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.