What happened next? Stories of the resurrection
The earliest surviving manuscript of the whole of the Greek New Testament is Codex Sinaiticus, produced around the end of the fourth century. Although its physical pages are now distributed between four libraries across the world, the whole manuscript has been reunited in digital form by a project involving the University of Birmingham’s Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing (ITSEE). High-resolution images of each page are linked to a full-text transcription, enabling users to click on a single word and see it in the original on the website.
At the end of the Gospel according to Mark, however, this manuscript appears to break off mid-sentence. Rather than including the last 12 verses of this book, telling the story of what happened after the resurrection of Jesus, it ends with the three women coming out of the empty tomb, trembling with shock. ‘And they said nothing to anyone. Because they were afraid.’ Despite this abrupt—and apparently ungrammatical – ending, it’s clear that the copyist of the manuscript intended to finish the gospel here: the last line is followed by a concluding flourish and the title of the book, in accordance with ancient practice.
What is more, Codex Sinaiticus is not the only manuscript which ends at this unexpected point. Exactly the same conclusion to Mark is found in a slightly older Greek Bible, Codex Vaticanus. The last 12 verses are also missing from ancient translations of this gospel into Syriac or Latin and they are not quoted by the earliest Christian writers. This suggests that they did not form part of the text of this Gospel in antiquity. That said, the absence of these verses from Mark should not be interpreted as casting doubt on the Resurrection.
Codex Sinaiticus and these other witnesses all have the standard accounts of the events following the Crucifixion in the gospels of Matthew, Luke and John as well as the other New Testament writings. The shorter version of Mark found in these sources does not call into question any of the most important doctrines of Christianity.
Yet early readers seem to have been unhappy with the rather downbeat ending to Mark. In one of the oldest surviving Latin manuscripts, an extra sentence has been added after the silence of the women, saying that they later told the disciples, who then preached the message of salvation across the world. This shorter ending is often found in conjunction with the traditional longer ending (the last 12 verses), which tells how the risen Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene and to two disciples on a journey, before sending out the disciples, commanding them to preach the good news, and finally ascending into heaven. One manuscript even has an addition in this longer ending, known to the fourth-century scholar Jerome, which speaks of a limit being put on the power of the devil.
There are, however, multiple indications that these endings are secondary: not only do they bring together elements from the other gospels, but their style and language are typical of slightly later Greek usage and are not consistent with the rest of the Gospel according to Mark.
So what happened at the end of the first gospel? One rather fanciful theory imagines Mark being arrested by the authorities and taken away to his own death, leaving his work unfinished mid-sentence. A more mundane explanation is that, at a very early point, the last page became detached from the rest of the gospel or there was damage to the end of the scroll on which it was written, meaning that the original ending was irretrievably lost.
Nevertheless, others have suggested that the Gospel according to Mark is complete as it stands. Its sudden ending could be the author’s way of encouraging readers to reflect: if the women said nothing to anyone, how was the news of the resurrection passed on? What is the explanation for the transformation of Jesus’ followers after his death?
And perhaps there is no ending to this story, if the Easter message means that Christians today continue to find hope and new life beyond the empty tomb.
Dr Hugh Houghton
Reader in New Testament Textual Scholarship, Director of the Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing, University of Birmingham.