Book of Mormon provides additional testimony as to the risen Christ.

  35. I think I have to agree with Matt in terms of *practice* if not intent and doctrine.

  36. Steve, this sounds like a really fun lesson. Coupled with Kevin’s suggestions about possible reasons why the account ended there, this is a great way to get young folks thinking more deeply about scriptures. (I hope that doesn’t offend anyone, my suggesting that we could all stand to improve on how we think about our scriptures…)

  37. BHodges, the way you put it can’t offend. It implies we’re all in this together. The post (and a few of the replies) come across as a benevolent mind deigning to scatter his knowledge to the masses, who just aren’t doing it right, the poor dears.

    I guess I just prefer the teaching style of the teacher being no better than their students.

  38. This is a great idea, and I wish we did some of this in every lesson. Thinking about the scriptures is a valuable thing and it can help prepare people for questions that arise in their religious life. Good work, man.

  39. Frank, [edited]. Goodbye.

  40. Most interesting college class I ever took was the Bible as literature. If Sunday school were more like that class, I might actually attend. So kudos for what you’re doing here.

  41. Julie M. Smith says:

    “That said, I’d love to see Julie Smith geek out on this. The Markan Knolwedge is strong in that one.”

    Haha. Here’s my treatment of the ending:

  42. Awesome stuff.

  43. Kevin Barney says:

    That was really good, Julie. I liked how you organized the various thoughts and theories about this.

  44. Paul Brown says:

    My take on “search the scriptures” is to search them for doctrinal points: proof texting. And we do way too much of that. Reading and studying don’t have the same pejorative connotation to my mind.

  45. Steve: I was just thinking of Bible= good as far as translated correctly/Book of Mormon = good. If my language implied more than that, sorry. I just think I see a normative behavior in our church where we look to the BOM sermon on the mount to interpret the NT version, the same with the Isaiah chapters and so on. I have seen the short Mark used in the following light:

    1. Mark is Q- other gospels are facsimiles
    2. Mark did not end with resurrected Christ but with Death of Christ
    3. Jesus was Just a man

    With that in mind, I think the Book of Mormon, when regarded as a historical document, makes such an argument irrelevant because the Book of Mormon places a resurrected Christ on the other side of the planet after Mark.

    Sorry for not being clearer in my original comment.

    Julie: Awesome!

  46. Matt, makes sense.

  47. Wow – I wish we taught Julie’s stuff in SS! That’s fascinating. I know one of the leading Greek scholars in the church, rumor is he’s been asked not to comment on much at church bc it hasn’t been vetted by correlation. Or so I’ve heard from someone that heard from someone else.

    Anyways, Sometimes I get holy envy of other churches that designate people to be gospel scholars and those people in turn teach the masses (torah, etc.). I’m not always a fan of the blind leading the blind. Or CES employees, they’re hit or miss IMHO.

  48. Mary Ann says:

    Thanks Ben S for the post. Our ward is way behind schedule, so I’m set to do Lesson 12 tomorrow. :)

    Steve, I would have loved this type of lesson as a teenager! I think pointing out ambiguities is helpful to teens. It confirms their experience that life isn’t quite black and white so developing a relationship with the Spirit is really important. It also humanizes the people in the scriptures (or, in this case, the people transmitting the scriptural record). We may not be perfect, but we’re trying the best we can with the information we have.

    The advantage of seminary, institute,and church schools is the *potential* for really good in-depth scripture study. Learning about the OT and NT from world-class LDS scholars is one of the things I most value from my BYU education.

  49. Thanks Mary Ann!

  50. The original ending of Mark is my favorite of the Gospels, for two reasons. First, it allows the reading to share in the awe and wonder that the disciples felt when they found the empty tomb. What does it mean? Where did the body go?

    Second, it drives home the point that we are currently in the same position as those disciples. We have been told that the tomb was empty, but (most of us) have not yet met the risen Christ. And so we too are left hanging, in a state of awe and wonder and worry, at what is to come next.

    The cliffhanger at the end of Mark is essentially the cliffhanger that each Christian must face.