Does The Beginning Of Mark Affect The End? Studies in Mark, Pt. 80

While I am quite comfortable with the decisions I've made concerning the beginning of Mark's Gospel, the end has left me in a rather enigmatic state. Lately, I've been wondering if it might be the case that Mark's beginning helps us make sense of his ending? Here's what I've been thinking (and two papers at SBL helped me clarify some issues surrounding this matter, notably, those of Eve-Marie Becker and James McGrath): If Mark's beginning is "Isaianic", that is, drawing on and shaped by Isaiah, then this affects how we understand whether or not 16.9-16 were originally included or not.

So, for instance, when Mark quotes Isa. 40.3 at the start of his text, he is surely being purposeful about it. But what is the purpose? My thinking is that, if one goes back to Isa. 40.3 (and the surrounding texts), they will see that Isaiah is concerned with "the sin of the people being paid for", a comforting message, "the glory of the Lord revealed", "good news", etc. To put it more succinctly: Isaiah is concerned with telling the good news. Mark picks up on this. Thus, at the commencement of his story, he's making the point, right from the get-go, that the "good news" already began with the words of Isaiah--this was something the prophet was already interested in and talking about. Thus, Mark's "arche" (lacking the definite article and to be translated as "a beginning") is indefinite for a reason: While this is "a" beginning in the history of the Gospel, it is certainly (for him) not "the" beginning; it began back in Isaiah and is now coming to fruition! For Mark, Jesus' coming is only one beginning in the story; we might understand it like a late chapter in a book that introduces a new setting and new characters, which, all the while draws off of "the" beginning. For Mark, "the" beginning lies with Isaiah.

What this suggests (and at the cost of being too short-winded I am going to leave some things out and simplify others) is that what Mark is more concerned with than anything else is the telling of the "good news". It might even be fair to say that he's not concerned in the first place about God, Jesus, Jerusalem, John the Baptizer, etc., but rather, his main concern is with making sure the "good news" is told. Mark, then, is not content-focused but proclamation focused (I am wondering here if my view of Mark as a traveling monologist is even more supported by this?) Even more, he wants to make sure that it is clear that this telling of the "good news" is a continuation of the telling that began with the prophet Isaiah. Seen in this light, it appears, then, that Mark is narrative-focused.

Now, if the above suppositions are correct, that Mark's main intent is on the transmission, that is, the telling / proclaiming of the story (good news), then this might affect whether or not we take 16.9-16 as original or not. If the above view is adopted, it would only make sense that 16.9-16 are original. Why? Well, if Mark's foremost concern is with telling the story, then it is highly unlikely that he would have ended his account with persons not saying anything! No, it is imperative for Mark to have the story itself continue as well as the telling of it. In other words, it would be out of Markan character and purpose to have ended the "good news" at 16.8, which is bad news because it is ultimately the "end" of the proclamation of the "good news". Instead, it is more in line with Mark's purpose to have the story continue.

In my head, this all makes sense. With that said, I still have not totally made up my mind as to whether this approach is correct or not. For me, the verdict is still out on Mark's ending but taking a narrative approach like this has certainly led me to lean more in one direction. Any thoughts?


  1. You may be interested in looking at N. Clayton Croy's book, The Mutilation of Mark's Gospel. In it he suggests that there was damage to the front and back of Mark, and that "The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ" is in essence something added the first time the damaged work was copied, to indicate that this is the beginning of what was left, as it were. It's an interesting idea!

  2. ahh, james, i do remember that book, in fact, i own it. i think i read a chapter and never returned to it, partially because of a bad review i read of it (i think; that's terrible, i know). Do you know if he links the two in a way similar to what I did or is there nothing thats even comparable?

  3. I hope it wasn't my review that put you off! :)

    If I remember correctly, his points are focused on (1) the awkwardness of both the beginning and ending in Mark, and (2) the tendency for manuscripts to lose content at both ends, due to the making of codices from folded papyrus (he draws parallels to the tendency of the whole cover of a comic book to get separated, rather than just the front or back).

  4. There is something to Clayton Croy's thesis.
    The transition from verse 3 to 4 is very awkward.
    I think, either the beginning and ending got lost or they never existed. Perhaps the "Gospel of Mark" was originally a collection of notes and for some reason Mark never was able to complete the thing fully. It was only Mt and Lk who did it.

  5. Michael,

    I'm currently dabbling in the beg/end of Matthew, which certainly stands in sharp contrast to Mark both in text-critical and thematic coherence.

    do you (or other readers) have biblio on 'beg and end' of texts in general?

  6. James,
    I'm not sure who's review it was that I read.

    As I said to James, I probably should have another look at Croy's book; it's sitting on a book shelf in my library.

    I don't have a bibliography on beg/endings of texts. However, you may consult the Croy book we've been talking about as it may have some valuable resources.

    I'm guessing my hypothesis put forth in the post is either 1) uninteresting, 2) totally out of bounds, or 3) just forgotten in all of the conversation about Croy. Anybody have thoughts on the content of the post? Am I on to something or way off?

  7. It was lost in the hectic attempt to eat lots of turkey and then get ready for classes, sorry! :)

  8. I wonder, if you're going to take the Isaiah part of the quote that way, whether you shouldn't take the Malachi quote into consideration as well - since they're both together at the beginning. In Malachi you have God coming in judgment, no?

    So, on the one hand you have potential blessing (Isaiah) and on the other you have potential judgment (Malachi; and so, you have Jesus arriving at the temple and symbolically cleansing it - pointing the way to ch. 13 (70 A.D., 40 years later).

    Mark seems to present a choice right aways at the beginning of his gospel. The hope is that the 'way is cleared' before Jesus (and so we have John the Baptist who comes preaching a message of repentance (trying to clear the obstacle of sin/unholiness from the path of God).

    Perhaps then, the rest of Mark is -at least in part - the playing out of this opening choice. Which way will it go? Will Jesus be accepted or will he be rejected? Will there be blessing or will there be judgment?

    Unfortunately, the early chapters show that the way is not going to be entirely clear, but rough ... e.g., 3:6 (the five controversies), 3:22-30, leading to 4:10-12, etc.

  9. Larry,
    That's a good point! Besides, many leading commentators have argued that the entire point of Mark is to force his readers to answer the question: Who do you say that I am? If that's the case, your theory may indeed work out quite well. Man, I'm lovin' the fact that you're reading through these things and making some great points and raising some briliant questions.

  10. Thinking about this today.

    Wondering if the way Mark portrays the disciples (a bit dim at times) might fit into this theme of a rocky/smooth path (e.g., "Get behind me Satan")?.

    How about when they're slow to catch on, seeking to be the greatest, abandoning Jesus, denying Jesus?

    I wonder if there's a relationship between Jesus' conflict with the Jewish leaders and the weaknesses of the disciples. I wonder if there's a connection there in Mark's mindset. In how he viewed his story?

    Maybe a stretch.

    But then again, maybe an insight into why Mark chose to show so much of the disciples' weakness, while Matthew and Luke sought to show them in a bit better light?

    Still thinking about it.


    Also wondering if the way Mark ends his gospel (16:8) also fits with the tensions he wishes to develop in his book. Leaving the women 'saying nothing' (tho obviously they did), provoking a response from his listeners. Will they tell? Would I?

  11. Larry, many scholars have suggested the things that you are saying. In fact, there are a long line of people who've posited similar thoughts. As for the rocky/smooth paths, have you read my post/take on that?

    Also, you've got to keep in mind that Jesus wasn't saying that Peter "was" satan but that He seems to be criticizing Peter's motives.

    I do think Mark was hard on the disciples at time but we also have to remember that to follow Him after their leader (John) had just been arrested, to go from not understanding His teachings (ch.2-8) and then in ch. 8 for Peter to "get" that He was the Messiah, is quite a progression! Maybe there's more "light" shone on them than we initially allow.

    Good thoughts...keep piquing my interest and think through these things Larry, you're quite good at it!

  12. Hey

    I don't take the Peter as Satan comment literally. I understand the hyperbole.

    I also take the disciples' shortcomings as reflective of reality.

    It seems to me to be an emphasis of Mark. I assume he could have presented them in a bit better light (e.g., as Matthew, Luke). I just wonder whether the 'disciples' difficulties' fits a bit with his 1:2,3 theme of showing the 'road rough'.

    Re. your comment about 1:2,3 and 'who do you say that I am', I think you're right, they do fit together. I suppose in some ways the question is the thing that divides us (and them) down 2 roads - one 'making the path smooth', the other 'rough'. I think you make a good point.