When it comes to what’s distinctive about the last part of Mark’s gospel, there’s nothing more distinctive than the ending. Unlike any other part of the Bible, you’ll usually find it printed with three possible endings.
The first simply stops at 16:8. That seems to be the most likely ‘original’ ending, with the angel announcing that Jesus is risen, and with the women at the tomb leaving in fear without seeing Jesus for themselves.
Two other endings are also found in some very early manuscripts, often enough (in fact more often than the ending at 16:8) that they’re usually included in Bibles, though often in brackets with a note that they’re considered less likely to be original. The ‘shorter ending’ gives a very brief conclusion. The ‘longer ending’ with verses numbered 9-20, is the most common in ancient manuscripts, though it’s often marked as doubtful in them. It looks as though it’s a summary of resurrection appearances from Matthew and Luke, together with references to things that will happen in Acts.
On one level, it doesn’t matter too much. Whether or not the longer ending is original, it does seem to include material we already have elsewhere in the New Testament. The only church practice or belief that it might affect is that of a few churches who believe that handling poisonous snakes is a sign of true faith. I don’t think that’s what Jesus meant, even if he did say 16:18.
But it does matter because the confusion speaks of our discomfort with unfinished stories. It seems to me that people quickly decided that Mark couldn’t have meant to stop at 16:8, so added what he ‘really meant to say.’ In his abrupt ending, Mark leaves the story of the Resurrection completely open. Death is defeated, and Jesus lives – but what that will mean is a story not yet told. Perhaps Mark did mean to stop there – to point his readers to the Resurrection as a present reality in their own lives, not just an event one spring morning long ago.
But we want the whole story, with a good, satisfying ending. Perhaps we should learn from the great, unfinished story of the Old Testament – God’s story of life with us doesn’t end until heaven and earth are reunited. In the meantime, through the Cross and Resurrection Jesus has changed the end of our stories – sin, death and fear are defeated. Life, love and hope triumph.
I’m writing on the Monday of Holy Week, still travelling towards the Cross. But I know that in a few days’ time, the tomb will be empty. Jesus lives.