Basically four endings of Mark’s Gospel appear in the extant manuscripts, two of which can readily be dismissed because of the acute weakness of the documentary evidence. Among the final twenty verses an expanded insertion between v. 14 and v. 15 is preserved only in the late-fourth or early-fifth century Codex Washingtonianus (W or 032). A number of late manuscripts include a shorter ending following 16:8, though all but one (itk) continue with vv. 9-20.The major debate concerns the other two endings. The vast majority of witnesses contain the full twenty verses (i.e. the traditional ending). In fact, 99% of the existing manuscripts have the longer ending of Mark. But the Gospel ends at 16:8 in some copies, including the two oldest: the fourth-century Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus, although in Vaticanus an empty space follows 16:8, leaving room for the verses in question.
While the difficulty is not easily resolved, the majority opinion in scholarly circles is that the original ending is at 16:8, although most agree that v. 8 provides an abrupt, clumsy conclusion with no record of a personal appearance of the risen Christ. From a pragmatic standpoint, we know that the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, the issuing of the great commission and the ascension were all well known accounts at the time Mark’s Gospel was penned (1 Corinthians 15:5-7; 1 Peter 3:18-22; 5:13; etc.). Why would these critical details be omitted and why would the Gospel end so abruptly? Three possibilities have been proposed: (1) the abrupt ending was intentional; (2) the Gospel was never finished; or (3) the original ending was lost.
Did Mark intentionally conclude the Gospel at 16:8 for reasons known only to him? Rather than leaving his readers in suspense, Mark was careful to affirm the fulfilment of divine promises. For example, Mark narrates the Lord’s prophetic warning of Judas’ betrayal (14:18-21, 42), followed by its fulfilment (14:43-45). Mark recounts the Lord’s expressed foreknowledge of the disciples forsaking him (14:27), followed by its fulfilment (14:50). Mark reports the Lord’s prediction of Peter’s denial and the crowing rooster (14:30), followed by its fulfilment (14:66-72). Mark records the Lord’s repeated forewarnings of his suffering, death, and resurrection (8:31; 9:31; 10:32-34), followed by the fulfilment of these prophecies (14:43–16:6).
Twice Mark documents the explicit promise that Jesus would appear to his disciples after his resurrection (14:28; 16:7). It seems incredible, therefore, to think that Mark’s narrative would uncharacteristically leave these promises unfulfilled! A point worthy of consideration is the improbability that ephobounto gar ("for they feared") would have been purposefully chosen as the final wording of a book, especially of this particular book. One might argue that a sentence or even a paragraph could legitimately conclude with gar ("for") (cf. BAGD 151), but "it is difficult to believe that the note of fear would have been regarded as an appropriate conclusion to an account of the . . . Good News" (B. M. Metzger and B. D. Ehrman, Text of the NT 325-26).
Is it likely that the Gospel was never completed? Donald Guthrie considers this "a suggestion which is not impossible, but which in the nature of the case cannot be confirmed" (NT Introduction 78). There is simply no proof that the ending was absent from the Gospel of Mark when it was first disseminated.
Was the original ending lost? Mark’s Gospel ends at 16:8 at the bottom of the last surviving leaf of the 11th-century Codex 2386, and the next leaf is missing with clear indication that additional material followed (see B. M. Metzger, Textual Commentary [2nd ed.] 102 n. 1). This demonstrates the plausibility of an earlier codex version of Mark that was similarly damaged, resulting in subsequent copies ending at v. 8, with later attempts to complete the Gospel with shorter and intermediate conclusions. Surely, then, it is conceivable that the original ending remained in non-defective manuscripts rather than having been totally lost and was faithfully preserved in the majority (99%) of copies that are currently available. This also offers a reasonable explanation for the empty space that follows v. 8 in Codex Vaticanus (the only blank column in the entire volume), if the copyist had only a defective manuscript with which to work but was aware of the longer ending.
–Kevin L. Moore
Related Posts: Ending of Mark Part 2, Ending of Mark Part 3, Ending of Mark Part 4, Text of NT Part 1, Text of NT Part 2