Category Archives: The Gospels

How Does the Gospel of Mark Really End?

Yesterday’s Easter sermon covered the last few verses in the Gospel of Mark…. or did it?

If you pick up any copy of any modern English Bible translation, Mark 16 starts off telling the reader that the women came to the tomb, where Jesus was laid after the crucifixion, early on Sunday morning, only to find that the stone at the entrance of the tomb had been rolled away, and a “young man” (an angel perhaps?) sought to answer the questions that the women had in their minds at that moment:

‘And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid’ (Mark 16:6-8 ESV).

The end.

It is a very awkward ending to the Gospel. This unknown figure announces that Jesus has been risen from the dead, but there are no resurrection appearances of Jesus to the women. That is really odd, but that is what you have here.

The graveyard at Bruton Parish Church, in Williamsburg, Virginia. What if you were among the women to visit the grave of Jesus, and Jesus was not there, but someone told you that Jesus had been raised from the dead?

However, what is interesting is that most every modern Bible translation will then include a note. The English Standard Version (ESV) modestly reads, “Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include 16:9–20.”  The New International Version (NIV) is bolder and more direct, “The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have verses 9–20.

Most of these modern translations will then have a footnote describing what is called the “shorter ending of Mark.” They will often include, in the main body of the text, what is called the “longer ending of Mark.” The most interesting feature of the “longer ending of Mark” is that it includes the infamous snake-handling verse (Mark 16:18), that some Christian groups in Appalachia use as a prooftext for handling live snakes in their worship services (Link to creepy National Geographic story on snake handling).

So, what is the story with these alternative endings for Mark?

Many Christians familiar with the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible will notice that there is no note at the end of verse 8, but that verses 9-16 are included anyway (the longer ending of Mark).  Many therefore conclude (understandably) that the longer ending is the authentic ending for the Gospel of Mark.

However, most scholars (Christian and non-Christian) do not believe that the “longer ending” (or even the “shorter ending”) of Mark are authentic. But scholars differ as to why most of our earliest sources lack anything after verse 8. Perhaps Mark just left the Gospel as a cliff-hanger at the end. Perhaps the original ending to Mark’s Gospel simply got lost, as though the last few inches of Mark’s papyrus got ripped off. A handful of scholars even suggest that some type of oral tradition gives us the alternative endings to Mark that are found after verse 8. Others say that it just seemed too awkward for Mark to end the Gospel at verse 8, so other endings were invented to smooth out the ending of the story.

The bottom line is that we simply do not know how to account for Mark’s abrupt ending at verse 8. Aside from the snake-handling verse, which is perhaps an allusion to Paul being bitten by a snake on the island of Malta, and surviving (Acts 28:1-7), (and the related bit about drinking poison), there is nothing in verse 9-16 that is not repeated or covered elsewhere in the New Testament. No theological problems here. So, we do not lose any specific Christian doctrine if we recognize verses 9-16 as not being authentic.

But it does make for some interesting conversation!!

For a “shorter” summary of the broad scholarly consensus on Mark 16:9-20, you might want to briefly look at the 2 1/2 minute video below from a recent Mike Licona debate. For a “longer” summary, you can consider Mike Winger’s 2-hour video teaching on the topic. Mike Winger is one of most popular Christian Bible teachers / apologists today on YouTube, with over 400,000 followers. As a church pastor, with a YouTube channel on the side, Mike Winger says he spent 150 hours researching this topic. Did you ever think it was possible to spend 150 hours studying the final 12 verses of the longer end of Mark?




Taken down your Christmas decorations already? Not so fast!

As my longtime friend (and fellow blogger), Virginia Woodward, reminded me, this coming Sunday, January 6th, commemorates the ancient Christian feast day of Epiphany, when the Magi came from the east to bring gifts to Jesus at Bethlehem (not on Christmas, I will remind you). Virginia has a wonderfully happy post about the “Three Wise Women” you might enjoy.

Another reason why still holding onto the Christmas season might be a good idea, is the fact that not all Christians actually celebrate Christmas on the same day. Many Eastern Orthodox still hold to the old Julian calendar, as opposed to the Western, Gregorian calendar, which differs by 13 days, placing Christmas on January 7 (per the Western Calendar).

For those inclined with a more skeptical bent, you might want to consider Ian Paul’s blog post about why the Epiphany story is indeed historically plausible.

Now, I know that some of my fellow evangelical friends get weirded out when someone brings up days on the Christian calendar, like Epiphany, which may not seem too familiar: “Where is that in the Bible? That is too liturgical!” However, it is important to keep in mind that the ancient Christian calendar helps to draw our attention to important events that are described in the Bible, stories that need to be passed onto the next generation of believers, as the following one-minute video by the Museum of the Bible explains.


Is the Kingdom of God (Mystically) Within the Christian?

Leo Tolstoy, Russian apostle of non-violence, in Yasnaya Polyana, 1908, the first color photo portrait in Russia. (credit: Wikipedia)

The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:20b-21, King James Version)

Is this the best translation of what Jesus was really teaching? Here is a good lesson as to why it pays to use a modern translation of the Bible, and compare with other translations.

As a young Christian, I struggled with the concept of Jesus’ teaching on the “kingdom of God.” Is God’s kingdom ever, in a sense, something inward, something that can not be seen? Sure, God’s kingdom is about the rule and reign of God in our lives, but is it in any way, a call to look within your yourself for the truth?

For example, Leo Tolstoy, the great 19th century Russian novelist, wrote a whole book about it: The Kingdom of God is Within You. Tolstoy rejected what he considered to be the “mystical” tradition of his Russian Orthodox state church, famously arguing for the principle of non-violence, as the summary of the ethics of Jesus Christ. Tolstoy’s prose has deeply inspired people, such as Mohandas Gandhi, in his efforts to overthrow British rule and assert Indian independence, in the mid-20th century.

But in doing so, in an odd twist of irony, Tolstoy himself left behind all institutional forms of Christianity, dismissing much of the supernatural reporting of miracles in the Bible, for his own kind of mystic individualism. Tolstoy viewed the Sermon on the Mount to be in conflict with the Nicene Creed, the ancient church affirmation of core, fundamental Christian doctrines, such as the Triune nature of God and the deity of Christ. Tolstoy felt forced to choose the former over the latter.  Tolstoy had become disenchanted with a state sponsored church, that encouraged passivity towards evil, by encouraging intellectual adherence to a set of abstract beliefs, at the expense of living out the ethics of Jesus.

While I felt drawn to Tolstoy’s ethic of non-violence, and his critique of shallow faith, built on mere intellectual adherence to Christian beliefs, I was still uneasy about his outright dismissal of historic, orthodox theology. In today’s terms, minus his anti-supernaturalism, Tolstoy’s views came dangerously close to a kind of New Age, “roll your own” type of spirituality.

I remember reading from the King James version (above), as well as my old, “trusty” NIV 1984:

Once, having been asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:20-21)

Mmmmm…. The way my mind worked, as I appreciated the teachings of Leo Tolstoy, was that this meant that the kingdom of God had some type of mystical presence inside the believer, Leo-Tolstoy-style. At least it seemed that way. What made me a little hesitant, though, was that this was the ONLY passage in the Bible that described the kingdom of God with such internalized language. But, if the Bible even had one verse like this, I figured, I might as well go for it.

Fast forward nearly twenty years later … Today, nearly all modern translations reject this English reading as inadequate, if not misleading. Here is the ESV rendering (below), and the NIV 2011 is pretty close:

Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:20-21)

You might get a footnote that exchanges “in the midst of you” with the older “within you,” or another, improved alternative, “within your grasp.” Nevertheless, the prevailing current view is that the kingdom of God is “in the midst of you.” But the point is that improvements in modern translation demonstrate that God’s kingdom can not be so easily turned into a mystical, inward, New-Age-type of experience. A note for the online NetBible, regarding the historical context for these verses, are worth considering:

[“In your midst”] is a far better translation than “in you.” Jesus would never tell the hostile Pharisees that the kingdom was inside them. The reference is to Jesus present in their midst. He brings the kingdom. Another possible translation would be “in your grasp.”

The truth of the kingdom of God was within the grasp of the Pharisees, but they were unable to observe or detect it, even though Jesus was right there in front of them. Contrary to the popular tendency to pluck verses of Jesus out of thin air, the context of this passage suggests that the Pharisees were not “Spirit-filled” believers, who should look introspectively to find the truth. Instead, the emphasis is on Jesus as the truth, and how He confronted the Pharisees, the religious leaders of the day, with their unbelief.

Likewise, for us today, the kingdom of God also concerns our relationship with the Jesus who confronts us, and not some “fake Jesus” that we can easily internalize and control. We can become so filled with self-righteousness that we become unable to observe the reality of the kingdom of God, right there in front of us. Sadly, it is temptingly easy to project our own inward thoughts, wishes, fantasies, and desires, onto our frame of mind, and pretend that God is revealing supposed “truth” to us. Far too often, the popular call to “look within yourself” to find out “who you really are,” is more about spiritual narcissim than having an encounter with Jesus, who calls us to follow in obedience.

True, the Holy Spirit does indwell in the heart of the believer (Romans 8:9), so there is, in a sense, a mystical element to our faith. Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, does live in every Christian. So, broadly speaking, you could get away with the older “the kingdom of God is within you,” as a possible application for believers today, in that we can trust in the Holy Spirit’s leading.

But it is a translation not without its limitations, particularly within the historical context of Jesus’ confrontation with the Pharisees. We still need the external check of the Word of God, to make sure we do not float away into some supposedly superior mystical realm, that leads us to have thoughts and opinions that contradict the Scriptures. To put it another way, the only “Jesus” that we can know is the one presented to us in the Bible, and not some creation of our own fertile imagination, however well-intentioned. Our beliefs about Jesus, like His divine status within the Godhead, can not be so easily dismissed as controllable abstractions, without undermining the very call of radical discipleship, that Jesus demands of us.

Sadly, Gnostic texts like the Gospel of Thomas have a field day with phrases like “the kingdom is inside you,” , thus giving the wrong-headed idea that a knowledge of the Gospel is like having some special, esoteric knowledge of God, that only the spiritual “elite” can have. Genuine, orthodox, historic Christianity suggests otherwise. Real experience of the kingdom of God can be had by anyone who has a relationship with Jesus, and not only by self-proclaimed, spiritual “super-Christians,” who supposedly have an inside-track to God.

As someone who considered himself a Christian, Leo Tolstoy was not exactly “New Age,” in the way we think of it today. But he did have an unfortunate gnostic streak running throughout his writings. Leo Tolstoy was right to challenge a state church, that had completely subverted itself as a pawn to a totalitarian, oppressive government. But by setting in opposition the ethics of Jesus against the core, supernatural beliefs of historic Christian faith, Tolstoy has left us with a false dichotomy that has continued to confuse his admirers, almost two centuries later.

Thankfully, modern English Bible translations are trying to correct that false dichotomy.


Patheos blogger Mark Roberts, a few years ago, put it this way:  “If the Pharisees want to find the kingdom, Jesus says, they should look, not into their own sinful hearts, but right in front of their eyes, at Jesus himself, at his words and works.”  New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado chimes in with the scholarly reason as to why more recent Bible translations have changed their wording for this passage. There is a dissenting view by Roman Catholic scholar Ilaria Ramelli, who argues for the traditional translation of this verse, that so captivated Leo Tolstoy, but I do not know of any other scholars who follow her.




Are the “Kingdom of Heaven” and the “Kingdom of God” Different?

This image was taken from the Think blog, a fantastic, Bible-geek blog run by some pastors out of the UK. This might be pastor Andrew Wilson’s son.

Sound bites can mislead… and here is one of those cases where inappropriate expectations of what we read in the Gospels can get Christians into serious trouble.

If you read about the “kingdom” in the Gospels, particularly with the parables of Jesus, you will notice that Matthew exclusively uses the term “kingdom of heaven,” whereas a variety of Gospel writers (including Matthew) use “kingdom of God.” Some draw the conclusion that “kingdom of heaven” and “kingdom of God,” are from the lips of Jesus, and therefore must mean different things. Is this a correct way to interpret Scripture?
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Are Jesus’ Words Really in “Red Letters?”

Can we trust that what we read in the Gospels are really the words of Jesus?

Can we trust that what we read in the Gospels are really the words of Jesus?

Many Christians like reading from so-called “Red Letter” Bibles because they are told that the words spoken by Jesus are written in red ink. It can be helpful for some readers, since in the King James Version, there are no quotation marks used to identify when someone is speaking.

The idea of “Red Letter” Bibles goes back to 1899, when the editor of the Christian Herald magazine, Louis Klopsch, was inspired by reading Luke 22:30: ” Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you. (KJV)” Klopsch was passionate about getting God’s Word out to people, and so he envisioned a new Bible where the words of Jesus could be represented by the color of His blood.

However, the use of a “Red Letter” Bible can be misleading, as it may give some people the impression that the words of Jesus are somehow more important than the other words in the Bible. But theologically, this is wrong-headed since everything in the Bible is inspired by God, according to 2 Timothy 3:16. In that sense, every word in the Bible should be printed in red!

Reading from a “Red Letter” Bible might set you up to have some skewed expectations about Scripture. What are the appropriate expectations we should then have?
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