Mark’s Disquieting Ending

I’ve just finished Donald Juel’s lovely little book, A Master of Surprise: Mark Interpreted. He argues that Mark’s implied audience(s) are those that have grown complacent and comfortable. This accounts for Mark’s disturbing ending:

The surprise ending of the Gospel is intended for the implied audience. Its impact does not easily fit the image of an implied audience desperate and in need of comfort. The conclusion offers little comfort. The impact of the ending has more to do with expectations of satisfaction and control. Readers have been treated as insiders throughout the story, learning what none of the characters can know. It is not difficult to imagine an ending to the story that would reinforce that experience, providing readers with a sense of closure and satisfaction at the expense of the disciples. Yet the empty tomb and the silent women do not provide such satisfaction for those who have been led to expect such an ending, and the events do not leave resolution of the story in the hands of readers. There is something disquieting about that lack of control—a disquiet that usually drives interpreters to get what they need from the story by means of cunning or violence.

The surprise, the irony, work differently if directed at insiders whose problem is indifference or a tired lack of perception about the way things are. It may serve as a warning, as Paul’s reminders do in the opening chapters of his first letter to the Corinthians. The features of his message that initially moved that Corinthians from darkness to light, identifying the change that came at their conversion, now serve to illumine their Christian piety, which turns out to have much in common with their pagan past.

Viewing the audience as tired or indifferent is appropriate to the present situation of most Christians, weary of waiting, tempted to believe that the master of the house will never return, increasingly comfortable in a world capable of hiding from the truth, unaware of how easily the authority of the gospel is exchanged for ordinary power.

Careful attention to the implied audience in Mark’s story of Jesus may serve to remove barriers to a fruitful hearing of the Gospel for those whose problem is not persecution as much as the inability to be surprised by the God who is both more dangerous and more promising than they can have imagined (pp. 145-46).

5 thoughts on “Mark’s Disquieting Ending

  1. gjohnston2244

    I have some serious problems with this sort of exegesis. First, it is based on the dubious premise that the gospel was intended to end at 16:8 or wherever. This of course is highly disputed. Second, it is based on the dubious premise that the gospels were written each to a narrow, specific audience like an epistle. This means that Mark (or whoever) redacted the story of Jesus just for a specific community. “Implied audience”? Implied by what? If the text itself, then the exegetical argument would be so circular it would make my head spin. Richard Bauckham addressed this sort of exegetical reasoning here:

    A more canonical approach would view the gospels as truly GOSPELS, intertextually related to the new exodus of Isaiah 40-55. The gospel writers familiar with the events surrounding Jesus had one shot at creating a narrative for the entire world for all of history. And yet these scholars would have us believe that those writers didn’t do that. The writer didn’t have the courage to write an epistle. Instead, he put a spin on the story of Jesus and sneaks his pastoral polemic into a narrative text, waiting for Mr. Juel to come along and reconstruct the Markan community for us
    . The epistolar narrative genre. This sort of redaction theory was popular back when liberal scholars had to explain the gospel narratives as second-century inventions. I think it has outlived its usefulness. I find the entire approach deeply flawed. I think each of the gospels was written for a much broader audience. And I’m not convinced we have the original ending to Mark’s gospel.

    1. timgombis

      Juel’s narrative-critical approach is not incompatible with Bauckham’s argument. Juel critiques approaches that reconstruct a narrow, specific Markan community. That’s not his intent. He asks what sort of audience this text (as we have it) implies, and how contemporary audiences can become the sort of community that would respond to this text in ways that the Gospel intends. He critiques form-critical approaches and leaves behind redaction criticism, too. And I think he’d agree with you that such methods have outlived their usefulness, if they ever did have utility.

      1. gjohnston2244

        Well I guess I jumped the gun a bit. Or a lot. Thanks for clarifying. Still, the idea of “implied audience” tends to be circular. One interprets the text in light of what the writer intended to say to his implied audience. But the intended audience is “implied” from one’s interpretation of the text. Also, even though he disavows a narrow Markan community as the writer’s intended audience, isn’t the notion of an “implied audience” effectively the same?

      2. timgombis

        A narrative-critical approach isn’t nailing down a precise audience, but asks about expectations of audiences. So, what does the Gospel expect its audience(s) to do in response to it? What expectations does the Gospel have regarding what audiences will already know? Also, what sort of world does the narrative construct and how does its rhetoric function to draw its readers into it? There are other features of narrative criticism and its constructions of implied audiences are very broad and basic rather than detailed and specific.

  2. ljhooge

    And now for something completely different.

    I have a chiasmus for the gospel of Mark which tells us what Mark would have written in his missing ending – if he had chosen to write it in. But he chose to not write it in – primarily for structural reasons. Eg1., by leaving it out, he created a nice inclusion for his second half (first prediction of death and resurrection … to … Jesus’s actual death and resurrection). Eg2., by leaving it out, the end of the chiasmus matches the centre of the chiasmus (Jesus’s death – and a brief resurrection account – at the end, ‘matching’ with 8:34-38: “Pick up your cross and follow me …” – at the centre. Matching the centre with the end is a common chiastic technique.

    A fourth reason Mark shortened his gospel may well be rhetorical, but I would view that rhetoric as having more to do with the audience being persecuted than complacent. Ie., in a persecuting environment, will you stand up and say something about the resurrection, or not?

    Anyway, just saying.

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