Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Gap Theory and the Ending of Mark

In 2007, my Baylor colleague, Dr. Kathy Maxwell defended her dissertation in which she explored literary gap theory.  That theory, in essence, claims that authors deliberately leave information out of a composition in order to let the audience "fill in the gaps."  The purpose is to bring the audience in and make them participants in the story, speech, etc.

Consider the following quotation from Theophrastus, one of Aristotle's disciple and an early rhetorician.

"Not all possible points should be punctiliously and tediously elaborated, but some should be left to the comprehension and inference of the hearer, who, when he perceives what you have left unsaid becomes not only your hearer but your witness, and a very friendly witness too.  For he thinks himself intelligent because you have afforded him the means to show his intelligence." (Eloc. 222).
 Could not this gap theory bolster the opinion of many scholars that the confusing ending of Mark at 16:8 was a deliberate decision.  The ending of Mark, with the terrified women fleeing from the empty tomb and saying nothing to anyone has confounded biblical scholars for 2000 years.  Many have proposed that the ending was lost or that Mark died before he was able to finish his gospel.  It seems incomprehensible that Mark would end the gospel as he did and not in a "more proper" manner as did Matthew and Luke.  But, I think it is very possible, and even more powerful, if Mark left the ending open in order to encourage audience participation, to draw the audience into the narrative and puzzle out the meaning for themselves.

Modern stories use the same rhetorical tactics. [[Spoiler Alert]]  Just two quick examples: the recent movie Inception has an open ending which caused the audience in my movie theater to gasp out loud, both times I saw it.

Take also The Usual Suspects.  That ending is actually remarkably similar to the ending of Mark.  After puzzling the whole movie about one question: Who is Keyser Söze?  The Super villain is finally revealed, only moments later to disappear, "and like that, he's gone!"  Both of these open endings, rather than pushing audiences away, draw them in to contemplate the story again and again.


  1. ..except this is a hyper-modern technique suited to movies and modern media, not gospels written two millenia ago.

    One glaring question is that if this is such a plausible trick for Mark, why aren't there more demonstrable, documented and convincing examples, in both Greek and Hebrew literature?

    Another obvious question is that if it is a real technique (not an anachronistic fanciful projection), why didn't other evangelists copy him? Luke would be one to immediately pick up on a "powerful literary technique" like this, and even elaborate it further.

    The third question is what does it suggest about who Mark really is? Anyone this much of a Bernard Shaw character, to actually deceive his readers by pretending a lost or hanging ending, is no proclaimer of truth, but a deceiver of the simple.

    The reason given above is too softly characterized. It is not simply that Mark is writing good fiction, and wants his audience to "fill in gaps" for themselves. The extant narrative (rejecting the current ending) is no elliptical or "mystery-gnostic" account, but rather a crude, open, in-your-face and unsophisticated rambling blurt. Can this author really also be the author of such a subtle "omission"?

    Another consideration, and perhaps more to the point, if the last page of Mark was lost (a far more plausible explanation), what does this say about the date of its composition? This is far more important and interesting than weak theories about imagined literary techniques.

    Finally, if this idea were credible, wouldn't it suggest tampering of a different kind entirely? That the person who removed the ending was not Mark at all but a subsequent editor with a wry purpose far beyond the original and probably murdered author. Let us call this person (or cult-committee) Mark II (to distinguish him from both Mark, and Ur-Mark. Could this jerk be the first Bernard Shaw?


  2. Hi Folks,

    Nazaroo's "anacrhonistic" comment was superb.

    Basically, all this looks like a "solution" in search of a problem.

    Since 99.9 + % of the Greek, Latin and Syriac manuscripts have the traditional ending.

    And early church writers long before the earliest manuscripts clearly reference the ending.

    And two verses earlier in the Gospel point directly to the last 12 verses (very powerful internal evidence). And it simply makes no sense to end with the woman afraid other than a lost or dropped page at the end.

    And the whole issue came up only because of the 1881 Revision and GNT slavish submission
    to two abbreviated manuscripts that contain hundreds of omissions.'

    And every known church and Christian community and published Bible to 1881 in every language has accepted the traditional Gospel account.

    And since omissions are far easier to account for than additions in textual-scribal scripture theorizing (additions glare out, calling for correction on comparison .. while nobody tells you about omissions, they are not there).

    There is really only a problem in the mind of a certain confused textual pseudo-elite. Even today the Bibles themselves that follow the scholarly cadre (of largely non-Christians) who do modern textcrit leave the verses right in the text, since it is virtually impossible to imagine any Christian believer falling for and accepting and truly believing (outside a superficial mental assent) that Mark did not have the resurrection account of the Lord Jesus Christ.

    One main popularity of the modern (snip) theory is the skeptics and struggler, who combine the Markan (snip) with the dubious Markan priority to claim that the resurrection account is not truly scripture, since it only appears in "later" Gospels (thus an ornamental add-on,not history). Thus for many, the stronger the skepticism the more appealing the ultra-minority (snip) theory.

    Steven Avery

  3. As to Nazaroo's comment above, that my post is "anachronistic," I can only claim that though the two examples of open ended or suspended narratives I gave come from modern movies, there are a number of examples from ancient literature that display this feature. Off the top of my head, I can name several: The Iliad with the funeral pyre of Hector (no Trojan horse, no fall of Troy, no death of Achilles), Philostratus' life of Apollonius of Tyanna with uncertainty about the heroes death (if he died at all), the book of Jonah from the Old Testament, and the book of Acts with Paul left in a Roman prison with no satisfying resolution to events that were anticipated (like Paul pleading his case before the Emperor). For More examples, see J. Lee Magness, Sense and Absence, (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986). The suspended ending is not at all anachronistic.

    Literary Gap Theory that I mentioned in the post has been argued by Kathy Maxwell in her 2007 dissertation. The entire book is filled with examples from ancient texts that propose that the author provide "gaps" in their literature as a tool to draw the audience in to the narrative. This practice is not merely a modern invention.

    Finally, with regard to Nazaroo's comment that

    "The extant narrative (rejecting the current ending) is no elliptical or "mystery-gnostic" account, but rather a crude, open, in-your-face and unsophisticated rambling blurt. Can this author really also be the author of such a subtle "omission"?"

    I never made the claim of anything "mystery-gnostic," and anyone who looks at the Markan sandwiches (Mark 5:22-43; 11:12-21) and does not see an author who is capable of literary subtlety is beyond me. I certainly believe that while Mark may not have been as grammatically or stylistically as sophisticated as Matthew or Luke, he did not lack in his ability to convey his message and story with literary skill. As a storyteller, Mark is no dunce. I certainly wouldn't call the Markan Narrative a "rambling blurt."

    As to Steven Avery's comment, I feel no need to defend the practice of textual criticism, and in the field of textual criticism the ending of Mark is a slam dunk, both on the grounds of internal and external evidence. I find it hard to believe that Avery refers to the vast majority of biblical scholars as a "certain confused textual pseudo-elite." There is vast scholarly consensus about the validity of textual criticism in general and specifically about the ending of the gospel of Mark.

    Moreover, I am not fond of Avery's ad hominem attacks, making it sound like anyone who would reject the "traditional" ending of Mark as a "confused pseudo elite," "skeptic and struggler." There was no hint of skepticism in my post, so Avery has set up a straw man argument.

    Steven, try the following experiment. Give the gospel of Mark as a reading assignment (In Greek of course) to a class of second year Greek students. Let them read from the beginning. When they arrive toward the end, they will be familiar with Mark's vocabulary and grammar. They should be able to read 15-30 verses a day. Then give them, as the last assignment, Mark 16:9-20. They will at first feel good for a short assignment, but will be greatly surprised. For them to translate those mere 12 verses will take them longer than any other assignment. It will be like going from reading the newspaper to reading Derrida. The language, syntax, grammar, vocabulary is all different and much more difficult. Whatever the case, the last 12 verses of Mark were not written by the author of the rest of the gospel.

  4. Well answered Keith!

    It is probably also worth pointing out that the original readers of Mark would not likely be reading the gospel to find out what happened but would know the story, already being Christians or interested in Christianity, and so the interest is in the detail of the story rather than in the overal plot which is already understood. Then the gappy ending makes sense, because the author is not asking his readers to imagine "did Jesus rise from the dead?" they know he did, but rather he is letting them imagine what it would have been like facing such an awesome possibility one Sunday morning after a weekend from hell.

  5. http://www.scribd.com/doc/209111040/Foundation-of-the-World