Contradictions in the Empty Tomb Narratives: A Response to Erik Manning, Part 4


1
THE ENDING OF MARK

To say that the ending of the Gospel of Mark is terse is an understatement. The final verse of the story reads, “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” (Mark 16:8, NRSV).[1] Expositors have long pondered this ending, noting with what unsatisfying finality the author closes his account. Alexander Bruce, writing in the nineteenth century wrote about Mark’s final sentences, 

So ends the authentic Gospel of Mark, without any account of appearances of the risen Jesus in Galilee or anywhere else. The one thing it records is the empty grave, and an undelivered message sent through three women to the disciples, promising a reunion in Galilee. Strange that a story of such thrilling interest should terminate so abruptly and unsatisfactorily.[2]

Whence this ending? Did Mark intentionally end his Gospel here? Or are there other explanations? Bruce continues, 

Was there originally a continuation, unhappily lost, containing, e.g., an account of a meeting of the Risen One in Galilee with His followers? Or was the evangelist prevented by some unknown circumstances from carrying into effect an intention to bring his story to a suitable close?[3]

The reason the ending of Mark seems out of place becomes especially acute when it is compared with how the narrative plays out in the other Gospels, especially Matthew’s and Luke’s. In Matthew, the women run from the tomb with the intention of telling the disciples (Matthew 28:8) when they are met by the risen Jesus (vv. 9-10). After a distinctively Matthean interlude (vv. 11-15), the story picks up in Galilee where the disciples have gone to meet with Jesus (v. 16), suggesting that the women did in fact relay their message to them. In Luke’s Gospel, the women leave the tomb and immediately tell the disciples (vv. 8-9).[4] In the Gospel of John, Mary ends up at the tomb twice. Unlike the Synoptic accounts, when she first arrives, she does not encounter any angels (as in the Synoptics) or Jesus (as in Matthew). Instead, it is upon her second trip to the tomb in John 20:11 that she sees angels and meets Jesus. 

Taking stock of all this, particularly Mark’s seemingly anticlimactic ending and comparing it with the other Synoptics, what do we make of it? It seems that these accounts on this particular issue stand in direct contradiction to one another. 

2
SUMMARY OF MANNING’S APOLOGETIC

In his piece “Do the Resurrection Narratives Contradict?”[5] Erik Manning addresses this subject by first quoting the Synoptic texts, starting with the fuller versions in Matthew and Luke and ending with Mark’s odd conclusion. He then explains that vv. 9-20 which appear in translations like the KJV are probably not original to Mark. But, one of the consequences of this fact, is that the account as it stands “gives us an apparent contradiction about what the women said after discovering the empty tomb.” He then quotes Bart Ehrman who wrote in his book Jesus, Interrupted, that of all the differences in the various empty tomb narratives, 

[o]ne point in particular seems to be irreconcilable. In Mark’s account the women are instructed to tell the disciples to go meet Jesus in Galilee, but out of fear they don’t say a word to anyone about it.[6]

In response to these words from Ehrman, Manning writes, “Bart wants to create a contradiction by reading Mark as saying they never said a word to anyone.” 

The apologist then proceeds to chide skeptics for not pointing out that “there’s debate regarding whether or not Mark meant to end it there or if the original text was cut off or left incomplete.” He mentions the views of Bruce Metzger who, Manning says, believed that Mark’s original ending was cut off. Metzger thought this because Mark “has a pattern of making blanket statements before adding an exception.” If this pattern holds, then Manning asks what Mark’s ending may have looked like. He proposes the following: 

It would probably look a lot like what we read in Matthew 28:8. Let’s combine the two passages: They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid, but departing quickly from the tomb…, they ran to tell his disciples the news.” 

Manning then puts it to Ehrman, saying, “Ehrman did his doctoral dissertation under Metzger, so he has no justification in keeping his audience in the dark.”

Manning then queries what it would mean if Mark had actually intended to end his Gospel at v. 8. He notes a “common thread” in Mark where Jesus will ask witnesses to keep silent about his identity or miraculous activity, but those witnesses cannot restrain themselves. “Mark,” Manning writes, “is making a point about Jesus’ identity.” He contends that in Mark, the first half of the book everyone is wondering who he is, the middle section of the book the disciples are questioning it, and then the rest of the Gospel is devoted to explaining Jesus’ messiahship. Rather than coming as a conquering king, Jesus was the suffering servant. This informs us as to why Mark ended his Gospel as he did: 

With that in mind, it’s possible that the gospel’s abrupt ending is there to intentionally challenge us to decide if we believe Jesus is the Messiah. Mark could be making the understood assumption that of course, the women eventually said something, that’s why you’re reading about this – but what do you think? Who do you think Jesus is?  

To close, the apologist addresses accusations of harmonization, claiming that classical historians harmonize frequently and provides a quote from historian Gilbert Garrighan as evidence for this. 

3
A RESPONSE

One of the more frustrating things about Manning is that while he writes with such compelling clarity, he often fails to provide citations for the various authors that he references. Here in this section, while he does provide a page number for the quote from Ehrman, there is no such information provided for either his quote from Gilbert Garrighan or for the argument he has purportedly gotten from Bruce Metzger. Perhaps for Manning’s audience this is no big deal, but I know that for my part I am always curious where information comes from and whether it is being represented accurately. Because of the many bad experiences I’ve had with apologists misrepresenting scholarship, I tend to check out a reference or two whenever I find them just to see if they are actually being faithful to their source material. Unfortunately, Manning doesn’t allow his readers to see if he’s being faithful to Metzger because he hasn’t told us from what particular work he has gotten this information. 

Fortunately, I have some familiarity with the work of Metzger and know what one of the reasons was he put forward as to why he thought Mark’s Gospel didn’t end the way it currently does. As he makes clear in A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Metzger rejects as inauthentic the various endings that were produced in the period following the writing of the Gospel.[7] There he concludes that “on the basis of good external evidence and strong internal considerations it appears that the earliest ascertainable form of the Gospel of Mark ended with 16:8.”[8] But this doesn’t mean that the Gospel of Mark originally ended this way and so he explains there are three possibilities regarding the ending: it really was intentionally ended this way by the Markan author; it was never finished; or, what seemed to him as “most probable,” the ending was lost.[9] But why did Metzger think that Mark didn’t originally intend for his Gospel to end the way that it did? 

According to Manning, Metzger reasoned that because “Mark has a pattern of making blanket statements before adding an exception” (e.g. Mark 5:37, 9:8, etc.) that this pattern must have continued on with whatever followed. But where does Metzger make this claim? I’ve not been able to track it down.[10] I do know that one of the reasons he believed the original ending was lost had to do with the final two words of the Gospel in Greek: ephobounto gar – “for they were afraid.” In another volume, Metzger argued that “from a stylistic point of view, to terminate a Greek sentence with the word [gar] is most unusual and exceedingly rare,” and that while gar has been known to end some Greek literature, “no instance has been found where [gar] stands at the end of a book.” He also contended that the verb ephobounto may have been intended by Mark to mean that they were afraid of something and so “obviously something is needed to finish the sentence.” Metzger concluded by writing,

It appears, therefore, that [ephobounto gar] of Mark 16.8 does not represent what Mark intended to stand at the end of his Gospel. Whether he was interrupted while writing and subsequently prevented (perhaps by death) from finishing his literary work or whether the last leaf of the original copy was accidentally lost before other copies had been made, we do not know.[11]

So, whether or not Metzger thought Mark’s habit of making universalizing statements with exceptions applied to the ending of Mark, we do know that he thought the final two words of the Gospel as it now stands are not representative of what the Markan author had originally intended. 

Regardless, Manning uses Metzger’s view on the ending of Mark as an opportunity to dig into Ehrman. The apologist wrote, “Ehrman did his doctoral dissertation under Metzger, so he has no justification in keeping his audience in the dark.” This is quite the charge since Manning believes Ehrman is attempting to manufacture a contradiction where none exists. If Ehrman knew there were other explanations but didn’t proffer them, then this suggests he was trying to pull the wool over his readers’ eyes. Is this truly an example of Ehrman being deceptive in a bid to score a rhetorical advantage? 

Above I quoted first from Metzger’s textual commentary and then from what I described as “another volume” he had written. I worded it this way deliberately. This other volume Metzger wrote is a classic work of New Testament scholarship, particularly in the field of textual criticism: The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration. The first edition of this work appeared in 1964, written by Metzger alone. It went through two additional editions in 1968 and 1992. Then in 2005 it went through its latest (and perhaps last) edition. But whereas in previous editions Metzger had written alone, in the fourth edition he had a coauthor. That coauthor was Bart Ehrman. Thus, with Metzger as the primary author, Ehrman has his name attached to a volume that offers as a possibility that Mark’s ending was somehow lost. Therefore, the charge he is trying to deceive anyone is ridiculous at best. But that isn’t all. 

Manning had quoted from Ehrman’s 2009 book Jesus, Interrupted. The book, as its subtitle suggests, is about contradictions in the Bible, not textual criticism. So, when he talks about the discrepancies between the Gospel narratives concerning the empty tomb (pp. 47-49), he makes only a passing reference to the long ending of Mark (e.g. 16:9-21), writing that he is in agreement with the scholarly consensus concerning them.[12] After affirming his agreement, there is an endnote that leads the reader to p. 286 where Ehrman offers a brief explanation as to why he does not think the long ending is original to Mark. Because it is not in the purview of that book to go in depth on the subject, Ehrman defers to what he has already written on the topic in his book Misquoting Jesus, particularly pp. 65-68. That volume is about textual criticism and therefore a more appropriate place to discuss the ending of Mark’s Gospel. And so, over the course of four pages, he discusses what is likely the original ending, the various problems with the longer ending, and the reasons Mark may have ended the Gospel where he did. He writes near the end of that section, 

Some scholars agree with the scribes [who invented additional endings for Mark] in thinking that 16:8 is too abrupt an ending for a Gospel. As I have indicated, it is not that these scholars believe the final twelve verses in our later manuscripts were the original ending – they know that’s not the case – but they think that possibly, the last page of Mark’s Gospel, one in which Jesus actually did meet the disciples in Galilee, was somehow lost, and that all our copies of the Gospel go back to this one truncated manuscript, without the last page.

That explanation is entirely possible.[13]

A similar, though abbreviated, discussion of the ending of Mark can also be found in Ehrman’s textbook on the New Testament. There he writes, 

Christian readers from time immemorial have been shocked by this conclusion [to Mark]. How could it end without the disciples hearing that Jesus has been raised? How could they remain in ignorance? Surely the women must have told someone. As we have seen…some copyists of this Gospel from the early church were so put off by the ending that they added one of their own, appending twelve additional verses that describe some of Jesus’ appearances to his disciples. Modern scholars are unified, however, in recognizing this ending as secondary…. Some have proposed, in its stead, that we assume that the final page of the Gospel somehow got lost.[14]

We now have three instances where this alternative explanation for Mark’s ending, suggested by Metzger, is mentioned by Ehrman. So no, despite Manning’s charge, Ehrman has not been keeping his audience in the dark. It’s all out there right in the open! Now, the more appropriate question is this: Why has Erik Manning been keeping his audience in the dark about Ehrman’s discussion of these alternative views? Who is actually being deceptive here? 

What Is Going on with Mark’s Ending?

I have written elsewhere on the subject of the empty tomb narratives generally and the Markan ending in particular.[15] Rather than rehash what I have said before, let me address briefly the possibility that the original ending was lost and that Mark did not intend for the Gospel to end with ephobounto gar

First, Metzger’s objection that Mark wouldn’t have ended his book with the postpositive gar is unpersuasive. Nearly half a century ago, P.W. van der Horst noted that at the time of his writing it had become “common knowledge that it is possible for a sentence or a paragraph to end with” gar. From this, van der Horst deduces that “if a sentence can end with [gar], a book can end with such a sentence.”[16] The rarity with which this occurs is wholly irrelevant.[17]

Second, Metzger’s contention that the verb ephobounto needs some sort of object and is therefore indicative of missing material is unfounded. In her commentary on the Gospel of Mark, Adela Yarbro Collins shows that in five other places in the Gospel of Mark the verb phobeomai is used absolutely, as it is in 16:8.[18] Moreover, she writes that the reason for the women’s fear is already known from the context. 

In 16:8…the cause of the fear is clear from the context. It points backward, not forward. In the first part of the verse, it is clear that the trembling and amazement that seized the women were caused by what they had seen and heard in the tomb. The disappearance of Jesus’ body, the presence of an angel, and the announcement that Jesus had risen from the dead are events that go beyond, or even contradict, ordinary expectations and experience. The second part of v. 8, “and they said nothing to anyone; for they were afraid,” continues the description of the impact that the experience at the tomb had on the women. Their silence is the result of their being struck with awe at the extraordinary events.[19]

Therefore, contrary to Metzger, there is no grammatical or stylistic reason to think the ending of Mark should be any different than what we find in v. 8. 

What should we make of Manning’s claim (attributed to Metzger) that Markan “blanket statements” that include exceptions make it likely that Mark had intended something similar at the end of his Gospel? While it is certainly the case that Mark often makes a universal statement with an exception, he does not do it all the time. For example, in Mark 2:21 Jesus says, “No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak,” and in v. 22 he says, “And no one puts new wine into old wineskins.” Here there are no exceptions offered. We also see in 5:43 that after he had raised the synagogue leader’s daughter from death Jesus “strictly ordered them that no one should know this.” No exceptions are made here either. In 7:36, after he cures a deaf man with a speech impediment, “Jesus ordered them to tell no one.” Again, no exceptions are made. Similarly, in 8:30, after the disciples correctly identify him as the Messiah, Jesus “sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him.” Yet again, there are no exceptions made. So, while it is certainly true that Mark has a tendency to make “blanket statements” that include an exception, it isn’t universally the case. 

There is another reason for rejecting Manning’s suggestion: Mark never makes the exception. The only reason Manning suggests this possibility is because without it the story contradicts the other Gospel narratives.[20] Because of his presupposition of inerrancy, Manning is forced to speculate that Mark really meant something other than what he said. But this is unwarranted, and the ending of Mark’s Gospel coheres well with the rest of the narrative. Moreover, it is not as if Mark didn’t believe that Jesus appeared alive to the disciples. The language of the angel in Mark 16:7 is clear that Jesus will meet with the disciples in Galilee, in fulfillment of Jesus’ words in 14:28.[21] As a supernatural representative of God, the angel’s words “can be taken as reliable.”[22]

4
CONCLUSION 

The ending of Mark, as enigmatic as it may seem when compared to the other Gospels, is perfectly fitting within its own context. There is no need to resort to hypotheses that suggest reconstructions which comport with Matthew’s or Luke’s Gospel. Rather, we should take Mark’s ending and seek to understand it within its own narrative framework. 

SERIES CONCLUSION 

I grew up immersed in the world of apologetics and believed fervently in the inerrancy of the Bible. In conversations with my non-Christian peers, I would do all I could to address claims of contradiction and promote the Bible’s infallibility. So, I understand quite intimately the apologetic impulse and sympathize with their motivations. But more often than not, the apologetic of inerrantists is weak, owing either to their lack of acquaintance with the biblical texts or their ignorance of the original languages or their unwillingness to truly question their presuppositions or all three. That isn’t to say skeptics (including myself) have no presuppositions; we certainly do. And for many skeptics, their railing against the Bible is rooted in their own loathing of religion, often itself rooted in the negative experiences they have had. But I love the biblical texts. I spend time in them every morning and often throughout the day. They are frequently on my mind as I ponder their stories, claims about the world, and advice to their readers. When I discuss them here on my website or on social media, I try carefully to discuss them in informed and nuanced ways, aware of my own status as a mere amateur. Yet I often don’t see this cautious approach from pop-apologists. Often, armed with little more than their English Bible and a copy of whatever apologetics work is their flavor of the month, they rush in where only angels dare to tread.[23] With zealous overconfidence, they declare victory over the skeptic and affirm the Bible’s perfect nature. 

My concern with Manning’s approach is that it is swift to judge but not thorough in considering as much data as possible. I have no doubt that his motivations are pure, but his methodology is troubling. And while I appreciate that his blog posts are not intended to be academic treatises, they at times feel almost too casual. For example, while he only ever refers to Bruce Metzger with the late scholar’s whole name or his last, Bart Ehrman is referred to only as “Ehrman” when Manning is citing him (and once when he compares him to Metzger) but everywhere else as “Bart.” He even does this with Bob Seidensticker, speaking of him as “Bob.” It could be that Manning is on a first name basis with both Ehrman and Seidensticker and I just don’t know about it. But if he isn’t, this feels disrespectful.[24] And maybe that’s the point. 

While evangelicals tend to deplore Ehrman, the fact remains that he is an accomplished scholar whose work is cited by Christians and non-Christians alike. His academic works like Forgery and Counter ForgeryThe Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, and others have been very influential in the field of New Testament scholarship. Additionally, he has brought scholarship to the popular level with his numerous trade books. But apologists like Manning treat him as if Ehrman is out in left field, with no scholarly substance. And that’s fine if they wish to do that as I feel the same way about apologists like J. Warner Wallace, Lee Strobel, Frank Turek, and the like. But there is certainly a categorical difference between people like Wallace, Strobel, or Turek and Ehrman. Ehrman has had extensive training in the fields he discusses whereas apologists like Wallace, Strobel, and Turek have training in, well, apologetics.

Something should also be said specifically about Manning’s handling of the contradictions in his post. For all his complaining that Ehrman failed to provide alternative explanations for the ending of Mark (which, as I showed, is incorrect), Manning too often fails to consider other explanations. We saw this in part 1 of this series concerning the plural pronoun “we” in John 20:2. Either Manning was unaware of these alternatives or he knew about them but chose not to offer them. The former would be indicative of ignorance; the latter deceptiveness. If it is the case that he didn’t know about these explanations, then perhaps he would do well to read more scholarship. If it is the case that he knew but chose not to discuss, then he need not (falsely) claim and complain about Ehrman doing the same. This isn’t to say that I have presented every possible argument in these posts; I’m sure I haven’t. But what I have done is provide numerous references to which readers can go and find even more information. Manning never extends his audience that courtesy. It could be that they don’t care for that kind of information or that this simply isn’t Manning’s mission. I realize that he is writing specifically apologetic content and I’m not (though I do dabble in counter apologetics as this post demonstrates). 

In any event, at least for me the key takeaway is that biblical interpretation isn’t always straight forward. These are complex texts and the devil is often in the details. For me, the more intently I examine the Gospel narratives and compare them to one another, the more it becomes clear that though they are telling the same general story (e.g. about a man called Jesus who was crucified and declared alive after), they disagree on a host of many details and there is just no way to reconcile them all. Nor should there be a need to reconcile them! Letting the authors tell their story in their own words without resorting to harmonization pays them the respect they deserve. 


[1] Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of biblical texts are from the New Revised Standard Version.

[2] A. B. Bruce, The Synoptic Gospels, in The Expositors Greek Testament, W. Robertson Nicoll, editor (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, n.d.), 454.

[3] Bruce, The Synoptic Gospels, 454.

[4] Note that Luke does not mention the meeting with Jesus that Matthew records. 

[5] Erik Manning, “Do the Resurrection Narratives Contradict?” (4.6.20), isjesusalive.com.

[6] Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know About Them) (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 49.

[7] Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, second edition (Stuttgart, Germany: Deutsche Bibel Gesellschaft, 1994), 102-106.

[8] Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 105.

[9] Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 105n7.

[10] I’m fairly certain that Manning got this argument from Tim McGrew in a talk he gave on the contradictions in the resurrection narratives (see the argument McGrew makes beginning at the 51:00 mark). It doesn’t appear that McGrew references Metzger’s work. If any readers are able to find out if and where Metzger makes this argument, please let me know.

[11] Bruce M. Metzger and Bart D. Ehrman, The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, fourth edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 325-326.

[12] Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted, 48.

[13] Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2005), 67-68.

[14] Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, sixth edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 117.

[15] See “The Christian Defenders’ 5 Reasons: The Criterion of Embarrassment” (3.31.19), amateurexegete.com.

[16] P.W. van der Horst, “Can a Book End with ΓAP? A Note on Mark XVI.8,” Journal of Theological Studies, vol. 23 no. 1 (April 1972), 122.

[17] See Adela Yarbro Collins, Mark: A Commentary, Hermeneia Commentary Series (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), 798.

[18] Collins, Mark: A Commentary, 799. See Mark 5:15, 33, 36; 6:50; and 10:32.

[19] Collins, Mark: A Commentary, 799-800.

[20] R.T. France (The Gospel of Mark, NIGTC [Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publish Co., 2002], 684), reasons similarly, asserting that he didn’t believe Mark’s Gospel originally ended where it did and that we have lost that ending. However, he does not that v. 8 is problematic nonetheless: 

But even on that assumption [i.e. that Mark didn’t intend to end his Gospel at v. 8] it must be admitted that by writing v. 8 Mark seems to have made things difficult for himself in adding a sequel. If he had included a phrase to indicate that the women’s silence was only for the time being, that would have allowed for their subsequent overcoming of their fear and delivery of the message. But [oudeni ouden eipan] does not offer such a handle.

[21] Collins (Mark: A Commentary, 797) writes, 

It was standard literary practice in ancient writings to allude to well-known events that occurred after those being narrated in the text, without actually narrating those later events. The best-known example of this technique is the Iliad. Thus, the fact that the appearances of the risen Jesus are not narrated in Mark does not necessarily mean that the author believed that they did not occur or wanted to suppress the tradition that they did.

[22] Collins, Mark: A Commentary, 801.

[23] With apologies (no pun intended) to Alexander Pope.

[24] I know that in my writing, when I refer to apologists with whom I disagree I do my best to only ever refer to them by their last name, as a sign of respect. This includes SJ Thomason for whom I have almost no respect (though I do refer to her as “SJ” on social media, mostly because there everyone knows her).

Featured Image: Wikimedia Commons.

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