Gospel for Feast of the Ascension (17 May 2015)
Notes by Michael Whelan SM
And he said to them, "Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.
The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: by using my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover." So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it. (Mark 16:15-20 – NRSVCE)
See also Mt 28:19–20 and Lk 24:46–48. Typically, Matthew and Luke borrow from Mark in constructing their Gospels. Here is it the other way around – the apostolic commission, part of the second or "longer ending" in Mark's Gospel, was added later and borrowed from the later Gospel tradition.
Scholars agree that there are two "endings" to Mark's Gospel as we have it. The first "ending" is at 16:8 and the second or "longer ending" is in 16:9-20. One scholar writes:
"It is virtually certain that 16:9–20 is a later addition and not the original ending of the Gospel of Mark. The evidence for this judgment is complex, ..... The two oldest and most important manuscripts of the Bible, codex Vaticanus (B) and codex Sinaiticus (א), omit 16:9–20, as do several early translations or versions, including the Old Latin, the Sinaitic Syriac manuscript, about one hundred Armenian manuscripts, and the two oldest Georgian manuscripts. Neither Clement of Alexandria nor Origen shows any awareness of the existence of the longer ending, and Eusebius and Jerome attest that vv. 9–20 were absent from the majority of Greek copies of Mark known to them. An ingenious system of cross-referencing parallel passages in the Gospels that was devised by Ammonius in the second century and adopted by Eusebius in the fourth century (hence the name Eusebian Canons) does not include Mark 16:9–20. The apocryphal Gospel of Peter does not contain the longer ending, and concludes, as does Mark 16:8, with the fear of the women. Although a majority of ancient witnesses, including Greek uncial and minuscule manuscripts, church fathers, and versions in other languages do include vv. 9–20, this does not compensate for the textual evidence against them. The inclusion of vv. 9–20 in many manuscripts is accounted for rather by the fact that the longer ending, which must have been added quite early, was naturally included in subsequent copies of the Gospel. Many of the ancient manuscripts that do contain the longer ending, however, indicate by scribal notes or various markings that the ending is regarded as a spurious addition to the Gospel. External evidence (manuscript witnesses) thus
argues strongly against the originality of the longer ending." (J R Edwards, (2002), The Gospel according to Mark, Eerdmans, 2002, 497-498.)
The same author concludes:
"The concern of the longer ending is with content rather than style, that is, to rectify the omission of a resurrection appearance of Jesus in Mark. This has been accomplished by adding a resurrection harmony composed of texts from the other three Gospels. Since Mark's lack of a resurrection appearance is unique among the Gospels (and this includes the apocryphal Gospels and those from Nag Hammadi), and since we do not possess an extant text similar to the longer ending, it may be that vv. 9–20 were composed especially with the problem of Mark's ending in mind." (J R Edwards, op cit, 500.)
"The secondary ending is constructed around the theme of calling the disciples from unbelief (vv. 11, 13, 14 [2x], and 16) to belief (vv. 16, 17). In a general way, it parallels the story of the calling of Thomas from unbelief to belief in John 20:24–29. The secondary ending can be divided into four parts: a resurrection appearance to Mary Magdalene (vv. 9–11), an appearance to two travelers (vv. 12–13), an appearance to the eleven (vv.
14–18), and the ascension (vv. 19–20)." (J R Edwards, op cit, 504)
The "signs" that will "accompany those who believe", are not new to Mark's audience:
"Many of these phenomena appear elsewhere in the NT as miraculous activities, but they are now regarded as signs of faith. Thus, the casting out of demons is found in 6:7 (also Matt 10:1, 8; Luke 10:17; Acts 8:7; 16:18; 19:6); speaking in tongues in 1 Cor 12:10, 30; 14:2, 18; surviving poisonous snakebites in Acts 28:3–6 and Luke 10:19; and healing, particularly by the laying on of hands, in 6:13; Matt 9:18; Acts 3:1–7; 14:8–10; Jas 5:14)." (J R Edwards, op cit, 506)
The Septuagint uses the same word for snake/serpent ophis (ὄφις) in Genesis 3. Is it drawing too long a bow to suggest that it is being used here in Mark's longer ending to suggest the reversal of that situation where the serpent dominated humanity but is now trod under foot as it were?
The listing of the five "signs" here is deeply puzzling. I cannot offer an entirely satisfactory interpretation and have found no scholar who can. (The text, "the one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned", also presents serious challenges for the interpreter. I will focus only on the "signs" in this brief reflection. However, much of what I say about interpretation of the "signs" could also be usefully applied to this second text.)
That there are texts in the Bible that leave us without a clear understanding of their meaning is to be expected. In fact, it is deeply worrying when we think we do completely understand any text of the Bible!
Reading the Bible should lead us into wonder rather than comprehension, surrender rather than control, silence rather than speech.
The first thing we look for, however, in our attempts at interpretation of the Bible, is the literal meaning. The question we must ask in order to seek out the literal meaning is, What is the author intending? This will lead us to explore the cultural and historical contexts, the literary forms and uses of language and so on. The search for the literal meaning of any text in the Bible is a never ending search.
Another rule of interpretation, followed from the earliest years is that no text can be interpreted in a way that contradicts the overall meaning of revelation of God's love found in the Bible.
With all the foregoing in mind, I propose that we understand this Gospel to be giving us an emphatic affirmation of our faith in the resurrection. For those who have been transformed by this faith, nothing – not demons, poisons, serpents or any other obstacle – should worry us. Do not even be surprised if you are given the gift of tongues!