What Mark’s Abrupt Ending Tells Us About Gospel Historicity

Empty tomb

The last few hundred years have revealed mountains of additional manuscript evidence for the New Testament, as archaeologists uncover more and more ancient scrolls and codices from the earliest centuries AD. This rich collection of manuscript evidence—far more than for any other ancient work—means that modern translators can draw on a clearer composite picture of what the original New Testament manuscripts said. Yet these new discoveries have changed almost nothing of substance between older versions of the Bible, like the KJV, and newer versions which are based on an older and broader collection of manuscripts.

One of the few revisions is the view among most modern Bible scholars that the final chapter of Mark contains verses which were not Mark’s original narrative. As many recent translations note, the best evidence suggests that Mark’s gospel actually concluded at verse 16:8, which records the response of the women to the words of the angel they encountered at Jesus’ empty tomb: “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.”

The remaining verses of Mark 16 were most likely added within a century after Mark wrote his gospel. They briefly describe some of the same appearances of Jesus (to Mary Magdalene, to the two on the road to Emmaus, and to all the disciples) which are recorded in other gospels.

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Yes, some Bible stories sound like myths, and that’s a beautiful thing

The late, great, and aggressively atheistic Christopher Hitchens compiled (or plagiarized) a list of ancient myths which featured what he described as virgin births, and he loved to rattle it off at every opportunity. Other skeptics point to “dying and rising gods” that appear in mythologies from around the world. The point? That Christianity is just one of many man-made stories which rely on what Hitchens called “the wiring of legend in our mammalian, primate history,” adding, “Apparently, if you want to have a prophet, it’s better if his mother is a virgin.” In other words, there is something in human nature which finds the idea of a virgin-born savior, or a dying and rising god, appealing. Therefore, the motifs pop up in myths around the world, including in Christianity. There is nothing special about the Christian story and there is a perfectly natural explanation for how it came about.

One problem with this argument is that the case is tremendously overstated. In fact, most of the stories of “virgin births” cited by Hitchens, aren’t. Some of the stories do feature a woman, previously a virgin, being impregnated by a god, but accounts such as the origin myths of Perseus and Romulus all include physical intercourse between the god and the woman. The story of the miraculous impregnation of Mary, with new life created in her womb by the Holy Spirit, appears genuinely unprecedented, even in mythology.

Similarly, the “dying and rising god” mythological motif appears noticeably and consistently different from the biblical resurrection account. Some of the mythological gods die but do not rise again, like the Norse Baldr. Other gods die and then rise symbolically, or in some other form, like the Egyptian god Osiris, who was temporarily reconstructed from his dead body in order to impregnate his wife before dying again and becoming lord of the underworld. He became associated with the cycles of rebirth seen in nature, of spring crops and the life-giving flooding of the Nile, but he himself was “Lord of Silence,” king of the dead. A number of other ancient religions featured gods or goddesses who “died” and were “reborn” in the seasonal agricultural cycle, but there was no hint of a physical body which literally resurrected in this world. The idea of a personal God who died and then actually rose again in a tangible body is, again, unique to Christian theology.

So, there is a very real sense in which the Christian story truly was unprecedented, even in myth. But today I am actually more interested in the real and striking similarities between the biblical accounts and these recurrent mythical themes of virgin birth and a resurrected god.

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