The Colossal Embarrassment of Mark 16

A Bible chapter that damages Christian credibility 

The case can be made that most Christians don’t take all that seriously the god described in their Bible. This god knows amazing things about every human:


“…even the hairs of your head are all counted.” (Jesus-script, Matthew 10:30)


It is aware of everything that every person says: 


“I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter.”  (Jesus-script, Matthew 12:36)


And it knows everything we think: 


“…on the day when, according to my gospel, God through Christ Jesus judges the secret thoughts of all.” (the apostle Paul, Romans 2:16)


This attentive, intrusive god is also massively impressive on a cosmic scale: “Oh Lord, my God when I, in awesome wonder, consider all the worlds thy hands have made, I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, thy power throughout the universe displayed…” (from the hymn, How Great Thou Art)


If churchgoers really do believe that the Bible is the word of this kind of god, why don’t they read it obsessively? This god doesn’t mess around: why aren’t they afraid not to read it? Why aren’t they supremely curious to read every last verse to discover every detail they can about their god? Yet the believers I know spend far more time watching their favorite TV shows, movies and sports…than they do studying the Bible. How many of them binge-read the gospels, curious to find out everything they can about Jesus?


If I sat down for a chat with any of my Christian friends, and said, “Let’s talk about the gospel of Mark—you go first,” what would be the response? Would they be able to rise to the challenge? I could ask for specifics, such as: how do they deal with the theological problems presented by: 


Chapter 1: Jesus is baptized by John for the forgiveness of sins.


Chapter 2: Jesus heals a paralyzed man by forgiving his sins.


Chapter 4: Jesus tells his disciples that he teaches in parables to prevent people from repenting and being forgiven.


Chapter 5: Demons know who Jesus is, and he seems to use a magic spell to transfer demons into pigs.


Chapter 9: God speaks from water vapor, i.e., a cloud.


Chapter 13: Jesus declares that the coming of his kingdom will bring horrendous suffering.


Chapter 14: At his trial, Jesus promises those attending that they will see him coming on the clouds of heaven.


Chapter 16


Let’s go into detail on this one—and why it is such an embarrassment for Christianity.


The Problem of the Abrupt Ending


Readers of the King James Version can see that there are twenty verses in chapter 16. This was the universal assumption until—long after the KJV was published—research showed that verses 9 through 20 are not in the oldest manuscripts of Mark. Hence in modern translations, it is common practice to assign vv. 9-20 to a footnote.  


In Mark 16:1-8 we read that three women go to the tomb, find that the stone had been rolled away, and were alarmed to see a young man dressed in white sitting in the tomb. He tells them that Jesus had been raised, and asks them to report to the disciples that Jesus will meet them in Galilee. Their reaction? “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (v. 8)


End of gospel. The other gospel writers weren’t satisfied with this wrap-up, and created their own far more elaborate endings. Matthew reported that newly alive dead people, walking out of their tombs, toured Jerusalem on Easter morning; Luke told the story of an unrecognizable Jesus appearing to two disciples as they walked toward the village of Emmaus—then at dinner, he suddenly vanishes—poof—when they recognize him (on this, see especially, Robert Conner’s book, Apparitions of Jesus: The Resurrection as Ghost Story); John included the tale of Thomas refusing the believe that Jesus had been raised, but when he was later able to touch the risen body of Jesus, he changed his mind.


End of gospel. But Mark’s gospel may not have ended at 16:8. One theory is that the end of the scroll might have been damaged or torn off. But that raises a question, an especially acute one when we know that all of the original gospel manuscripts were lost—and many errors and additions happened as manuscripts were hand-copied for centuries: if the gospels are the inspired word of a god—Rembrandt 

captured this idea when he showed an angel whispering in Matthew’s ear—was it beyond this god’s power and competence to keep the manuscripts in pristine condition? Why isn’t there a perfectly preserved Bible maintained somewhere by devout archivists? Instead there are scholars who devote their careers to comparing old manuscripts, trying so hard to figure out the wording of the original authors. What a stunner: the earliest manuscripts of the entire New Testament date from the fourth century. Was that god’s plan? Sounds like negligence to me.


There’s another question that come to mind when we read verse 8: So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” If they said nothing to anyone, how did the author of Mark find out that there was a young man dressed in white in the tomb? 


Now, about those verses assigned to footnotes. Of course, modern translators are to be commended for placing verses 9-20 in a footnote, but then they engage in pious deception. The verses are attributed to “other ancient authorities.” How does an unknown inept forger qualify as an authority? We have no clue at all who added the forged ending, and the bad theology displayed in these final verses is a disgrace. It would be a joke to argue that they were divinely inspired.  


The Bad Theology of Verses 9 through 20


What do I mean by disgrace? It is alarming to see that the author of this forgery embraced a deeply superstitious form of Christianity. At the opening of chapter 16 (v.1), we read that one of the women who came to the tomb was Mary Magdalene—and she fled in terror with the other two (v.8). But this forger reports that Jesus caught up with her: “... he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons” (v. 9). I have often said that Mark’s gospel should be subtitled: “Jesus and the Demons.” The common superstition of the time was that the spiritual realm swarmed with good and evil spirits, including the devil himself. These spirits could recognize each other, hence in Mark 5, a demon-possessed man spotted Jesus from afar: he knew who Jesus was. 


These concepts have proved to be a permanent handicap for Christian theology. 


Our knowledge of how the world works—after a few centuries of serious inquiry, study, research—leaves no place for demons, as an explanation for mental illness, among many other things. But the permanent handicap shows up in startling ways, e.g., the Vatican has a staff of exorcists—and the Catholic church would have its members believe that the spiritual realm is populated with thousands of good saints who listen to and answer prayers. 


The author of these forged verses—like promoters of all cults—also stresses the importance of belief. He seems to be saying, “Don’t be like those dumb Jesus disciples.” 


Verse 11: “But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.


Verses 12-13: “After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.


Verse 14: “Later he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were sitting at the table, and he upbraided them for their lack of faith and stubbornness, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.


A high premium indeed is placed on belief: “The one who believes and is baptized will be saved, but the one who does not believe will be condemned” (v.16). That is, if you’re not in our cult, you’re out of luck. But we can find Jesus-script that puts just as much emphasis on good behavior to merit eternal life: “Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’” (Matthew 19:21) 


It seems superstition had turned this author’s mind to jelly:  


“And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”   (vv. 17-18)


How can these verses not be in the running for worst text in the New Testament? Notice the magical thinking here: by using my name. This is the equivalent of a magic spell: utter a word, and presto, something will happen. Devout folks today don’t seem to grasp this as a touch of magic, when they routinely say, “In Jesus’ name we pray.”  How many of those prayers actually work?


It’s no surprise that the first thing on this list is casting out demons. Then, speaking in new tongues, which appears to be a reference to the practice of uttering gibberish inspired by the holy spirit, which can be understood only by others who are likewise inspired to decipher the gibberish. We can classify the next two items as the silliest: picking up snakes and drinking poison without being harmed. Finally, believers can heal sick people by touching them. 


Two things come to mind: 


One: How do devout Christians today rate themselves on this list? Do they ever give this list much thought? How is this fragment of nonsense not a profound embarrassment—if they claim that the Bible is the word of their god? “Oh, but it’s in the fake ending of Mark!” But how did a fake ending get into the Bible? 


Two: How in the world did the author of this text think that this was an appropriate final message for the world uttered by the resurrected Jesus? Jesus, son of the Christian god, indeed part of the trinity, the greatest moral teacher of all time. 


We would have expected much better of this holy hero: “…these signs will accompany those who believe: they will show superior compassion to others, they will not enslave other people, or discriminate on the basis of skin color, ethnicity, gender or sexuality.” Do these items sound too modern, reflecting ethical concerns of our own times? Why couldn’t Jesus have set such standards so long ago? Is that asking too much of the wise, powerful, caring Christian god? 


The various promoters of the ancient Jesus cult weren’t particularly careful, as we can see from the many ways in which the gospels don’t agree. And the author of these forged verses at the end of Mark 16 wasn’t paying careful attention. In verse 15 we find this Jesus-script: “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” This is after his resurrection, but before his arrival on the clouds. This was written perhaps a half-century after the death of Jesus, as the cult was trying to gain traction. Proclaim the good news to the whole creation is surely a long-term project, which certainly was not on the mind of the guy who wrote the gospel itself. His Jesus-script included the promise to those present at his trial—as noted above—that they would see him arriving on the clouds of heaven, to bring his kingdom. That would not allow time for his followers to bring the “good news” to all creation. Different theologians, different times, different agendas.


Contemporary advocates for the ancient Jesus cult—priests and preachers of the thousands of Christian brands—aren’t all that bothered that their parishioners display so little interest in serious Bible study. True curiosity about the Bible is a dangerous business, from the standpoint of preserving the faith. Five years ago I published an article here about Mark’s gospel, “Getting the Gospels Off on the Wrong Foot.” It was a bad idea for Matthew and Luke to copy so much of Mark, passing along its unsourced, fantasy stories about Jesus. If Christians made the effort to read Mark with their critical skills fully engaged, they could see what a rickety foundation it is. The colossal embarrassment of chapter 16 might prompt a few to head for the exit.  





David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). 

The Spanish translation of this book is also now available. 

Madison's YouTube channel is here. He has written for the Debunking Christianity Blog since 2016.


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