Not even a hill worth debating (Lunn and the ending of Mark)

There is a popular post booming on social media that summarizes a book by Nicholas P. Lunn. Lunn argues the current ending of Mark (everything after 16:8) really is original to Mark (against the clear scholarly consensus) and that the scholars who argue that Mark either ends at 16:8 or the ending was lost are just wrong.

I understand the need and desire to defend the scriptures, but this is not the hill to die on.  It’s not even a hill worth much of a debate.

The ending we have of Mark is a good and true ending.  There is nothing wrong with it, but it is extremely unlikely that it is original to Mark.  And that’s fine – the story of the woman taken in adultery is a good and true story that is not original to John – in fact it interrupts the flow of the narrative (and in some manuscripts even appears in other gospels or at the end of John).  I still consider it scripture; I just consider it misplaced.

The ending of Mark is like that.  Lunn starts from the presupposition it must be true, and then engages in serious confirmation bias affirmation.  For example, he relies too much on secondary sources and seems to have very little direct knowledge of the original manuscripts:

The impression throughout the whole chapter is that Lunn’s knowledge of the actual manuscripts is mediated almost totally through other secondary literature . . . In general, throughout the chapter, the argument is basically a discussion of the way other secondary sources discuss the primary evidence. The conclusion, that Vaticanus and Sinaiticus stand isolated, is not sustained by the argument.

(this long quote is from a very conservative evangelical reviewer, someone you would think would be predisposed to confirm the ending we have in the Bible).

Moreover, the modern day CS Lewis, NT Wright (a very conservative/orthodox Anglican priest with stellar and impeccable academic credentials) agrees that what comes after 16:8 is not original and argues that the original ending of Mark was lost (this quote comes from the excellent The Ressurection of the Son of God a solid academic tome that convincingly – and somewhat mind-numbingly, due to sheer weight of evidence he compiles – argues that a physical resurrection of Jesus is not only supported by the weight of evidence but is the best explanation for what happened historically after his death):

The problem is well known. Stated simply (those in search of the full complexity can find it in the critical commentaries and monographs) it appears like this. The earliest manuscripts of the gospel, the great fourth-century codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, conclude with 16:8. They are followed by several later manuscripts, and some of the early Fathers of the church either show no knowledge of the longer ending or show, even while reproducing it, that they know it to be dubious. (Unfortunately, none of the many earlier papyrus fragments of New Testament material contains Mark 16; we can always hope for a providential accident of archaeology.) But the great fifth-century manuscripts, led by Alexandrinus, include the ‘longer ending’ (verses 9–20), and most subsequent manuscripts follow this lead. In addition, four manuscripts from the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries, and some later ones, insert the so-called ‘shorter ending’, in effect verse 8b; and all except one of these then continues with the ‘longer ending’ as well. A good many of the manuscripts that do contain the longer ending, however, have marks in the margin (asterisks or obeli) to indicate that the passage is regarded as of doubtful authenticity. The apparently independent omission in the two fourth-century manuscripts, coupled with all the other scattered evidence, makes it highly likely that the longer ending is not original. In addition, though the content of verses 9–20 contains some apparently Markan features (e.g. the disciples’ lack of faith in 16:11, 13, 14), in other ways it looks suspiciously as though it is derived from elements of the resurrection accounts in the other gospels. Thus, for instance, 16:12–13 is an obvious summary of Luke’s Emmaus Road story (24:13–35); the appearance to the disciples as they were eating (verse 14) belongs with Luke 24:36–43; the commission in verse 15 is parallel to Matthew 28:18–20; and the ascension in verse 19 is taken from Luke 24:50 and Acts 1:9–11. And, as is often pointed out, the command about the necessity of baptism for salvation (verse 16) and the the list of wonderful deeds the apostles will do (verses 17–18) look as though they are a summary of some aspects of later church life. All of these have led the great majority of contemporary commentators, of all shades of opinion, to agree that, though the longer and shorter endings are extremely interesting, they are almost certainly not by Mark. Actually, the ‘longer ending’ looks, from its opening in verse 9, as if it might even have originally been a separate account altogether, since it begins in parallel to Mark 16:1–2/Matthew 28:1/Luke 24:1/John 20:1, not in sequence with Mark 16:1–8: 9When he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went out and told the people who had been with him, who were mourning and weeping. But when they heard that he was alive, and that he had been seen by her, they did not believe. This might imply that verses 9–20 were not simply composed by somebody wishing to provide a fuller ending for Mark, but may have originally been a separate summary of Easter events which was then used to plug the gap, even though it actually overlapped with some of the material already present. But this observation, though it opens fascinating possibilities (could it have been originally a separate account? part of a lost gospel?), is not relevant to our present task. There is broad agreement that the author of the gospel did not himself write either verse 8b or verses 9–20 . . . There are, however, powerful reasons for questioning this theory, and for proposing that Mark did indeed write a fuller ending which is now lost, and for which verses 8b and 9–20 are replacements by later scribes not altogether out of tune with Mark’s intentions. We may note, to begin with, that the beginning and ending of a scroll were always vulnerable. A glance at any edition of the Dead Sea Scrolls, in particular at facsimile photographs, will reveal that even the scrolls which are preserved almost in their entirety are in many cases damaged at both ends. One recalls, too, the scroll of Jeremiah’s book being steadily whittled away by the king with his penknife. But, while this suggests that lost endings (and beginnings) are very much a physical possibility, it proves nothing. Nor does the fact that it is unusual to end a sentence, let alone a book, with gar get us very far. What counts is an understanding of the book Mark was writing, and a sense of what would have been an appropriate ending for this kind of book. Ultimately, of course, making a case on this subject would require a whole commentary; here, inevitably, we can only summarize . . . The better answer is that Mark did indeed write more, and that what he wrote was lost—by accident most likely, by the fire in Rome possibly, or, just conceivably, by malicious action (perhaps by some early textual critic, bent on causing problems for later readers—or, more seriously, by someone, in the church

Wright, N. T.. Resurrection Son of God V3: Christian Origins and the Question of God (Kindle Locations 13676-13809). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

Now, Lunn does have some answers for some of these issues, but his arguments are really only convincing to those predisposed to agree. Lunn’s over-reliance on secondary sources hurts his argument, and while he might take down some of the more post-modern scholarship that tries to argue Mark ended at 16:8, period, from what I have read in the book itself, it’s more of an exercise in confirmation bias.  Sometimes the scholarly consensus actually is correct, and it’s no use jumping on the Lunn bandwagon just because most of modern biblical scholarship is something of a waste. Nothing in the Gospel hinges on the current ending of Mark being original to Mark – we should follow the actual evidence where it leads, rather than defend hills that may not even be hills after all.

[As an aside, if you are interested in textual criticism of this sort, I do not reccomend “Misquoting Jesus” by Bart Ehrman.  While the basic information in it is accurate, the conclusions he draws are intellectually dishonest and also an example of confirmation bias.]

But – hey, if you want to believe Lunn over NT Wright and others, that’s fine.  I’m not going to get into any arguments over it (discussions are fine, arguments are not).  However, I would caution against using Lunn in Gospel Doctrine to rail against the godless scholars who want to ruin the Bible.  Realize plenty of good and faithful people can believe differently, and it’s okay.

If you do have questions or want to continue the discussion (and make it a discussion – the angry, snide, sarcastic comments I’m seeing on social media will have no place here), feel free to do so in the comments.  I can’t check back often, but I will try to answer any comments or questions as often as I can.

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About Ivan Wolfe

Ivan Wolfe teaches rhetoric at Arizona State University. He has a PhD in English from the University of Texas - Austin, and a BA and MA in English (with minors in Classical Greek, Music, and Philosophy) from BYU. He has several credits on various Christmas albums aimed at the LDS market, several essays in Open Court's Popular Culture and Philosophy series, and various book reviews in academic and popular venues. He also competes in Scottish Highland Games and mud run/obstacle course races, and he can deadlit over double his bodyweight (his last PR was over 500 pounds). He is currently married to Lisa Renee Wolfe. He has six kids and four stepkids.

12 thoughts on “Not even a hill worth debating (Lunn and the ending of Mark)

  1. Ivan, I like this: “But – hey, if you want to believe Lull over NT Wright and others, that’s fine. I’m not going to get into any arguments over it (discussions are fine, arguments are not). However, I would caution against using Lull in Gospel Doctrine to rail against the godless scholars who want to ruin the Bible. Realize plenty of good and faithful people can believe differently, and it’s okay.”

  2. Good points, I’ve never understood the desire of some LDS to so strenuously defend nearly *every* aspect of a book we know was cobbled together over vast swaths of time by people who we specifically teach were not authorized servants of God (many were still good people, but by definition they were not authorized apostles or prophets).

  3. We have this quote from Joseph Smith: “I believe the Bible as it read when it came from the pen of the original writers. Ignorant translators, careless transcribers, or designing and corrupt priests have committed many errors” – and yet many still want to defend every part of the Bible as inerrant for some reason.

  4. Why do you repeatedly call Lunn “Lull”? Is that some sort of inside joke?

  5. Nathan Whilk –
    No inside joke. Thank you for pointing out a typo that somehow multiplied itself (there must be digital gremlins in my laptop…..). I think I’ve now corrected the handful of mistakes.

  6. Ivan, I think one of the reasons people will defend Biblical inerrancy so much is due to the fact that it is very rare to come across someone who presents the scriptures as incredibly valuable in spite of their flaws. Normally when someone points out errors or possible revisions they don’t do anything to reaffirm the spiritual value of the scriptures in question, and thereby give the impression that the looking for these things is an attack on the faith.

    I hope that makes sense.

  7. S.G. –
    I see that as an expectation, not a reality. NT Wright, for example, presents the Bible as basically binding on Christians as the word of God, but he still allows for some flaws or mistakes (such as the ending of Mark). There are plenty of faithful people who do so, but too many people won’t even listen to them.

    However, there are some wolves who do try to use something like this as a wedge into people’s faith, so I see the concern. I even admit to my own knee jerk reactions against things like this or “Second Isaiah” (though I more or less – but not totally – reject that idea for various reasons that have to do with how manuscripts were written and preserved) and whatnot, but luckily I’ve known enough faithful members who deal with these issues, and that’s helped me overcome my initial impulses.

  8. My thought in matters such as this is “so what?”

    If I adopt the suppositions of the academics as true, so what?

    If I disagree with the suppositions of the academics, so what?

    I don’t engage because it doesn’t matter.

    Did Herod wear a red tunic or clothing when he ordered the slaughter of the innocents? Or was it a brown tunic? Oh, wait, the academics tell me it never happened at all.

    I do agree that some people resist the academic suppositions because they discern that the academics are trying to destroy faith. That doesn’t mean they are strict literalists.

  9. “Oh, wait, the academics tell me it never happened at all.”

    That’s somewhat untrue statement, since there is no such thing as “the academics” in the fungible sense you seem to be using. Some academics do, some don’t, several others take various in-between positions. It’s actually quite rare, in biblical studies especially, to have near-unanimous consensus across ideological boundaries on almost any issue – and it’s not just the “believing academics” vs. “non-believing academics” or “traditional” vs. “post-modern” or some simplistic binary. It’s more like “reformed” and “evangelical” and “orthodox Catholic” and “liberal Catholic” and “orthodox Orthodox” and “liberal orthodox” and “fundamentalist” and “post-modern” and “mainstream Protestant” and “conservative Mormon” and “liberal Mormon” and “post-modern Catholic” and “traditional Lutheran” and “Reform Judaism” and “Orthodox Judaism” and etc. etc. etc. over dozens if not hundreds of possible labels (and sub-subsets within those labels).

    With the ending of Mark, with very, very few exceptions, is accepted across all ideological markers. The only real point of contention is what that means. A real problem is those who defend the “traditional” ending of Mark aren’t really, when you get down to it, upset over that part; they tend to be more upset with the conclusions some in the subset of the more progressive or liberal or whatever academics draw from that (such as that Mark ends there and that therefore the bodily resurrection is a late invention; this does not automatically follow, though – as any glance at NT Wright’s work will show).

    But, instead of challenging the conclusions, they tend to try and defend three or four hills back and argue that the longer ending is the true ending, thus avoiding any real need to deal with the arguments over what the abrupt “ending” means. But (to me, at least, it seems like) that’s like arguing Jesus didn’t really drink wine, because of the Word of Wisdom.

  10. “But, instead of challenging the conclusions, they tend to try and defend three or four hills back and argue that the longer ending is the true ending, thus avoiding any real need to deal with the arguments over what the abrupt “ending” means. But (to me, at least, it seems like) that’s like arguing Jesus didn’t really drink wine, because of the Word of Wisdom.”

    That is a really good analogy, Ivan. Thanks for this post and your follow up comments, particularly your clarification about “the academics.”

  11. “Not even a hill worth debating.”

    That’s right. Because it makes no difference whatsoever. The argument is over academic speculations, not real truth — because frankly, the real truth simply cannot be known by academic methods.

    I don’t claim to know the truth in this matter. I read somewhere that plenty of good and faithful people can believe differently, and it’s okay.

    Yes, many academics do believe the end of Mark was an add-on, and therefore the resurrection is a hoax. Some people know through non-academic methods that the resurrection was not a hoax, so they disagree with the academics. Maybe they should disagree with the conclusion but not the premise, but sometimes that parsing takes too much effort. But some are able to do it.

    Whether or not the end of Mark was an add-on is wholly irrelevant to the question of the truth of the resurrection, isn’t it?

    Jesus drinking grape juice is another matter — it is presentism, pure and simple.

    Anyway, notwithstanding the academic consensus, it simply won’t do in our Sunday School classes to teach that the resurrection isn’t real, that Mary really wasn’t a virgin, that Herod really didn’t order the slaughter of the innocents, that the family really didn’t go into Egypt, that there really wasn’t a new star, and so forth. The truth of these matters, or not, is not based on academic consensus.

  12. ji –
    I can’t really respond to that comment, since it’s clear you have completely and utterly missed the point of the post and my comments. I have already answered all of those objections, and your most recent comment does nothing but repeat your somewhat inaccurate talking points.

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