The Gospels, part 3: The Gospel of Mark (2)
Transfiguration: Jesus' and ours
The Gospel of Mark opens and concludes abruptly, which has led many scholars to believe that the original beginning and ending of the book were lost early on. This is certainly plausible, given that the manuscript of Mark was a codex (that is, a book inscribed on sheets of papyrus or vellum, folded, and sewn down the middle, forming pages to be read as we still read books today), and not a scroll. If, early in the text’s existence, the outer sheet(s) had somehow become unloosed from the body of the book – torn off, perhaps – it’s a simple deduction to think that both the opening and the conclusion went missing. There are scholars, on the other hand, who argue that we have Mark in its entirety, that nothing was lost, and that the author intended to begin with Jesus’ baptism and end with the women hastening away in fear from the tomb and not saying a word to anybody – just as we have it. I confess that I am of two minds about this. Nevertheless, it’s not farfetched to suggest that, possibly, Mark did originally have a birth narrative at the front end and resurrection appearances at the latter end. The final sentence in Mark is actually 16:8, although endings were (rather clumsily) later added and still appear in our Bibles; that verse reads (and note the final Greek word in it): καὶ ἐξελθοῦσαι ἔφυγον ἀπὸ τοῦ μνημείου, εἶχεν γὰρ αὐτὰς τρόμος καὶ ἔκστασις: καὶ οὐδενὶ οὐδὲν εἶπαν, ἐφοβοῦντο γάρ (“And going out, they fled from the tomb, for trembling and bewilderment had taken hold of them; and they said nothing to anyone; for they were afraid”; or, literally, “they were afraid for”). What is striking in this instance is that the sentence ends with the word γάρ – literally, “for.” This is an unusual ending in a sentence, even in Greek, but it’s not without precedent; more to the point, a possibly significant precedent appears in the Bible. In the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Septuagint, often designated by the Roman numeral LXX) – a version used by early Christians – there is an instance of this very sentence structure in Genesis 45:3, significantly in a scene that in some respects resembles Mark 16:8 both in grammar and content. It’s the moment when Joseph reveals himself to be alive to his brothers: καὶ οὐκ ἠδύναντο οἱ ἀδελφοὶ ἀποκριθῆναι αὐτῷ· ἐταράχθησαν γάρ (“and his brothers could not answer him, for they were troubled” – literally, “they were troubled for”). Note again that the sentence ends, oddly, with γάρ, “for.” This poses a provocative question: is Mark 16:8 possibly linking the revelation to the women that Jesus is alive to the revelation of Joseph to his brothers that he is alive? It’s an intriguing thought, but only a thought. At the end of the day, regarding the beginning and conclusion of Mark, we will likely never know whether the version we have is complete or not.