Most Christians are surprised when they first come to the understanding that in line with the Biblical tradition of the Hebrew Bible, the Gospels are anonymous documents. It is clear that they are early works of Christ-following Jews, written and approved by the figures with apostolic authority, but there is nothing in the canonical Gospels themselves that gives a clear and unambiguous statement about the authorship of any of the four Gospels. (Canonical Gospels are John, Mark, Luke and Matthew. Those are the four gospels that were accepted by overwhelming majority of God’s people worldwide.) The situation is very different with the non-canonical gospels. The majority of the non-conical Gospels display a wholly different approach. The author of the non-canonical gospel is usually identified and clearly declared to be the author of the book. The trouble is that non-canonical Gospels (such as the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Phillip, the Gospel of Thomas, etc.) were authored after all their purported authors had already died. So we have an interesting irony here: the true apostolic Gospels do not state the names of the authors, while the false Gospel always do.
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But you may say, “Wait a minute,” our Bibles have titles that are rather clear. The Gospel according to Matthew, the Gospel according to John, and so on. Yes, this is indeed what we have in our Bibles. But some things in our Bibles were not there from the beginning. For example, if your Bible has a built in concordance (that helps you to see where the same words or ideas were mentioned in other parts of the Bible) or footnotes (if it is a study Bible) we quickly understand that these additions are not in the original text and that they were added by publishers for the benefit of modern readers. In addition, we have also pages that identify sections entitled, “The Old Testament” and “The New Testament.” We understand that those pages did not exist in the original.
There are also other things in the Bible including superscriptions in the Book of Psalms, such as “a Psalm of Moses” or “a Psalm of David.” Scholars know that these superscriptions were not original, but were added to the text at a much later date. I think we must understand the titles of the Gospels in a similar way. They are statements of authorship that may be true; just like it is probably true that King David was the author of many of the psalms. After all, almost every gospel’s authorial identity was known as early as the second century (scholars use a fancy language indicating that they are “attested very early”).
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My point is not that John Mark, Peter’s assistant, did not write down the Gospel of Mark according to Peter’s testimony (as such early attestation has it). He most probably did. Rather, I am saying something altogether different – since the superscription “According to Mark” (ΚΑΤΑ ΜΑΡΚΟΝ) was not part of the original manuscript of the Gospel, the four matching titles no doubt were assigned to the four Gospels sometime after composition. If this is so, we need to ask a very important question, “what was the original title of the Gospel?”
My answer may or may not surprise you. There are a couple of possibilities here. For one, it is possible that this Gospel simply does not even have a title. It is not at all clear that ancient documents did have titles, though various theories were suggested such as the first word functioning as the title.
But even if most other ancient works had titles, it does not mean that the Gospel of Mark also must have had one. Please, let me explain. There are other things about this Gospel that are strange. None of course are stranger than its ending.
While many Bibles include (with an explanatory note) Mark 16:9-20, two of the most ancient and most reliable manuscripts of this Gospel do not contain these verses. This means that it is almost 100% certain that either the original gospel ended with vs. 8 or its original ending was somehow lost. After all, we have at least one letter that we know the Apostle Paul wrote that is not in our Bible. What we call First Corinthians is really already the second letter that the apostle wrote to the Church in Corinth since he himself mentions it in 1 Cor. 5:9.
After Jesus’ death and burial, we are told that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome collected special burial oils and spices together on Saturday night (literally when Sabbath was over), and early Sunday morning they set out for the tomb where Jesus was laid to rest. When they arrived at the tomb, they saw a man dressed in white who told them that Jesus had risen and that He was already on the way to the Galilee, where he would meet them and the disciples. After this, we read, “they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” (Mark 16:8).
Now this is where the Gospel ends!
If this is not strange, I do not know what is. Speaking of an anticlimactic ending, we are so used to the other Gospels’ almost Hollywood like endings! But it is simply not so in this Gospel.
I am not the only one who feels this way. I think most Christ-followers do. This was likely the reason why early copyists (scribes) of this Gospel added Mark 16:9-20. This addition is probably not a fabrication, but is based on what they saw happening in the Early Jesus movement.
When the textual and grammatical styles of the sections are compared, it becomes clear that this addition was made later and was not authored by the same person that wrote the Gospel itself.
We should not come to the Gospel of Mark with preconceptions about what it should and should not say, and what it should and should not look like. The beauty of our approach is to let the text speak for itself. We must allow this Gospel to shape us and not the other way around.
If the Gospel had no title, this is certainly legitimate. After all, the title should concisely tell the readers what the book is all about. There is one sentence that’s pregnant with a variety of Jewish Royal concepts from the Hebrew Bible. This may come close to functioning as the title; and that of course is the very first verse of the Gospel:
“The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).
Aveinu Malkeinu, Our Father, Our King,
Free us to read, free us to think, free us to believe.
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